A warm welcome for the urban environment study from the RTPI

It is crucial that change should be environmentally sustainable and be able to contribute to an increased quality of life for everyone.

At a time when fundamental questions about the sustainability of urban environments need to be tackled, the RTPI's head of research and knowledge Jenny Crawford welcomes The Urban Environment study.

Submitting evidence to the Royal Commission on Environment Pollution, she says that UK demand for development is being driven by major demographic changes in household size, the age structure of the population and migration.

"The latter is closely linked to spatial variation in the nature and strength of local and regional economies," she says. "The growth in household numbers has been forecast by the ODPM to range from eight per cent in the North East between 1996 and 2021 to 25 per cent in the South East and East of England. This represents significant pressures for urban extension and the use and redevelopment of existing urban areas. Change must be environmentally sustainable and should contribute to an increased quality of life."

She believes that the UK sustainable development strategy 2005 represents a valuable defining framework for meeting these aims, but points out that it has not yet been adequately integrated with other national-level frameworks for the development of the built environment. The study should highlight this gap and Crawford is anxious that the role of spatial planning frameworks in co-ordinating sustainability objectives should be more explicitly recognised and demonstrated.

"The sustainable development strategy is committed to integration, environmental limits to change and finding real, multi-functional solutions to meet social and economic needs," says Crawford. "The definition of sustainable communities, refining the recommendations of the Egan review, informs the strategy throughout. The implementation of the government's sustainable communities plan will be an acid test for the strategy. In particular, the relationship between urban and rural development and environmental management raises fundamental issues for government policy."

The RTPI has pledged to promote research and information on sustainable scenarios for living and working environments and supporting everyone involved in planning to help deliver this, using the tools of spatial planning, supplementary guidance, negotiation and development management.

It agrees that climate change is the gravest and most urgent challenge facing urban and rural areas. Making cuts in greenhouse gas emissions within a decade must be the top priority for urban environmental policy.

"Action so far has been inadequate," argues Crawford. "There are huge opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts of urban areas by managing energy and other resources in circular flows such as natural ecosystems using known and proven technologies. The main challenge is to remove the barriers to applying these technologies."

She also believes that we must consider UK urban areas in a global and European context, and points out that UN-Habitat and the UN environmental programme run a joint sustainable cities scheme in recognition that urban environmental problems are a serious threat to socio-economic development.

"Many of the tools that are being developed are likely to benefit from comparative analysis and learning between nations. There is a shared and growing recognition that adequate planning and implementation capacity at regional, local and neighbourhood levels are critical to the success of management and intervention. The European Sustainable Cities Campaign has similarly demonstrated common challenges and themes and is contributing to innovative responses."

These initiatives highlight the continuing rise in overall waste generation, a critical indicator of failure in environmental management. Crawford welcomes the updated national planning policy statement PPS10, Planning for Sustainable Waste Management, which pinpoints the important contribution that planning for the built environment can make in tackling the resource consumption of building and the delivery of waste management facilities.

However, she adds that the overall delivery of waste management strategies requires a national level review to tackle the problems of the integration of waste reduction mechanisms and the adoption of innovative and effective fiscal and investment frameworks."

She also stresses the urgent need to develop a multi-functional understanding and policy framework for green or open space. "The relationship of green space to urban areas is increasingly recognised as essential to quality of life and environmental functioning. The Environment Agency is promoting the concept of green infrastructure in the growth areas, describing it as 'a planned network of multi-functional green spaces and interconnecting links that is designed, developed and managed to meet the environmental, social and economic needs of communities'. This concept should be developed in the wider context of the need to review the use and management of the urban fringe."

The RTPI's submission to the commission emphasises the role of spatial planning in delivering sustainable urban environments, as underpinned by PPS1. It urges them to pay close attention to the evidence and research bases needed to support this role. In particular, the mechanisms for planning authorities and the UK's environment agencies to work more closely need to be developed. These should include indicators and monitoring systems that enable understanding and an assessment of options.

However, Crawford stresses the ultimate importance of political leadership and social commitment in delivering more environmentally sustainable built environments. The contribution of planning in enabling participation, promoting confidence and allowing accountability in decision-making needs full recognition in this important study. The final report is due to be published in 2006.

- The full response can be viewed via www.rtpi.org.uk/resources/ policy-statements. Study updates can be viewed via www.rcep.org.uk/new.htm.

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