Jonathan Smales speaking at Norfolk Constructing Excellence Club


This evening Jonathan Smales, Executive Chairman of Beyond Green will be speaking at the Norfolk Constructing Excellence Club’s meeting on sustainability.

Jonathan’s  presentation – The Urgent and Remarkable Future: How Shall We Live? – will consider the need for remarkable transformations in how we live as inspired and enabled by where we live. Not only are the challenges remarkable but so too are the opportunities if we grasp them on our increasingly hot, flat and crowded planet. He will examine these issues through the lens of the city and urban places, spaces and infrastructure, with the conclusion that we can live well, affordably and sustainably if we have the right mindset.

Bruce McVean to advise London Health Commission


The London Health Commission is an independent inquiry chaired by Lord Darzi and reporting directly to the Mayor of London. The Commission will examine how London’s health and healthcare can be improved for the benefit of the population.

Bruce McVean has been invited to advise the Commission on the relationship between the built environment and health. Bruce’s expertise in this area includes integrating health into Beyond Green’s development and consultancy projects, helping to draft NICE’s guidance on physical activity and the built environment and, prior to joining Beyond Green, leading CABE’s policy work on health.

The London Health Commission has issued a call for evidence to inform its analysis and recommendations. The deadline for submissions is Monday 10th February – details of how to submit evidence can be found here.

Neil Murphy speaking at Newcastle’s Love Cycling, Go Dutch conference


Neil Murphy, Beyond Green’s Director of Planning, Policy and Economics will be speaking at the Love Cycling, Go Dutch conference in Newcastle on Tuesday 5th November.

The conference will show how Dutch politicians and planners have succeeded in building high cycling levels with public support and consider how this can be achieved in Newcastle and surroundings. The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands will be hosting the event in collaboration with Newcastle City Council, Newcastle Cycling Campaign and Cycle Nation and the Dutch Cycling Embassy.

Neil’s presentation will consider how new developments can and should provide for cycling (and why they often don’t), and how that provision can act as a catalyst for wider change across the city. He will explain how cycling is integrated into Beyond Green’s proposals for North Sprowston and Old Catton, north of Norwich, and consider how successful recent developments in Newcastle have been at creating conditions that will encourage and enable residents to cycle as part of their daily routine.

Reading List: 16 Unmissable Books About Cities


This article by Bruce McVean originally appeared on the sustainable cities website This Big City.

Over the last eight weeks I, together with my colleagues Matt Dearlove and Neil Murphy, have been teaching a course called The New City at Cambridge University, part of the Pembroke-Kings Programme.

The course aimed to give students from a variety of backgrounds an overview of the challenges and opportunities facing cities over the coming decades. To examine how cities can be re-made in ways that will inspire and enable all to live well and within tightly bounded environmental limits. In short, how to ensure cities and their citizens thrive in an uncertain future?

Putting together the lectures and readings meant going back through some of the books on my shelves in search of references – a rewarding activity in itself. Like most This Big City readers I’m constantly on the lookout for good writing about cities – there’s no shortage of it on the Internet of course, but sometimes it’s great to settle down with a longer read and lose yourself in a good book. With that in mind I thought I’d share the reading list we put together for the course. I’d happily recommend all the books below, although some have a more specialist focus than others.

Clearly this isn’t a definitive list, there are plenty of great books that aren’t included (Jeff Speck’s The Walkable City and John Reader’s Cities are just two examples from a very long list).

Bruce McVean to chair Hackney Cycling Conference

Hackney Cycling Conference

Bruce McVean, Beyond Green’s Integrated Design Manager and Founder of Movement for Liveable London will chair the afternoon session at the 2013 Hackney Cycling Conference, which is being held at Hackney Town Hall on Thursday 6th June, 9am-4pm.

The conference will explore the potential to turn recent high level political support for cycling, ambitious policy statements and successful campaigns into real change on the ground and create conditions that encourage a significant increase in the number of people riding bikes.

Speakers include:

  • Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney
  • Andrew Gilligan, London Cycling Commissioner on the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling
  • Prof. Phil Goodwin, University of the West of England and author of the APPCG report ‘Get Britain Cycling’
  • Dr Adrian Davis, Bristol City Council on the Bristol model for collaboration on public health and transport
  • Prof. Harry Rutter, Public Health England and Halsa Consulting on cycling risks and benefits
  • Chris Procter, Design and Engineering Manager at Hackney Council on the principles of permeability
  • Sophie Tyler, The Means on cycling and retail
  • Oliver Schick, London Cycling Campaign in Hackney on building local support for road space reallocation
  • The Canal and River Trust on managing shared space on Greenways
  • Mark Strong, Transport Initiatives on designing for different kerb-side needs

The Hackney Cycling Conference is organised by Hackney Council and London Cycling Campaign in Hackney. You can register to attend and find more information here (registration fee £25).

