Urban Update 18 December 2016

Driverless urban futures, carless towns, comapact cities, floodable cities, events for 2016 

Download Urban Update 18 December 2016


Driverless urban futures

Raquel Leonardo

Driverless cars and smart mobility, for reasons this article explains, will change the landscape of our cities and countryside in a significant way and we place-makers should start thinking about what these changes could mean for planning and urban design.

Some sources are suggesting that owning a car could, in 20 years’ time, be a thing of the past¹.  Realistically, such a change would require a transformation in our relationship with the car that could take decades, but with driverless cars already being trialled², there can be no doubt that driverless cars are destined to provide a realistic alternative to conventional cars and car ownership.  

Driverless cars users will be able to use an app to book a vehicle, which picks and drops them off at their chosen destination for a competitive price. This journey can be shared with other users in an efficient way, thus making the journey even cheaper¹.  This on-demand service could result in car ownership being reduced dramatically¹ as there will be no need to purchase a car and pay for expensive car insurance and services. Whilst there will always be people who will want to own their own car, there is also a growing number who care about the environment, and choose to walk, cycle and/or use public transports and don’t necessarily want to spend that much money on a car.  Instead the money they save can be spent in the local area, in restaurants and farmers markets creating thriving businesses and communities.

The constant sharing of information together with the efficiency of driverless vehicles could result in less congestion and much safer streets and highways – safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and children. The use of renewable energy in electric or fuel cell powered vehicles will be more efficient and widespread, reducing carbon emissions and noise in our cities. With the need for on-street parking completely gone³ (a shared vehicle either relocates itself to a station or proceeds to collect another passenger), new shops and offices will face and interact directly with the street which will enable the active, lively streets urban designers aspire to create but often fail due to policy requirements. Moreover, if places are designed and planed in a holistic way, together with an expected reduction of now very efficient off-street car parking of 80%³, this could also increase land-use efficiency across all types of developments, redevelopment of existing land and reduce pressures on the greenbelt. 


Impact on rural areas

In rural locations far away from a train station, where there is sufficient demand, driverless-cars could provide convenient mobility. Residents won’t have to worry about expensive daily parking charges and parking availability at the station. Moreover commuting by car will no longer be a waste of time. Drivers don’t need their hands on the wheel, instead that time can be used to work, watch a movie, sleep and even exercise! However people will also be able to live further away from their place of work which in turn would place more demand for housing, infrastructure and services in the countryside, raising serious issues for sustainability.  Good planning is needed to anticipate and deal with the consequences.


Impact on urban areas

Despite the fact that some people will always prefer to live in the countryside, living in cities will become much more appealing. With cars no longer dominating our urban landscapes, silent and safe streets will be reclaimed as true public spaces with the added space used to provide with green and blue infrastructure, play space, orchards, cycle ways, etc. It will be much safer to cycle and to walk and roads will become decluttered, calmer and healthier environments, making active travel much more appealing, especially for short distances.

The potential for driverless cars to change our life, our cities and our environment is significant especially at high levels of market penetration?. Whilst there is little doubt that this technology could significantly increase network capacity there is also a large risk that if left unmanaged it could actually make congestion a lot worse - increasing capacity has shown in many cases to be an ineffective means of reducing congestion. Furthermore, in addition to making travelling very attractive as we’ve already discussed above, driverless vehicles will open up the possibility of travelling to people who wouldn’t normally be able to operate a vehicle. Add in ownership models and this situation it could become unmanageable. 

It is at this early stage that we should research the different possible scenarios, act with leadership and take the necessary steps to ensure this technology actually delivers better towns and cities.

The type of service used (shared versus solo journeys) together with a high-capacity public transport system will determine the benefits. Behaviour change, which is already underway (uber pool is a good example) needs to be further encouraged.

In addition we will need to continually invest and develop the public transport infrastructure across the country.

We should also create well connected places which prioritise walking and cycling to an extent the UK has yet to implement. This could mean shifting the emphasis many developers and local authorities still place upon securing generous parking levels and road widths in new developments towards the provision of flexible parking areas which can be easily retrofitted into other uses, the creation of good public transport links and well-connected places with excellent walking and cycle routes/facilities.

Finally we should develop a vision and be optimistic that if implemented and managed correctly, driverless cars could create healthier, happier and greener towns and cities.


¹Bridges, Rutt 2015, Driverless Car Revolution: Buy Mobility, Not Metal [Kindle Edition]

²BBC 2015, Toyota promises driverless cars on roads by 2020

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34464450) accessed on 10.11.2015

³OECD 2015, International Transport Forum at the OECD - Urban Mobility System Upgrade: How shared self-driving cars could change city traffic.

? CUTR http://www.automatedvehicleinstitute.org/pdf/TAVI_8-CapacityPinjari.pdfaccessed on 17.12.2015



Ecological Case for High Density Compact Cities


UDG Solent Event Report

Dr Mike Wells and Dr Lincoln Garland
– Biodiversity by Design

There is a huge amount of evidence that demonstrates the importance of natural environments to people’s wellbeing.  Unfortunately, for most developments, ecology is regarded as something that has to be dealt with: a problem, and an inconvenience. This is the wrong approach, and could be hugely damaging to public health as we try to build at higher densities, with the likelihood that people will be forced to live in treeless environments, devoid of greenspace.  The UDG Solent meeting heard from Mike Wells and Lincoln Grant, that Biodiversity should be thought of in the development process as a benefit not a barrier.  They contended that there is scope to work-in biodiversity into every square inch of a design, including buildings, walls, and surfaces.   There are also clear economic benefits.  The book “The Economics of Biophillia – why Designing with nature makes financial sense” claims a 20-30 percent improvement in productivity in offices where biophilia has been central to the design.

