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For housing fit for the future, let’s get these policies right

The Government is consulting on changes to the National Model Design Code and National Planning Policy Framework. Together, these documents will set the direction for the housing that we build in the near future. With hundreds of thousands of new homes needed, it’s vital that these two documents take transport properly into account: we must do much better at building housing around local amenities and sustainable transport.

Transport for New Homes has responded to the Government’s consultation, which closes on 27 March. We’ve summed up our views below. If you have views on housing and transport, please respond to the consultation here.

National Model Design Code

Jenny RaggettTransport for New Homes Project Coordinator Jenny Raggett writes…

Transport for New Homes is much concerned with the quality of new housing developments. We were therefore interested to read the proposed National Design Code and associated Guidance and can see much good material with respect to the design and layout has been incorporated. However, we believe that unless the National Design Code goes further and addresses the wider issues of location of development and its orientation around sustainable transport modes, its intentions regarding good design will often fail ‘in real life’.

The draft National Design Code looks at new development in terms of different ‘contexts’: ‘town/city centre’, ‘urban neighbourhood’, ‘suburbs’, ‘outer suburbs’, ‘local centres’, ‘villages rural settlements’ and ‘industrial areas, business, science or retail parks’.

Once the context has been established, there follows a discussion for each regarding movement, nature, built form, identity, public space and so on as applied to that context. In terms of ‘movement’ the guidance has sections on subjects such as connected streets, junctions and crossings, car parking, cycle parking, density, gardens and balconies, meeting places, local services and so on.

So far, all well and good. But Transport for New Homes, has found an important omission in the Design Code. The ‘context’ most commonly chosen to accommodate housing targets in Local Plans, are the greenfield urban extension and the garden village. Yet these have been left out of the National Design Code completely. The Code does not cover the urban extension or the garden village as a ‘context’.

Does this omission matter? We think it does because it will mean that many developments being progressed in Local Plans are likely to fail most of the guidance straightaway, because of their location and their car dependency. The fine words describing green and well-designed places with pleasant local centres, meeting places, gardens and so on, and even good public transport links, are great. But if you are building (a) in a place that cannot be connected to existing streets to an existing town (b) around a new road system because you travel nearly everywhere by car, then the rest of the Guidance is hardly likely to be implemented.

The problem is ‘double trouble’. On one hand it is the excessive influence of the car and the sheer amount of space devoted to roads, parking and driveways in housing that we have seen in the places we have visited, in turn means less greenery, often tiny gardens and little space for urban trees. On the other hand it is the lack of modern public transport alternatives to enable people to avoid having to travel everywhere by car, and the lack of local shops and community provision to walk to. These also become univiable in a place where people are encouraged to just drive out.

In conclusion then:

  • The National Design Code needs some kind of explanation about mistakes made in the past and how and why changes are needed.
  • The Code needs to be better supported by the NPPF when it comes to sustainable transport provision, parking and the layout of estates.
  • There needs to be more discussion about how the right location is important and that certain locations are unsuitable.
  • Urban extensions and garden villages are two contexts that are omitted and these need their own sections in the National Design Code Guidance.
  • There needs to be more made of the way that stations, busways, tramways and cycleways are key components in the section on movement, and need early consideration in terms of the overall and local layout and design of an area.

National Planning Policy Framework

Steve ChambersTransport for New Homes Sustainable Transport Campaigner Steve Chambers writes…

Rather grandly the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is now proposed to include the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. We note Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities says “By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons”.

We know from our research that planning outcomes currently fall far short of these goals. In particular we have found that new housing developments are predominately car dependent and lacking in sustainable transport systems, such as good walk and cycle provision as well as public transport. The NPPF should give stronger weight to the necessity of these features to ensure that only development that is compliant with these goals receives consent.

We are concerned with what the proposed revision to the NPPF doesn’t say. It is a missed opportunity to bring land use and transport planning together at the local level. It emphasises “sustainable development” throughout, but nowhere is this defined. The UN goals are mentioned, but these cannot be readily interpreted at the local level.

It doesn’t acknowledge that transport is inextricable from spatial planning. Demand for travel is derived from the spatial arrangement of activities/facilities. It has no independent function. Transport must therefore be integrated with the land use planning process.

Chapter 9 (Sustainable Transport) has not been revised, and remains very weak. It is insufficient for transport issues to be merely “considered” (para 103). This section is therefore now inconsistent with the strengthened paragraph 11. The proposed revision does not include any requirement to prioritise development within the existing urban envelope, over and above greenfield sites or previously used sites that are remote from the urban envelope (for example, and especially, airfields, which are almost by definition remote from urban areas).

It does not explicitly require local planning authorities to designate land for development that is accessible by sustainable modes of travel, or to exclude land that is not. Most fundamentally, the absence of sustainable transport provision is not given as a reason for the refusal of planning applications.

