While our public space suffers funding cuts, two top examples show us how they design ‘liveability’
After the recent UK election result, a bleak future for British cities and towns has dawned on many Urban Designers, Architects and Landscape Urbanists. For the past 9 years – and now the subsequent five – Britain shall continue in cutting public sector spending, while town and city councils sell off prime public space to vast private developers.
Since 2010, £2.8 billion of public assets were sold by cut-ridden councils, 800 libraries have been closed, solar power initiatives have been scrapped, bus service funding has been slashed by 40% and almost 50% of public parks could be up for sale . The attitude of austerity argues: Why maintain public green space when you can it and make money? Why fund that library, when its plot is worth £1m? The issue here, however, is our country’s own liveability is now up for sale. Continuing on this Conservative trajectory, can our UK cities strive to be ‘liveable’?
What is Liveability?
The term ‘liveability’ has been used since the 1950s to assess and address amenities providing a good quality of life in our cities – namely housing, transport, health care, education, safety and sustainability. Supported by Urban Designers Jan Gehl and Donald Appleyard, their works expand on the design of ‘liveable’ cities, exploring the importance of public resources in creating healthy living environments. According to Gehl, liveable cities are “ones in which people can interact with one another, always stimulating because they are rich in experiences”, and both Gehl and Appleyard indicate public space is paramount.
Scoring much higher than us Brits with a life satisfaction rate of 99%,, Norway’s liveable design and planning is reflected in quality greenspaces, transport systems, local facilities and sustainability. So how does Norway achieve this?
The World’s Most Liveable Country
As well as political support, their public spaces are economically backed by continued investment of capital back into the public trust. A main revenue for their vast public sector is their ‘Oil Fund’: Norway taxes petroleum companies a colossal 78% and reinvests this back into the public sphere. The aim, in their words, is “to ensure that as large as possible a share of the value creation accrues to the state, so that it can benefit society as a whole.” Norway’s government, much like ours, swings from right to left constantly – but taxation of oil companies ensures there is consistent funding for their citizen’s environment.
Aidan Oswall, a Senior Officer for Newcastle City Council, delivered an Urban economics lecture stressing the importance of “establishment of frameworks and processes that facilitate successful development,” and quotes City of Portland’s beliefs that cities should be “organizing a “big idea” and principles that reflect its priorities.” Could Britain borrow a ‘big idea’ from a more liveable city?
The Third Most Liveable City
The third entry on EUI’s Global Liveability Ranking (2017) is BC’s largest city, Vancouver. Since its inclusion on Canada’s Pacific Rail, developers have rushed to the city to propose newer, bigger, better – with accommodation prices soaring past millions.
Finding development profits were flowing between companies without benefitting the city itself, Urban Planner Larry Beasley suggested charging a developer’s profit tax – ‘Community Amenity Contributions’ or ‘CAC’ – that would be reinvested into the urban environment. Aimed to “capture 70-80% of Vancouver’s rising land value from investments”, CACs encourage developers to fund public resources, transport services, green spaces, community centres, libraries, museums, sea walls, schools, housing…
The real-time results are fantastic. Cycle lanes weave a vast network through the metropolitan region. Arts centres exist plentiful quantities, homeless shelters are many and well-funded, each district has at least one community centre, thriving and bustling, and large developments must ‘give back’ to the street level wherever possible – providing park space, water features, seating. This Urban Design phenomenon proved so successful it was dubbed ‘Vancouverism’, and makes a terrifically walkable, connected and liveable city centre.
In stark comparison, the UK falls far behind. Our community spaces here are lacking, thinly programmed, and mark the demise of British community. Our libraries become a memory, as another one closes its doors to the public. Our transport systems lag(literally) behind our European counterparts; our sustainability-conscious initiatives – virtually non-existent; arts centres, closing nationwide; quality green and public spaces, slowly sold off…
British Rail Transport is not providing an adequate service nationwide. Courtesy of Google/BBC This negligence of our British public facilities is mainly politically driven – current parties don’t prioritise these places, so they don’t get funding – but the point here is that provision of public amenity shouldn’t be policy, but priority. Much like Norway as a country, and Vancouver as a city, our cities’ liveability should be consistently funded regardless of political swing. In the light of these two shining examples, taxing oil companies and developers to fund liveable spaces, should we begin to consider a similar system in the UK? Today, our construction sector is cascading with the cash of private developers – and a little CAC evidently goes a long way…
Effective Urban Design” n.d., 35.
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