A better model for modern cities

Can we really design a sustainable city? Well, it would be a good start to understand what sustainability involves. E&T considers a new book on the subject.

What new or altered forms should towns and cities take? Is there an example of a new, more sustainable model for the complex modern 24-hour city? The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has committed itself to researching the area, and the VivaCity 2020 project team undertook a massive research programme under the leadership of Professor Rachel Cooper of Lancaster University.

The team, which was gathered from five universities - Lancaster, Salford, UCL, Sheffield and London Metropolitan - included experts in architectural design, acoustics, pollution, thermal quality, sociology, crime, housing, planning and IT. The team set about developing a programme based on collecting data in eight key areas of sustainability.

VivaCity 2020 was one of 13 research projects funded by the EPSRC as part of its Sustainable Urban Environment (SUE) research programme. Urban design is a relatively new discipline, first mentioned in the 1950s at Harvard University. But is it really new? Urban design has played an instrumental role in the creation of cityscapes from Greek and Roman times until the present day.

In the UK, urban design has always been viewed separately from town planning and architecture. The authors of a new book, 'Designing Sustainable Cities', argue that one consequence of this division has been the development of schemes with no overall strategy to connect design with support services, shops, transport links and housing.

The book begins by addressing sustainability issues in relation to the design and planning of the urban environment. How, when and by whom are decisions made that contribute to the dimensions of sustainability in the urban environment, specifically in relation to the city centre over 24 hours?

The VivaCity 2020 team sought data in eight key areas of sustainability:

  1. the urban design decision-making process;
  2. the impact of design on, and the relationship between, perceptions of actual environmental quality;
  3. how people's knowledge affects the development of the built environment;
  4. the relationship between the design and accessibility of public toilets and how people use the city centre;
  5. the relationship between housing needs and types of housing provided in city centres;
  6. city-centre crime and fear of crime;
  7. mixed-use and economic diversity in cities;
  8. how ICT can help decision-makers choose more sustainable options.

The project worked within three case-study areas - Greater Manchester, Sheffield and part of London (Clerkenwell) - chosen for their large populations (over 500,000), high densities and a plethora of 24-hour urban issues including crime, noise, environmental pollution, housing and access to public conveniences.

In the case of Central Salford, Greater Manchester, a visionary chief executive of Salford City Council had already decided in 2002 that something had to be done about the area's high unemployment, low education, fear of crime and inadequate and changing family structures. As a result, Central Salford - one of the most deprived areas of the UK - became the focus of a major regeneration initiative. Analysis of data collected revealed an underlying urban design decision process reflecting the early stages
of a larger process.

Clerkenwell epitomised the changing demographics of London, the Dickensian old city sitting alongside rapid urban 'cleansing' developments. The past is everywhere - in the street names, the architecture and the street design.

Sheffield, the third case-study area, and the fourth largest urban area in England, has been in a state of economic recovery since the collapse of the steel and coal-mining industries in the 1970s and 1980s, slowly transforming itself into a vibrant liveable 24-hour city.

In each of the case studies decision-makers and stakeholders considered sustainability when making urban design decisions. Urban planning, the authors maintain, is not only a complex but also multidisciplinary decision-making process, which is concerned with the management of change within.

Joined-up approach to sustainability

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised after all that achieving a sustainable city is still an unobtainable Utopia. Decision-makers tend to address one or two sustainability issues in urban development projects - the most frequent being environmental issues - instead of assessing projects on a more thorough multidimensional examination of sustainability, such as evaluating the social, economic, environmental, political and cultural dimensions.

The VivaCity 2020 project found that solutions cannot be applied with a one-size-fits-all approach. One way to ensure that as many dimensions of sustainability as possible are considered and applied early in the process is to develop a sustainability agenda early on in the process. However, sensible as this sounds, how many new or replanned towns or cities or spatial re-engineering projects are likely to reach the planning stage in our lifetime?

Today, most cities are 24-hour cities; so what can be done about density, diversity and intensity and issues such as rubbish, graffiti, antisocial behaviour and noise? The authors show that designers can address quality-of-life issues, if they can prove competitive advantage and cost reduction and regeneration of deprived areas.

The authors are perhaps a shade optimistic in writing that "in recent years, sustainability of urban environments has been transformed from a rather vague and fuzzy notion of encompassing elements of social, economic and environmental friendliness into a more concrete and measurable theory for development and design evaluation".

It's true that there have been assessment frameworks for urban sustainability designed under the auspices of both European and UK legislation and number of toolkits to aid in the completion of sustainability assessments, particularly in the UK. However, even during the five years in which research for 'Designing Sustainable Cities' took place there has been a major shift in attitudes towards awareness of and action on climate change, security, urbanisation, poverty, information technology and competing economies.

Five years on do we know more about the complex relationships between these issues and sustainability? The authors also question whether we have moved any closer to understanding how to design sustainable cities.

The Vivacity 2020 project led to groundbreaking research, but no comprehensive solutions on the complex relationship between the issues above and sustainability. The conclusion seems to be that, although there is no such thing as a sustainable city, there can be sustainable improvement. Sustainability is still rarely considered in a holistic manner when making decisions, but the Vivacity 2020 project proves that it can be. All cities tend to have a 24-hour rhythm. The difference between large cities and small towns and villages is the level of intensity where there is 24-hour activity.

The authors urge that "to achieve sustainability, design professionals must develop innovative and creative solutions that are able to address social, environmental and economic issues at the same time.

"To this end, designers need to consult with key stakeholders and be supported in the process of innovation. Greater awareness by planners, policymakers and clients of the value of design in tackling quality-of-life issues is needed to ensure that the solutions of today do not become the problems of tomorrow."

This, they recommend, calls for research data on the urban environment and the interaction between social, economic and environmental issues; understanding the context in which urban design takes place; guidance materials relevant to practitioners; process maps to help practitioners understand the context, make trade-offs and develop design solutions that allow for change; methods of testing and predicting the consequences of design proposals and finally methods of monitoring design outcomes, identifying trends and envisaging future scenario.

Public toilets

One chapter in particular has already caused wide interest - the findings of research conducted in London, Manchester and Sheffield city centre that studies the design of toilet provision for public use, especially purpose-designed cubicles for use by disabled people, and accessible unisex toilets.

The first modern public toilets were opened in 1852, opposite the Royal Courts of Justice in Fleet Street to combat the spread of disease, attributed to street fouling, but it wasn't until the 1936 Public Health Act that local authorities were given the right (but not statutory duty) to build and run public toilets. Public toilet provision fell outside normal urban design decision-making - an opportunity for the VivaCity 2020 researchers to study a grass-roots issue which may contribute to urban sustainability.

One of the findings is that many of the public toilets that do exist are not accessible to people with physical limitations. The research clearly contributed to a better understanding of a situation that falls outside normal planning processes, professional territories and design disciplines. As the research on toilets concludes, well designed, accessible toilets are the hallmark of a civilised society. Where provision falls short of demand, public health, hygiene, nuisance problems and anti-social behaviour inevitably follow.

The authors conclude there is no such thing as a sustainable city but their research has clearly helped to create the capability and framework for sustainable improvement.


'Designing Sustainable Cities', edited by Rachel Cooper, Graeme Evans and Christopher Boyko, is published by Wiley-Blackwell

To order, visit http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1405179155.html [new window]

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