The model solution
The UK is currently moving through the largest period of urbanisation in its history, a trend echoed worldwide with WHO estimates suggesting that 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. How we regenerate and manage our cities has therefore become one of the most pressing challenges of this century.
The housing crisis that has gripped the UK since the turn of this century has placed great pressure on available land in our cities and driven up density levels in high-demand areas. A de facto presumption in favour of housing has seen employment land and spaces for vital services and amenities, such as shops and public transport, squeezed out at a time when they are critical to creating truly sustainable inner-city places.
Homes built where people are unable to use public transport and need to drive long distances to their place of work or purchase their goods have huge implications for the environment.
Equally, as the ecommerce sector continues to boom, lack of accessible logistics space in high-population areas continues to pile pressure on our roads as online retailers and logistics operators struggling to site last-mile distribution hubs to meet consumer demand.
All of these issues are peaking at the same time that the United Nations says we could have just 11 years left to limit a climate change catastrophe and more than half the UK’s principal local authorities have declared a climate emergency in response.
If local councils are seriously committed to tackling the climate emergency now facing their cities, it is clear we need a far more holistic approach to the way we masterplan, design and deliver solutions; an approach that takes into account population and technology changes, shifting consumer habits and cultural trends to enable the sustainable development of residential, commercial and industrial space.
Lessons from the past
It is often said that for an understanding of the future, we must look to the past. As we enter what many now dub the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s interesting to consider the evolution of town planning during the first and second Industrial Revolutions and how the 19th century model villages of Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight brought together homes, gardens, hospitals, schools and leisure venues to sit alongside the factories that provided vital employment to their inhabitants. These villages, conceived by the great entrepreneurs and philanthropists of the Victorian era, were truly visionary in that they understood the necessity to combine different uses and activities to create high-quality neighbourhoods with proper socio-economic integration.
Largely gone, maybe, are the factories and mills of that age that were defined by advances in steam, water power, electricity and mechanization; in their place emerges a new spectrum of spaces defined and driven by advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things. How then can we reconfigure today’s built environment to best respond to these emerging technologies in a fully integrated way, whilst presenting solutions that address the climate crisis, wellbeing, housing and that very human symptom of the internet age: last-mile delivery to meet our growing demand for e-commerce?
A model for the future
Our vision, dubbed v.35, has echoes of those original model villages, the internet replacing the factory around which the community thrives and logistics facilities forming an intrinsic part of a wider framework comprising a sustainable, inclusive and mixed-use, multi-occupancy environment, delivered as essential infrastructure and serviced by multi modes of transport.
Such model solutions are vital if our once industrial inner-city areas are to survive in a sustainable way and provide some balance to the increasingly polarized debates over competing uses. Whether it’s housing associations and charities demanding more residential, environmental groups demanding more green space and less reliance on cars, businesses calling for more employment land or co-working spaces and local campaign groups crying out for retailers, cultural venues and community services – our view is that you can have them all.
As cost and availability of land increasingly becomes an issue, we believe that integration and consolidation of uses will help maximise the value of former industrial sites, not only creating economic benefits for landowners, developers and landlords but also in creating sustainable places for people to live, work and play.
Spaces above, spaces in between
Planning policy, such as the London Plan, already recognises that, whilst we desperately need to create more opportunities for housing, employment space cannot be lost and that a sufficient supply of land and premises to meet current and future demands for industrial and related functions should be maintained. Mixed use, multi-layered developments are without doubt the perfect solution for some inner-city areas and it is not surprising that we are already seeing multi-storey high-density residential schemes with ground-floor logistics and retail appear in parts of London.
However, our vision goes way beyond that with an intensification of land use that will see the logistics park of the future become a destination. Parks should consider not only the retail consumer experience, with a veneer of uses – from independent retail, click and collect counters, gyms, co-working or studio spaces – wrapped around the frontage, but also the integration of office, residential and public amenity uses powered by renewable-energy sources.
The spaces in between should be considered as important as the buildings themselves, providing active spaces for cycling, walking and community engagement. Better still, storage elements and transport infrastructure could be built beneath the surface to allow for the creation or retention of green amenity space that will be available to the surrounding community and providing residents with pleasant views of nature.
This may sound like a utopian vision, but it doesn’t have to be. Moreover, it can’t be – not if we are to meet the pressing challenges of climate change, environmental risk and population growth in our cities.