Crisis conversations – Reset #3: thriving places to live

Quieter streets, cleaner air, more time – amidst the human tragedy of the Covid-19 outbreak other experiences are inviting people to ask more of the quality of their home lives, neighbourhoods and surrounding environment.

In towns and cities around the world lockdown has reminded people of the importance of public space, what streets can be like with less traffic on them, being active, the condition and security provided by their homes, and access to essential goods and services.

This article originally appeared on the Rapid Transition Alliance website.

Public space in Landsberg am Lech, Germany (fietzfotos, Pixabay)

The issue of thriving places to live was the focus of our third online crisis conversations hosted by Compass, the Rapid Transition Alliance and the Green New Deal Group. In the first crisis conversation, looking at lessons from the global coronavirus outbreak for rapid transition, key characteristics of the pandemic response were identified and their relevance for application beyond the current crisis analysed.

The second crisis conversation explored:

  • the links between measures to tackle the pandemic and the climate emergency
  • the need to support bottom-up approaches
  • the need for practical mobilisation
  • frameworks for recovery
  • parallels of unpreparedness, and
  • ways to talk about recovery and rapid transition.

Feeling safe – creating conditions for secure, affordable homes for all

With unemployment rising rapidly due to the economic lockdown, in countries with weakly regulated housing markets like the United Kingdom, where a high proportion of people rent, the threat of evictions is high, and temporary protection measures are set to be removed. Conversely, government ministers pledged at least a short-term end to the long-tolerated crisis of rough sleeping by providing housing. In the United States approaches vulnerability in housing vary between states, with evictions continuing in some and rent relief available in others.

Beth Stratford, co-author of Land For The Many, and a fellow of NEF, argued that a pandemic-induced housing market crash was likely, and that if it came measures should be introduced to counter rent extraction through land and housing. She identified the pre-existing inequality and tension between home owners and renters. In the UK the government was also quicker to offer support to homeowners. After the crisis renters will want house prices to stay down; while home-owners, some who may have entered negative equity will want prices to bounce back again. As a measure to support both owners caught in devalued properties and renters priced out of homes, Beth Stratford advocated the introduction of Common Ground Trusts – a vehicle allowing a large-scale transfer of land into common ownership which guards against speculative volatility. There was a danger she warned of, that predatory investors might seek to buy distressed properties cheaply, and use them for even greater rent extraction. Australia has a public land trust model with some of the characteristics of the Common Ground Trust. Separately, the think tank NEF proposes a freeze on rents and mortage payments.

Christos Katzioulis, a director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, introduced the example of the city of Ulm in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.  There the city protects land for development from speculation by buying it in advance, and only approving developments on the basis that land cannot be speculatively sold-on for profit. The city authorities have practised the approach for over a century. As a result people can buy land and build homes but house prices controlled because the speculative cycle is broken.

The 15 minute neighbourhood – creating convivial communities

Professor Paul Chatterton of Leeds University, a member of the LILAC housing cooperative, which is managed through a Mutual Home Ownership Society made the point that in the literal sense of ‘building back better’ community-led housing can offer real solutions in terms of better quality spaces and better affordability. This should be seen in the context of an overall neighbourhood approach to ‘just recovery’, because housing location and design is fundamentally linked to affordable and sustainable.

This includes issues of free and affordable public transport for vulnerable groups and key workers, which needs further regulation, active travel with more space for bike lanes and walking (also revealed as an essential aspect of physical distancing in the pandemic), a roll-back of pavement parking which restricts space for people, and designing for lower speeds. More sustainable mobility is, in short, along with more affordable, low carbon homes, a key part of more resilient communities and secure livelihoods.

With increased discussion of the new world in which schools may begin to reopen, temporary road closures are set to be introduced by councils at the beginning and end of school days to encourage walking and cycling and reduce car use. The Commissioner in London for walking and cycling, Will Norman, was reported saying, “You need to reduce the amount of traffic to allow pupils and parents to walk safely.”

More space for people

During the crisis, in the UK, closing streets to cars has been made easierSeveral boroughs in London, from Lambeth to Lewisham, and Hackney to Richmond introduced measures to increase space for pedestrians and cyclists. And other major cities like Manchester are considering the long-term extension of measures to close some of their most previously congested roads, along with several other related initiatives to improve safety for people on pavements and bicycles.

Milan in Italy and Brussels in Belgium, both announced that they would be shifting priority away from cars, lowering traffic speeds and changing the design of streets to give more space for walking and cycling in their city centres. And, again, several of these measures could be kept post-lockdown. Even bolder, in New York , the city council plans to change 75 miles of roads for walking and cycling, creating 75 miles of “streets for people”. Elsewhere there are related schemes being introduced from Canada to Colombia.

In Australia, new research has shown that around half of all motorists in major cities would abandon their cars if controlled, low taxi fares were introduced to connect peoples’ homes with public transport hubs. On a larger scale, however, a bailout measure in Sweden seemed to favour air travel, used significantly more by a wealthier minority, over train travel. Whereas in France the flight operator, Air France, has been ordered to stop competing with railways.

