Remarkable Cities

31 October 2019

Jonathan Smales Remarkable Places


Over 40 architects, engineers, landscape designers and academics came together under the invitation of Jonathan Smales to create a vision for a remarkable city that will enable us to live within our global, sustainable and economic means.

We are living in a climate emergency.

And every day and in almost everything we do, we are making this emergency worse.

Much has been written and said about the scale of human impact on our planet, and we have an urgent task of mitigation to fulfil.

Environmentalists have long had a blind spot about cities. They were the visible blight of an unsustainable world. We know that the way we plan, design, construct, manage and maintain urban places and buildings and their associated infrastructures is a root cause of the climate and living world emergencies. Moreover, we know that nearly every major plan for urban growth, for new homes and for road-based transport in the UK today exhibits not just a profound ignorance of these emergencies but will undermine our prospects of mitigating, perhaps even of surviving them.

However, cities are our best hope to create efficient infrastructure for sustainable living.

Jonathan Smales, Executive Chairman of Human + Nature, founder of the Earth Centre and former International Trustee of Greenpeace, invited 40 architects, designers, engineers and landscape architects to envision a remarkable city that will enable us to live within our global, sustainable and economic means.

The brief for this remarkable city would have sustainable urban land-use, structure and form; housing, business, cultural and leisure activities; clean water and clean air. Its streets and squares would give easy access and movement; it would have plentiful gardens and parks with productive greenery everywhere; energy would come from the sun, warmth and cooling from the earth, and buildings would breathe. There would be life between buildings and social justice where everyone has a decent home, easy access to good, healthy food, a great start in life in fine nurseries and schools and the opportunity to play safely in the street. The vision for our city would look at how we might live (better) in the sustainable future and what changes we should bring to the urban periphery, to our strategic green and blue infrastructure.

Six groups each took on one of these aspects, according to their interest and expertise, to draw up concepts and plans for our remarkable city.

City and bioregional plan Convened by Keith Bradley FCBStudios. Participants from: AHMM, DRMM, Fathom, Expedition Engineering, Leeds Metropolitan University, Human + Nature and Alder King Property Consultants.

The vision is compact, urban, intense.

Great cities have a sense of place. The cities we want to live in are set within a distinct topography: rivers, valleys, mountains. Our remarkable city should take advantage of natural landscapes, but not be afraid to create its own. Neighbourhood clusters sit within a green landscape, where parks, forests and wild areas replace the town square as the centre for civil society.

Whilst our city can be very compact, say four square kilometres, cities are not autonomous. They require a hinterland of productive land to support them. Each resident requires approximately 40m2 to produce energy, 33km2 for water supply and 20m2 for food production (much more if we eat meat).

In order to compress this space, we must think of a city as a layered, four-dimensional place, where land use can change over time – whether over the day or over the year.  We can bring some of these uses within the ‘city walls’-  for rainwater to be captured, electricity produced and food grown, alongside civic uses. Every block, neighbourhood and district needs to be truly mixed-use, building and supplying its own characteristics and community.

Bioregion: blue, green and brown infrastructure Convened by Dan Epstein, Useful Projects. Participants from: Uncommon Land, Day 1, Ecology Solutions and Alder King Property Consultants.

The relationship between land (green) and water (blue) in any city is governed by economics (brown). While we are now better informed about how we use resources, we still do things in the same ways as we did 40 years ago because economic systems haven’t changed.

Our remarkable city should follow new models of ownership, where the inhabitants of the city own the land and the facilities and there is an equality of healthcare, education and food infrastructure. This cannot happen without an interventionist public sector, compensating people fairly

Our experience is that people enjoy living on the edge of cities, close enough to amenities and social networks, but near to the countryside and the green-blue space that is connected to wellbeing.

To make a city where more people can access the countryside more easily, Peter Clegg proposes a compact city plan around the universal and long-lasting city plan of a high street with side streets. Neighbourhoods are grouped, wrapped by a long boundary that gives more people easy access to the countryside.

Sustainable Food, farming and urban-rural interface, convened by students from London School of Architecture.

Nature needs to be everywhere and for everyone. In a remarkable city, there would be yoga in the orchard, chickens to be fed on the way to school, trees climbed for the adventure of it, and friends who meet for a walk.

Nature connects people back to what is around them and encourages more activity. With a new urban/rural interface nature is part of everyone’s every day. Agriculture is no longer a monoculture but has natural synergies with city life. Local agriculture can provide jobs and a link back to schools and education. Properly green spaces appear throughout the city and fingers of housing penetrate into the green.

Abundant Greenery, convened by Andrew Grant, Grant Associates, participants from Grant Associates and Periscope.

