Holistically planned new communities have the opportunity to become exemplars of sustainable travel but this will be an opportunity missed without commitment and investment from the outset, argues Katy Lock, director – communities at the Town & Country Planning Association
The way we organise transport networks and move around our ever-changing neighbourhoods, towns and cities are already proving to be a pivotal consideration as we adapt to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. From the global impacts of reduced air travel to the way we move around our individual neighbourhoods and appreciate the multiple benefits of walking and cycling, the pandemic has profoundly impacted the way that people live, work and travel.
But before the pandemic hit, transport, travel patterns and behaviour were already known to both perpetuate, and potentially provide the solutions to, the existing twin emergencies of climate change and obesity. Transport is now the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Great Britain (with cars accounting for 56% of these emissions). Meanwhile, the multiple benefits of active travel are well known – from tackling obesity to improving health and wellbeing, combating climate change, improving air quality, addressing inequalities, supporting local businesses and enabling us to combat Covid-19 more effectively. As our way of living, working, travelling, consuming and socialising is changing forever, it is vital that we address these challenges as we plan for how people will travel within and connect to and from our new places.
Meeting people’s needs
Alongside retrofitting our existing towns and cities, the creation of new communities offers a unique opportunity to set a vision for, design and provide sustainable transport to meet people’s needs. Such projects are unique in their complexity, financial model and delivery timescales but also in their benefits.
However, for many people, the idea of a new ‘town’ or urban extension means car-dominated, low density development, in part because for decades this has too often been the default reality. However, new opportunities are emerging to address this.
The Garden City Principles, referenced in national policy, provide a framework for an alternative approach. Integrated and accessible transport systems were central to Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 Garden City vision in two ways: first, in relation to the spatial development of a network of garden cities, linked by rapid public transport to create the ‘social city’; second, in terms of the physical walkability of neighbourhoods, to provide healthy lifestyles. The current excitement about the ‘new’ concepts of a “20-minute neighbourhood” or “15-minute city” as is proposed in Australia and Paris have their roots in Howard’s book, published over a century earlier.
These ideas, updated for the 21st century, have been incorporated in the modern Garden City Principles, which many councils are seeking to apply to their new developments. New Garden Cities, and new developments that follow the Garden City Principles, have an obligation, as well as an opportunity, to set the standard and rethink our approach to transport, places and people, starting as they do in a new location and with a new design.
Decarbonisation of travel must be the focus. They should set an example by following best practice in place-making, delivery and management, and by integrating sustainable transport within the vision of the new community to give people a genuine choice of transport mode. Securing this upfront will be essential to enable the delivery of healthy, happy and diverse communities which reduce their impact on the environment while enhancing social and economic wellbeing.
In order to be exceptional places, they should have clear and deliverable set of sustainable transport priorities with communities and operational agencies which put walking, cycling and public transport at the heart of their design and transport strategy. Local authorities should also set mode share and accessibility targets, making sure that the right infrastructure is in place to achieve them.
Making this a reality is a challenge, but possible with the right commitment, investment and sequencing. In September, the TCPA published a new guide exploring a set of key principles to enable new “Garden Communities”, Garden Cities and places inspired by the principles, to embrace their visionary mindset and deliver exceptional places, as well as establishing guidance on funding and delivery, for local authorities and others to achieve these aims in the context of sustainable transport. Practical Guides for Creating Successful New Communities Guide 13: Sustainable Transport is based on 10 principles for success:
Principle 1: Location and connectivity should be the starting point.
Principle 2: Set an overarching vision, focused on delivering sustainable transport.
Principle 3: Collaboration is crucial.
Principle 4: Sustainable transport systems must be inclusive.
Principle 5: Transport must be futureproofed.
Strategic planning and design:
Principle 6: Local Plans should establish mode share targets and networks.
Principle 7: Build to the right density.
Principle 8: Apply a user hierarchy.
Principle 9: Consider key design features.
Principle 10: Integrate green infrastructure and climate resilience within transport design.
The guide also outlines current funding and delivery opportunities to achieve these principles.
While having the right framework is essential, achieving this ambition requires a strategic and coordinated approach to delivery, with core principles embedded from the outset. Recent reports have criticised many of the emerging Garden Communities, projects supported by the government’s programme, for failing to deliver on sustainable transport.
Challenges and concerns
The 2020 Transport for New Homes report, Garden Villages and Garden Towns: Visions and Reality, highlighted concerns over the funding and design of some places, stating they had “tipped the balance” towards private car ownership, rather than walking, cycling and public transport solutions. For some, this is the result of the changing nature of policies and the mechanisms available to local authorities to deliver, which has affected the ability to plan for the delivery of the essential upfront infrastructure to support these projects. For some of the projects highlighted in the report, there is an opportunity to address these concerns as the development is delivered; many have established ambitious sustainable transport programmes that will emerge as developments are built out.
However, without a strategic national approach to identifying the need, scale and location of new communities, achieving the high ambition of the Garden City principles in relation to transport will be a significant challenge. Our current planning and delivery model means the sequencing of strategic infrastructure considerations and investment and planning and delivery mechanisms is often misaligned. This causes either delay to project delivery, or significant challenges to viability.
This was highlighted in some recent Local Plan examinations. For example, strategic transport infrastructure and its impact on the viability of the proposed North Essex Garden Communities was a key consideration in the inspector’s decision to advise that two of the three schemes were removed from the joint Local Plan. There are, of course, a number of planning and delivery issues which led to this decision, but the sequencing of policy development and securing a joint delivery body no doubt played a part; the proposed Locally-led Development Corporation for the schemes may have addressed the viability concerns in relation to transport but was not a consideration at the examination.
While the challenges around the location, consent and delivery model for new communities is proving challenging for sustainable transport, government policy on the issue from the Department for Transport is strengthening. Earlier this year, the government published a Cycling & Walking Plan for England, Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking, alongside a package of investment in walking, cycling and active travel.
Government has indicated it will hold local authorities accountable if they don’t invest in sustainable transport solutions. But unless there is strategic support to align infrastructure investment and delivery, achieving this in new communities will continue to be a challenge. The TCPA’s new guide highlights how councils and delivery partners can make the most of current opportunities, including some existing case studies from innovative local authorities and delivery partners seeking to lead the way.
The challenges of 2020 have also provided an opportunity for us to think differently about how we live. Let’s hope the government will seize the opportunity to align departmental thinking and support those ambitious local authorities and their delivery partners to create exemplar healthy and climate resilient new communities, for everyone.
Practical Guides for Creating Successful New Communities Guide 13: Sustainable Transport (TCPA, 2020) is available at https://www.tcpa.org.uk/tcpa-practical-guides-guide-13-sustainable-transport.
Director – communities (FJ Osborn fellow)
Town & Country Planning Association
+44 (0)20 7930 8903