Tag Archives: Sustainable cities

High Street Greens

We can do so much better than the current High Street business model, and its current difficulties offer Exeter new opportunities

There’s a lot of truth in the observation that Exeter’s city centre is a “clone town”.  Along the length of the High Street and in the shopping centres at Guildhall and Princesshay, the retail frontage of the national chain stores far exceeds that of one-off local businesses.  That’s not surprising.  Exeter has long held ambitions to be the “regional capital” and having the major brands present is, whether you like it or not, a demonstration that this is a serious place with all the retail facilities that serious places are expected to provide.

This ambition underpins the Exeter’s planning policies. Unfortunately, the two main consumer sectors in the city centre – retail and food outlets – are having a fairly torrid time.  In recent weeks, we have seen national announcements galore.

  • Byron and Prezzo closing branches, and Carluccio’s calling in KPMG – Carillion’s auditors – for help.
  • The likely closure of three New Look stores in Devon, including Exeter’s.
  • The owner of Café Rouge and Bella Italia announcing major losses.
  • Toys R Us and Maplin – both with Exeter branches, but outside the city centre – going into administration.

The commonly given reasons for instability in these businesses are [1]:

  • The shift to online shopping. It’s not surprising.  This week I wanted a new cover for my Samsung smartphone.  It’s not a recent model, and did any of the phone accessory shops in the city centre have what I needed?  Of course not.  I found it and paid for it on the internet in 5 minutes.  It takes a big leap of faith and logic to believe that this shift is anything other than permanent.
  • Less disposable income for discretionary spending. Inflation is up and exceeded the growth in annual earnings throughout 2017.  It’s also worth noting that despite some trumpeting in the latest report from the Centre for Cities [2] of Exeter’s success in creating private sector jobs (and, by the way, how many of these are in the gig economy?), there are some substantial downsides.  Particularly the finding that average weekly earnings in the city actually fell by 4.1% (£35 p.w) in 2016/17, the largest percentage fall of any of the 63 cities surveyed.  And the employment rate fell by 6.4% over the same period, one of the worst performances of any UK city.
  • Rising overheads. According to the BBC report, the British Retail Consortium estimates that the National Living Wage costs the industry between £1.5bn and £3bn a year.  Perhaps if businesses paid their staff properly in the first place and factored this into their business plans, the NLW wouldn’t be an issue?  The BRC also complains that business rates are “preventing retailers from delivering what their customers want in an efficient and cost-effective way.”  Haven’t business rates always been a fact of life, guys?  In the food sector, the Brexit-induced devaluation of sterling has also added to costs.
  • Over-provision. It’s simple.  Too many businesses chasing a static, or even declining, pool of customers.  Apart from the usual run of High Street businesses, Exeter also has Princesshay, Guildhall Shopping Centre, and Queen Street Dining.  These developments, and the High Street, are largely occupied by national chains, many of whom are now facing financial difficulties.  If they have to close branches, Exeter has no divine right to be spared.  Polpo in Queen St Dining, Swaroski jewellers in Princesshay, Jones the Bootmakers on the High Street and Jamie’s Italian in Bedford Square have all been and gone.  The nearest branches are usually in Bristol.  As noted above, our local economy is troubled.

It was surely recognition of these factors that informed the private sector developers’ decision last year to pull out of the scheme for redeveloping their part of the bus and coach station site.  All of the four reasons above are down, directly or indirectly, to the behaviour of businesses themselves.  Would you really invest in their performance?

So, we’re back to the city’s planners and their commitment to protecting the city centre.  Of course cities need a centre, however vibrant their district hubs may be, and Exeter is no exception.  Our best (and worst) buildings are in the centre, as are most of our entertainment venues and places where we meet.  What the planners need to start asking themselves is this:  does protecting the city centre equate to protecting its present retail offer, which may be in freefall?

The market may be ahead of them.  In the eastern Exeter, there are now three major retail developments in prospect: on surplus police land at Middlemoor, the new Moor Exchange retail park plan, and on a Western Power Distribution site.  All three are adjacent to, or close to, Honiton Road, thus setting up a new east-west retail corridor.