Re:THINK Festival, 1st – 3rd May


3Space’s Re:THINK festival will celebrate the innovative ideas that are helping to create a more sustainable future for London and other cities and explore just how simple and fun it is to be re:sourceful, re:use and re:duce waste.

Re:THINK runs from 1st – 3rd May with a packed programme of free events, including a talk by Bruce McVean on the need for London’s to make an urgent transition to a post-car and post-oil transport system that can survive and prevent social, environmental and economic challenges and allow the capital to flourish as a more liveable city. You can find out more and register to attend Bruce’s talk here.

As well as being Beyond Green’s Integrated Design Manager, Bruce runs Movement for Liveable London, whose masterclass exploring the benefits of rolling out a 20mph speed limit on roads across London will also form part of the festival. You can find out more and register to attend the masterclass here.

3Space is an innovative charity which unlocks the potential of empty commercial property by making it available for temporary community use.


Beyond Green participating in Green Sky Thinking Week

GST13 Logo Small

Beyond Green will be taking part in Open City‘s Green Sky Thinking Week, which runs from 15th – 19th April. We’ll be hosting three small group seminars which will provide an opportunity for attendees to debate some of the major sustainability challenges and opportunities facing London:

Urgent Challenges Need Remarkable Leaders (Tuesday 16 April, 8.30am-10.00am): Led by Jonathan Smales this seminar will consider the need to transform cities in the face of unremitting environmental and socio-economic challenges. Who should and who can lead the transition to a more sustainable London?

From Financial Crisis to Green Metropolis (Wednesday 17 April, 8.30am-10.00am): Led by Neil Murphy this seminar will consider how, in an age of austerity, crisis can be turned into opportunity to radically rethink the planning, design and delivery of a sustainable future for London?

Sustainable Transport – if not London, Where?  (Thursday 18 April, 8.30am-10.00am): Led by Bruce McVean this seminar will discuss whether London can show the world what the future of transport looks like. What needs to change to make London a true exemplar of sustainable movement?

All seminars will be held at Beyond Green’s London office and are free to attend. Please email to book a place (Email must contain your name, position, organisation and contact details).

Video: What’s so good about growth? Jonathan Smales introduces the 7th William Pitt Seminar

JS Pitt Intro

In October 2012 Jonathan Smales chaired the 7th William Pitt the Younger Seminar at Pembroke College, Cambridge. The seminar sought to answer the question ‘What’s so good about growth?’ A video of Jonathan’s introduction is now available and can be viewed below, along with videos of each speaker and the subsequent discussion.


Jonathan Smales, Executive Chairman, Beyond Green


Dr Hermann Hauser, Co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners


Professor Susan J Smith, Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, Honorary Professor of Geography at Cambridge University and Adjunct Professor in the School of Global Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne


Andrew Hill, Associate Editor and Management Editor of the Financial Times


Satish Kumar




A new movement in planning – Neil Murphy’s The New City lecture


This is a transcript of  Neil Murphy’s The New City lecture given on Monday 11th February 2013 at Cambridge University Department of Architecture. The New City lecture series runs until 5th March, details of upcoming lectures can be found here.

Planning is the process by which societies mediate space.  It determines what can be built where, to what purpose and under what conditions.  As last week’s session explored, the forms that human settlements take have profound implications for our environmental impacts. It is not that lives lived in dense cities are intrinsically sustainable enough or that those lived in suburbia are intrinsically otherwise, but that the propensity of people to consume energy and resources falls as their proximity to one another rises.  Conversely, there seems – up to a point – to be a positive correlation between urban density and scale and people’s propensity to be economically productive and culturally active.  Both these observations are neatly captured in David Engwicht’s observation that “[c]ities are an invention to maximise exchange (culture, goods, friendship, knowledge) and minimise travel.” i

Today I will talk about land-use planning, which is a process and a profession very much to the fore in public policy discourse in this country at present, chiefly owing to the mounting crisis caused by a failure over decades to build enough houses to meet rising demand.  I will review some of the current lines of argument in planning before setting out some ideas on how it might be re-purposed as the midwife of the New City; the former mainly in relation to this country but the latter, I hope, with a wider applicability.

I want to start by suggesting that planning is in a bit of a funk. This is illustrated by the current debate over housing delivery, in which planning is carrying the can for our social failure to build enough new houses so consistently for so long that there are several million households without suitable accommodation and even the most basic starter home is priced out of reach of many people, especially the youngii, and especially in the country’s economic hotspots.  The consensus is that the planning system is primarily, if not wholly, responsible on the grounds of, one way or another, restricting the effective supply of development land.  Beyond this basic premise, however, views diverge into two principal schools of thought.