People, they argued, intuitively recognise the difference between environments that are rich in biodiversity and those that aren’t.  For example the presence of cormorants indicates rivers that are full of fish and have a healthy ecosystem.   The aspiration need not be limited to plants and bees.  Careful design can provide habitats for high-order animals such as owls or bats.  Dr Wells mentioned the potential there exists to create microcosmic habitats, such as recreated streams, rivers, and wetlands; but also cliffs – high-density living brings about cliff-like habitats.

Systems approach needed

Central to encouraging biodiversity is the use of  systems approach.  It is not a question of bolting on bits of greenspace, or green wall or roof.  The components need to be linked and considered as part of an overall system.  The Olympic Athletes village in London provided an excellent case study which had followed the systems approach: firstly the roofs of the buildings had been carefully designed, to mimic different types of habitats, with the soil composition and structure matching those of SSSIs in the hope of attracting and sustaining a wide range of species.  (An example was given from Switzerland where a nature reserve had been created on a roof).  The water from the green-roofs then flowed into a chain of ponds, marshes and wetlands and a balancing lake, and then used as a supply to provide water for flushing the toilers of adjacent buildings, neatly closing the water cycle.  One of the results has been the popularity of the development, with the quality of the landscape cited by new occupants as one of the main reasons for moving.

The two presenters offered a decisive case for integrating biodiversity into the design process, and the prospect of creating urban environments that not only support a wide range of wildlife of all orders, but also reduce operating costs, and are genuinely engaging to human beings.   The examples they offered demonstrate that it is possible to do this,

The presentation included a huge bibliography of reports published within the last 5 years,

-       Bird Friendly Urban design guidelines – 2010

-       Designing for Biodiversity, Productivity and Profit – British Council for Offices 2011

-       Green Design – from Theory to Practice – 2011

-       UK Green Roof Code 2014

-       Good Practice Guidance for Green Infrastructure and biodiversity (2012)

-       Susdrain – National guidance on Sustainable Drainage

-       Guidelines for Ecological Impact Assessment in the United Kingdom

-       Green infrastructure valuation toolkit use guide

-       Novel solutions for quieter and greener cities

-       The Economic of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – Mainstreaming the economics of nature

-       UK National Ecosystem Assessment 2011

-       UN Biodiversity Summit

-       Biophilic Ciites – Timothy Beatley  - Biophilic Cities Network

Thanks go to Peter Frankum at Savills, for organising and hosting the event. 



Is there an answer to increased flood risk?  Is there a case for building on flood-plains? 


340mm of rain falling in a 24 hour period is a UK record.  Most UK rainfall records occur in the summer and autumn when slow-moving, localised thunderstorms drop a great deal of rain over a small area in a very short period of time leading to localised pluvial flooding..  The recent Cumbria record rainfall however was due to a large Atlantic weather system forced upwards by mountains, leading to large volumes of water being deposited over a relatively large area, and the flooding of main rivers.

What could have been done to reduce the flooding?   In the Lake District, the lakes themselves act as enormous retention ponds – natural sustainable drainage features, and yet flooding still occurred.  Other catchment scale measures that have been considered in similar areas include

  • interrupting floodplains to retain more water upstream by building field walls, planting hedges or woodland strips;
  • restoring upland wetlands (over the past 200 years there has been extensive work to improve drainage of upland areas to improve grass yield, at the expense of increasing the risk of downstream flooding;
  • changing agricultural practice to prevent soil compaction – thought to be responsible for increases in run off rates in the order of tens of percent in some catchments; and
  • restoring rivers by removing artificial straightening and restoring natural profiles including riffles and meanders,  

Would such measures have had much effect?   Ordinarily one would say yes.  The question is whether climate change is taking the planet into unknown territory.

There will be renewed calls to raise river embankments; but these will tend to move away from the well landscaped, towards brute concrete, that comes at the expense of ruining river-side urban environments.  River deepening or dredging is advocated by some, but the problem here is that a river bed is something continuous from source to sea, trying to lower a section will result in it filling with gravel and sediment from up-stream. 

There will also be renewed calls to prohibit development on floodplains.  Yet there are reasons why we should develop on flood plains. The land is flat, easing cycling and walking.  Water-side environments are naturally attractive.  And there will be instances where developing on a flood plain enables a town to develop in a circle around its centre, maximising the number of people who can walk to its shops, workplaces and facilities.  What must not be done, and has so often happened in the past, is to ignore the fact that these are floodplains and that flooding will occur repeatedly: infrastructure including electricity supplies must be protected, and buildings and key highways kept well above maximum flood levels.   The capacity of the floodplain to store water must also be protected to avoid transferring flood risk downstream.  

People who attended the Urban Design Fest event were given a view of a form of development that could cope with extreme rainfall.   It is available to view….


Building a floodable city…

Water-Land-Scape: A Scenario-  Dao-Ming CHANG

Featured at the Urban DesignFest  London