Mayor told to back food-growing on London roofs

Landscape Institute president Noel Farrer has issued a "call to arms" for the next London mayor: ensure all new building in London has a roof where food can be grown.

Open Debate: city experts used meeting to discuss potential methods for reducing air pollution level in the capital - image: HW
Open Debate: city experts used meeting to discuss potential methods for reducing air pollution level in the capital - image: HW

Farrer was speaking at the Open Debate, the precursor to the architecture festival Open House London on 19-20 September. The question posed to panellists was: "London's pollution is ruining our lives. Can we build a cleaner city?"

City experts from Skanska, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), Friends of the Earth and Kings College London's environment department discussed ways of cutting London's air pollution, which is consistently at levels that break international law. Many of the panellists and most of the audience were in favour of banning non-essential traffic in the central city and turning it into a more pedestrian-friendly area.

Farrer flew the flag for landscaping as a major answer to climate and pollution problems, from street trees to green roof technology and sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS). "Landscape architecture is a broad church," he said. "It's not just about streets and parks. It is now a very holistic and complex subject."

He added that the call for food-growing on all new buildings is "perfectly reasonable". "It would have huge benefits for all communities. It would be somewhere for them to have quality of life, deliver their own food and it contributes to the whole city by keeping temperatures down."

Political will would be needed to enforce such policies, he said. "The Government hasn't got any money so housing is going to be privately funded. The issue is that pounds will be ruling the roost rather than any altruistic or philanthropic goals."

He also called for a bigger emphasis on "quality place-making for the urban poor", who are disproportionately hit by pollution. Farrer explained that while biodiversity and landscaping are an essential part of denser cities they are "sadly misunderstood" and seen as a non-essential "nice to have".

The Landscape Institute is working with the ICE to help offer landscape solutions to the city's problems, from alleviating flooding through SUDS to improving air quality through planting trees.

Roland Grzybek of CH2MHill and the ICE agreed that city environments need to be considered holistically. Grzybek chairs the Thames Estuary Partnership, which is responsible for delivering the Thames Tideway Tunnel super sewer. He pointed to the concreting of front gardens as a major contributor to flooding and sewer overflow into the Thames.

"The combined overflow problem needs a tactical solution," he pointed out. "We need the tideway tunnel right now but we also need a green-blue infrastructure approach and sustainable urban drainage." But he added that although SUDS are now being integrated into all building development, there are difficulties with long-term maintenance and taking ownership of those systems.

Preventive action best for a tidy public realm

Local authorities' practice of "cleaning up after others" must be replaced with a preventive, behavioural-change approach to keeping the public realm tidy, according to a new Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) report.

With further looming cuts likely to see remaining funds diverted to critical services such as health and social care, "dirty streets and barren parks" will become the reality for many councils unless changes can be made, the report warns.

But that presents a problem because despite what most of us think people are not rational and councils' misguided attempts to reason with people to change their behaviour through rewards, fines and education does not really work.

Park Life, Street Life: Reducing Demand in the Public Realm is a collaboration between APSE and NGLN. It drew on data from a range of sources including APSE's State of the Market survey and in-depth case study interviews with councils that have trialled or adopted behaviour-change strategies.

A focus on enforcement can often be down to political pressure, where councillors feel they should be seen to be "doing something" such as fining dog foulers, even when the strategy may not be effective. Sometimes it may even make the problem worse - evidence from one study suggests "no smoking" signs can subconsciously make nicotine addicts want to smoke more.

Instead, parks departments should be applying the lessons of behavioural psychology. These strategies are used to good effect by retailers to nudge customers to subconsciously shop more. The report suggests two main changes to public behaviour that would benefit parks.

"The first of these involves moving from cleaning up after people to preventing littering and other similarly antisocial behaviours from happening in the first place. The second involves embracing, allowing and encouraging far greater contributions from local people to the upkeep of their local public realm spaces.

"In practice this means residents treating their surroundings with respect and care, and for councils to be nudging them in this direction through careful consideration of communications and of matters such as the design of bins.

"It means new expectations to be placed on businesses about how they contribute to their local environments and new ways for them to contribute. It also means harnessing and respecting the passion and determination that committed community organisations and residents across the UK feel towards their local areas through new forms of local involvement."

APSE's research found that while some councils are forging ahead in these areas, many more are failing to use the behavioural tools at hand. "Smart" and "bold" approaches to community engagement are also lacking. Only rarely do councils look beyond public consultation and actually have "wholesale initiatives" that would encourage local people, businesses and institutions to get involved in their park.

Feedback from councils suggested they lack the knowledge to apply strategies that would work locally and testing of what does work is often inadequate - and budget cuts mean they no longer have the staff or enough time to properly investigate these innovations.

Many councils are also seen as risk-averse, while one council officer suggested contractors and in-house enforcement or education officers are unlikely to be enthusiastic about measures that would reduce demand for their services. The report makes several recommendations on how these can be achieved, including seeking outside help and funding, developing knowledge in house, and - potentially - work to build demand reduction into contracts if work is to be outsourced.

- The full report is available from APSE (£20 for members and £40 for non-members).

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