Urban design offers the answers
16 February 2009
Professor Lorna Walker on why we need Sustainable Places and how people will use it.
One of the driving forces behind CABE’s Sustainable Places programme is Professor Lorna Walker,
a CABE commissioner and an urban regeneration expert who served on Richard Rogers’ Urban
Task Force. Here she tells Julian Birch about some of the reasons behind the new website - and how she hopes local authorities will use it.
Towns and cities need to become more sustainable, very fast. What is getting in the way?
“Lack of knowledge. Local authorities have been given a huge job with not much back up. The idea behind the site is to give them the support and we hope the confidence to move faster. The message which comes over most strongly from the site is - if other people can do it, why can’t we?”
Why is urban design the answer?
“Tackling climate change is fundamentally about managing places. We need to think of cities as organisms that grow, contract, react and are connected together. And the focus needs to be on creating better places, not just efficient ones or ones that meet emission targets.”
You’ve criticised a lot of debate about sustainability as ‘fluffy’!
“Too true. Too much of the debate about sustainability is all over the place. What I like about this website is that it provides a practical framework, shows how to join up the dots and will guide you through. It’s a place of reference and it gives people good ideas. If you want to influence council members and planning committees, you need hard data to show them.”
What can a local authority do with access to the website that would have been hard before?
“They can assess a huge problem in terms of its constituent parts. Everything may have looked so big before that they didn’t know where to start. It shows how things join up. Take for example a big construction project that decides to transport its building materials by canal. That has an economic benefit, and it also takes lorries off the road, using less fossil fuels andimproving air quality. One decision has many different outcomes. So I think the site can open minds. None of this is rocket science – it’s just good design and common sense – and it’s not scary.”
Placemaking is at the heart of the site. Do people tackling climate change understand the importance of place and the built environment?
“I don’t think so. I don’t think people appreciate quite how buildings are part of a wider urban landscape. You may have an energy efficient building but the green bits around it can do so many practical things in terms of people’s health, moderating the urban heat island effect, and – if they are well-designed - community cohesion. That is why truly sustainable communities will be more than just low carbon places. They will be inclusive, they will embrace new cultures, they will protect vulnerable citizens and they will focus on people. Happiness, mental capital and wellbeing can all be helped by green spaces. The site has a lot of useful information about different spatial scales, public space and green infrastructure and how they link together.”
How do you see the site being used?
“To keep up to date with what works and what doesn’t work. Building professionals, local authorities, NGOs and community groups – anyone with an interest in sustainability - will find the information useful. I’ve worked on sustainability for years and looked at lots of different sustainability sites. People will find this one is easy to find their way through and it won’t frighten them.”
“I’m thrilled that leadership is part of it - there are projects around the world that would not have happened if it hadn’t been for one champion. It will improve advocacy. We all need that kind of inspiration, and there is a lot to learn from other places."
Will towns find the site of use, as well as cities?
“Absolutely. On the urban task force, we said that our recommendations were useful to every city, town, market town and street in the country. Having all the different spatial scales on the site is particularly good, because people can find the scale they want.”
What are the preconceptions and myths about sustainability that you hear?
“Some people have preconceptions that sustainability is expensive, an add-on that you can ignore. But mostly people think that it’s just too hard and complicated. The site makes delivery more straightforward, for instance helping with prioritisation."
Did you learn anything from the site within your own field of expertise?
“It will help me with case studies, and find fresh sources of evidence to persuade people. I think it will be particularly good at planning inquiries. I have actually learnt quite a lot already - some of the examples on the urban heat island effect were new to me. The agenda is moving so fast, it will need to be constantly updated.”
CABE and Urban Practitioners
with the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield