The net zero transition is going to change the way that towns and cities govern public space and the design of the public realm at the local level, specifically, how residents travel around cities. Low carbon modes of transport – including everything from electric vehicles to active travel - will change how we access, use and share our streets both now and in the future.
This raises questions about the privileged use of public space and how we can create liveable towns and cities that are designed to benefit resident’s quality of life and not prioritise using public space for private vehicle ownership and use. By shifting the focus away from personal ownership and reducing underutilised assets, cities can create more space for residents to enjoy a good quality and low carbon lifestyle. Re-purposing our streets will mean considering what types of transport we prioritise and what new developments are required to support the transition to lock in our carbon trajectory.
So how do cities create sustainable places? Using London as an example, we explore this question through the social, spatial and financial components of the future mobility landscape. How will net zero drive towns and cities to re-think the spatial elements of urban planning, encourage behavioural change to catalyse low carbon mobility and create long-term investments in modes like active travel.
Where are the challenges in creating sustainable places and how can we address them?
Town and cities’ sustainability policies, projects and plans will have to address a variety of challenges, but this will create gaps in governance. Here we explore three key governance gaps and how London has started to address them. London has implemented many new initiatives to create sustainable neighbourhoods – there is a real need and urgency within large cities.
1. Community-led initiatives and collective action
At the local street level, towns and cities will need to introduce incremental change over time. This could be achieved by encouraging community-led initiatives that are led from the bottom-up. This way, residents to democratically identify streets that could be re-purposed and decide on implementing new processes or technologies. One example is North End Road in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LBHF) where the community have identified the type of public realm improvements needed based on how locals use the space. Examples include making room for active travel options and providing green space to improve air quality. By encouraging residents to co-create low carbon streets, they ensure buy-in for initiatives and stimulate behaviour change at the local level. Another intervention is the introduction of local cycle hangars to replace car parking. Residents can join a waiting list, allowing demand to be mapped and hangars introduced where they are most needed by the community. The Cyclehoop website provides a map of all currently installed hangars.
2. Spatial planning and reallocating public space
Spatial planning needs to also be considered when developing new policy models for shared ownership and use, examples include mobility as a service (MaaS) such as car club models apps for infrastructure or charging clubs. This requires a shift in spatial urban planning to encourage road sharing, for example developing shared assets for low carbon modes like electric vehicle infrastructure and active travel. Different authorities in London have trialled creating designated neighbourhood spaces for e-scooters, to encourage residents to take lower carbon alternatives for short distance trips. With the launch of the e-scooter rental scheme in June 2021, LBHF have introduced e-scooter parking bays alongside current cycle hire facilities to create mini-hubs or ‘parklets’. In October 2021, there are two EV charging ‘mini-hubs’ at Sussex Place and Scrubs Lane in the Borough.
3. Long-term investment for re-purposing streets
Towns and cities need to also explore how they reallocate finance and invest in re-purposing their streets, re-using street infrastructure where appropriate and ensuring that there are no stranded assets. Secure, dedicated investment streams are therefore needed. This includes capital to create adequate walking and cycling infrastructure for all local trips and revenue for behavioural change programmes to maximise the positive change generated by any new infrastructure. Investing in active travel is important as it brings wider co-benefits for the local community like improved health and well-being. In the London Borough of Redbridge, the local authority invested in a new Mobility Hub that features an electric car club, EV charging facilities as well as community spaces and access to the London underground. This brings access to mobility as well as urban realm improvements.
Four ways to embed net zero into sustainable place through governance interventions:
The onus is on towns and cities to deliver real change on the ground and fulfil ambitious climate targets. Here’s four tips for how local authorities can create governance around sustainable places, ensuring that our streets are future ready and designed with low carbon mobility in mind:
- Encourage behaviour change: Through campaigns or incentives, encourage active travel and shared mobility in the city, emphasising the wider safety, health and well-being benefits like improved air quality, and benefits in sharing resources like efficiencies and reduced costs.
- Identifying low carbon approaches to democratising the street: Towns and cities need to test new ideas at the street level over time. This includes electric vehicles, and a shift towards walking, cycling and wheeling (disabled). Solutions need to be applicable to the place, tailored to community needs and financially viable.
- Place-making and ownership of space: Moving towards increased use of sustainable and shared modes of transport, less use of large or single occupancy vehicles and more efficient and zero emission logistics and freight vehicles. This shifts away from personal ownership and underutilised assets towards modes which create more flexible space for residents, promoting an active and sociable lifestyle with community at the centre.
- Long-term investment: Despite investment challenges, there are opportunities for public-private solutions which can also include cooperative or community investment. These can align with local authority’s climate emergency work and the focus on the green economic recovery and encourage cross-sectoral collaboration on low carbon mobility.
Large cities like London are demonstrating opportunities for progress that other towns and cities across the United Kingdom can learn from and replicate. In particular the city is demonstrating the role of pilot projects to build community support for interventions around sustainable places.
As our towns and cities turn climate emergency strategies into action, there needs to be a focus on accelerating interventions that lock-in the transition to a low carbon future. The public realm provides the perfect asset for a local authority to demonstrate carbon governance.