Cycling City Tensions

With a few notable exceptions such as Cambridge, cycling in UK cities is minimal compared to continental European examples, and boosting cycling is a massive opportunity for improving travel sustainability and health in Britain. The potential is greatest in London, with its high density mixed-use form, relatively flat topography and benign climate that favour cycling; in addition to congested and expensive car and public transport networks that leave many looking for alternatives.

Planning policy at the Greater London Authority level recognises this potential and has become increasingly pro-cycling, with recent investments in the ‘Cycling Superhighways’ scheme– longer distance radial cycle routes that (almost) join up; the bike hire scheme; and modest improvements at many junctions and in cycle parking facilities. These measures have helped to increase the level of cycling in London substantially in the last decade (although beginning from a very low starting point):

So can this trend be accelerated to make London a real cycling metropolis, a larger scale version of Copenhagen or Amsterdam? I believe it’s possible, but I discuss one of the biggest obstacles here- safety and space. (Other obstacles include terrible integration with public transport, bike theft, image…).

On the 4th October a student from Korea was crushed to death by an HGV vehicle near Kings Cross, becoming the 13th fatality in London this year. Overall cycling fatalities and injuries declined in the early 2000’s, in line with pedestrian and car accidents in general, but have increased in recent years as cycling trips have increased. There were 467 serious injuries in 2010, up 8% on the previous year. Cycling in London is a hectic experience of dodging traffic and aggressive driving, with very minimal segregated lanes and many dangerous junctions to avoid.

Currently a high profile debate is occurring over one such accident blackspot, Blackfriars Bridge, where two cycling fatalities have occurred in recent years. The London Cycling Campaign argues that the TfL junction redesign fails to address cycle safety, and staged a mass demonstration on the 12th October of 2,500 cyclists, and are promoting an alternative junction design. Additional campaigns include the issue of HGV’s, which are responsible for half of all cycle fatalities.


Ultimately a serious increase in cycling use requires a serious improvement in safety, and this means the creation of many more segregated cycling routes and the redesign of many key junctions. These measures will translate into reductions in vehicle flow in London, and TfL seem largely unwilling to make this compromise when it comes to major roads. A significant culture change accepting cycling as a key part of London’s transport would have to occur to achieve a genuine cycling city.


Barratt Homes write National Planning Policy Framework

The UK government is seeking to dramatically overhaul the English planning system, releasing the National Planning Policy Framework consultation in late July. This intends to streamline the system, reducing the array of previous planning policy frameworks into a single 50-page document. Various government ministers, including the chancellor, have been arguing this is a vital reform to ‘get Britain building’ and boost growth in a time of economic hardship.

As someone who cares deeply about the economic success and quality of life of the UK, reading this document was very alarming, as its vague pro-development language fails to get to grips with the economic and built environment challenges we face now and in the future.

The document states there should be a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” yet fails to define sustainability in any rigorous way (i.e. natural resources, energy, carbon emissions…), thus effectively making policy “a presumption in favour of development”. The previous requirement to prioritise developing brownfield land, a central policy in urban regeneration, is abandoned. The section on transport is weak, stating applications “should not be refused permission on transport grounds unless the residual impacts of development are severe”. There is no understanding of cities as the engine of the UK’s economic growth, nor of the regional relationships that are needed for urban economic competitiveness.

Unsurprisingly there has been a backlash by many organisations against the proposal. As well as rousing the green lobby and the National Trust in opposition, the policy has the unusual achievement of bringing together both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph in condemning it. On the transport side, the RAC and Campaign for Better Transport (again two organisations often in opposition) come together to criticise the current document. I would urge anyone concerned with these issues to take part in the consultation, or sign the National Trust Petition.

There is undoubtedly a need in the UK for major housing expansion and for facilitating business growth through planning. This requires a coordinated approach to development focussed on cities, urban regeneration, boosting the knowledge economy, and taking into account the severe energy constraints and carbon reduction limitations we face in coming decades (i.e. we need highly energy efficient homes and a decent life without mass car ownership). This document doesn’t even get close, and policy makers need to go back to the drawing board for a more progressive vision.


High Rise Hangover

Swept up in the wave of the mid-2000’s property boom, planning authorities signed-off a series of new high rise developments in London- bigger and bolder than any in the city’s history. It is only now that the cumulative effects of these decisions are emerging on the London skyline. Faced with the bleak picture of our current economic climate, these buildings could be seen as the height of speculative folly- rampant capitalism gone awry in the kind of short-term money grabbing that led to the current economic crisis. Or maybe, to take a more optimistic view, are these instead symbols of confidence in London’s ability to ride-out the storm?

