Plan for green lifestyles

Camilla Ween on why planning policy has to change

Global climate change and environmental degradation have pushed the earth’s limits close to what it can sustain. All aspects of our civil and social systems will need to change, and our planning policies have the potential to drive such change.

Our lifestyles need to change if we are to remain within planetary limits and restore ecosystems and biodiversity. That will mean changing how we live and our relationship to the planet by creating cities that support low-carbon living. This will require thinking carefully about where we site new development to reduce emissions associated with transport in particular. Planning can reduce the need to travel by siting new development close to employment, amenity and leisure facilities, or by ensuring it is connected with low-carbon transport options and by ensuring there is land close by for food production (to avoid long-haul transportation emissions). The planning system should consider development holistically, alongside its transportation and economic strategies.

We need to adapt our approach to land use and our stewardship of the environment to provide low-carbon mobility, to provide ecologically constructed buildings, and to produce food local to city centres (which will require changes to peri-urban land). All these transitions will mean significant changes in attitude to the siting of new developments, open space (in and around urban settlements) and transport access.

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are guidance to sustainable development. They set out clear objectives and indicators for better development for people and the planet. The UK’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) does reference the SDGs, which is welcome, but how far that reference will be embedded in local plans has to be proved. At the high level, the NPPF has three overarching objectives: economic, social and environmental, and there is “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”. Ultimately, the philosophy is about growth and speed. It does not suggest that we need to change how we live and do things to achieve a sustainable existence, or that we need to do this quickly. The NPPF should be demanding radical new solutions rather than tweaking old practice, and it should be insisting that local authorities force through changes quickly. Time is running out.

The NPPF does not adequately stress the urgency of reaching carbon neutrality, or the need for alternatives to fossil fuels and low-carbon lifestyles. It should be insisting that all local authorities urgently address climate mitigation and environmental degradation (now, not at some time in the future), so that we set ourselves on a trajectory of change. There is much good in the NPPF in terms of better and appropriate design, etc., but not enough tough direction. There is no sense of it being an imperative.

The NPPF 2021 does not cover major infrastructure (transport, energy, etc.), which will be planned by the National Infrastructure Commission. Though there is a need for strategic long-term planning of infrastructure, there is also a need to align local planning with a scenario of urgently required sustainable infrastructure. The planning system needs a holistic and integrated approach to land use change and its associated infrastructure requirements; the system should open up opportunities for change, not ignore them, as well as protect future opportunities.

Our planet has a remarkable capacity to recover from stress, but it also has tipping points. We are close to those in many areas. The NPPF allows much flexible interpretation and leaves local decision-making open to interpretation of what are its priorities. There is insufficient emphasis on thinking in the global context or the planet’s limits. The planning system should ensure that, locally, communities are created that support lifestyles that are within planetary boundaries.

The NPPF relies heavily on a highly subjective assumption “in favour of sustainable development”.  This may potentially allow developments that are badged as ‘sustainable’ to trump and close out future opportunities. The current guidance will inevitably lead to a rush to push through schemes that are full of ‘sustainability’ credentials or covered in ‘green-washing’.

Infrastructure is currently planned at the national or regional scale, delivering megaproject solutions that are often harmful to the environment and inefficient (for example, something like 10% of electricity is lost during its delivery across the National Grid).  However, planning has the potential to drive delivery of smaller, more local and sustainable solutions.

Location of new development has always been an issue. In recent decades, the allocation of land has been ad hoc, mainly driven by what land becomes available, with little regard for how new developments will be accessed – the default being to build a new road and motorway junction and to create a car-dependent settlement. Local planning must focus on creating sustainable, non-car-dependent communities with movement networks of walking, cycling and public transport, so that emissions from transport (currently about 30% of our total emissions, and rising) can be significantly reduced. One growth model that embraces this is the ConnectedCities methodology, which advocates exploiting existing rail infrastructure to create 15-minute walkable settlements that are joined by 15-minute rail journeys, to create clusters of smallish settlements that together form “ConnectedCities”.

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