This pages is for other topics I think relevant. These are just some initial thoughts which I will develop over time.
Ecological and Visual Impact
At the moment, planners, and the professionals who advise them, focus on visual, economic and ecological impact (within the law) when deciding whether to approve a new development or not. We’ve talked about a new economic framework above, but we also need to redefine what we mean by ecology, and then (as James Copp says in the Urbal Fix) develop a new aesthetic which is compatible with both new approaches.
When stressing the importance of ecological design, we are not talking about re-wilding to some pre-industrial Natural History utopia. We are not even talking about conservation, or protecting the status quo. Ecological design in future will be dynamic (the term ‘steady state’ is an economic concept – the global ecology has always been in a state of flux, aka Evolution). It must include responding to rapid climate change and the effect this will have on species distribution. Major alterations to weather patterns are catastrophic (for some species – some other species always benefit) only when they happen too fast for the ecosystems to keep up – as is happening now. We’re already seeing extinctions on a massive scale, and rapid changes in the distribution of more mobile species, such as insects, birds and, crucially, pests and diseases. Given that many plants and animals are only able to survive and reproduce within very narrow temperature, daylight, frost, rainfall or other climate-related windows (and the whole system is co-dependent – so the loss of one species or niche may decimate an entire food chain or ecosystem), we’re going to have to monitor and skilfully manage the changes to maximise productive biodiversity. If we want humans and their supporting species to survive in significant numbers, then simply maintaining the ecological status quo is not going to be an option. We will need to accept the loss of some species, some deliberate rebalancing, and even perhaps some very careful use of genetic modification (instinctively anti though many of us are – and for good reason – it may prove to be the lesser of two evils in the short term).
In short, some fundamental beliefs and values around nature and beauty will have to change. Neat and smart, if that means high carbon, ecologically inflexible or non productive, will soon need to be perceived as ugly. Natural but unproductive will need to be ugly. Productive but biolimited will be ugly. Sustainable, even if scruffy, tatty or apparently foreign – must quickly become beautiful. (Ref The Urbal City) and this on Designers). Todmorden shows one way forward.
Buildings and Gardens
The simplest way to insulate our homes is to insulate ourselves. A government campaign to persuade people simply to wear a jumper indoors in winter (and to turn down the thermostat a few notches to compensate) would be a fantastic start.
But as we hear in The Urbal Fix the thermal performance of new buildings are not a major problem as long as they are built to ever-tighter sustainability criteria, and the current UK legislation is getting there.
Easily the most promising standard for new build is the Living Building Challenge. Terrible name, excellent methodology.
The big challenge is how to improve the performance of the existing building stock – especially housing. (Good thoughts on how it can be done here). At the moment the investment/pay back equation simply does not work, specially in the rented sector where tenants pay the fuel bills, so the landlord has no incentive to invest – and the Green Deal was a disaster.
What’s needed is simple and generous grants. If all the money wasted trying to fix the banking crisis has been invested in small businesses tasked to improve the performance of our building stock, the cash would have stayed into the real economy instead of vanishing into the virtual one, and we’d have been able to reduce fuel consumption without anyone minding a jot.
Another great idea is to persuade energy companies be sell mean temperature rather than energy? Rather than flogging gas or oil to customers, British Gas, for example, would sell to householders – for the same price – a ‘guarantee of comfort.’ This would set a mean temperature at, say, around 48 degrees, (or perhaps more for the sick or elderly), all year round – with, where necessary, cooling in summer. The long term income this would generate would finance investment in retrofitted insulation and other energy-saving measures, because over time, as the housing (and other building stock) becomes more thermally efficient, consumption will dwindle until very little fuel is being used, and the company’s income would be mostly profit. This would keep more fossil fuel safely in the ground for longer.
The chief problem encountered by the energy companies who are already looking into this (as some apparently are) is that if customer payments are not affected by their energy use, they simply leave the heating on full blast with the windows open. So to make this work, houses will need to be fitted with remote energy monitoring and/or, to retain some cost-for-use element within the transaction – via damage taxes.
Another big issue that needs to be addressed – by whatever method – is the insulation of party cavity walls. Most people who have these are not aware of it (they were built for sound rather than heat insulation, and tend to occur in semis built in the 50s and 60s). Thermal bridging is a major problem, and party wall cavities tend to have air bricks below floor level and also above loft level, which bypasses all other insulation and creates a convection chimney that sucks heat from both houses and pours it into the sky.
Solid walls (and walls with cavities too narrow for filling) presents a major challenge. Interior retrofit must be carried out to exacting specifications or else it can make the situation worse – and there are potential problems with lack of training and performance monitoring. Also, interior insertion is highly disruptive and uses up what consumers believe is valuable space, so external insulation may be the way to go. It has the advantage that it can be fitted without disruption and – if the aesthetic issues can be successfully managed – could even become a home-improvement must-have show-off fashion. (Perhaps we need TV shows to make it so).
