Are Eco Towns the Future for Britian?

3 October 2008

Eco-towns have become a hot topic over the last year or so. And while they certainly offer an attractive means to achieve national sustainable development outcomes, many local and organisations have objected, calling their very sustainability into question. There is a general perceived lack of careful consideration and guidance for locating these new towns. And it appears to many that due regard has not been paid to the significant infrastructure required by a new town. Thus, it seems that the majority of these towns are to be located in rural areas and isolated from major urban centres.

While not wanting to dismiss the possibility of eco-towns altogether, I wish to draw our attention to the possibilities afforded by two alternatives: urban regeneration and urban extension. Both of these are able to feature many of the measures and techniques likely to be implemented for the eco-towns; but with the added advantage of complimenting, and improving existing infrastructure. There is ample reason to presume that a more sustainable approach for the UK is to invest in the myriad of urban environments that are already in need of regeneration and enhancement.

Although the concept of an urban extension is very similar to that of an eco-town, a major difference is the emphasis placed on connectivity to an existing urban centre, and also joining of differing land uses. These extensions, such as the one at Upton, Northampton, not only allow an entirely new area to be developed sustainably, but also make a huge difference for adjacent urban areas: providing jobs and better transport links.

Both urban extension and urban regeneration present many opportunities for green infrastructure, coupled with the possibility for carbon output reduction. An area with high potential for improvement in this regard is that of transportation: both in the improvement of public transport and pedestrian environments, and the reduction single-occupancy car use.

First, the usual high density of these developments, together with connections to adjacent urban areas, can provide an immediate ‘critical mass’ for additional effective public transport, further encouraging modal shift.

Second, careful planning and consideration of zoning and transportation networks can result in designs that encourage modal shift. Although the ability to travel by car should not be denied by these developments (at the loss of marketability), it is possible to make walking and cycling preferred modes of transport for the short journeys that make up most of our trips. Example measures include: a lack of roadside and frontage car parking, improved pedestrian environments, and indirect vehicular routes. Pedestrian and vehicle ‘shared space’ is another important design concept.

Transportation can go a long way to significantly reduce carbon emissions; but there are other sectors that need improvement. One such is energy consumption and generation. Household energy usage results in a large proportion of our national CO2 output. And measures such as energy efficiency legislation and local energy generation (eg Micro-CHP, and wind & solar generators) can improve matters. The adoption of clear, stringent sustainable building design standards and source-labelling of all energy supplies may encourage developers in this direction.

Although the concepts and ideas discussed above are geared towards reduction of CO2 emissions, it is important to remember that sustainability is a much broader subject. All environmental, economic, and social elements of sustainability should be carefully considered for any new developments: whether they are eco-towns, urban extensions, or regeneration.

Eco-Towns: Are They?

16 September 2008

I have been instructed by the director of my office (engineering consultancy) that I must enter the NCE Graduate Awards 2008. In case you’re not a hip civil engineer, the New Civil Engineer (NCE) is a magazine for the Institution of Civil Engineers. (Incidentally, the ICE is the oldest professional institution in the UK: impressive, eh?).

I have a feeling my taking-part is because of the particular entry requirements for this year: a 600 word essay on the Government’s* plans for 10 (ish) new eco-towns. And seeing as our firm is heavily involved in ‘sustainability’ in the UK, and wants to look fashionable, poor bottom-rung me has to enter a competition. So, after a mild bout of panic (it’s due on Friday!), I began my research.

I must admit that my initial feelings on the eco-town concept were moderately positive. That soon changed: now I am almost completely against them. Or at least, against their current evolution. Ignoring for now the likelihood that my research has been quite biased, I discovered many, many reasons for scrapping the plans altogether. The clincher for me was essentially: why build a new city – and more importantly the infrastructure – when there’s a plethora of existing urban environments crying out for regeneration and enhancement?

If the UK is going to move forward in terms of sustainability, then how can building 10 new eco-towns help the rest of us (circa 60 million!)? In addition, I am pretty sure that all the measures and ideas likely to be implemented for these new towns will eventually – necessarily – make their way to the rest of the country. So why not focus our efforts on that end instead?

Even more fundamentally: the new towns will be new-build, most likely on greenfield/farmland, away from major employment areas, and in areas of no existing infrastructure. How is that more sustainable than regenerating, or even adding on to, existing urban centres?

I do realise there will be benefits from the eco-towns; of course there will be be. But are there any that can’t come from more sustainable alternatives? I reckon the only one is the ‘wow-factor’. But with this fickle public, what’s the point?

I admit of course that the UK is in sore need of inspiration; the UK public’s attitude toward environmental issues is poor at best. But even now inspiration is not that far away. While there may not be anything as grand as an eco-town in the UK, there’s certainly enough projects around to make anyone think. And there are some some great examples in Europe (Hammarby). However, I propose that we take a look at China.

But I’ll save that for another post.

*All references to government in this blog pertain to the UK Government.