Ecological living: from global to local

IT was the acknowledged ‘father’ of town planning – Scotsman, Patrick Geddes – who was attributed with the phrase, ‘Think global, act local’.

Geddes wanted us to work with the environment and not against it. 

And it has only taken around 100 years to wake up to this important message as we struggle to deal with the climate emergency. 

Why have we waited to the final hours to address one of mankind’s greatest challenges?

We now read policy drafts and advisor reports that say we must act swiftly.

We have invested in a number of technical measures such as renewable energy but the greatest challenge is changing our behaviour. 

Politicians know that asking people to change the way they live is difficult.

Well, the planet is at risk and, despite those wanting to have total freedom to choose, we must have a moral code that recognises our responsibility – not just for the planet, but the lives of future generations.

The Advisory Group on Economic Recovery recently told Scottish Government (here) we need a ‘green’, economic recovery that is inclusive and allow us to enhance our well-being, as well as growth.

Meanwhile, the even more recently-published long-term planning document – the position statement on Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) (here) – says that ‘spatial planning’ has an important role to play in addressing climate change, recognising that planning has to be more positive and clearer in the way it operates. 

It also seeks to promote an investment approach to development that produces places that embrace the long-term public interest. The statement makes frequent references to putting forward the use of so-called ’20-minute neighbourhoods’, which essentially are about life’s essentials being within a 20-minute walk or cycle ride away from people.

The challenge is exactly how we go about changing the way we can live locally? We need the ambitions fleshed out.

If the logic is higher density living, there are powerful forces against, including the Coronavirus pandemic encouraging people to live more separate lives from each other. Then there is the memory of the tragedy that was the fatal fire at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in London, in June three years ago. And finally there is simply consumer taste; that makes the idea of living in high rises a potentially even harder sell.

This is a dilemma that politicians and planners will need to address. 

Over 30 years ago, my urban design tutor, Hildebrand Frey – who established the Urban Design Studies Unit at the University of Strathclyde – researched the issues of urban regeneration, how places could be renewed, and re-structured into more sustainable forms of living. 

At the same time, other academics were promoting the theory of the ‘Compact City’ as an urban form, to enable people to live more sustainably in better-connected places at higher housing densities. 

These ideas have been around for a long time but were generally set aside under the heading of ‘too difficult’. 

Globally, there is a trend of people choosing to move to the city, particularly by young people – and not just for jobs, but also for a way of life, the chance to meet new friends and perhaps find a soulmate. 

We can see this in places such as London and Manchester, with a recent trend of new towers piling higher and higher. 

While Edinburgh hasn’t gone high, it has become such an attractive city to live that its housing system is, by common consent, struggling to cope. 

The solution surely has to be a little bit more sophisticated than simply building more houses further and further from the centre? We need to know what type of housing, address the difficult question of what density is appropriate and how will all these new houses be connected with everything we need in life? 

Also, who and how are we going to pay for all these connections and can we persuade the market to embrace such radical ideas for change? 

Notwithstanding the current flight to the suburbs, it is expected that people will want to continue to live in cities and be able to move around easily and in a more sustainable fashion. But how can that happen?

It suggests that a single tram line running through Edinburgh perhaps might need to be re-visited, with other lines connecting to it – albeit that many people might be concerned about the costs of construction.

As Geddes would have suggested, we need to look at inter-connecting regional structures, down to the finer grade of local places. 

Such an examination needs to be thoroughly researched as to what the right patterns of development might be, to minimise the use of resources and enable us to live sustainable, ecological lifestyles and enhance our wellbeing.

Such patterns need to be much more than theoretical diagrams. They need to be fully developed into a fully-funded and deliverable investment plan for an ecological way of life for us all. 

Steven Tolson is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and is a past chair of the Royal institution of Chartered Surveyors in Scotland. His recent work includes community regeneration action planning, housing for older people, and a comprehensive study on co-housing. Steven is an author and writer of guides and reports on a range of built environment subjects.