London is overall a low density city compared to say New York or Tokyo, or even Paris. The UK’s first experiments with high-rises began post-WWII, with cheap Corbusier tower imitations built to solve massive housing shortages. These towers were often aesthetically dull, difficult to live in (even dangerous), and conflicted with traditional street networks. Even those few high rise projects of good quality (like the Barbican) divided opinion with their aggressive style. Hence the traditional dislike of high-rise building in Britain.

This attitude began to change with the commercial success of Canary Wharf in the late 1990’s, and the popularity of 30 St Mary Axe by Foster & Partners, nicknamed the Gherkin. High-rise developers now actively promote skyscraper nicknames to make their multi-million investments seem more friendly and part of the city’s furniture.

By far the tallest of the current crop of London skyscrapers is London Bridge Tower, or the ‘Shard’, which is now nearing completion. At a height of over 300 metres it’s not tall by international standards, but for London it’s a giant, 120 metres taller than the Gherkin. It sits outside of the main high-rise City cluster on the Southbank and, like Canary Wharf tower before it, could form the centre-piece of a new cluster. It’s certainly awe-inspiring, creating a Manhattan-like vertiginous feeling when you get up close. The tapered spire-like form limits the visual impact of the massive structure, and it sits not unattractively amongst the jumble of buildings south of the river.

Yet despite the Shard being an engineering marvel, you have to question whether this is an appropriate direction for the future of London. In scale terms it dwarfs anything on the London skyline, sitting incongruously with historic sights such as Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. Despite architect Renzo Piano’s claims that he was inspired by London’s historic spires and ship masts, the structure appears sleekly anonymous and corporate, transferable to any world city, Dubai-on-Thames. There’s more than a hint of Bladerunner about the design, like we’ve decided sci-fi dystopia is the way-to-go for London. Perhaps this is a honest expression the social inequalities we’ve created, argues Jonathan Jones.

Time will tell how the public judge the Shard (or whatever alternative moniker catches on- the Spike? the Prick?). Soberingly it’s probably the best of the current breed of new skyscrapers in London. Continuing the theme of sci-fi kitsch, the worst new building in the UK, as voted in the 2010 carbuncle cup, is the Strata Tower at Elephant and Castle.

The Strata has an aggressive plastic-looking form, topped with three wind turbines. These turbines will reportedly supply 8% of the building’s electricity needs- a poor return for such a visually intrusive feature. High density development can bring sustainability benefits, but the embedded energy from the construction of thousands of tonnes of steel, concrete and glass nullifies the green credentials of any skyscraper, and the Strata tower’s turbines are surely the worst kind of greenwashing. Developers have dubbed Strata Tower the ‘Razor’, though I find the alternative moniker of ‘Sauron’s Tower’ better captures the building’s design and symbolism. Tolkien fans will note however that Sauron had a good deal more style than the Strata, and preferred geothermal power.

The real tragedy of Strata it that it’s supposed to be the catalyst for the regeneration of Elephant and Castle, a deprived district, notoriously badly designed with oppressive road intersections and 1960’s mass housing. Plans for major regeneration have been in place for many years, but there is currently little evidence on the ground. At present the debate is focussing on tranforming the traffic interchange, with TfL blocking more radical plans due to reduced vehicle flow impacts.

Not to be outdone by these Inner London imitators, the money-machine of the City has it’s own ambitious plans to win London’s race to the top/bottom. This includes a rather elegant fountain-pen shaped tower dubbed the Pinnacle, similar in height to the Shard, and also what I believe will go down as the biggest mistake in the current generation of London skyscrapers- 20 Fenchurch Street Tower. This ‘unique’ design gets bigger as it rises, thus providing larger floor-plates to maximise rents, and creating what will likely be a highly overbearing form at street level. Worst of all is the view from the Thames, where the building presents a bulging outline and inward looking face, in a remarkable resemblance to a sore thumb. In profile it looks like a hoodie. The Sore Thumb is now back under construction and is coming Londoners’ way in 2014.

Can we learn anything then from London’s new skyscraper bestiary? Our age of iconic architectural bling seems to have entered a new phase of attention-grabbing arrogance, with playful techno-futuristic aesthetics used as a marketing tool for investors and to soften the edges of raw soulless capitalism. For every interesting design there are several ungainly mistakes, and planners don’t seem to know the difference. Or alternatively authorities have decided that development trumps aesthetic or environmental concerns (worryingly this mode of thinking is the basis for proposed reforms to the planning system- more in a later post). The eccentric architectural laboratory of London continues with the modernist relics of the 2oth century now paired with our own 21st century futuristic fad, except this time the buildings are three times taller.  If we imposed a blanket-ban on all structures higher than 100 metres then coming generations would probably thank us.

