With four out of five of us (in the UK) now living in towns and cities, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, (RCEP), at the publication of it's 26th report, March 6 2007 (1), calls for the development of a clear policy on the urban environment.
The opportunities and attractions of urban living are many, but problems also abound. For example, urban areas contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems such as excess water consumption. Air pollution, traffic congestion and poor housing conditions threaten our current and future health and wellbeing. Thus, whilst in some areas government policy on the urban environment is moving in the right direction, these welcome steps are not nearly bold enough or fast enough.
Sir John Lawton, Chair of the UK’s Commission, "Commissioners are astonished that, on the eve of the new phase of urban regeneration and expansion, we lack an over-arching urban environment policy to coordinate the provision of housing, transport, energy and other vital services. Tinkering with any one of these issues in isolation is bound to fail. We can and must do better if we are to meet environmental challenges and improve the health and wellbeing of our citizens."
The technology to improve urban environmental performance exists, such as much tighter building regulations, or water-metering, but the scale of effort to exploit such technologies falls well below what is required. We do not need to wait for new technologies to be developed; instead we need to create the institutional and social environment which encourages the uptake of existing technology. For example, we already have the means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new housing by at least 60%, but this is still not being used throughout the sector. Also, with most of the homes of 2050 already built, emission reduction techniques need to target current building stock as well if we are to make a significant contribution to the UK emissions targets.
We need urban areas which have less negative impact on the environment and so help us to live healthier lives. A lot can be done: for instance, developing communities where people feel safe to walk and cycle or to use public transport rather than private cars, can deliver real benefits through exercise and less air pollution as well as more visible benefits like fewer road accidents. To build an environmentally sustainable urban environment requires a robust planning framework to incorporate effectively the many considerations of urban living including health. The Commission are keen to ensure that the planning framework is not dismantled, particularly during a period of major urban development when it is most needed.
One of the Commission’s key recommendations is that a new urban environmental contract be established to forge partnerships between local and central government and the private and voluntary sectors. This will provide the basis for establishing a workable, multifaceted urban environment policy which is essential to deliver the urban areas in which people will want to live and work in the future. The contract should specify the ‘high level’ urban environmental targets that government regards as essential, while devolving to local authorities the responsibility for defining and prioritising action on environmental problems of local concern.
- The Urban Environment is the Royal Commission's 26th report. Both the full report and the summary can be downloaded from the Commission's website.