The Compact City

How Freiburg does it, Part 2

We tend to like compact cities.  Why?  Is it because compact is the antithesis of urban sprawl, which has negative connotations.  So negative in fact that fighting it was one of the original aims of the Council for the Preservation for Rural England [1], formed 90 years ago, subsequently egged on by Clough Williams-Ellis’ polemic against sprawl in his 1928 book England and the Octopus.

Or is it something more instinctive?  We like our community to be identifiable, recognisable as a place, with its own characteristics and shared experiences.  “I live in London” says nothing.  “I live in Muswell Hill” says a great deal, at least to London residents [2].

Or it may be a recognition that a compact place uses less resources.  This might be energy, whether in the physical effort of walking or cycling around or in having to light dispersed streets at night.  It might be the protection of natural resources by not building on greenfield land.

Or, even better, a combination of all three.

In 2012 Exeter City Council adopted its Core Strategy, the basis of planning up to 2026.  The document states that Exeter is a compact city [3].  It recognises that this may not endure, largely due to housing pressures generated by the city’s growth strategy.  Indeed the strategy is brutally clear (para 2.15):  “To meet the demand for housing, whilst protecting Exeter’s character, it has been a priority to maximise the use of previously developed land. However, greenfield development has also been necessary […].  As there are limited development opportunities remaining within the urban area, the development pressures on the city fringes will continue.”

No doubt much of the response to these pressures is being discussed in the Greater Exeter Visioning Board, which is so secret that we are not allowed to know what it discusses [4]

Whether it is necessary to build on greenfield land is a matter of political choice, not – as the Core Strategy suggests – an immutable law of nature.  A document produced by the apparently now-defunct Local Strategic Partnership and published at the same time as the Core Strategy, entitled Exeter City Centre: A city centre vision for a green capital [5], draws attention to Freiburg:  “In a similarly exceptional location to Freiburg in south-west Germany, one of the world leading sustainable cities, Exeter could be in a good position to embrace a future as a genuinely green city – benefiting from the lifestyle changes, business opportunities and environmental benefits this status would bring.”

Now there’s a key difference between what Freiburg has done and what Exeter proposes to do in its Core Strategy.  Freiburg’s environmental policy document [6] states: “It is quite clear: the more residential areas constructed on the outskirts of a city, the greater the negative ecological consequences. The prime directive of the city of Freiburg is therefore to keep the need for new areas to an absolute minimum.”

The Exeter Core Strategy is more equivocal.  Among the key objectives is: “8. Protect and enhance the city’s unique historic character and townscape, its archaeological heritage, its natural setting that is provided by the valley parks and the hills to the north and west, and its biodiversity and geological assets” (page 15).  This is a valuable statement, but it sets less of a clear direction than Freiburg’s.

Part of the Core Strategy is a Green Infrastructure Network, developed in a 2009 report [7], and carried through into the final plans as two green corridors, one down the River Exe to the west of the city centre and one down the River Clyst to the east of the city’s eastern boundary.  Neither of these areas could be described fairly as the sort of undeveloped open space Freiburg wishes to protect.

Compact cities are not just about protecting the natural environment.  They have huge advantages for daily living: you can easily do city centre shopping or meet friends without having to take a whole half-day over it; if you fall down in the street the green-and-yellow taxi [8] has less far to come; cultural facilities are close by; bus and taxi journeys are shorter and so should cost less.  And so on.

There is no right and wrong in the choices made by Exeter and Freiburg, though they are likely to have different outcomes.  In a future post I’ll discuss how Freiburg has attempted to maintain its compactness and design sustainability into recent developments, built within the city boundaries, and draw out options for Exeter.  Meanwhile, we need to recognise – as exemplified by approaches to the “compact city” – that planning choices are essentially political.

 

NOTES:

[1]  Now the Campaign to Protect Rural England, www.cpre.org.uk

[2]  For the uninitiated, Muswell Hill is a fairly fashionable middle-class part of North London.

[3]  The Core Strategy is available at https://exeter.gov.uk/media/1636/adopted-core-strategy.pdf   Paragraph 2.26 refers.

[4]  See https://petercleasby.com/2016/05/16/whose-vision-is-it-anyway-part-1/

[5]  I cannot trace this document on the internet.

[6]  English text available at http://www.greencity-cluster.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Dateien/Downloads/Environmental_policy_Freiburg.pdf.  Page 9 refers.

[7]  Available via http://www.exeterandeastdevon.gov.uk/green-infrastructure/

[8]  An expression,  used by those with a dark sense of humour, for a paramedic ambulance.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Compact City

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Two …urban extensions – A Green in Exeter

  2. Pingback: We need new approaches to mobility, now – A Green in Exeter

  3. Pingback: Wider still and wider – time to call a halt – A Green in Exeter

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