'City Living' and Sustainable Development: The Experience of a UK Regional City

By Unsworth, Rachael | The Town Planning Review, November 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

'City Living' and Sustainable Development: The Experience of a UK Regional City


Unsworth, Rachael, The Town Planning Review


'City living' has the potential to contribute towards sustainable development as well as to urban renaissance: medium to high density, mixed-use property development on brownfield, central sites provides accommodation for people in city centre employment, reduces the need for travel and adds to urban vitality and viability. But city living developments, driven by demand from buy-to-let investors, have not fulfilled all their potential in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability. The paper argues that the structure of incentives and lack of adequate controls have created a phenomenon that is economically precarious, socially elitist and environmentally ambiguous. The argument draws on an in-depth case study of Leeds in the north of England.

Sustainable development, though a contested concept that is used in different ways (Baker, 2006; Connelly, 2007; Purvis, 2004), is now widely accepted as a guiding principle that should be adopted for plans, projects, programmes and policies across all private and public sector activities. Economic development is no longer to be considered in isolation from social and environmental matters; instead they are meant to be integrated and potential outcomes are to be assessed in terms of a 'triple bottom line' (Elkington, 1999). Sustainable development featured in UK government policy from 1990 (DoE, 1990) and has supposedly been threaded through all policy since the 1992 Earth Summit (DETR, 1999a; DoE, 1994; ODPM, 2005a). The guiding principles according to the UK government's interpretation are social progress which recognises the needs of everyone; effective protection of the environment; the prudent use of natural resources; and the maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment (ODPM, 2005a).

In the context of urban regeneration, policy has stipulated that enhanced economic performance of towns and cities should be pursued such that consideration for the local and wider environment and for social justice, as well as for economic benefits, is integrated into policies and actions (Haughton and Hunter, 1994; Low et al., 2000; UNCHS, 1996; Unsworth, 2004). Special attention to reorientating urban development in England came in the Urban Task Force report (DETR, 1999b), the subsequent Urban White Paper (DETR, 2000a) and three particular Planning Policy Statements (ODPM, 2005b; 2005c; 2006). Priority has been given to redeveloping sites and reusing redundant buildings, focusing mixed-use, medium-density development around transport hubs, and improving the quality of the urban realm and the quality of urban life. In city centres, apartments - both in converted buildings and in new blocks - have been welcomed as an essential element of improving urban vitality and viability (Nathan and Urwin, 2005) and providing for the increasing numbers of oneand two-person households. As more people live in these moderately dense, mixed-use central areas, working within walking distance, there should be a significant reduction in demand for travel and this should have a positive impact on energy demand, road congestion and air pollution. The objective of the 'Urban Renaissance' is

to construct new sustainable urban realms, founded upon the principles of social mixing, sustainability, connectivity, higher densities, walkability, and high-quality streetscapes with the express aim of attracting the suburban knowledge and service industrial demographic back to the city. (Rogers and Coaffee, 2005, 323)

But does high-density, high-value city-centre residential development amount to a thorough manifestation of sustainable development? Can it be said that the revitalised city centres, which are undeniably well connected and thriving economically, are also environmentally sensitive, socially equitable and likely to endure beyond the first phase of fashionability? Or is the urban renaissance to be judged as a less than holistic success, producing a phenomenon that is successful in some limited ways but is also economically precarious, socially elitist and environmentally ambiguous? …

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