These edge of city developments throw down a challenge to received thinking about “protecting the city centre”.  Protect from what?  Protect from competition has been the local politicians’ and planners’ mantra [3].  Yet the City Council leadership has displayed enthusiasm verging on the orgasmic at the impending opening of an IKEA store, now under construction – not in the city centre, but on the city’s furthest eastern fringe.

The major developments proposed for the east of Exeter may in these changing circumstances actually make more sense than the knee-jerk opposition to them from many in the city.  As the city’s housing expands dramatically eastwards, there is a case to be made that Exeter’s centre of gravity has itself moved eastward.  Allowing larger shopping areas with “High Street” brands should reduce the need to make the long slog into the city centre – often by car – for people wanting to use those stores.  New purpose-built premises away from city centre congestion may allow retailers to cut operational costs and improve their long-term prospects.

And so what sort of city centre do we plan for instead?  The opportunities are endless, guided only by the principle that the centre should be low-carbon and designed for people.  Some of the ideas we can look at are:

  • Make the High Street completely traffic-free, except for an early-morning period for deliveries where there is no rear access. Buses could use the normal diversion routes when the High Street is closed for parades, and space could be provided in the redeveloped bus station for city bus services to drop/pick up passengers and do crew changes.
  • With the traffic gone, the space for people increases massively. There would be space for proper markets – not just food produce (get your greens without plastic wrapping!) but also stalls selling a diversity of locally-made products, ranging from jewellery to small furniture items, from paintings and sculpture to books and DVDs.
  • Café society in all its glory. Weather permitting, Artigiano’s shows that people like sitting outside even with the buses.  When the weather is less welcoming, apply the French model in which glass panes are brought out from the shop or café onto the pavement to provide warmth and shelter.
  • Play spaces: games for the kids, giant chess or boules for others.
  • As the big retailers move east, or go west, there will be plenty of units and pavement frontages than can be given over to new uses without involving major new construction. A policy of low rents – which the City Council as the major freeholder ought to be able to negotiate – would encourage more local businesses to emulate Fore Street.  The other attractions in the High Street should increase footfall.
  • The upper floors of the High Street buildings – often used for storage or not used at all – could be converted into apartments for a mix of rents (sorry, no students: you’re great but you’ve got enough flats already).
  • Workshops, pop-up shops, drop-in services and much more: all would have a place.
  • A permanent space for community groups to publicise themselves and win converts to their causes.

This isn’t a blueprint.  There are many if, buts and downright unknowns.  But isn’t that already true of current policy and practice?  Let’s make a change instead.



[1]   According to a BBC News analysis at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43240996

[2]   The full survey report is at http://www.centreforcities.org/publication/cities-outlook-2018/  Detailed data at http://www.centreforcities.org/data-tool/

[3]   Though a little off topic, I can’t resist quoting from the City Council’s draft Air Quality Action Plan, currently out for consultation (accessible via https://exeter.gov.uk/aqap/summary-action-plan/ ).  In Appendix B – reasons for not pursuing particular actions – the response to the construction of a tram network is:  “No tram network is planned currently, as improvements to the bus network are proposed and the two modes would compete.”


Reclaiming our main roads for residents

It’s not only our side streets that can be made people-friendly

Traffic restraint on residential streets is not new – humps, speed limits, barriers, residents’ parking schemes, pedestrianisation, and so on.  Some of these measures have become discredited because of their impact on driving behaviour: for example speed humps encourage breaking and acceleration with consequent increased fuel consumption and noise.  Nonetheless, there seems to be a general recognition that residential streets are for people and – for as long as we have them – their own cars, even if action to develop this belief into practicable schemes is thin on the ground.

