Two publications lately have highlighted the issue of how we encourage an increase in physical activity and reduce the need or desire for private car use. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence and Health (NICE) released a Quality Standard for Physical Activity that recommended that local authorities, workplaces and schools improve facilities for and prioritise facilities for walking, cycling and using public transport. The “Transport for new Homes” report, supported by the RAC Foundation, identified that many new developments do not enable walking and cycling or provide the facilities on site. Not having local amenities such as shops and pubs nearby means that people are forced to drive to them, creating unwanted – and unnecessary – congestion, noise and air pollution.

Does development help or hinder local productivity?

 Although these pieces are both addressing issues such as health and community, they are ostensibly about transport.  These pieces both touch on something we raised in our paper, Productive Places; when looking at the UK productivity crisis it is often decisions at a development level that are important and these are very often overlooked in discussions around more traditional fare on motorways, railways, education and so on.  In some ways these reports seem about transport, but ironically, they are really about avoiding travel.  If development had good local facilities, public transport and encouraged walking and cycling, people would travel differently, or not at all, and the roads around would be less congested, making us more productive.

Systems thinking for productivity

 This is similar to our energy system where we are seeing that the way we build towns affects the national energy system and our productivity. Our electrical infrastructure, like our roads and railways, has a lot of spare capacity most of the time. It is only at peak times, such as rush hour or winter evenings that the system comes under strain and can reduce our productivity. In the early days of renewables, electrification of heat and early adoption of electric vehicles, we often heard it stated that the energy system would not cope and very expensive capacity upgrades would be required. What has happened since has confounded this, although there has been some investment in upgrading energy infrastructure capacity, investment in smart technologies at the place level are being used to reduce that peak demand, equivalent to reducing car use on our roads.

On a local scale, by putting energy storage in buildings and putting in smart controls that allow whole developments to be controlled optimally, balancing vehicle charging, appliances, heating and renewable energy generation, we can reduce the cost of the network upgrades that are required, make better use of solar and wind power and reduce energy bills.

In transport terms by providing high quality walking and cycling routes, small retail facilities, comfortable social areas and even “serendipity space” that can be managed by the community for whatever they need; creche, yoga studio, shop, café or vaping shop, we can reduce the number of journeys these people need to make in cars, creating a sense of community, improving health and allowing those of people that need to use cars to travel more freely.

Adding productivity focus to the development scale, to capture wider benefits

If we consider that the our local and national energy and transport systems are inextricably linked, both nationally and very locally, should we (can we?) do the same for productivity? Many of the productivity benefits from these measures at the development that accrue are outside the development, in the energy system that is cheaper and lower carbon or on the nearby motorway or A-road that isn’t congested, but they are the result of decisions made at a development level by authorities and developers. Therefore, we think we need to add some productivity focus to the development scale.

Energy and transport are two examples; we also looked at examples related to a development’s Spaces, Health, Accessibility, Resilience and Engagement areas in our report. Some of this has cost implications, but not all, and in all cases good policy and enforcement can reduce costs.

Do you agree that greater focus on productivity as we design new developments could deliver greater productivity gains to the local area and beyond?

This year we will be engaging with both private and public sectors about how we consider productivity within a new development, as well as in our infrastructure beyond. I think it will be crucial that we recognise the linkages between the two. Contact me if you’d like to be a part of it.

Contact the author Barny

More on this subject