Sustainable Cities Need Committed Leadership

When city leaders embrace innovation and when they collaborate, significant long term benefits can be achieved. Across the globe, forward-looking city leaders are embracing change and reaching beyond city hall to drive sustainable economic growth and enhanced quality of life for their citizens.

In the UK the break-up of old-style regional government and the abandonment of regional development agencies has led to a void in mid-scale governance that is being filled by cities.  Aside from London, the UK doesn’t have too many big cities, perhaps with the exception of Birmingham. But whilst those cities might not be big in numbers, they’re certainly stepping up to the plate in building relationships with central government, demanding devolution in return for delivery.

Over the last two years the 8 Core Cities in England (www.corecities.com) have led the development of ‘City Deals’ and there are many excellent writers on that topic – in particular I would point you towards http://charleslandry.com/ and http://davidmarlow.regen.net/

Now, other cities have joined the City Deals process – see https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/giving-more-power-back-to-cities-through-city-deals for more information.

It is clear that cities have a key role to play. They are being given the opportunity to set out how they could deliver better, faster and more sustainably. These factors are at the heart of city deals.

But those cities are also part of a changing city region geography, based on economic geography as opposed to traditional regions and that is scaling up both the challenge and the opportunity.

Cities are now being tasked with developing Growth Plans – setting out lnger term strategies and priorities for sector growth, employment, skills with a strong private sector role and an invitation for multi-stakeholder buy-in. As an example, see http://www.sheffieldcityregion.org.uk/growth-strategy/

But herein lies the danger. The pace at which growth plans and investment plans are being produced is in danger of focusing on the traditional economic approaches and failing to address emerging agenda.

Collectively, and individually, cities in the UK are beginning to understand the ‘Smart City’ concept. It’s been propogated by initiatives such as the Technology Strategy Board’s ‘Future Cities Programme’ and forward thinking (but entirely commercially focused) protagonists such as IBM. It is crucial that in our growth plans, individually, and collectively, the ‘smart city’ concept is embraced and integrated. It will prove essential if we are to achieve the resource efficiency needed to ensure citizens continue to enjoy a good quality of life. It will prove vital if the cities in the UK seek to attract visitors, investors, ambassadors.

The leaders within our cities are key to ensuring this ambition is spelt out. Without endorsing any one business the film produced by IBM here certainly makes the case for the use of data to inform decisions and improve the quality of life for its citizens.

When city leaders embrace innovation and when they collaborate, significant long term benefits can be achieved. Across the globe, forward-looking city leaders are embracing change and reaching beyond city hall to drive sustainable economic growth and enhanced quality of life for their citizens.

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Sustainable Cities Need Low Emission Vehicles

As a follow on to an earlier piece on air quality – great to see examples of electric adn hydrogen technologies being applied to transport systems. Today I’ve read some great pieces on ‘Hybrid Van Man’ – see https://www.innovateuk.org/-/meet-the-hybrid-van-man and the ‘Try before you buy’ approach being adopted in the UK, to build confidence in electric vehicles. Worth looking at the most recent posts from the Energy Savings Trust:  http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/blog/2013/07/17/evs-looking-to-volt-higher/

Also great to see increasing investment in hydrogen and delighted that Sheffield’s ITM Power (www.itm-power.com/clean-fuel/) are leading the way in that respect.

So, whilst EVs are phasing in ever-quicker in the private car and light van market and hydrogen is catching up, it leaves a gap for the heavier vehicles. Which is why we’re working with fleet operators to develop refuelling stations across Sheffield City Region supplying compressed natural gas and biomethane. This forms part of the South Yorkshire bid to the Dept for Transport’s Clean Bus Technology Fund.

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Sustainable Cities Need Great Air Quality

Industrialised, and rapidly developing cities, are faced with an invisible killer. Whilst, on the whole, the developed West (and particularly in Europe) environmental regulations have made a significant impact in controlling and reducing emissions of pollutants to the air, cities continue to suffer from the emissions of nitrous oxide, particulate matter and even sulphur and ozone, as a result of road traffic. Not all traffic though. Only traffic that happens to be fuelled with fossil fuels and, in particular, diesel.

A recent report ‘Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom’  (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es2040416) states ‘Combustion emissions are a major contributor to degradation of air quality and pose a risk to human health. We evaluate and apply a multiscale air quality modeling system to assess the impact of combustion emissions on UK air quality. Epidemiological evidence is used to quantitatively relate PM2.5 exposure to risk of early death. We find that UK combustion emissions cause 13,000 premature deaths in the UK per year, while an additional 6000 deaths in the UK are caused by non-UK European Union (EU) combustion emissions.

This isn’t the only study saying this – there’s significant amounts of academic research from a range of disciplines being undertaken worldwide, looking at the causes and effects of poor air quality. Simply, they all say there is a massive social, environmental and economic cost. Here in the city of Sheffield, we suggest the costs of poor air quality in the city costs our local National Health Service provides hundreds of millions of pounds every year, treating those who suffer chest and lung ailments as a result of the pollutants in the atmosphere. Those more exposed (often living, or working closer to the sources of poor air quality) are more likely to suffer. Those who are young, or old, or in poor health are more vulnerable.

So, what’s the solution and who is charged with delivering it? Well, in truth there is no one solution – it will be a combaination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue serviously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem. Locally, we have undertaken an assessment of the vehicles running on Sheffield’s roads and have monitored emissions on key arterial routes to understand the actual (rather than modelled) emissions from passing vehicles. It is helping us to better understand whether all vehicles are equally responsible, or whether we need to target particular fleets (HGVs, buses, taxis, private vehicles, light goods, etc).

Despite all that, the solution is well understood. We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxde (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.

For heavier vehicles, electric is less likely to play a significant role for some time to come, the smart money is on the use of gas as an alternative to diesel. Whilst governments across the world are now faced with the prospect of fracking shale gas, provided there is a (more) sustainable solution, such as biogas, this could be a significant player. Of course, the concept of range anxiety still remains, so investment in gas refuelling technology is essential if gas is to see widespread adoption. Networks of gas refuelling stations on key routes on motorways and arterial roads and in depots up and down the country will be needed and public intervention is needed to achieve this.

Across South Yorkshire we have idenitifed a number of key sites for the development of gas refuelling infrastructure and are working with the fleet operators and the industry more generally to begin its development. Over coming weeks and months, I’ll post updates on this important programme of work.