First is a growing critique coming mainly from economists on the political leftiii.  This holds, in simple terms, that planning is not sufficiently responsive to price signals and does not allow enough development, particularly housing, in the places where market forces left alone would have it.  The result is that property prices are higher than they should be, especially in or close to areas of great economic opportunity, like the commuter belt around London, or here in Cambridge; and that many people are therefore forced to live in places or in circumstances that they do not like or that materially disadvantage them as well as, at a societal scale, stifling economic growth; a phenomenon that may be compounded rather than mitigated by the ploughing of vast public resources into regenerating northern industrial towns in the name of ‘market failure’.  Ethically, the planning system and sacred cows like Green Belt policies are seen as defending the interests of insiders at the expense of outsiders; the preservation of Home Counties landscape and property to the cost of the migratory poor.  From this perspective, the primary challenge to planning is to let more development go where developers want to put it, and to tax the profits for progressive ends.

The critique from the right, given voice by some in the present government, is more focused on the perceived qualitative failings of planning.  Too much emphasis in the planning system on targets for building set nationally or regionally; policy prescription on matters such as development density, social mixing and car parking restraint; and too much “pig ugly” development in the words of the present planning ministeriv have made people resistant to development near where they live.  Localise planning choice, these critics say; allow people more influence over the nature and form of development – and even bribe them with a share of the proceedsv – and consent for building will follow.

There are problems with both these versions of events, but I shall focus briefly on the former because it presents a clearer intellectual challenge to planning and a more direct and, arguably, honest attempt to tackle the underlying problem of supply.  Although I personally think there should be more use of economics in planning, it is important not to over-emphasise planning restraints on land supply as a cause of stunted growth.  We need to consider patterns of land ownership in many parts of the country that make it especially easy and attractive for landowners to seek rents from speculation, aided by an almost non-existent system of property taxation; and the role of the volume housebuilding industry, the dominance by a few big firms and ‘current trader’ business model of which stifles innovation and diversity and make supply much more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than it needs to be – something I shall return to shortly.  Equal concern should attach to our failure to price transport, especially roads, properly such that there is effectively a subsidy to sprawl.  And we need to better understand why the market under-values in the short-term spatial qualities that could add economic value in the long-term, such as compactness and permeability, which planning is, in theory, well-placed to obtain.   In other words, we have to look not just at how to use more land but how to use it more efficiently.

But these quite different critiques both, in the end, reflect a wider societal scepticism about the value and efficacy of professional planning, and a resurgent faith in the market to do a better job of allocating land resources, with planners cast as the regulators.  Although some would argue that the marketisation of land-use has not yet gone nearly far enough, it has been extended by recent reforms.  When the draft National Planning Policy Framework was published in 2011, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the professional body for planners, complained that it “fail[ed] to set out a vision” and was focused on a “response to market demands rather than… truly sustainable development”vi.  But, for all the professionals’ wailing, it became government policy all the same.

In 1990, Mark Tewdwr-Jones wrote that:

“Planning has been reduced to a bureaucratic regulatory process in which the political has been down played in the interests of organisational efficiency.  The “vision thing”, the concept that gave birth to town planning as a professional activity in the early years of the twentieth century, has been lost, partly as a consequence of legislative fiat, a New Right determination to standardise and commodify planning as a public service, and individual planners’ recalcitrance.  Town planning is no longer a political and professional activity; it is rampant technocracy, shared between public and private sectors.”vii

One can see the current discourse as evidence that a problem described over 20 years ago has reached its apogee.  How did this come to pass? Tewdwr-Jones hints at the role played by a political ideology antipathetic to the very idea of vision, but I would highlight three other factors lying deep in the psyche of planning at play.

First, the fact that town planning as an ideal and a profession first found its voice in advocacy of garden cities and a theorisation of the English romance with villages, small towns and countryside meant that it was always vulnerable to the perversion of its ideals by forces that drew on the folk wisdom of garden cities as idealised environments, and turned what was essentially a truth about collective prosperity into an illusion about personal choice.  One such force was the car, and I will let Bruce deal with that.  Another was the volume housebuilder.  Housebuilders have a highly evolved narrative in which whatever they provide is what the market wants, is aspirational, and any failings are beyond their control.  Take this from Nick Rogers, design director of Taylor Wimpey, in response to the planning ministers Nick Boles’s accusation that developers are “lazy”:

“We build homes that people want to buy and create places that people want to live in… No one sets out to design bad buildings or places, but sometimes things happen to prevent a good outcome. This certainly happened pre-crash when the combination of high demand, lack of developable land and government policy, drove density of development to a level where, sometimes, the result was poor design.”viii

