Much is made these days of green living, whether it be using low-energy light bulbs or recycling the newspapers. And, while these and similar efforts do make contributions to minimise the impact we humans have on the ecological balance of the only planet we have, it seems we may not be doing enough.
Now, given that the Chinese plan to spend $720 bn building 363 coal-fired power stations over the next two decades (effectively a power station per fortnight) and that 300,000,000 Americans own a car each that burn an average of 2,500 litres of fuel every year, we’re talking over 1/2 bn tons of CO2 being pumped into our atmosphere each and every year from both sources. Makes taking the train to work once to save 250g of CO2 seem small beer.
But you’d be wrong. Because the reason Americans burn so much ‘gas’ is that their sprawling cities make no provision for work and home to be sited anywhere close to one another—often not even in the same city. And, even if they were, aspirations at work and home means that each family moves on (promotion, new job, etc) so often that any proximity would be a temporary fluke.
Europeans are often cited as being far more sensible about this. But, while the Germans and Scandinavians do make a decent pass at strategic planning of cities, infrastructures and the homes that inhabit them, Spain is a Heath-Robinson nightmare and we British manage to combine the worst of most worlds—lack of strategy, abysmal repetition that passes for architecture and little clue about integrating work, home and facilities beyond a crude zoning.
The English may be worse than the Scots in this regard, but any distinction seems small, at best. Consider the great swathes of Penicuik or Dalgety Bay that are little more than suburbs without a centre but few wonder why they have teenage problems because there’s nowhere to ‘hang’.
But tastelessness and bloated scale are not the worse planning crimes perpetrated across Scotland. The worst is that housing development is wholly developer-driven, while commercial falls between Scottish Enterprising clodhopping ineptitude (due to its ‘big name’ fixation) and a rabble of economic development departments without two shekels or two ideas to rub together. The result is successful business is constantly scrambling to find decent, affordable premises that aren’t ‘prestige’ glass palaces of Ocean Terminals/Edinburgh Park or some bleak and blasted industrial park in Cardenden.
The soullessness of such places are bad enough but they are always remote from where anyone lives and seldom well served by public transport. The two stations that ‘serve’ Edinburgh Park are half a mile from the nearest office block; Ocean Terminal is in the most inaccessible part of Edinburgh. Developers made a bundle from both and beaucoup bonuses were reaped by high-heid-yins responsible. But by any green measure they are nightmares—design dinosaurs we will need to live with until rising sea levels make Ocean Terminal untenable (roughly AD 2150).
All this is not just venting spleen. With modern technology, over half of present office workers could work from home—at least part-time. But, more than that, the need for graphic designers to be located cheek by jowl with their ad agency customers or the need for bank back office operations to be anywhere near HQ went out with the steam fax machine and the introduction of universal fast broadband and WiFi. So why do people waste 2 hours and £25 daily getting to/from the office? Because, to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton “that’s where the jobs are”.
Why, in the case of East Lothian, do over 25,000 people indulge in this daily time-waste? Is the county proud to boast a miserable per capita GDP worse than bankrupt Greece because other than a council and two power stations, its job market is a joke? Probably not. Angus and the Mearns or Dumbartonshire are not much better; almost all their resident professionals don’t work there.
But why not?
If the still-under-formulation City Region Plans were to be worth the paper they’re to be printed on, why don’t they become more than just a blueprint for developers to make another mint and SE to squander another £500m of UK & EU funds on favoured white elephants? Why don’t they focus on locating as many jobs as possible near to where people already live—in towns scattered across the country?
Imagine, if people walked or biked to work—like your grandad in all probability did. Imagine having lunch in your local cafe or pub with friends. Imagine popping out mid-afternoon to pick up your kids from school. Imagine buying your Christmas prezzies in a shop where the owner knows your taste and that are not angry zoos full of strangers. Think what all that would do to revitalise High Streets and pour money back into the community and not into Starbucks at the Gyle.
It would require planners to take off the “but the book says” blinkers and—for once—get creative, including putting dynamite under their sleepy EDU colleagues to find places for low-impact/office business in or near town centres or in attractive small enclaves near enough to bike/walk to. They need to grab developers by the lapels (or somewhere more sensitive) and say “I know you want to build nothing but acres of 5-bedroom mansions for top dollar but what our towns need are mixed housing. as far as possible integrated with jobs, retail and other infrastructure like medical centres, schools and sports facilities. Do it creatively or you get no consent.”
People will use good facilities if they are convenient; they will enjoy it all the more if it is frequented by friends and neighbours so that local shops/gyms/parks effectively become social centres at the end of the road. Then everyone will be amazed how much time they now have with their family and friends because they don’t spend their life 35 miles distant from them. They will also be surprised how much more money they have not filling the tank twice a week at £85 a pop and the corner bakery or deli does a better lunch for half the price of Ritz Bar & Grill.
But, most of all, they will have discovered pretty much the only practical formula for green living in the 21st century that doesn’t involve stone age poverty. Not only will we all enjoy a much better quality of life but those who still wish to be there in the thick of it won’t find themselves (and half of Leith) flooded out of Ocean Terminal in about 138 years time.