Sustainable place-making: The end of The Road?

Sustainable place-making: The end of The Road?

by Francis Glare, Manchester Studio Director

 Sustainable place-making
In Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel ‘The Road’, the charred and apparently hopelessly denuded landscape is the setting for a test of human values. We are left unclear as to whether any sense of humanity can survive such a landscape until the bittersweet end of the novel. In some ways the novel is an exposition of the quandary as to whether we shape place, or it shapes us. Given the contemporary vogue for urban ‘place making’, this is a fair question to ask. There may in fact be a symbiotic relationship between the two, something we could call ‘sustainable place-making’.

What is a sustainable place? We think we know what it might look and feel like – green, vibrant, civilised, successful even. But do we really know this is right? Or will it only be with the benefit of hindsight that we know what is sustainable – because it is still there, still working? Sustainable places are successful places in the long term.

Given this timescale is it possible to move beyond simply creating the conditions for sustainability and hoping for the best, to a situation where we can (master) plan ‘sustain-ably’? Perhaps we cannot (and should not) try to socially engineer through prescriptive and detailed design. But we might focus instead on offering that helping hand, through a (master) plan, to encourage behavioural change: To create places where the best choice is the sustainable choice.

Technology or society as the driver of sustainable places?
Sustainability has been the holy grail of designers and governments for some time, yet the goal of a balanced coexistence with our natural world seems to escape us, despite technological innovations in sustainable construction and the energy industry for example, which have put this opportunity within reach.

BDP prepared the sustainable construction guide for Yorkshire Forward, the Regional Development Agency for Yorkshire and Humberside as long ago as 2002, demonstrating that there was no shortage of technological solutions but warning that unless sustainability was the objective of the end user, there was no incentive to design with the long term in mind. Behaviour, attitude, responsibility – three very human traits – will determine our ability to design and realise sustainable places, not just technology. A civilised society will tend to the interests of the wider community; a society of individuals will veer to the dysfunctional, chaotic and ultimately self-destructive ‘end of The Road’.

Characterising a civilised society
What might a civilised society look like? A civilised community will be sustainable socially – showing high levels of cohesion, looking after the lifetime interests and needs of its members, flexible in acquiring skills and creating opportunities, promoting respect.

Environmental sustainability will of course be a feature of civilised societies. Energy requirements will be met through locally based Energy Supply Companies (ESCos) maximising wind and solar power but above all, reducing demand. Water supply will be boosted through better capture and storage of rainwater, but meeting a reduced demand resulting from behavioural change and use of less waterhungry vegetation. New buildings will be capable of modular deconstruction, simplifying the process of reusing building materials and other wastes will be used to generate energy or provide compost. Transport will become less environmentally challenging and a changed home-work relationship will reduce demand.

The civilised society will be a prosperous one, so economic sustainability is as important as social and environmental sustainability. The adaptability of places to new economic drivers and the ability of individuals to develop the required skills through schools and training are essential to economic sustainability. Success requires society to act in the interests of the whole.

Living in Europe in 2050
Even assuming we can foster the civilised society identified as a prerequisite to sustainable and successful places, we need to consider the changing context: Living in Europe in 2050 may prove quite different to contemporary experience. Critically, there will be more people. And there will be no oil. What strategies is a civilised society going to adopt to overcome these challenges?

Load balancing
There will be a continued ‘spreading of load’ to make best use of our existing infrastructure. We can already see this in the context of traffic congestion, with the ‘spread’ of the peak and in places, almost continual congestion. This will extend further as we seek out the spare capacity in our urban places. We might see this in our digital networks as much as our transport networks and in our shopping and recreational habits as much as our work patterns. We will see it in our urban places as a continued blurring of temporal boundaries, requiring the places we maintain and create to perform as workplace, learning place, leisure club and shop all day, every day.

The rediscovery of community
Despite predictions of remote-working, for the most part we continue to work in real-time, in real places, valuing face-to-face interaction for business. It is our social lives, in contrast, that appear to have become more and more virtual, as outside work we retreat to the internet for entertainment and to catch up with friends and family. This has dealt a blow to the civilised community as the weakened bonds to the local community have allowed anti-social behaviour to breed, unwatched; someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem.

There is thankfully an opportunity to redress this balance in the future, to spend more of our free time in real time and real space and to undertake more of our work in virtual space and time. This is a desirable outcome from the point of view of rediscovering community but as pressures to reduce environmental impacts and increasing congestion bite, there will be commercial pressure to work more flexibly and across virtual networks as well.

This is not to suggest that the workplace of the future will be the home computer. But the workplace will change and it will become more common to travel to work locally, perhaps to a local employer or perhaps to a business hub, where employees of many national and international firms will touch down, working in virtual networks with their colleagues around the country and the world.

Employers will be part of the thrust for new working patterns, as they become liable for the environmental costs of staff travel to work patterns as well as their workplace impacts.

A new, global localism
Employers will also seek to source more locally, to reduce risks of interruption to supply and the costs of delivery. The reorganisation of logistics and transport services in Europe, to more regionalised hubs rather than central distribution depots, is a signpost to the future.

Transport hubs will continue to be key drivers of development. Planning the future transport infrastructure therefore will be of interest to the widest possible range of interests.

At the street scale, we may see more change, as food growing space sits at the heart of our social space. This would be driven by an increasing demand for space to grow food and for local provenance but would also link well to rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling in built up areas. Local CHP networks will direct surplus heat into local greenhouses, supporting intensive cultivation.

The reduction in private car ownership (we will still make extensive use of forms of personal rapid transit) and the rise of car clubs or simply, a change of behaviour that makes picking up a car for an hour as normal as paying someone to make you a cup of coffee, will enable us to change the way neighbourhoods are designed. All that space currently used to store cars (in garages, on streets) can be reclaimed for community use. Cars will be stored in central car parks and communal car barns. Shared surfaces will no longer be shared with cars.

The urban web
So a new web based infrastructure, emphasising the local but with high levels of connectivity, will be the new sustainable geography of urban place. This, combined with a broad based sustainability approach – embracing the social and the economic as well as the environmental – that encourages behavioural change, will help us move from creating successful places where ‘design’ works, to fostering successful communities, where society works. There is light at the end of The Road.