This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 150.
Through the pandemic we have all seen our worlds shrink, leading to more opportunities to appreciate our own local communities. You have probably got to know more of your neighbours than you did a year ago, thanks to being at home more. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed cycling or walking down a now-quiet street which you had previously avoided, and discovered a local grocery, café or park which you never knew existed. What if, with or without restrictions on movements, everything you needed in a normal week was easy to access within a twenty-minute walk or cycle ride, and these routes were car- and pollution-free?
What are sustainable communities?
Before private motorised transport was readily available, most people in the UK lived within a short distance of all they needed. Over the last 70 years that has changed dramatically, with the emergence of large, out-of-town retail outlets and large housing developments built with no local amenities, forcing people to travel longer distances to buy basic foods and attend social activities. This form of living has increased our reliance on cars and has reduced community cohesion.
The way we ‘do’ transport, which is responsible for a third of all UK carbon emissions, must change if we are to avoid the full impact of climate change, and one way to do that is to build our communities to be more sustainable. TRL (formerly the Transport Research Laboratory) is a team of expert scientists, engineers and specialists working together to create the future of transport in the UK. At the end of last year, they produced a report, Decarbonising Transport. To quote from it: ‘With greater use of active and public transport … road space can be re-allocated, and more pleasant and liveable environments created. This goes in both ways, as redesigning the urban environment can lead to considerable reductions in transport demand, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions where workplaces and most services are within a short distance.’
Redesigning the urban environment on a national scale is something we aspire to, but local sustainable communities do already exist. Four examples, two of which are in Cambridge, are presented below.
The UK’s first large-scale eco-village (in the borough of Sutton, South London) was completed in 2002 and is called BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development). Nearly 100 mixed-tenure residential homes (owner-occupier, shared ownership and rental) were integrated with commercial buildings, an exhibition centre and a children’s nursery, all incorporating innovative approaches to energy conservation and sustainability.
The aim of the development was to provide occupants with major energy savings and lower bills, abundant green space and a friendly community where they would not need to rely on a car. Instead, residents were encouraged to use greener forms of transport to greatly reduce travel-related emissions compared to a conventional suburban housing development. Numerous secure cycle parking stands, bike storage space inside some homes, three bus routes passing close by and Hackbridge train station, just 600 metres away, meant that local and longer journeys did not require a car. For those who had to have their own private motorised transport there is some parking: just 0.6 car parking spaces per home. For others a car-share is available, as BedZED was home to London’s first car club sited on a new development.
The roads all skirt around the site leaving car-free space between the houses where children can safely play and community events can be held. Sam Smith, a former resident of BedZED, explained that ‘the car-free streets are one of the reasons I believe it’s easy to meet and get to know neighbours’.
All too often new housing is built around car use, but Bath Riverside is fêted by the developer, Crest Nicholson, as a place ‘where car ownership has always been an option rather than a necessity’. Master-planned by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, this growing, high-density site will ultimately consist of housing, education and retail resources. On a completely different scale than BedZED, and with different energy-saving technology, it is located just 1km from the centre of Bath. The site has been developed with the aim of improving connections to, and provision of, public transport (served by no fewer than 14 bus routes) and options for walking and cycling. To access a wider range of shops, entertainment and work places, residents can use two traffic-free walking routes into the centre of Bath, one of which is open to cycles too.
Every household in Bath Riverside receives a free one-month bus pass, access to a free car club membership, and a £100 cycle voucher. Reportedly, 70% of people moving into Bath Riverside have changed their primary mode of travel to walking, cycling, or public transport, aided by the fact that car parking is limited and not directly visible. One resident remarked: ‘My car is parked in the underground car park, but mostly I just walk or cycle.’
Unfortunately, not all residents have made the same behavioural change and the active local residents’ association is campaigning for enforcement of a bus gate, to stop rat-running, and for action against pavement parking. They have also dealt with thefts of bicycles from the underground car park. In addition, the quality of the walking and cycling environment outside the development itself is quite poor. However, by working with the local highway authority to increase the options for active travel, the development could function effectively as part of a wider fully car-free city centre where parking is restricted to the periphery.
Marmalade Lane, Cambridge
Marmalade Lane, in Orchard Park, Cambridge, is a 42-home development which combines car-free living with a ready-made community. Completed nearly 20 years after BedZED, the site was developed for an existing cohousing community and is designed to provide buildings and outdoor areas for the residents to share together.
Meredith Bowles, of Mole Architects, says: ‘The whole site is essentially a collective playground for kids’. As with BedZED, cars are restricted to a corner of the site, so that the central area is for pedestrians and the majority of the green space forms a big communal garden. The scheme is designed to exceptionally high environmental standards, using Passivehaus design principles, and constructed with air source-heat pumps for energy-efficient heating.
All residents must sign up to be members of Cambridge Cohousing Ltd, thereby having a stake in the shared spaces and facilities as well as contributing to the management of the community. The layout of the site and the number of shared amenities mean that neighbours do get to know each other, rather than rarely interacting because they are escaping from their closed homes into personal vehicles. By knowing each other they also help and depend on each other, forming a friendship group and support network.
CB4, North Cambridge
Not all sustainable communities need be new developments. Instead it is possible to adapt existing suburbs into liveable neighbourhoods, or encourage existing communities to live together sustainably in their own neighbourhood.
The wards of Arbury, King’s Hedges and West Chesterton are mixed housing developments and amenities constructed to the north of Cambridge starting in the 1900s through to the present day. Near the corner where the three wards meet is an independent community centre, run as a charity by and for the local community. It houses a café, nursery school, family centre and numerous groups. Within sight there is a car-free shopping area, library, city council offices, a doctors’ surgery, places of worship, primary school, and open spaces with playgrounds.
Two free council-run car parks are available, with electric car-charging points, although people don’t need to use cars to go about their daily lives. Thanks to car-free routes through housing estates and public open spaces, as well as cycle lanes on the main arteries, many people can walk or cycle. Active transport is a great way to run quick errands and chat to people en route. The addition of more traffic-free areas, through the use of modal filters, would encourage more people out of their cars and on to the streets to meet and get to know their neighbours.
Sustainable communities rely on the infrastructure available and on the people they house. To maintain sustainability, they require the combined efforts of local councils approving only high-quality developments, and residents desiring to live and work together. The two things that have to be got right at build time are fabric efficiency and transport because at that point it’s practically free, whereas it’s extremely difficult and/or expensive later. To assist with the planning, toolkits are available from organisations such as Transport for New Homes, the AECB (Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders) and One Planet Living. As more and more people understand that sustainable living doesn’t have to mean making sacrifices but is comfortable and easy, they will be drawn together for a common cause. The question is how soon can this vision of streets which support the life and vitality of neighbourhoods, rather than motor vehicles, be widely realised and become mainstream?