Planning Processes for Sustainable Urban Form

by Peter Larkham

I am writing from a small but international and interdisciplinary meeting at the Swedish School of Planning, part of the Blekinge Tekniska Hogskola, in Karlskrona.  Sustainable urban form is, of course, a contemporary professional and political ideal: but what is it and how do we achieve it, especially in existing settlements?  This event draws together eminent keynote speakers, PhD students and new researchers, and the School’s Advisory Board.

Quote Blog 16The first keynote was from Simin Davoudi (University of Newcastle, UK): on ‘cities and energy consumption: rational or habitual?’  An important point because without sustainable cities there will be no sustainable world; but cities are such a plural, variable, phenomenon.  Urban form determines sustainability to a great extent, for example levels of transport-related greenhouse emissions, and building energy efficiency is also significant.  So how do we change users’ behaviour; indeed what constitutes ‘behaviour’?  Compare Atlanta and Barcelona, two cities of the same population but covering 4280 km2 and 162 km2 respectively, with per capita CO2 emissions 10x greater in the former in part because of the need to travel owing to the low-density urban form.  A US model of ‘sprawl’ is still being followed, especially in Asia.  China’s building rate is frightening in terms of sustainability: it builds the equivalent of Rome every 2 weeks. Simin explores how decisions are ACTUALLY made with respect to urban form and use.  Remember that the rational economic model hardly matches the messy and irrational decision-making of real life.  So for more sustainable cities, technical and structural change is important but insufficient.  She argues that behaviour change, perhaps radical, is also needed, at the level of individuals and institutions.

This was followed by a second keynote by Karine Dupre (Griffith University, Australia) with an interesting international comparative study, of Australia (Brisbane) and Finland (Tampere, “a very conservative city”), on planning processes and participants and, in particular, looking at the provision (and even the identification) of quality urban form and development.  Perhaps the most interesting case was that of the Finnish annual Housing Fairs, month-long events where the public visit new urban quarters where all buildings are open for inspection, run by a non-profit organisation for the past 40 years.  But in Finland, in sharp contrast to the UK, there is a wide culture of self-build and involvement in housing design.  These fairs are popular, and there are TV series following individual families constructing some of these houses.  Her study identified what in planning and design is non-negotiable and what is flexible, for the various stakeholders and interests involved.  It would be interesting to learn more of the influence of these fairs on the public – and professional – knowledge and understanding of issues of housing and urban design, layout, management and use.  Dupre noted that, over time, the density of these flagship demonstration projects has decreased, seemingly in response to Finnish urban (and wider) culture with its strong focus on proximity to nature.  But many of these projects are rather disconnected from the city, poorly connected by public transport, and so when occupied have high car use rates, etc.  Her Brisbane example was of an interdisciplinary design workshop for a waterfront and historic area, carried out in mid-2013, and so perhaps too recent to evaluate its contribution.

Overall this event is proving to be a thought-provoking and welcome initiative.  The interrelationship between planning (at all scales) and sustainability is crucial, but may be under-represented in UK planning courses.  We should be exploring, at greater length, in greater detail and more effectively, how we can design better, manage better, change behaviour and create sustainable cities for the (near) future.

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