There is much criminally wasteful use of refrigeration, heat and light in urban areas. The omnistandard model will not address excessive office block lighting, excessive shop heating (temperatures set for the comfort of staff, not customers – who are wearing outdoor clothes anyway, open doorways with hot air curtains etc), unnecessary food chilling or unnecessary building illumination (especially Churches and public buildings), because it will apply to the purchase of electricity, not how it is used. These issues may need to be dealt with by legislation, possibly within the Council Tax system.
Gardens and corporate land will need to be drawn into the urbal land use system. Urbal rent-rates (see above) will address some issues, such as excessive paving and fencing, but other legislation may have to be considered.
A good example of holistically designed ‘eco-settlement’: Hockerton. (specially reed bed local sewage treatment)
Sustainable Urban Drainage aka SUDS
This essential initiative (which sees rain and ‘grey’ water collected and used locally, and/or allowed to soak into the ground rather than being channelled to sewers or running off to cause flooding) is to an extent being hijacked as a ‘sustainability tick-box’ planning exercise. Local authorities seem to be satisfied with a new development or re-development-scale exercise, where water is managed within the demesne of individual properties, without ever looking at the urbal picture.
To have any real value, SUDs needs to be managed at watershed scale. This may call for upland planting to reduce run-off, changes to agricultural land use, the creation of swales and planting in urban parks and green spaces, and changes to paving and garden design as well as local development site issues.
As such it is primarily a retrofit issue – and one perhaps as important as building insulation and thermal performance. Water management is also a key element in microclimate management and soil productivity, so this not just a utility planning issue, but a key element in general urbal thinking. And water supply and usage is, of course, the yin to SUDs’ yang.
Thinking in the sustainability field generally has it that we should maximise public transport, and minimise car use – while encouraging cycling and walking. Fair enough, but after a century of private vehicle freedom, and the travel patterns thus engendered, this may be easier said than done. There are also some major anomalies in the sustainable transport mantra. For example, the whole-life carbon footprint of a train journey is about the same as a similar distance by plane (Vale, see above). This is because of the massive groundworks and infrastructure required by in the former. Also, high flying planes do far more damage than low-flying ones; not only is jet fuel burned at altitude 1.3 times more polluting than CO2, but also propeller engines are much less polluting than jet engines.
So perhaps our objective needs to be twofold: First, we need to ration distance of travel to encourage people to live near their work (season tickets would anyway attract a high omnistandard penalty) and to think very carefully about days out and holidays, (the omnistandards system will also impact on fuel, vehicle and infrastructure costs). And second, we need to find new transportation systems with much smaller carbon footprints (and social damage) which still permit a high level of individual freedom. When we finally manage to secure sufficient genuinely renewable energy, then leg/electric-powered vehicles, and fully electric vehicles, will become much more viable. Generally speaking, the smaller and lighter the vehicle in proportion to its payload the better, so we are liable to have quite frail, slow cars in future (people can still have gas guzzlers, of course, but because of damage taxes they’ll cost £1,000 a mile to run). However, the technology already exists to create car-trains; GPS-guided pods (to minimise collisions) which can be connected up into a Flock for maximim fuel efficiency on long (motorway/train-style) journeys. This would be greatly preferable to conventional trains, busses and planes, and much more efficient than conventional cars.
One immediate step would be to make it impossible for anyone to hold a taxi or minicab licence for anything other than an electric car (in cities like Leeds, after 9pm 50% of the vehicles in town are private hire). Drivers may need two cabs – one to charge while the other is in use, but we’d see a rapid reduction in emissions – specially if they were also only allowed to use renewable electricity to charge up their cars. (Step two would ban all but electric cars fuelled by green juice from towns and cities).
Another idea would be gradually to introduce slower and slower speed limits, perhaps reducing trunk road speeds by 10 miles an hour per year to 40mph, to reduce emissions, and discourage unnecessary travel. This will not, however, be popular.
To come (if I ever find the time!):
Carbon-negative sites and Bioremediation – Newcastle University
Co-operatives and Mutuality – Rediscovering old values with a new relevance. See here.
Fashion – carbon footprint v wellbeing challenge, re cosmetics, hair driers, clothes etc.
Health and Safety – hand dryers in public toilets (just shake your hands – they will be dry in less than a minute!), street lighting and building illumination.
Waste – here
Education – professional re-skilling, undergraduate/postgraduate education, community skilling, the role of schools.
Medicine – life expectancy etc.
MIlitary – the carbon cost, global balance, the peace dividend.
New housing and settlements – new Eco Garden Cities. Cimate Migrants. Brownfield infill. Co-housing and new development finance models.
Pets – see above
Renewable energy – wind, waves, tide – efficiency. Solar (Pros and cons – rare earth metals, silicone etc). Nuclear fission, Radar Fusion? Heat pumps etc.
Geoengineering – Carbon capture. Cloud shields etc.