Monday, 8 October 2012

Sustainability and Viability: Lessons from Scandinavia

I recently attended the Town and Country Planning Association’s Scandinavian Study Tour.  From Copenhagen to Malmo to Stockholm, we saw examples of pioneering environmental technologies and sustainable city planning. 

Integrated energy, waste and water systems
 in Hammarby Sjostad, Stockholm
  • Automated vacuum waste collections in Malmo’s Western Harbour mean that streets do not need to be designed to accommodate refuse vehicles.  The result is a tighter-knit pattern of development, with pedestrian friendly streets and reduced collection costs for the local authority.
  • In Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm, the co-ordinated management of energy, waste and water systems on a community scale has led to greater levels of efficiency.
  • Copenhagen is fulfilling its desire to be the world’s best city for cyclists by design the city around the bike, with priority traffic signals, customised street furniture, and even bridges just for cyclists.
  • The run down 1950s housing estate in Augustenborg, Malmo has been transformed with the addition of energy efficient cladding, green roofs, solar panels and a new storm water drainage system.  The involvement of the local community in this project has helped to reduce some of the social problems previously experienced.

These are examples of the kind of sustainable development that the National Planning Policy Framework aspires to deliver.  So how are they able to do this and why isn’t it happening more often in the UK?

Much is made of the so-called ‘win-win’ relationship between the environment and the economy, with greater efficiency leading to lower costs.  However, this ignores the important element of timing.   Creating developments with a high environmental performance tends to require greater costs in the design and construction phases.  In the UK, these costs are borne by the developer, who needs a relatively quick payback period in order to pay off loans and incentivise development.  In contrast, the financial benefits tend to be long-term in nature, and shared between the occupants of the development, the local authority and the developer. 

In isolation, strong policy requirements for high environmental performance only place greater financial burdens on the developer in the design and construction phases.  The requirement in the National Planning Policy Framework for local authorities to ensure that policy burdens do not threaten viability means that, in the current economic climate, environmental performance will inevitably be compromised to ensure the delivery of development.

In Denmark and Sweden, the role of government, at city and national levels, goes way beyond the setting of policies.  They are the driving force behind these developments: setting targets, subsidising technologies, financing infrastructure and, in some cases, acting as the landowner and client.  Private developers build on the foundations set by government.

  • Major transport infrastructure projects in Copenhagen are being financed through the selling of publicly owned land and through taxes.  This means that the fares do not have to re-coup the costs of construction; they only have to cover the running costs, making them low enough to be an attractive alternative to the car.
  • In Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm, workshops were held to discuss how private companies could deliver the targets set by the city government.  As the landowner, the city created the demand and the market was left to respond to it.
  • Solar City Malmo is developing cheaper and more efficient solar energy technologies, but the national government still subsidises 60% of the investment cost.
  • By and Havn is a privately run, but publicly owned, company which makes use of architectural competitions to raise standards in the redevelopment of the publicly owned Inner and Southern Harbours in Copenhagen.

Pedestrian and cycle friendly streets in Western Harbour,
The UK is a long way off the Scandinavian model.  Even in cases where the government is the landowner, the overriding objective tends to be to achieve best value (just like a developer) rather than to achieve higher standards.

As long as there is sufficient public support, governments have a degree of freedom from short-term economic constraints that private developers do not.  However, it is unclear whether there is the will, within government or the public, to incur the short-term costs necessary to deliver the kind of sustainable development on show in Copenhagen, Malmo and Stockholm.

(Simon Roberts for Alsop Verrill Ltd)

No comments:

Post a Comment