By Daisy Narayanan
Having graduated as an architect in Mumbai over 20 years ago, I am fortunate to have lived and worked in several cities across Asia, the UK and the USA. From the energy of Mumbai’s streets to the quiet elegance of Edinburgh’s New Town, I have enjoyed each city’s unique identity and character. However, I have also seen first-hand the challenges in coping with the ever-increasing demand for housing, transportation and food.
While the rapid pace of urbanisation across the globe has created an enormous potential for wealth creation, the growth in population has compounded social, environmental and economic sustainability challenges.
A recent report on most polluted streets by Friends of the Earth in Scotland has found that air pollution levels continued to break Scottish and European air quality standards last year. In November 2017, New Delhi had the unenviable distinction of being declared the most polluted city in the world. A consistent reason for decrease in air quality is a distorted way of viewing transport among many decision-makers.
How we design our cities of the future will determine the quality of our lives. Cities like Paris, Vancouver and Copenhagen are setting the benchmark for environmentally sustainable design with a people-focused approach to city planning, public realm strategy and active transport.
The case for sustainable transport:
According to The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE):
‘In addition to its major contribution to economic growth, transport plays a crucial role in socially sustainable development by broadening access to health and education services, employment, improving the exchange of information, and promoting social cohesion.’
The case for sustainable transport is overwhelming, whether it’s carbon saving, tackling obesity and promoting wellbeing, air quality, making our towns and cities more pleasant places to live and work and thus attracting business. To do so, we need to recalibrate our streets, placing people at the heart of design and prioritising movement of people over movement of the motor vehicle.
Global movements such as the 8 80 Cities have recognised and called for the goal of promoting walking, cycling, parks and public spaces as a means to building healthier, happier and more equitable communities. Whether you are 8 or 80 years old, cities should work for everyone.
In the Netherlands, where people use bicycles as a mode of transport for everyday journeys, a 2015 study calculated that cycling prevents about 6500 deaths each year, and Dutch people have six-month longer life expectancy because of cycling. These health benefits correspond to more than 3% of the Dutch gross domestic product.
A conversation about place
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
To create cities that are vibrant, successful and sustainable, people need to have a say on those aspects that have an impact on their health, wellbeing and quality of life. There is evidence that most successful places are those where communities have led the vision and aspirations for their surroundings.
In Scotland, there are frameworks that provide a structured process to carry out such engagement. The Place Standard Tool enables communities to have informed conversations about their place. Built jointly by National Health Service (NHS) Scotland, the Scottish Government and Architecture & Design Scotland, this tool provides a simple framework to structure these conversations and allows people to think about the physical as well as social elements of a place. These conversations can directly influence the planning and co-design of healthy, sustainable places.
In London, the Healthy Streets approach, which states that ‘A street that works for people is a street that is good for health’, has now been adopted as policy.
A well-designed place, respecting and reflecting informed conversations about its quality, could create transformational change in our quality of life.
Places for people
The phrase ‘transformation of the urban realm’ usually conjures up images of architects’ visualisations and 3-D models of iconic buildings on grand plazas. But we need a much more radical transformation: that of turning our cities truly into places for people.
When we emerge from our metal boxes, we experience the places we live in more directly. We visit local shops, we talk to our neighbours and we visit local places of interest. We then create a safe, vibrant, attractive and a truly sustainable city, one that puts people at its very heart.
Daisy Narayanan is the Deputy Director, Sustrans Scotland, and oversees behaviour change and the built environment, leading a team delivering a range of projects – from Smarter Choices projects which encourage behaviour change towards more active modes of transport in a variety of settings including schools, workplaces and communities to designing and delivering cycling and walking infrastructure projects in partnership with statutory agencies in Scotland. Sustrans supports the Scottish Government to realise its vision of a healthy, prosperous, active nation where walking and cycling are easy, normal, everyday activities.