As the climate gets warmer biodiversity and abundant greenery play a more important role in mitigating this change. Plants can clean the air, filter water, feed us, cool the environment, slow soil degradation and protect against flooding and extreme weather.

Our cities should be greened, not just with parks, but with planting on roofs, balconies, terraces and in the spaces between. Food should be grown in the city and consumed within metres of its cultivation and every citizen should have the opportunity to spend time in nature. In our remarkable city, we could replace public squares with public parks, turn car parks into meadows and line the roads with fruit trees.

Greenery needs to not only be abundant, but diverse. providing a variety of terrain, attracting wildlife and contributing to a city that it is a pleasure to spend time in.

Streets and Movement, People and Lifestyles convened by John Dales, Urban Movement, participants from Urban Movement, Ikea, Kjellander Sjoberg, JamJar, WeaveGlobal, Human + Nature, TOWN, Lemon Drizzle, Flibl, FCBStudios and Iylah Shah.

The remarkable city is broken down into local communities, which group together to make the districts of the city. Patterns of movement within and between communities can be described using the foundation of the Popsicle Test. Can an eight-year-old buy an ice lolly, and walk home with it - safely - before it melts?

The area covered by the distance you can walk before your ice lolly melts - approximately a five-minute walk - defines the boundaries of a pedestrianised neighbourhood. Within the traffic-free area should be a park, a nursery and local shops. Children should be able to play together in the spaces and the local community, which is created by chance encounters and shared lives, is enriched.

A group of these ‘popsicle areas’ add up to create a 2.5km radius square which includes schools, health centres and other services which serve a larger community.

On a city scale, it should be possible to access cultural destinations, a train station, tertiary education and so on, via a 15-minute bike ride through a linear park, for instance. This city plan assumes a dense, greened city, with pedestrians and cycle infrastructure taking precedence over cars. The initial plan must be flexible, with spaces for adaptability and meanwhile uses, with room for change as needs and desires alter.

The Perfect City Block convened by Cany Ash, Ash Sakula Architects, participants from: FCBStudios, ScdlP, Kjellander Sjoberg, Southern Renewables, Human+Nature and Flibl.

Every block should be a microcosm of the city, encompassing community and creating the structure of our new ownership model. Co-housing, co-working and the circular economy all draw on economies of scale – from obtaining resources from tool and book libraries, sharing cooking and childcare responsibilities to buying power for food, water and electricity. Each city block should encompass a circular economy in as many aspects as possible, linking into larger networks for healthcare, education and services. In this way, zero waste and renewable power strategies will exploit natural synergies.

Beyond tenure, style, geography and scale of the city block, the community defines the city block. A circularity of confidence is generated by people playing a role in their communities, to reduce consumerism and increase localism.

Housing  Convened by Paul Karakusevic, Karakusevic Carson Architects, participants from: MOLE, Haptic Architects, John Smart Architects, FCBStudios, CFMoller, Tim Fisher and Human + Nature.

Remarkable cities need remarkable housing. One size cannot fit all, but a series of common tenets can apply across all and all should delight:

Land and key infrastructure should be in public ownership. Resources, whether facilities or spaces, should be shared. Minimum volumetric standards should be set. Communities should be diverse. House types and tenure should be mixed. Offices and commercial space, community, education and sports facilities should be accessible to all within a micro-community. Adaptability should be built in for future change.

Designing, planning and approvals take time, but this can be turned to our advantage. Before pen is put to paper we should plant a forest. By the time the plans have been approved and tendered for construction, this forest will have grown into a sustainable resource for making CLT. A CLT factory can be moved around the city to where it is needed, providing low carbon building materials and local skilled jobs. When buildings are no longer required, all their materials should be recycled and reused, a catalogue of items should be made public to be incorporated in future buildings.

Reduce waste. Build to last.

Housing should take advantage of sharing efficiencies. Facades should be active, providing electricity, social space, and contributing to the biosphere. Work/play/living spaces should be interspersed generously between the homes. Our new approach to housing could initiate tighter communities; perhaps Britain is ready for co-housing?

We must not let these ideas disappear. Every city must be remarkable. In our everyday work, we must connect these strands of thinking and apply the concepts of the remarkable city to our existing cities, neighbourhoods and buildings.

This is a summary of the Remarkable City workshop that took place at FCBStudios on 15 May 2019.


Top: Jonathan Smales introduces The Remarkable CityPlan for The Remarkable City

1. Peter Clegg and Cany Ash discuss ideas of community and the circular economy for 'The Perfect City Block'

2. Peter Clegg's 'trilobite' plan approach to city planning.

3. A cycle of human and natural development

4. Abundant green; abundant rewards.

5. Intense\, greened public space and dense living. All images courtesy of FCBStudios