Back to journal

Countering the Covid crisis – back to the future? By Earle Arney, CEO and Founder

Crises are a driver of social, urban and economic change and for centuries have shaped the way we live. Covid-19, as with any climactic event in human history, means we are considering both profound and temporary changes to both our cities and buildings – principally how we make them safe in the ‘new normal’ alongside more regressive rallying calls for anti-urban utopias. But is the answer a return to rural or suburban sensibilities?

Estate Agents in London’s commuter belt are beginning to witness a heady increase in demand as UK’s capital begins to emerge from its lockdown and city dwellers seek to reconnect with nature. There are many historic parallels with our current situation. After all, the idea of creating ‘sanctuaries’ and an escape from the city is extremely powerful and laid the foundations for the Garden City movement – the radical campaign set out by Ebenezer Howard in the 1890s as a reaction to the overcrowded and heavily polluted Victorian cities. Howard’s vision of a series of idealised towns wrapped by a halo of green belts was a breakthrough – it sought to combine the best of the city and countryside and separated housing and industry into different zones. It presented a highly seductive vision of life in safe, healthy, green, and environmentally friendly places – all of the things most of us will have yearned for during lock-down.

But is the Garden City a model for future living? What is often forgotten is that the fundamental principles of the movement was to introduce functional zoning – separating dwelling from workplace. At the time, workplaces were often factories that shrouded their neighbourhoods in health challenging smog, so it was logical to separate them from housing. The new housing of the Garden City was designed (and legislated) to prevent home-based work. Times have changed since the 1890’s - not only have our workplaces been transformed with the shift to knowledge work, the pandemic has enabled us to radically rethink and embrace home-working.

But what about taking the best bits of the Garden City and adapting them? Much of Ebenezer Howard’s seductive power came from proposing these ‘cities’ somewhere completely new, and at as low a density as possible. In fact Howard’s anti-urban utopia was intended to house 32,000 people on a site of 6,000 acres (2,400 ha) – one tenth of the population density of most parts of Notting Hill. They can also be spectacularly inefficient - all economies of scale are lost due to low densities, meaning more energy consuming travel has to be done both within a Garden City - journeys likely to be done by car – and beyond. More important still, is that Garden Cities may be idyllic but they are also a vehicle of urban sprawl, most requiring vast tracts of our precious green countryside.

The solution to making our buildings and cities resilient and experientially rewarding does not lie in a ‘back to the future’ approach – we must guard against applying models aimed at solving a different set of problems. Today we face not only a crisis of health but also a crisis of housing – markedly different in nature to those faced in the 1890’s. The pandemic hasn’t banished London’s existing housing problems and our inability as a nation to provide Affordable housing for key workers and the urban poor.

We cannot afford to heed the now common calls to soften Affordable housing targets in response to our challenging economic outlook. Instead, we should deploy densification to deepen delivery and accelerate the availability of Affordable homes. Softening targets would only compound London’s housing crisis further and decrease resilience to future epidemics – especially given strong evidence linking a far more brutal impact of COVID-19 in areas where housing need is most acute.

At the same time, we must also radically address the mechanisms in which Affordable housing is to be delivered. The housing targets of successive Mayors and Governments have been much promised but almost always missed. We must ask ourselves whether the Borough system is broken – is it capable of actually delivering homes for Londoners? Or would a Special Purpose Delivery Vehicle (such as the Olympic Delivery Authority which achieved the unachievable ahead of the Olympics, and an ongoing legacy) be far more effective at delivering affordable homes we need?

Intelligent place-making and appropriate density are our most formidable weapons on the road to recovery post pandemic. By densifying and greening existing cities like London we also improve liveability, resilience and sustainability at the same time – preserving our countryside and avoiding urban sprawl.

We also need to protect the attributes that make English cities great – the green belts. Although many opponents to the Green Belts will claim that there is inadequate land in Greater London to house forecast populations, this just is not the case. In a recent study my firm undertook, we proved there is enough land outside of the Green Belt to provide homes to satisfy London’s 2050 housing target - all within a short bike ride (2 kilometres) of existing rail stations. But even with this, there’s a catch; to house 13 million people in Greater London, this well connected land can’t be built at Ebenezer Howard or Garden City densities. Rather, this land needs to be built at densities approximating one of our most affluent boroughs - that of Kensington and Chelsea.

COVID-19 and the associated lock-down has enabled us to better appreciate the value of green space to salve our innate tendency to connect with nature – especially Londoners without gardens or terraces of their own. Fortunately, those in our capital are privileged to live in one of the top 10 greenest cities in the world - roughly 47% of Greater London is ‘green’ (private gardens, parks etc). Many marshal the argument that much of Green Belt land is inaccessible and ignore the value of biodiversity that the green belt provides. However, 33% of London is natural habitats within open spaceii and an additional 14% is estimated to be vegetated private, domestic garden landiii. Again, like common misunderstandings around density, the data illustrates that we have precious natural resources in the capital that we should enhance, nurture, and cherish.

London's green spaces not only provide delight and respite, they contribute economic benefits too, according to the GLA’s Natural Capital Account research. This data observed that people are more likely to be physically active if they have access to green spaces, resulting in a £950 million saving to the NHS (£580m savings come from Londoners being in better physical health, and £370 from better mental health).

While protecting the Green Belt, we should also green our cities to further protect our NHS. As cars give way to increased bicycle usage, as is currently underway across Central London, we will release a significant area of land previously adorned with asphalt. This newly available land should be planted to harness the medicinal properties of plants and breathe new life into our cities.

The green belt is not just an aid in strengthen our cities defences against epidemics, it is also density’s friend, as it prevents the sprawl of our key cities as was its original intent. We don’t need new ‘Garden Cities’ as envisaged in the 19th century but we do need to embrace density and all, as the data proves, they are instruments to enhance the liveability and resilience of our cities - for now and the future.

See the full piece as published here on First Base's blog