Gasping for Growth


It took London a mere five days into the new year to use up its annual ‘allocation’ of toxic air days as governed by law. A combination of cold, still air, native pollution, and an alleged blast of toxicity from industrial Germany, have made for a grim start to 2017 for London’s human residents. The eye-watering conditions at street level during the gridlock resulting from strike action by Central Line workers were evidence that things aren’t getting better as January draws to a close.

I was in Paris over the new year and was struck by how the same issue of polluted air – and the drastic measures required to address this killer challenge – was at the top of the Parisian public debate. Mayor Hidalgo has announced transformational, and controversial initiatives in a bid to improve air quality in the French capital. These have included restricting vehicle numbers, free public transport on ‘bad air days’, closing streets to traffic, and planning for a (partially) pedestrianised city centre with 50% fewer cars. My friends in Paris (who had also lived in London) asked what London was doing, and though Mayor Khan campaigned on a clean air and ‘healthy streets’ ticket, the contrast is stark.

London is in denial and is not taking the urgent and bold action required.

The fact that the English capital sees itself (at least in its partisan ‘local press’) as above continental Europe on many measures, makes it’s delusion all the more embarrassing. I would argue that London’s planners and urban designers are with their counterparts in cities like Auckland and Sydney in understanding that you cannot measure the success of a city solely by property prices and GDP, and that the health of its citizens must be taken into account. Healthy places make for healthy people, so it should be boom time for urban designers and landscape architects.

However, I’m not sure the people are so convinced.

As an urban planner, I can see how many factors have combined to create this situation. Similarly, there are no easy technical fixes, as you are dealing with human behaviour in a democracy and a free market economy. Factors that contribute to toxic air include:

  • Londoners continuing to use private cars for short and medium distances
  • Road freight remaining a cost effective way of delivering goods
  • Longer supply chains as fewer commodities are produced near their point of sale fostering said road freight
  • Construction traffic in a city still experiencing a building boom
  • Diesel buses ferrying Londoners into work from increasingly peripheral locations as central London neighbourhoods are now unaffordable

This is not an exhaustive list (and is open to challenge), but it gives an idea of the role that individual decisions and the need to do business in a great trading city play in our bad air. Similarly, improving the situation through radical measures seem almost impossible to achieve:

  • Massive expansion of the London Underground
  • Encouraging people to live at higher densities in ‘sustainable neighbourhoods’ close to their workplace
  • Choosing to walk or ride a bicycle
  • Pedestrianising swathes of London

People can’t afford to live in ‘sustainable neighbourhoods’, they can barely get by when they are spending 70% of their wage on rent… Riding a bicycle in London is often dangerous and associated with speeding fixed gear bikes and lycra. As they therefore have to use polluting transport options, they may distrust policies aimed at making this harder when viable alternatives are not presented. It is not in their interest to think ahead and work together to clean London’s air. Other things are more important on a daily basis.

This seems passively suicidal? 

The previous Mayor of London committed millions to cycling infrastructure, and this will be his greatest (only?) positive legacy. However, this step to reduce car usage, de-toxify the air that our children breathe, and reduce road accidents was met with considerable protest. Aspirations to pedestrianise Oxford Street are likely to meet similar substantial opposition.

This is interesting, as it demonstrates the importance of humanities in urban design – simple engineering or technical solutions aren’t enough to get people out of their cars and in parallel are actually fostering greater demand for deliveries. The best and most inspiring urban and architectural designs utilise rigorous analysis of likely users, asking people how they use their environments and  how their lives could be made easier.  

I’m not sure the fundamental importance of humanities to city design and function is really appreciated in London today. Social sciences are criticised as ‘soft’ in contrast to ‘tough and hard’ engineering. The truth is the gold lies in the mix…I look forward to making the case on future projects.

It’s a matter of life and death. 



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