The NPPF has been revised, it appears, mainly in response to the report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Around half of all the proposed new words are in chapter 12 “Achieving well-designed places”. It is to be hoped that NPPF will be further revised in the short term, specifically to address the issue of integrated transport and spatial planning.

It claims that “the planning system should be genuinely plan-led” (page 8, para 15). We agree that it should be. However, the present planning system is to a great extent led by, or at least heavily influenced by developers and landowners, not by plans that have been carefully devised to meet sustainable development objectives. In particular, development sites are selected from those offered by the private sector, not from those that can meet public (and other sustainable) transport accessibility criteria.

You can find our full response here.

If you would like to respond to the consultation you can do so here before 11:45pm on 27 March 2021.

Main photo © Stephen Craven (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Camilla Ween

Looking to the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guide good urban growth

Guest blog by Camilla Ween, RIBA, MCIHT, AoU, Harvard Loeb Fellow

The planet is in a climate crisis and the UK is in a housing crisis. We need a paradigm shift in the way we do things so that we can deliver about 250,000 new homes annually, that will not exacerbate our attempts to reach zero carbon and that will not destroy the planet.

The United Nations has outlined 17 Goals for sustainable development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to help shape a future that delivers decent lives for people, while at the same time protecting our environment. The UK should look to these for guidance over all development that we embark upon, as the SDGs articulate most clearly what sustainable development looks like. UK local and national planning policies are inevitably UK focussed and do not encompass global issues. We should, therefore, use the SDGs to filter proposals and ensure that they fulfil the global aspirations for a decent future. Designs must push against local barriers if proposals fall short.

Transport is responsible for about 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, much arising from personal car journeys. Our society will not be able to achieve the UN goals if we do not change the way we travel; that means we need to create new communities that are NOT car dependent. That means careful consideration of where new development is located, as well as how we design new communities, for example, places that are well connected with high quality public realm and movement infrastructure that encourage people to want to move to a car-free lifestyle.

Development projects are often framed in very narrow and specific ways. However, if we keep an open mind and look broadly for opportunities, then by simply tweaking the design we can achieve so much more for little or no extra cost. Every design project offers the opportunity to include design features that help us achieve the SDGs’ aspirations.

The design process can and should seize opportunities to deliver sustainable solutions; good connectivity will encourage people to walk or cycle; careful design and layout can include biodiversity corridors and sustainable drainage solutions; pleasant public spaces, that feel welcoming, can help cement social cohesion.

By locating new development near public transport and designing communities that are well connected to the things we need to get to will mean that people are more likely to forgo car journeys. Rail travel has a very low carbon footprint, so developing along rail corridors is obvious and ensuring that the access to it is mainly by public transport, walking or cycling will mean that people will choose the low carbon travel option. That means no more ‘Park & Ride’ facilities.

Many transport projects I have worked on started with very narrow and specific briefs, but with a little discussion it was possible to broaden the remit and include other objectives. For example, a project for the city of Kano in Nigeria simply asked for five freight terminals and five bus interchanges; our design included permeability of the (very large) sites, biodiversity corridors, green infrastructure and walking and cycling networks that would integrate the sites into the city.

Kano, map of development

 

Kano, image of development

 

A project in Mexico City required interchange between two BRT routes and a commuter rail station. It was very clear that the solution could be very simple, but also that there existed multiple urban issues; the transport infrastructure separated an affluent community from an informal community and everyone from accessing a regional hospital by any other mode than a car and a local park was also inaccessible. We proposed a pedestrian and cycle bridge that would link both communities to each other, provide easy access to all the transport facilities, the hospital and the park and the bonus was a new public space at the heart of the community; the project went a long way to promote sustainable transport as well as social inclusion.

Mexico City project

Another project that I am involved with is Connected Cities. This is a methodology which proposes development (which encompasses many of the Garden City principles) along existing rail corridors and no more than 1km from a station. The principle is that compact settlements are created, with access to amenities or a rail station that are no more that 15 minutes away by walking or cycling. A cluster of settlements, each offering social, leisure, retail or education facilities would all be connected together via rail and form a Connected City. By being well connected, dependency on car travel is almost entirely overcome.

The United Nations has recently launched the Urban Economy Forum, which aims to help deliver the UN SDGs. This will be a repository of best practice and learning for future urban development that will create decent lives for people that do not harm the environment.

Camilla Ween is an architect and urbanist at Goldstein Ween Architects and a Harvard University Loeb Fellow. Her work focusses on sustainable urban design and the integration of transport, working in the UK and globally. She is a Steering Group member of the United Nations Urban Economy Forum, a Design Council Built Environment Expert and member of several other design review panels. She is a published author as well as a regular lecturer at international universities and conferences.