As I have mentioned already, housebuilding has many of the characteristics of an oligopoly: a market dominated by a small number of large firms.  And the truth is that, like all oligopolists, housebuilders do not necessarily build what a truly competitive market would want but what it is expedient to produce.  Except on the odd ‘flagship’ project where they make a show of doing something a bit different, theirs is a mass market model of increasingly standardised designs arranged in identikit inward-looking layouts, usually with an assumption if not an outright requirement of car ownership. Because they typically finance construction with expensive short-term debt, national housebuilders are beholden to the ability to sell what they build quickly to owner-occupiers such that a house becomes ‘product’, not an enduring asset and still less an element of ‘town’.  When, as now, low wages and a shortage of mortgage finance silts up the demand, supply halts.  This process embodies the reduction of human habitat to the tiniest range of possibilities, with the result that nearly a third of people, according to a study by the RIBA, would consider buying a house build in the last ten years only as a last resort.ix

As Sir Peter Hall has put it:

“this is not an argument against suburbs, but against a particularly kind of proto-suburban development loved by the housebuilders: low density houses on the edges of a small town somewhere in southern England, clustered into a cul-de-sac, giving onto a distribution road, which all too easily gets gridlocked, and it does not produce anything like a decent bus service.”x

Yet the appropriation by housebuilders of the language of suburban aspiration, combined with their dominance of the land market, has cowed planners to such an extent that strategic planning in many places has been reduced to refereeing between one ‘stunning development’ in a field on the edge of town, or another.  The way that the planning system understands viability has been skewed to the housebuilder model, with planners under growing pressure to subjugate the long term needs of infrastructure and social housing in their areas in order to bail out the builders’ silted-up model of rapid debt-driven turnover.  What we are seeing is a spatial form of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”, the subjugation of mediation in the public interest to the interests of producers.  (What is profoundly ironic about this, incidentally, is that the modern planning profession and culture for all its rhetoric about placemaking would struggle to allow something as bold and beautiful as Edinburgh New Town or Georgian Bath to be built in the countryside.  It would be seen as overdevelopment, too dense and insufficiently respectful of its ‘setting’, its streets failing to meet adoptable highways standards and its parking provision recklessly out of kilter with the needs of the modern families.)

Second, when visionary planning returned to our great cities in the postwar period it did so at a difficult time.  In my own home city of Newcastle upon Tyne the great period of visionary planning in the 20th century under T. Dan Smith coincided with the relatively brief period in which the Corbusian ideal of the ville radieuse gained popular traction over municipal housing design and the progressive planning wisdom became that cities must be comprehensively re-planned to accommodate the motor vehicle in the city, through the building of urban motorways and the segregation of people and traffic.  The mythology, not to mention the grim legacy infrastructure, of that era bears a heavy responsibility for the antipathy of many people today to ‘visionary’ municipal leadership and their scorn and cynicism towards planning as a social institution.  People forget that, in the same city, it was the incredibly bold collaboration – some might say collusion – between city planners and the single-minded developer Richard Grainger that created the Georgian wonder that is Grainger town and arguably England’s finest neoclassical street. Oh, for some of that particular kind of planning arrogance today.

Third, planning always had a problem managing the innate complexity of urbanism, so, over time, became accustomed to managing it out.  This was Jane Jacobs’s great criticism of planning: well-founded concerns about sanitary conditions in late 19th Century industrial cities that became misdirected as an assault on the qualities of density and intricate mixes of uses that made cities engines of economic output and social life, to be replaced by the “marvels of dullness”xi she saw the rise of zoning and a preoccupation with landscape bringing to bear.  Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities remains a revered text among planners, but the spatial expression of economic intent in our cities today is not the mixed-use neighbourhood with its close-grained interplay of activity but the landscaped business park: gleaming sheds in fields of car parking.   At the very least, these strange forms reflect the triumph in planning of short-term cost-driven business interests over long-term value-based economic ones: today’s wish for cheap rents, compliant workers and easy commutes made possible at the cost of tomorrow’s dense interplay of urban life, its ability to sustain ‘different freedoms’ and its propensity to innovate in the space between buildings.  But one might go further and agree with Tom McDonagh, who writes that

“modern capitalism, the bureaucratic society of consumption, is here and there beginning to shape its own setting. This society… is building the terrain that accurately represents it, combining the conditions most suitable for its proper functioning, while at the same time translating in space, in the clear language of organization of everyday life, its fundamental principle of alienation and constraint.”xii

So where do we go from here?

What seems clear is that planning has confused ends and means: mediation of space has become the objective, without any clear sense of the ends that mediation is trying to achieve. In the middle of the road, you get knocked over.  The logical outcome of this malaise is a continued shift towards ever more market-led approaches to land use that might eventually fix our housing shortage but which will under-provide cogent settlement patterns and discount too heavily the factors that will make places competitive, sustainable and socially just in the long-run.

Instead, I’d like to suggest a different scenario, one that gives planning its mojo back and invites a new era of planning visionaries to step up and confront the needs of the New City.  (I know that arguing for more power for planners in a room full of architects is unlikely to go down well, but bear with me.)