Those who live on the main roads into cities fare less well.  The A30 at its London end – the Great South West Road – was one of the capital’s inter-war major road building schemes.  Today it is a grim industrial three-lane dual carriageway corridor, with Heathrow Airport on one side and industrial buildings or open spaces on the other.  By contrast, what was the A30 at its Exeter end is the narrow East Wonford Hill, Heavitree Fore Street and then (surprisingly) Magdalen Road.  Apart from the centre of Heavitree, the road is mostly lined on both sides by housing.

Although the through traffic has alternative routes, vehicles heading for central Exeter have no choice but to use one of the main arterial roads, built for an age that could not foresee the growth of motor vehicles.  Heavitree Road has substitiuted for Magdalen Road, but Pinhoe Road, Cowick Street, Topsham Road and Alphington Road (the latter two are signposted routes from the national network) have no such relief.  All these roads are primarily residential, with some parts such as East Wonford Hill and the city end of Pinhoe Road having the houses very close to the road itself.

In my post Tackling congestion won’t make our streets liveable I suggest that tackling air pollution from traffic congestion is an essential but short-life issue.  It should not dominate our thinking at the expense of making our streets, including the main roads, liveable for people.  Yet we need, for the foreseeable future, ways of continuing to allow buses, trade vehicles and residents’ private cars to enter and exit the city centre; and until the public transport offer is improved, commuter traffic will still be with us.

Typically, an Exeter main road looks like this:


The characteristics of such roads are:

  • High volumes of traffic at peak hours, making crossing the road other than at lights or zebra crossings difficult or unsafe.
  • Traffic noise and fumes.
  • Random use of either the pavement or the road by cyclists and mobility scooters.
  • In some places (eg on Polsloe Road, Blackboy Road) the pavements are so narrow that it is impossible for people to pass without unacceptable intimacy or one of them risking life by stepping onto the road.

Separation schemes are already in use – see the cycle lane against the traffic flow on Paris Street.  However the lack of physical barriers enforcing separation weakens their impact.  The new cycle lane being built on Cumberland Way near the Met Office has such physical separation and is a welcome step forward.  Cumberland Way is wide enough to allow two lanes of traffic in addition to the cycle lane.

Yet this doesn’t do much to make the road more “liveable”, to overcome the adverse characteristics of main roads highlighted above.  For that, we need something like this:


What you see here is a primarily (but not solely) one-way street for motor traffic, with generous two-way provision for everyone else.   Vehicle drivers who live locally, ie in a side street off the main road, and who are arriving against the main flow of traffic, won’t want to drive around a large one-way system (see the final part of this post) to get to their homes, and nor should we want them to generate extra noise and fumes by having to do so.  Hence the idea of an airport-style car park barrier with vehicle licence plate recognition technology: residents simply provide proof of residence to the local authority to register their vehicle and the barrier lets them through.  A fixed barrier at the far end prevents vehicles from rat-running, and they may need to drive onto the “non-vehicle path” to avoid larger vehicles coming the other way or to unload/pick up.  An exception to the fixed barrier may be needed for buses to pass against the main traffic flow.

But what of those narrow main roads that can only manage two lanes of traffic as they are?  How do we bring in separation schemes there?  Take, for example, the west end of Pinhoe Road, so narrow that parking is prohibited on both sides.  This is a major route in and out of the city centre, so it clearly needs to accommodate traffic.  A possible solution is this:


In other words, the same principles, but with one of the “non-vehicle paths” taken out.

By now, readers’ objections are mounting.  Two issues in particular are nagging away: parking; and the evils of one-way streets.

Let’s take parking.  None of us has the right to park outside our house on a public road.  Sometimes there isn’t room without obstructing traffic.  Or there’s a double yellow line.  Or another car is parked there.  So the absence of parking provision on these new-style roads is not adding to challenges that already exist.

Next, one-way streets.  Much beloved of traffic planners in the 60s and 70s, main road one-way streets became more like race tracks, with pedestrians hemmed in behind safety barriers.  Drive into central Brighton from the north if you want a taste of it.  But those one-way streets are a nightmare because they were designed to speed up traffic.  What we need now are one-way streets which allow the traffic to flow, thus avoiding congestion and fumes, but to flow at controlled low speeds of say, 20 mph maximum.

