Miriam Fitzpatrick on sustainability

Miriam Fitzpatrick
14 October 2008

Miriam Fitzpatrick believes that sustainability must address our needs as human beings before obsessing over the measurable.

It's not everyone who uses Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol to talk about sustainability. But Miriam Fitzpatrick believes strongly that sustainability must address our needs as human beings before obsessing over the measurable. So it is that she mentions a verse from Wilde's famous poem as an example of man's need to feel connected to the natural world:

"I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by."

Fitzpatrick, who is a panel member since it started in 2000, likes to use her friend the engineer Randall Thomas' definition of sustainability as "poetry, optimism and delight. CO2, water and waste are secondary." Hardly the way to tackle climate change, surely? But Fitzpatrick who worked for some of the biggest names in green architecture - Edward Cullinan, Feilden Clegg Bradley and Grimshaws - argues that it is only after raising our spirits as humans that design for sustainability should go on to tackle quantifiable issues such as CO2 emissions.

Fitzpatrick has visited over 20 cities for the urban panel and describes the work as a "fantastic learning experience". Not only do the visits help local leaders make informed decisions about the right way forward, they also help to coalesce local interest about the quality and design of their city, she believes. For instance, due to local interest after a panel visit to Lincoln, the council requested further assistance as projects developed.

She outlined the challenges with a few hard facts. Eighty per cent of people live in urban areas, according to the 2001 UK census and urban areas consume 70 per cent of energy. Ninety per cent of urban fabric will be with us in 30 years. An increase of 1 per cent in productivity can provide savings to a company that exceed its entire energy bill. Indeed lifestyle change alone - say a change from commuting from home counties to city living and tube- can have the effect of reducing our energy consumption by up to 80 per cent.

For Fitzpatrick there are five main lessons to have come from the urban panel visits:

Re-use existing buildings

It is cheaper and more energy efficient to retain existing buildings as their embodied energy and social capital is wasted in demolition. Fitzpatrick cites Nelson in north Lancashire as an example of where the panel has helped to convince a local authority of the folly of mass demolition, by backing the local people's campaign to save their terraced homes. The famous Park Hill flats in Sheffield is another example of where the panel supported innovative re-use. And thanks to the role of developer Urban Splash, the block has now been saved.

Avoid 'deep plans'

The last decade has put pressure on councils to have the skill to pre-judge the quality of the urban environment offered by many major regeneration drivers, namely, multiplex cinemas, shopping centres and sports facilities. Deep plan monolithic structures equate with high-energy consumption, lots of artificial light and poor air quality, says Fitzpatrick. They also act as a big "lump" of city that people have to negotiate their way around whereas smaller urban blocks are more flexible and allow for more diverse life on the street. Ultimately, they are more resilient. Historically the most successful parts of cities have lots of tightly packed streets like Covent Garden in London, she argues. They are small chunks rather than one big lump so if retail takes a nosedive they can be converted into other uses - unlike a big shopping centre that takes 10 years to develop. With the credit crunch hitting hard, the lessons are there for British planners.

The trouble is that many local authorities have tended to see these big blocks of development as an unambiguous sign of economic development. In Hereford, the panel advised the local authority to opt for small-scale shopping streets in the Edgar Street grid over a big retail complex: "There are pressures for major retail development to be one large building, suited to only one purpose. The panel believed that the future of the city would be better guaranteed by seeking flexible, adaptable building forms, whatever the immediate occupancy."

Phase in development

Major construction projects take a long time to build and can kill off parts of cities. Fitzpatrick says we need to learn from Europe where they now advocate temporary use of buildings during development. Short leases can be very positive, she believes, citing Dublin's Temple Bar. The historic area was proposed for demolition at one stage but in the build up to clearance, shops were rented out on short leases, which had the effect of bringing in artistic uses and creating a bohemian atmosphere. The result was to show how the vitality of street life revoked plans to knock it down.

Maximise green space

Denser city centres are desirable but rely on a sensitive use of the land and maximising connections to green open space or the surrounding landscape Fitzpatrick argues. People need access to open space, even if only visually and intelligent use of topography helps enforce a connection to place and emphasise the feeling of green space in a city. Grass roofs and green spaces reduce the heat island effect of cities and are essential to the sustainable management of waste water. The urban panel reflects this by visiting sites rather than looking at plans on paper. The panel wrote in its report of Digbith, Birmingham: "The subtle topographical changes between the historic city and the historic suburb, for example, could easily be lost by the construction of too many large new buildings. Incorporating the expertise of a landscape architect at the earliest possible stage could help to ensure that Digbeth's distinctiveness contributed positively to the future of Eastside as a whole."

Combine innovation with common sense

When Fitzpatrick worked at Feilden Clegg Bradley, the firm gave employees a loan to buy a fold up Brompton bicycle. This is the kind of lateral thinking that she wants to see more of in discussions about sustainability. Educational programmes for users, commissioning or maintenance staff are among such soft measures that can affect cost-in use. Similarly, the sourcing of local materials is a practical objective. In Hereford, the panel welcomed the ambition of how new development could support local trade skills as well as local agriculture. "Being at the centre of a true agricultural economy affords Hereford the opportunity to seek locally sourced, sustainably produced materials and to build employment through the development of craft skills and local production. Often such a process also encourages innovative business patterns and associated employment". At the same time, there needs to be good common sense thinking too. She argues that there is no point fitting a new energy-efficient boiler if staff are not trained in how to use it.

Fitzpatrick believes that the multi-disciplinary background of the panel ensures that many different angles are covered by their visit. The wisdom of a rolling programme of visits with a stable panel means critical issues are substantiated rather than dissipated. And because the panel is generally involved in the early stages this means most value can be added in the process, which is all good news for a sustainable future for cities. It is a model that Fitzpatrick aspires to in other countries, particularly Ireland.

Miriam Fitzpatrick is an architect. She is a lecturer in urban design at University College Dublin and in Architecture at a new school of architecture in Waterford Institute of Technology. She has previously worked with Feilden Clegg Architects, Edward Cullinan and Nicholas Grimshaw in London and Diamond and Schmitt Architects in Canada. She is a graduate of UCD School of Architecture and has a masters in social science and city design from London School of Economics.

Related links
  • English Heritage and CABE urban panel