First, we need more and smarter planning, not less.  We need to vex less about the shortage of land and more about the shortage of good urban places that foster exchange, human contact and create long-term economic and social possibilities rather than restricting development to a narrow interpretation of present day needs and norms.

Specifically, we need to plan and re-plan our settlements in coherent units of compact, walkable, mixed-use urbanism.  Paul Murrain is likely to discuss this in detail next week, so rather than going into what these units are let me instead focus on the planning implications.  Chiefly, it means that we will no longer think of meeting housing needs in terms of fifty or a hundred homes in the next field, but in how we create and support well-resolved, well-served and well-connected mixed-use neighbourhoods of two thousand or more homes.  The precise spatial, connective and urbanistic strategy will depend on the situation, but this is a principle that works equally well in dense urban contexts, the outward growth of existing settlements and brand new places whether urban or suburban.  The rules that attach to these places will not be governing minimum car parking and the separation of uses but such things as the permeability of space, the accessibility of everyday human needs and the importance of street, block and plot to urban coherence and adaptability.

Within this there is certainly a place for substantial new settlements in areas of high aggregate demand.  It is simply not tenable to think that the housing needs of the London megaregion, for example, can be met wholly within existing urban boundaries or in the relatively few places where there is neither profound social and political antipathy to development nor planning-imposed constraints like green belt.  What matters is that, where such settlements are planned, they justify their existence by replacing cherished landscape with efficient, well-functioning and beautiful townscape.

But we need a differentiated approach for places whose long-run trajectory is more stable or declining, bearing in mind that a radical increase in supply in areas such as the greater south-east is likely to exacerbate the fragility of population trends in these areas.  In our former industrial towns and cities there is, it seems to me, a long-term strategic choice to be made. On the one hand there is compactness, proximity and the reuse of land and infrastructure; the urban footprint managed to best create the productive urban conditions that come with density and urban connectivity in the hope that our cities can create from their own bases of knowledge and creativity the self-sustaining, value-driven economy – the ideopolis – of the future. On the other, more of our present civic diffidence perpetuating the market-driven flight to the periphery and locking our cities further into a model of cost-driven competition.

Second, to support this spatially-driven model we need a new understanding of the physical forms and typologies that can produce superb, highly-functioning urbanism while meeting the needs and expectations of households and businesses, transforming the present antagonism between public and private interests and realms into symbiosis.  What are the housing forms that can deliver spacious family homes and a desire for a garden at 50, 60 dwellings to the hectare or more while making wonderful townscape? How do we integrate workplaces large and small and reconcile the outward-facing needs of companies in an urbanism that values face-to-face contact and exchange as the basis of long-term economic wellbeing? Over to you architects…

Third, as a logical corollary of this truly spatial approach to planning I personally think – and I emphasise these views are mine and not those of my employer – we need a revolution in the way that land is treated, one that sees it primarily not as a private asset but as a common and wholly finite resource, discourages speculative rent-seeking by landowners, helps to break the short-termist housebuilder model’s stranglehold on supply and enables development to go in the right place rather than where the field boundary happens to be.  In simple terms, planning authorities, not landowners, should decide what land is required to achieve cogent units of urbanism and have the right to acquire that land for compensation equivalent to no more than its current use value.  And they should become progressive town-builders, the Richard Graingers of our age, their curation of the land in the public interest giving them an in-built incentive to demand a whole-life, whole society approach to the use of land and to orchestrate urban designers, architects, engineers and the multiplicity of statutory agencies and interest groups that operate in urban space to produce urbanism capable of adapting to changing economic and social forces and getting better with age.

Finally, we need our planners to rediscover a role as educators and promoters of a social understanding of space.  Indeed, if none of the other possibilities come to pass – and who would bet on any political leader showing the vision and leadership to tackle vested interests in land dating back to the Domesday book? – we need this more than anything.  Planners have to be the ones who will point out to people who want an eighth of an acre for their house or endless free parking outside their office what would happen to our cities, our lives, our planet if everyone wanted that and got it.  Land, space and wonderful environments are collective goods – and that is why the New City needs a new movement in planning.

i Engwicht, Towards an Eco-City

ii See for example National Housing Federation, Home Truths 2011

iii See for example Cheshire, Urban Containment, Housing Affordability and Price Stability – Irreconcilable Goals, SERC 2009

iv “Boles criticises ‘pig ugly’ housing scheme”,, accessed 10th February 2013

v “Communities to be given cash to back development”,, accessed 10th February 2013

vi “Draft NPPF a ‘missed opportunity’ says RTPI”,, accessed 9th February 2012

vii Mark Tewdwr-Jones, 1999, quoted in Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow.

viii Via, accessed 9th February 2013

ix RIBA The Case for Space.  31% of people would not consider buying a home built in the last ten years, or would only consider it as a last resort.

x Sir Peter Hall, lecture to AiH Estate of the Nation conference, 24th May 2000

xi Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities

xii McDonagh, Situationists and the City

A new movement for The New City – Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture

CPH bikes

This is a write up of Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture given on Monday 11th February 2013 at Cambridge University Department of Architecture. The New City lecture series runs until 5th March, details of upcoming lectures can be found here.

