The solution is compact cities

The problem is prosperity.

The world’s population is expanding rapidly.  Whilst we in Europe have been trapped by the economic crisis, the likes of Brazil, India and China have found room to manoeuvre, adapting and continuing to grow at phenomenal rates. 

By 2050 there will be 9.3bn people living, breathing and consuming our planet’s resources, with 75 per cent of these living in cities.  To accommodate this we would need to build the equivalent of more than one new Birmingham every single week for the next 40 years.

The successful cities of the future will be more compact and efficient.  But to realise this future, we need to overcome the paradoxes created by prosperity and connectivity.

The stark fact is that unless we make our cities more efficient and sustainable, the quality of life of most people everywhere in the world will suffer.   Rapidly urbanising populations are a feature of emerging economies, but the new middle classes in the likes of the BRICS also expect their quality of life to keep growing. 

City development has relied on continuing low energy costs.  But population growth, consumer demand and supply reaching nature’s limits are putting pressures also on rising energy costs, and together these present a massive threat to people’s quality of life. This is the Prosperity Paradox.

If we don’t find solutions to this paradox, the world could face a major crisis. 

So we need to encourage and plan for more compact cities.  These will see people living closer to their place of work and commuting less, travelling more on public transport and less in cars.  Urbanisation has seen fragmentation of communities, but in the compact city your neighbours and friends will be nearer to you, and where you shop, work and play will be closer to where you sleep. That will save energy, reducing per capita spend and therefore keeping disposable incomes up. 

Politicians alone can’t deliver the compact cities we need.  In an interconnected world, we need governments incentivising smart growth; communities moderating their short-term demands for goods for the benefit of their friends and neighbours in the long-term; business offering smarter, more integrated solutions that work in the long-term rather than just responding to the short-term demands of their shareholders. 

Overcoming this Connectivity Paradox requires good story-telling.  Politicians need to be more honest with voters about the short and long-term trade-offs of decisions; communities need to discuss and plan for their own future needs; businesses need to articulate a vision to shareholders that realises long-term value as well as short-term gain.

The responsibility doesn’t just fall on our politicians, our community or our business leaders.  It falls to each and every one of us, individually and collectively.

Jeremy Bentham is Head of Scenarios at Shell.

Photograph: Getty Images

Shell Head of Scenarios

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.