So-called sustainable developments are often anything but, argues Ruth Richardson

Ruth Richardson of Levitt Bernstein

From Architects Declare to the global climate strikes there has never been more discussion about the role the design and construction industries can play in securing the future of our planet. But beyond individual buildings it’s essential to consider how urban design can contribute to the creation of sustainable towns and cities.

Urban dwellers are responsible for three quarters of today’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the UK’s 63 largest towns and cities accountable for almost half of the country’s CO2 emissions. London alone contributes 11% of this total. However, with the technologies and policies that already exist, research suggests that cities could cut their carbon emissions by 90% by 2050 – from simply building better, retrofitting existing stock and using more sustainable materials to investing in public transport, using green energy and electrifying fossil fuel-hungry systems.

However, for meaningful change and real impact it’s crucial that we consider climate and the built environment holistically. And that means we have to work together.

Why? Well, the actions of urban dwellers affect their environments and communities. If we think about towns and cities as ecosystems, they can be likened to living organisms that can reproduce or renew themselves; can consume food, fuel and oxygen; and produce waste and emissions. These ecosystems carry out a range of activities that form part of human life and which interact, depend on, and can impact other activities and aspects of human life. Essentially any component of a city is only part of the wider picture and there is an interrelationship between them all that we, as designers, must recognise.

For example, consider how we are continually building monoculture greenfield residential estates which are idealised as “sustainable” or “green” or deemed to be “garden cities” or “eco-towns”. Are they really sustainable? These settlements may be characterised by tree-lined, quiet streets that make the place pedestrian- and cycle-friendly, and they may have energy-efficient homes with access to green spaces.

However, it is one thing promoting this type of environment and another actually achieving it.

Frequently, these greenfield developments are in locations where a car is essential to reach local amenities or the workplace. The 2011 Census found that almost all greenfield development is car-dependent, often resulting in car-use-per-household being greater than in emission-heavy cities.

Urban design must consider form and impact in the same way it considers people and place

Elmsbrook, the initial phase of development in North West Bicester, has homes that use 57% less heating and 28% less electricity than the Bicester average, undoubtedly a great contribution to lowering emissions. But more efforts are required to promote sustainable travel. Only 20% of residents use the low-emission bus service each month and the development is significantly car-dependent. So, while this type of development is trying to promote a sustainable and liveable environment in one way, it is having a negative impact in another way as it lacks the necessary supporting infrastructure.

Now consider the opposite: London, a city where public transport is frequently used but the housing stock is poorly performing in terms of energy-efficiency. The promotion of public transport and the desire to reduce car ownership in cities is a necessary response to climate change, but only so far as the transit system can support the increased number of people in the city without having negative implications.

In London, the reality is that many trains and tubes are over capacity and uncomfortably hot. But, rather than this being an unsustainable consequence of a positive action, TfL has recognised an opportunity to use the excess heat to fuel poorly performing surrounding buildings: warm air from a disused north London Underground station will soon provide low-carbon heating and hot water for up to 1,000 homes and local businesses.

Policy must play its part but is often misguided despite good intentions. For example, the new building regulation stipulating that all new developments should have electric car charging will not fundamentally change the way people move around. It certainly would not be a solution for settlements like Elmsbrook as the car would still dominate.

Finally, we must not forget that there is a responsibility on communities to adapt their lifestyles. People need to be engaged and empowered because the way they interact with these initiatives will affect their success.

The bottom line is that we must take a holistic view on the urban environment: moving beyond the building and considering the street, the city, supporting infrastructure and, crucially, its people.

Urban design must consider form and impact in the same way that it considers people and place, while striving to reduce emissions and create a sustainable settlement. We cannot allow one element of the urban environment to be compromised or overlooked at the expense of another. It’s time to think about the bigger picture and act collaboratively.