A brief (and over simplified) history of transport and the city

Cities have always been shaped by transport, while the planning and design of cities impacts on transport choices. The first cities were inherently walkable – the primary mode of transport was people’s feet and cities were necessarily compact in size and form as a result.

Public transport allowed cities to grow well beyond a size that would allow a person to comfortably walk from one side to the other. The expansion of train, tram, bus and tube lines helped suburbia spread, but the component parts of suburban growth remained walkable – homes needed to be within walking distance of train stations, tram stops, bus routes, shops and services. Today we’d say that cities were expanding through ‘transit orientated development’.

Mass private transport came in the form of the bicycle, which enabled people to travel further for journeys not served by public transport, bringing new personal freedom of movement that helped whet the appetite for the even greater freedoms promised by the car.

Aspirations towards car ownership were matched with aspirations towards home (and garden) ownership. After the Second World War rising car ownership freed developers from the need to provide easy access to public transport. Shops and services no longer needed to be within walking distance. Aggressive lobbying by car manufacturers, government investment in road building, and changes in planning policy and development economics all helped fuel the rise of the car as the transport mode of choice.

Now those who live in suburbia have little choice but to drive – trapped in a vicious cycle of car dependency as the separation of land uses continues to place jobs and services beyond the reach of those on foot, while low densities make the running of decent public transport nigh on impossible – and most people looking for a new home have little choice but to buy in suburbia.

Of course, it wasn’t just suburbia that was being shaped by the car. In existing urban areas perfectly functional buildings and even neighbourhoods disappeared under the wrecking ball to provide the road and parking space necessary to bring the car into the heart of the city.

The problem with cars

The negative impacts of our love affair with the car have long been acknowledged. As have the difficulties of trying to do anything meaningful to address them. In 1960 the Ministry of Transport commissioned a team led by Colin Buchanan to look at the problem, resulting in the publication of Traffic in Towns in 1963. 50 years on the project steering group’s famous acknowledgement that, “We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great destructiveness. And yet we love him dearly…” still rings true.

Undoubtedly many people still aspire to car ownership, or view owning a car as essential to maintaining a high quality of life. And who are we to deny them? Engines keep getting more efficient and electric cars will help wean us off carbon dioxide emitting toxic fossil fuels. What about those self-driving cars we keep hearing so much about? Aren’t they going to use road space so efficiently that congestion will be a thing of the past, along with crashes? Perhaps, but what kind of city do we want to live in? One where everyone zooms about in their own metal box, completely removed from their fellow citizens? Ask anyone how they think their city can be improved and the answer is unlikely to be more cars – self-driving or otherwise.

Technology may soon address the problems of the internal combustion engine and the contribution that car travel makes to carbon emissions and air pollution; but technology alone can’t solve the myriad of other negative impacts of car dependency that are neatly summarised in the diagram below from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report The Urban Environment. Tackling carbon emissions and air pollution is an essential task, but it’s not the only task – the big villain isn’t the internal combustion engine, it’s the car. As Taras Grescoe argues in Straphanger, “The automobile was never an appropriate technology for [cities]. As a form of mass transit for the world, it is a disaster.”

Part of the reason it is a disaster is that there is an inherent unfairness built into a car dominated transport system. This is an issue that I feel gets too little debate and I would urge everyone to read the Sustainable Development Commission’s excellent report Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society. The chart below, taken from the report, highlights how the better off travel the most. As the report notes, the widespread availability and affordability of car travel has brought many benefits, but these have been obtained at a substantial price, and one that falls most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, i.e. the ones that travel, and therefore benefit, the least.

Similarly, it is those too young or old to drive that are most likely to be killed or seriously injured on our roads (see chart below, again taken from Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society). To borrow a phrase from RoadPeace’s Director, Amy Aeron-Thomas, “We may share the road, but we don’t share the risk.” That risk is unacceptably skewed towards what transport professionals call ‘vulnerable road users’ and everyone else calls pedestrians and cyclists. Responsibility for minimising those risks must by extension fall on those who have the potential to do most harm – motorists, or what transport professionals should perhaps call ‘dangerous road users’.

While no one is looking to restrict individual freedom of movement that freedom must, as the SDC argue, “be exercised without unduly compromising the rights of others to live free from the negative impacts that travel imposes.” Even when driven carefully and slowly cars dominate our streets and impose themselves on other users. They’re bulky and everyone knows their potential to harm. Add speed to the equation and they own the street completely. As Ian Roberts and Phil Edwards argue in The Energy Glut (another must read), “Possession combined with brute force make up ten-tenths of the law.”

