What are the challenges faced by cities of the future?

By Finlay McNab,
Cyclist on London's Cycle Superhighway

Cyclist on London's Cycle Superhighway Elephant and Castle

Invited to speak at the Future Cities session at this year's Eco-build conference I started with a simple question - what are the key challenges faced by cities of the future?

The recent flooding has caused a media storm and a renewed interest in the challenge of climate change. Of all the images of the recent flooding it was the one of a boat passing over a submerged car which registered most firmly in my mind. This crystallized for me our dependence on cars and the very real impact to communities that carbon emissions are now having.

We know that emissions from the transport sector account for around a quarter of annual carbon emissions in the UK (the second largest category after energy) and now with some irony it's our transport choices which are sinking.

It’s clear there is a need for a significant modal shift towards sustainable transport and this is doubly relevant for cities because urban areas are where sustainable transport options are most viable.

If cities can make this step change towards sustainable transport, and in particular active modes of transport like walking and cycling, they will be going a long way to tackling a second key challenge - our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Physical inactivity is damaging the physical health of many in our communities and is directly costing the NHS close to a billion pounds a year.

Deteriorating physical health is only part of the picture though. A recent study showed that loneliness was twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people. We are in the age of the smart phone where we have almost unlimited connectivity, and yet when you walk down a busy street it seems people are tuned into their phone but tuned out from the people around them.

The final challenge is economic - the fiscal travelator is leading us to ever leaner budgets for our city leaders to contend with and there is a political imperative to bolster economic growth.

In the face of these challenges we need to adopt a different and smarter way to design our cities.

The Sustrans approach to street design starts with people, and working hand-in-hand with them re-imagines the streets and neighbourhoods which make up the patchwork of our cities.

We create activities and provocations to empower people to re-think and re-consider their use of streets in a way that enables them to interact with urban spaces and their fellow citizens in new ways. This has included pop-up parks on parking spaces, washing lines on traffic islands, giant flowers painted on the street, bike rides, bake-offs and torch-lit tours.

Using this approach, we are recognising that it is the activity of people in a street which transforms the experience of it. They contribute significantly to how other people use it, how long people spend in it and where they spend their money, in short, what makes it successful - socially, environmentally and economically.

It’s this process which informs how best to use the limited resources we have to make more permanent physical changes to our streetscapes.

In my presentation I talked about this approach and highlighted some of the projects we are undertaking across the country.

Looking towards the transformations underway in cities from New York to Bogata it’s clear that other cities across the world are adopting this approach. And it’s working.

Read more about Sustrans’ approach to community led-street design, and read more about projects where it has been applied, like in Bridgewater and Asthon Gate, Bristol.

More blog posts by Finlay McNab