London Riots- the Unemployment Link

2011 is fast becoming one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory, with revolutions and economic storms abroad paired with scandal and political tensions at home. Now to cap it off, the spectre of major urban violence has reared its ugly head in London and across England for the first time in three decades.

Whilst freedom fighters in the Arab world are using social networking to overthrow dictators, a section of London’s youth have been coordinating the overthrow of their local JD Sports and Curry’s via Blackberry Messenger. All this a year before the 2012 Olympics, which London secured based on its promotion of equality and diversity.

As is common, such events appear predictable with hindsight. The pattern of urban violence sparked by a controversial death of a police suspect is shared with recent riot events in Paris and in Athens.  Unrest is more common during economic downturns, as explored in a topical discussion paper by Ponticelli and Voth. London is, like all world cities, increasingly polarised between affluent classes of knowledge economy workers and households struggling to make ends meet on low paid work or benefits.

The Prime Minister has been making sweeping claims about the “Broken Society”, gangs and family breakdown. I want to look at a simpler relationship here- the geography of unemployment in London and where the riots occurred. The rioters were overwhelmingly male, between the ages of 18-25 and jobless (according to the Guardian data blog). It has been said repeatedly the rioters lack a “stake in society”, and presumably being isolated from work and education is a major factor in breaking links between individuals and their wider communities.

The map below shows the proportion of 16-65 year olds claiming unemployment benefit in 2011. The total has increased from 150,000 to 225,000 in the last four years. Locations of disturbances according to data from the Guardian are shown with purple dots. There are strong unemployment concentrations in a number of town centres that suffered disturbances, including Tottenham, Enfield, Hackney and Brixton. On the other hand some locations where trouble occurred, such as Ealing and Camden, are not highlighted. It would be useful to map the residential location of those arrested rather than the riot location, as people can of course commit crime outside of their neighbourhood, but this data is not currently available in a comprehensive form.

We can also look at changes in unemployment rates, as shown below between 2005 and 2011. Again Haringey and Enfield have suffered badly, along with further concentration in Croydon, Newham and Brent.

Finally we look at youth unemployment, with total unemployment under the age of 25 shown below. This was not available as a percentage and is instead shown as a raw count for wards. Again Tottenham and Enfield appear, and further clusters are highlighted in Peckham, Woolwich, Brixton and Brent.

Clearly the causes of the riots and looting in London are multiple and complex, and there is no magic key for preventing such horrific events happening again. But I do believe unemployment is a significant underlying factor, and one which the current recession is inevitably exacerbating. Similar levels of high urban unemployment are also evident in the disturbance hit cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast (see the BBC for a useful national map). In the London context, there is large scale regeneration and local job opportunities occurring in Tower Hamlets and Newham, and it looks like similar efforts need to be stepped up in other deprived areas of London. The London government, the GLA, are aware of these problems and have been boosting apprenticeship schemes and supporting local town centres. Unfortunately recent patterns of employment change and development have left much of Outer London behind, with growth mainly in Central London, the west and the Wider South East. This will be discussed further in future posts.

PhD Thesis: Polycentricity and Sustainable Urban Form in London

Greater London office and retail floor space 3D density map

After four-and-half years of exploring, analysing, procrastinating, and writing, writing, writing, it’s finally done. Here’s the abstract:

“This research thesis is an empirical investigation of how changing patterns of employment geography are affecting the transportation sustainability of the London region. Contemporary world cities are characterised by high levels of economic specialisation between intra-urban centres, an expanding regional scope, and market-led processes of development. These issues have been given relatively little attention in sustainable travel research, yet are increasingly defining urban structures, and need to be much better understood if improvements to urban transport sustainability are to be achieved.

London has been argued to be the core of a polycentric urban region, and currently there is mixed evidence on the various sustainability and efficiency merits of more decentralised urban forms. The focus of this research is to develop analytical tools to investigate the links between urban economic geography and transportation sustainability; and apply these tools to the case study of the London region. An innovative methodology for the detailed spatial analysis of urban form, employment geography and transport sustainability is developed for this research, with a series of new application of GIS and spatial data to urban studies.”

PDF version here. If you are keen/crazy enough to want to print this monster then you have my eternal respect and can try the double sided PDF version here.

Many thanks to my supervisors Mike Batty and Andy Hudson-Smith for making this research possible, along with friends past and present at CASA who contribute to a great research centre.

I’ll be highlighting findings and developing the ideas from the research- particularly the themes of urban sustainability, the built-environment, transport, economic change, and urban GIS- here on this blog over the coming weeks. This will include some of the interesting visualisations created, such as the London urban density 3D map below.

Greater London office and retail floor space 3D density map