The possession of road space by cars, and the actual and perceived danger that comes with it, means that many people are discouraged from walking unless absolutely necessary and would never contemplate cycling. Statistically walking and cycling may be low risk activities – and the health benefits certainly far out way the risks – but no amount of statistics can change the often unpleasant and at times frightening experience of trying to negotiate a street network that has been engineered around the needs of the motorist.

Given this situation it should come as little surprise that the majority of people are failing to meet the minimum recommended amount of physical activity required to maintain a healthy weight – at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five times a week. The costs to the NHS of the UK becoming an increasingly obese nation are widely reported, but the health benefits of being physically active go much further, for example helping to prevent some cancers, improving recovery rates and contributing to our mental wellbeing. As Liam Donaldson when Chief Medical Officer stated, “The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a ‘wonder drug’ or ‘miracle cure’.”

Humans have evolved as mobile animals and it’s unlikely we’ll ever evolve into sedentary animals. We’ve also evolved to love energy dense fatty and sugary food. Policy all too often focuses on trying to get people to consume fewer calories while neglecting the huge potential benefits of creating a built environment that makes it easy and attractive for people to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine through the way they travel. Yet only by doing that will it be possible to get the whole population active, something that can’t be achieved by exhorting people to join the gym and hoping that Olympic and Paralympic success in 2012 will inspire mass take up of organised sport.

Of course, humans have also evolved as social animals, but as Appleyard and Lintell discovered in 1972 the car can limit our social lives. Their classic study looked at the correlation between the traffic volume on a street and the relationships between neighbours on that street. The result was perhaps unsurprising; those streets with the heaviest traffic were also the ones where least people interacted with their neighbours.

The social life of cities is about more than being on first name terms with your neighbours or even nodding terms with those you meet when you pop to the shops. As Jane Jacobs noted in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth may grow.” Cities exist to allow people to socialise – people love to be around and to watch other people – how then can we make sure our streets are places where people want to spend their time and our cities are great places to live, work and play?

So what’s to be done?

We need to begin by redefining the car’s relationship with the city – shaping cars and driver behaviour to suit cities, not cities to suit cars. As Jeff Speck argues in The Walkable City, “The automobile is a servant that has become a master… Relegating the car to its proper role is essential to reclaiming our cities for pedestrians.” This doesn’t mean banning cars outright, although that may be appropriate in some instances, but rather reminding people that when they drive into the city they and their car enter it as guests.

Research by Sustrans and Social Data in 2004 estimated that a car is essential for approximately a third of journeys, such as those that involve moving heavy and bulky loads or travelling beyond cycling distance on a journey that’s not served by public transport. I suspect that figure could come down in time as people adjust their lifestyles and habits, but the fact remains that the convenience and flexibility that the car can provide means it will always be around in one form or another.

We must, however, begin to address some of the inherent inefficiencies built into a car dominated transport system. Cars take up a lot of space – a precious resource in any city – and most of the time they’re occupying that space without even moving. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in Traffic, cars spend 95% of their time parked. They’re also expensive to own – even before you put any petrol in the tank you have to buy a car and pay Vehicle Excise Duty and insurance. If a car is only essential for a third of your journeys, why would you need or want to own one?

Wouldn’t it be better to use a shared car and in the process have access to a range of vehicles suited to the job in hand – a van for moving furniture, a people carrier for kids birthday parties and a convertible sports car for that romantic weekend in the country? Of course it would, and it’s no surprise that car clubs and pay-as-you-drive schemes are a growth industry. At Beyond Green we call it ‘car freedom’ – freedom from car dependency and the costs of car ownership, but freedom to access a car when you need one.

If the private car’s time is up, the age of the bicycle is just beginning. Bikes, the ultimate form of private urban transport, are space efficient, genuinely zero emissions, healthy, sociable, affordable and fun. They can reach the parts of the city that public transport can’t and many urban journeys are of less than five miles – a distance that can be covered by any reasonably fit person on a bike in about 30 minutes.

If cities are to realise the potential of the bike as a form of mass transit then they must be welcoming to cyclists of all ages and abilities. As New York’s transport commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Kahn notes, “You can wish people onto bikes, but you won’t get them onto bikes unless you provide a safe network.” Creating that network demands reducing traffic speeds and volumes on all streets and building segregated cycle lanes where traffic speeds and/or volumes remain high enough to require them.

As noted above, space in cities is a precious commodity and a highly contested one too, but capacity must to be found to allow the reallocation of road space to bikes and buses. Congestion charging in London and elsewhere has been proven to be very effective at reducing traffic volumes. Price differentials can be used to incentivise switching to smaller, cleaner cars, but to be as effective as possible a charge should apply to all vehicles. Schemes must also be actively managed to remain effective through expansions, fee increases and changes to incentives.

