Sustainable Cities – Newcastle Meeting Discussion (May 2015)

Green Thinkers met for the second discussion of 2015 at a new venue of Newcastle’s Jazz Cafe. Once again, the group of 10 got their teeth well into the topic.

The meeting opened with initial comments on the theme from members, with including recalling that Newcastle was voted the UK’s most sustainable city two years in a row – a crown that has now been taken by Bristol. Stress was placed on the role of positive leadership to drive such change, and that the wider public must be engaged in wanting the change delivered. Conversely, concern was expressed with the perceived lack of sustainable thinking in the recent development of councils local plans, and that it was essentially a developer-led process.

It was acknowledged that sustainable cities is a broad subject, many different terms are in use which have different implications (eg smart cities, eco cities, data cities). It was also thought that some the ideas discussed in the texts would be difficult to “retrofit” to older city without slash and burn development

After the opening, the discussion began to focus in on some key areas, the first question was: ‘are cities, in themselves, good or bad for local and global sustainability?’. There was a strong feeling that in demonstrating an economy of scale of provision, cities were a more efficient way to plan and deliver services, and in particular services which can contribute to a more environmentally sustainable outcome, such as mass transit and energy share solutions. Both in cost and practicality terms, it was felt that there needs to be a certain density present for infrastructure to be viable.

We then turned to how to define sustainability, and to illustrate this, what factor more than any other was relevant in judging the merits of a city’s sustainability. This raised a range of views including:

  • energy efficiency
  • the level of happiness of residents
  • access to good quality green space
  • the need for basic economic means – employment within city which is sustainable economically

An interesting discussion of the actual factors which Newcastle was scored against when winning the sustainable city award put some concrete detail onto the difficult process of pinning down how sustainability can be measured and valued, as well as exploring some of the tools which a sustainable city may be able to deploy.

The question was then asked: ‘does technology assist in making cities more or less sustainable?‘. At this stage, there was some concern expressed as to whether the “smart city” approach has inherent energy intensity risks which the city may struggle to overcome, meaning that whilst the city in and of itself may become more sustainable, it’s wider impacts (city hinterland and beyond) may be detracting from more wider sustainable targets. On the other hand, emerging technologies that make using a city more sustainable were also considered including: oyster card style public transport payment systems; provision of real-time information to allow planning of use of public transport; benefits of home-working arrangements; intelligent adaptive traffic flow management systems; and opportunities for high efficiency traffic movement from driverless route optimised vehicles.

The meeting closed with agreement that the discussion had only scratched the surface of this wide-ranging and highly interesting topic. Members felt that a return to this topic at a later stage would be beneficial at a future meeting. Unlike previous Green Thinkers meetings, there was a strong sense that the discussion was one which could be rooted in very local, and therefore, experiential concerns which brought an angle of interest and engagement to the discussion that stressed how vital this area can be as we move forward.

by Richard Clarke

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