If you want to save the planet, live in a city. Even better, live in a city centre. Here, all the amenities are on your doorstep. For the places that you can’t walk, public transport is easily accessible. The more densely you live – within reason – the lower your carbon footprint. And the better the chance that we arrest the decline, ensuring that the future high street will be a thriving, vibrant place.
Ask people whether they care about climate change and these days and all but the most hardcore science-denier will tell you that they do. But how much do they care? Is it enough to take action? The evidence would suggest not.
The Green Party increased its share of the vote in 2019 by a dramatic 60%. But this was a high point in an otherwise largely negative sea of statistics about our environmental behaviour in areas of free choice. Recycling rates? Down. Flights? Up.
But by embracing a future of communities, we can make a real difference – almost without thinking about it.
Future of communities
Cities and high streets offer great potential to bring communities together. The future high street is the perfect place for a school. There will be plenty of space to build one as well. In the last 18 months, it has been accepted in the property sector that the loss of some high street retail is structural, not cyclical. Some classes of shops aren’t coming back, and there is no obvious retail replacement.
We also hear about loneliness and isolation in later life a lot. This is the group who would perhaps most benefit from a move to the city centre.
This group needs a rather different retirement living offer to bring them into the city. This is why I was so pleased to see Legal and General’s planned £2bn investment in city centre developments. The company’s goal is to transform failing retail space into apartments to buy and rent. These will not be for students and young professionals but for those who have retired. Projects like this will have exponentially greater impact than the government’s £675m investment fund for retail redevelopment.
These are not care homes. But that’s not what most of this cohort need. They need a place to live where they have the opportunity to support themselves and engage with other people. What these new developments will have is ready access to critical amenities like doctor’s surgeries, some of which they will be building on site.
What will cities of the future look like?
Given the direction of change there may be many redevelopment opportunities in city centres. A school could replace a department store, or all or part of a shopping centre. With the coming of self-driving cars, it might replace a car park.
Schools aren’t the only requirement for more families to live in a city. If they are to live well, then more green spaces, play areas, and safe pedestrianised zones would be required. But these changes all fit with the direction of travel for current city planning. And these changes all work to encourage other groups back into the city centre.
Despite what the climate change deniers might say, climate change is not a job and wealth creation conspiracy. But some of the technologies and business behaviours most suited to a zero-carbon future are now well aligned to improved business performance. Renewable energy is cheaper than any other source. Flexible working drives greater productivity. Digital communications drive greater reach.
I once took part in a panel about the prospect of suburban capitals. These are satellite city centres around the major hubs that are starting to attract more companies for their HQs.
If the conditions prevail and the developments keep on coming, could we re-balance investment across the country? Could we convince people to base big businesses elsewhere and treat London as somewhere to visit rather than live? Perhaps.
This leads back to campaigns to improve public transport, in the South East and in the North, and in the Midlands. Living in Manchester, I’m biased and would argue that the potential of a strong Leeds/Manchester/Liverpool axis should take priority.
But in general, we need better infrastructure. Speed the connections between cities and suburban capitals and we might be able to distribute the wealth a little more evenly, and tackle the UK’s productivity issues. But it will require a very different approach to government.
Saving the planet and the community
Whether it’s a smart city or a suburban capital, cities have the potential to improve our wellbeing and our impact on the planet. What we need now is investment from the government, plus an educational drive to showcase their benefits.