Spare road capacity created by reduced traffic volumes can be reallocated to create improved conditions for pedestrians and cyclists and improve the reliability of public transport. That reallocation is essential to prevent traffic levels rising again after initial falls as motorists consider driving on less congested roads to be convenient enough to warrant the cost of paying the congestion charge – a version of induced demand.

The reallocation of space away from the car will help restore city streets to their proper function as places for people and activity as well as traffic. Streets are complex places, where the conflicting demands of many users must be balanced. On many streets the balance is currently tipped in favour of keeping motor vehicles moving at the expense of other users. Temporary street closures of all varieties, from the wonderful Playing Out Project in Bristol to Bogota’s much imitated Ciclovia, have an important role to play in helping people imagine a different future; one where the balance is tipped in the other direction, putting the needs of residents, shoppers and workers above the needs of the passing motorist.

Temporary closures can become permanent over time. Each summer for the last ten years Paris has closed a section of the expressway on the banks of the Seine so that it can be turned into an urban beach, the Paris Plage. 2.5km of that expressway is now set to be permanently converted into a pedestrian boulevard. New York, meanwhile, has been piloting much quicker conversions, most famously at Times Square and along Broadway. Paint, planters and bollards are used to mark out new public spaces and trial potentially controversial schemes that may otherwise never get off the drawing board – sometimes it’s better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

A similarly light touch approach may also be the most effective way of improving a city’s public transport network. Talk of improving public transport often turns to discussion of light rail, subways, trams and other infrastructure heavy solutions. The costs associated with such schemes can mean they’re never delivered, while the potential of improving relatively cheap bus services is often overlooked, wrongly in my opinion. As Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogota between 1998 and 2001, and the man responsible for delivering that city’s impressive TransMilenio bus rapid transit network, argues, “Bus-based systems are the only public transport which can reach all areas of a [city], regardless if a few subway lines are built.”

Whatever the eventual public transport mix, the system needs to be as easy to use as possible, preferably with an integrated ticketing system. Deutsche Bahn’s BahnCard 25 is perhaps one of the best examples, allowing users to travel at discounted rates on national rail services, to switch seamlessly between all modes of public transport in Berlin and to access bike and car share schemes. Smart phone apps are also making planning journeys even easier, removing much of the uncertainty that can put people off travelling by public transport.

If public transport is to effectively serve suburbia then we must begin to think about how suburbs might be remodelled to break the cycle of car dependency. Post-war suburbs will need to go through a gradual process of densification, particularly around new neighbourhood centres and along routes that might become public transport corridors, and suburban streets need to once again become great places to walk and cycle. Any new development on the fringes of our cities must be built upon the principles of walkable neighbourhoods, safe and enjoyable cycling for all, good public transport and ‘car freedom’.

Back to the future

All of the above ideas and initiatives (and the rest that there hasn’t been time to mention), must be brought together in an integrated sustainable transport strategy. Too often transport policy leaps from project to project, many of them capital intensive big infrastructure projects, without being informed by a coherent vision of how a city’s transport system should serve the city into the future.

Cities must look backwards as well as forwards when setting that vision. In Makeshift Metropolis Witold Rybczynski argues that while history does not have all the answers, we must to keep one eye on the past as we move into the future, “The next city will include much that is new, but to succeed it cannot ignore what came before. Linking the past with the present, and seeing the old anew, has always been part of our improvised urban condition.” It’s easy to fall under the spell of new technology or twiddle our thumbs while we wait for a technological silver bullet like self-driving cars to solve our problems, but much of what is required to establish a sustainable urban transport system and move cities away from car dependency has been around for a long time.

In 1950 fewer than two million private cars were licensed in Britain – 1 car to 20 people. Is that an appropriate level to be aiming for in the not too distant future? I think it probably is, with many of those cars being shared rather than privately owned. That doesn’t mean turning the clock back to 1950, today’s technology means that reduced car ownership doesn’t have to limit accessibility to jobs, services or leisure activities.

As you may have noticed the brief history of transport and the city that I started this lecture with was incomplete. Since the 60s and 70s many cities have been redefining their relationship with the car – particularly in the Netherlands and elsewhere in northern Europe. Cities in the UK and the US are starting to catch up, albeit slowly and through the delivery of individual projects and initiatives rather than as part of a comprehensive strategy.

So a ‘new movement’ has already started, but given the urgent need to address the social, economic and environmental impacts of car dependency it needs to quickly gather momentum. Copenhagen has been in the process of transforming itself for 50 years, it still has some way to go and other cities that are just beginning the process don’t have the luxury of time.

We must move as quickly as possible towards achieving the ultimate goal – a liveable city that is served by a resilient transport network. A network that will help the city respond to the challenges of climate change and peak cheap oil while improving quality of life and reducing inequalities. To paraphrase that great observer of city life William H Whyte, urban transport systems must help cities assert themselves as good places to live.