Adopting a community focus in urban design and planning can mitigate poor accessibility, congestion and pollution, says Sweco’s Nigel Robson.
Designing urban spaces to accommodate the car has been common practice for decades, with significant impact on the wellbeing of the public. Rising numbers of road users means daily congestion increased journey times and higher stress levels are common in our cities. Those that don’t travel by car are at risk of social exclusion, struggling to access key services, jobs and other activities.
The economic impacts are also clear. The UK is the tenth most congested country in the world. In London alone, £9.5bn is lost annually through wasted time, fuel and productivity, according to transport data company Inrix.
Bold and decisive action is needed to end reliance on cars and reverse the negative impact of car-centric design. The solution is to build towns and cities around the needs of those that use them. Yet, ensuring that essential amenities are accessible by foot, cycle or short-range public transport, requires a holistic, collaborative approach, bringing together residents, urban planners and engineers throughout the planning and design process.
Placemaking with residents at the core
Facilitating this participation ensures that transport infrastructure is community-centric, giving residents what they need rather than a top-down approach to town planning. Proposals can then be aligned with an area’s cultural and physical identity, with outcomes relevant to the needs of the eventual end-users.
Key to this is paying special attention to urban transport ‘nodes’, such as major bus, tram and rail links, and cycle routes. These nodes must be evenly distributed throughout urban areas, allowing every resident easy access to the transport links they require, with a greater choice of more sustainable travel options.
Importing expertise from the Nordics
Sweco works with local councils across Sweden to help them adopt the SymbioCity framework – widely considered a best practice template for holistic urban design. Its principles inform how to create healthy, welcoming urban areas with minimal carbon footprints, and can help to pinpoint critical transport infrastructure, identify opportunities for improvement and deliver solutions informed by insights from local communities. These outcomes could include reworking tram and bus links, introducing new cycle infrastructure, or implementing intelligent traffic systems to cut congestion.
In Stockholm, these principles underpin the ‘Clean Vehicles in Stockholm’ project, which aims to increase numbers of ‘green’ vehicles on the road, from hybrid cars to bicycles, and boost access to public and active travel methods. By implementing various initiatives such as extended cycle lanes, congestion charges and incentivised public transport use, the city has stimulated widespread behaviour change, with clear results.
To date, the cycle lane network has been extended from 675km to 760km leading to a doubling of the number of cyclists in the city since 1990. The proportion of city centre trips made using the bus, tram or train during the morning rush hour has risen from 72 to 78%, and 65% of all public transport is now low-emission.
Another example is the award-winning Stenpiren Travel Centre in Gothenburg. Completed in 2016, it accommodates a daily flow of 15,000 pedestrians and bicycles and is integrated with the city’s bus, tram and ferry systems, boosting the development of a previously inaccessible area of the city. As well as enabling multiple forms of mobility from one destination, it has been designed as a space for rest and relaxation, creating the most comfortable possible conditions for travellers.
This is a simple framework championed by the Swedish government since 2008. It offers planners in the UK a new, structured approach to developing inherently sustainable city spaces, created with the wellbeing of citizens in mind.
Towns and cities are complex spaces, meaning successful planning and design must involve the active participation and engagement of those who live, work and play there. Creating a safe, welcoming and adaptable space predicated on accessibility, with people able to move through, around and beyond it easily, must be a key goal for every urban planner in boosting the wellbeing of residents.
Nigel Robson is a technical director at Sweco.