Last Thursday I had the pleasure of speaking at the Miniumum...or Maximum Cities event at the University of Cambridge, which was organised with Blueprint magazine and the Paper Cities exhibition, which moved up to the famous university town having been at the Royal Academy for the past few months.
Tim Abrahams has produced an excellent write-up of the event over on the Blueprint site, which I’d urge you to check out if you’re interested, because I think he raises a series of important points about where we find ourselves in relation to the sustainability debate.
For some time now, Re*Move has proposed an agenda where sustainability was the context rather than an end in itself, and like Tim, alarm bells rang in Cambridge, because we were left with a feeling that the only reason anyone is doing anything today is in an attempt to be “more sustainable”. When it comes to movement and transportation, this approach of sustainability first is clearly causing problems, because it seems to be preventing us from envisioning and demanding the future that we actually want to have, and instead pushing us towards something influenced primarily by guilt over past excess.
For example, a lot of transport debate in the UK today centres around whether or not we should be building a high speed rail line to the north of England. Anyone who suggests this is a daft idea is right now likely to labeled both unprogressive and anti-sustainability . Yet anyone who dares suggest a third runway at Heathrow is a good idea, is obviously hell bent on seeing the planet rapidly burn.
Yet the pitfalls of high-speed 2 are multifold. We can already get from Manchester to London in two hours, so should we really prioritise spending billions on reducing this by half? And while it’s automatically assumed that getting the train is better from a carbon perspective, throw real-world load factors into the bargin, and the reality is that a modern, full Airbus is comparative. Meanwhile, the car (which has apparently lost its number one spot to the airplane, in the planet mauling stakes) has improved so much in the past five years that if you’re driving two-up in a Golf diesel, you’ll definitely produce less carbon than going on the train. For me, the biggest issue with High Speed 2 is that an idea which is fundamentally two-hundred years old seems to be stopping us from pushing the boundaries of imagination about what we might do instead, that would be palpably better.
So some of my talk at Cambridge bemoaned this sense that we’d got stuck with a handful of transport formats, and that – with cars and trains at least, they were monocultural. We’ve sized everything to fit them, and one of the reasons we aren’t all riding round on things like Segways in cities, is that cities are fundamentally designed, and sized, for people to use cars. This might sound like I’m suggesting we simply have to keep using cars – as they are - to get around cities. I’m not, but what I’m pointing out is the need for a systems level approach. Will you enjoy trundling up the A40 in a Renault Twizy? Or would you be altogether more tempted by the idea of La Regie’s concept scooter/car cross if you could zip up and down one of Chris Hardwicke’s Velo-City cycle tubes on your way to the office?
Sustainability is the context we now work in. And we’ve little doubt (and are very happy with the notion) that in 5-10 years time, our cities will all be full of things like electric cars. Which will be great for local emissions, but highlights the problem with today's short-sighted sustainability focus, as it won’t do anything to stop us from spending half of our lives sat in traffic jams.
If we simply focus on sustainability as our end point, we’re likely just to end up with a mildly de-carbonised version of what we have now. And the likelihood is that we won’t even achieve that, because when people know they’re saving carbon, they psychologically feel (and often financially are) able to do more and just end up ‘reusing’ what they’ve saved.
Sustainability has created a psychology of fear, where we fear to dream of real improvement and hesitate to think big. What do we mean by improvement? Things which work more quickly or get us places faster, thus providing us with more free time or time with our families and friends. Things that are measurably more fun, or more exciting to ride in or drive than what we have today. Things which cost us less money to use, own or run. Better means thinking about how we link up travel – so we might spend more time in one place and combine trips – rather than rushing from one short hop flight destination to another. Better might mean finding a way to link leisure and business travel together.
But better also means new. New ideas, new products, services and concepts. In essence, we need to dream, and be allowed to think big. If we think of the figures who created some of our totems of mobility – people like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Andre Citroen, Frank Whittle – we still admire and count on the inventions and contributions they made for our mobility backbone today. On Re*Move, we try to highlight and showcase the work of people we hope or think might become modern day IKBs or Whittles. But there are precious few of them around. I’d go as far to argue that the contributions and inventions made by these famous figures, would never have happened had they been around today, working in this world constrained by the fear of sustainability. We are not simply going to solve the predicament we are in by attempting cut, after cut, after cut. We are going to have to dream, and dream big.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 1st December 2009