Levelling-up access to clean air

Transport as an issue brings the importance of the shape of post-pandemic recovery into focus because it unites solutions for inequality and the climate emergency. Poorer people contribute far less, but suffer far more from the pollution of dirtier forms of transport like the private car and aviation. The also benefit far more from investment in better public transport and cuts in congestion and pollution.

New research from Leeds University reveals that, globally, the top 10% in income consume 56% of vehicle fuel, 70% of vehicle purchases, and 76% of package holidays. Between the top 10% and bottom 10% the ration for the use of vehicle fuel is a 187.  Transport reveals some of the most unequal energy use in the world, and mostly fossil fuel related.

The lead author of the report, Yannick Oswald, said: “Transport-related consumption categories are among the least equal. Without reducing the energy demand of these services, either through frequent-flyer levies, promoting public transport and limiting private vehicle use, or alternative technology such as electric vehicles, the study suggests that as incomes and wealth improve, our fossil fuel consumption in transport will skyrocket.”

Edible progress

Rebecca Gibbs, former special advisor to Clive Lewis MP commented that Transport is the locus issue in terms of health and environment benefits from the improved air quality and physical activity that can be designed into towns and cities after the pandemic. She said that this will be an important driver in terms of people’s expectations and hopes post-Covid, whether they care about the environment or not – people are enjoying the cleaner air. She also linked this to land use issues, citing the community food movement in Glasgow, where the local authority have finally agreed to the use of publicly owned land for food growing, following a long campaign.

Food was raised as an issue by Frances Foley, incoming deputy director of Compass. Working through an intentional, community housing initiative in South London, Frances pointed out how the crisis revealed the weakness of local authority networks and the importance of civil society.

As a community centre, they have brought together conversations related to the distribution of food during the crisis, from food delivery, to storage and waste. With these links shown to be an essential aspect of community resilience the question has risen about how to keep the food redistribution network going in the longer term?

Paul Chatterton put this in the context of imagining more human scale ’15 minute’ neighbourhoods, in which all essential goods and services are accessible within that time of travel meaning a new blueprint for neighbourhood design at human scale, linking up food, transport, energy, water. This means community economies based around building your local resilience, and greater local food production, in which residents identify socially useful production and the spaces needed to do that. Frances Foley pointed out the link also to how the effective delivery of the Covid-19 response measures, were also necessarily local, from contact tracing to the health services back-up.

The Next City initiative in the United States has found that effective approaches ‘based on multi-sector collaboration and leading adaptive work takes significant skill, time and resources.’

Owning change locally but making wider links

Remco van der Stoep of Compass suggested that to give proper ownership of recovery measures to local people that the Green New Deal could be made more relevant to people if was an umbrella covering a range of interconnected, different-level interventions which would each have their own name, such as Green New Cumbria, or Green New Workington, etc.

Jon Bloomfield, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and former Head of Birmingham City Council’s European Division, reiterated the benefits and new possibilities of a Green New Deal approach to retrofitting housing stock to improve the quality of homes, reduce inequality through economic stimulus and cut greenhouse gas emissions. There were under-recognised opportunities for working at the city-region, regional and national levels he said, local, national and larger, regional responses would also be improved by being interlinked.

Ruth Potts of the Green New Deal Group and based in the office of Caroline Lucas MP, said that upcoming initiatives for a green recovery, and the work of the forthcoming All Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal would build the case for the neighbourhood-level approach. She added that, from where we live and the accessibility of safe and secure housing, to how we distribute the food we eat to where and how far we travel, Covid-19 has laid bare both profound inequalities and key weaknesses in the systems by which we provide and share housing, food and access to transport. It has also shown how quickly they can be partially reconfigured. This is particularly the case with transport, where towns and cities are already being reshaped, and benefits to health and wellbeing of cleaner air and quieter streets are likely to win support for longer term transformation.

With much media commentary turning toward the fate of the travel industry, and the question of bailouts for aviation, Christos Katzioulis said that Covid-19 will be with us for some time to come, meaning that the difficult question of how to spend holidays, and how to travel, important for many people’s well-being, will also remain for some time. In particular this has huge economic implications for the European South – with some of the Greek islands already discussing how people might be able to visit safely despite the pandemic. He said that initiatives showing how people can travel sustainably and safely, would be a powerful tool in explaining more generally the importance of sustainability.

The next conversation explores issues of how pre-existing inequality shaped the impact of the crisis, what that says about urgent economic priorities to come. It also looks at some of the likely economic consequences of current interventions in people’s livelihoods in more detail, and the way that finance interacts with the crisis.

Andrew Simms is Coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author, political economist and activist. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute, Assistant Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). His books include The New Economics, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, Ecological Debt and Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? He tweets from @andrewsimms_uk

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