And below is how part of a one-way system might work.  The aim is to reduce volumes of traffic on individual main roads – by making them one-way – and to improve the environment for residents of those roads by reducing the space for motor traffic and increasing the space for other users.  Barriers would be needed in side streets to prevent rat-running to escape the one-way restrictions.


OK, this is not fully worked out.  It’s a possible model to add to the options for making our cities and towns places where motor vehicles are less important than liveable spaces.

Small but significant: Exeter City Council’s energy measures

I didn’t pick it up at the time, but a recent Exeter City Council report reminds its readers that the Council won a national award earlier in the year for its Renewables and Energy Efficiency Programme.  The Local Government Chronicle’s Environment Award was won by the Council for an “ambitious programme of projects to achieve energy reduction, to generate renewable energy and to be an energy-neutral council” [1].

Somewhat bizarrely, typing the programme’s name into the search engine on the Council’s website generates a “no results found” response, but progress reports to members of the Council show that the programme is being effectively delivered through a small team of two people. Solar PV on roofs of council-owned buildings such as car parks and the livestock centre have made a particular impact.  Work on battery storage, to build on this, is planned, as is the use of smart metering [2].

In the great scheme of things this is small beer.  But it is an important signal: the Council is giving a practical lead on climate change issues, as well as achieving some small financial savings.

Senior management have said that if the team could be expanded, much more could be achieved.  It would be a good use of our money if Council members agreed.



[1]   https://www.lgcplus.com/home/lgc-awards-2016/environment/7002814.article

[2]   The latest progress report can be downloaded from http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=634&MId=4843&Ver=4 item 13.


A Tale of Two …urban extensions

In my post on the Compact City, I noted the different choices made by Freiburg and Exeter in their approaches to balancing the need to provide new homes against the need to protect the natural environment.  To illustrate how these choices played out in practice, what follows is a brief study of how the two cities have managed urban extensions.


Within Freiburg’s southern city boundary is the district of Vauban, built on the site of a former French army barracks about 3km from the city centre [1].  Planned and developed between 1994 and 2014, with building work starting in 1998, the district was designed to be an exemplar of sustainable living.  Its population at the end of 2014 was 5,600, or 2.5% of the city’s total population.  Covering some 40 hectares, the whole district is easily walkable from one end to the other.

The city council bought the land from the German federal government, and so had effective control over land use decisions.  In planning the development, however, the council worked in a formal partnership with communities, through a purpose-built organisation known as Forum Vauban, a vehicle for articulating community views and for influencing the types of housing, traffic and energy plans and ensuring the development of a community centre for social services.

The City Council and the Forum took steps to ensure that the Vauban community was indeed “green”.

  • Energy-efficient housing was mandated, including over 100 buildings to PassivHaus standards. Solar energy is a major contributor to energy needs, and was designed into some of the buildings from the start.  Rainwater is captured on flat roofs.
  • Preference was given to co-operative housebuilders. Though there was some privately-built housing, the major housebuilding firms were excluded from Vauban.
  • The district is designed to provide some 600 jobs: in shops, schools, businesses and community services. This does not appear to have stopped commuting, but it is a better jobs to houses ratio than in many other places.

160628 Vauban Mitte

Transport planning has been managed seriously and proactively.  In particular:

  • Cars are not banned, but they must be parked in a community car park on the edge of the district, not beside houses and apartments. Households without cars don’t have to pay towards the community car park upkeep.  Car-sharing through a car club is on offer.
  • The excellent tram service was integrated into the development at an early stage, with services running from 2006. Trams to the city centre and beyond run on dedicated tracks along the district’s main central road, every 7-8 minutes.  The trams – and the buses – are run by a municipally-owned company.
  • Bicycles are in common use. The whole district is flat, there are few cars to create conflicts with cyclists, and ample parking for cycles both at the main tram stops and in residential areas.

160628 Vauban culdesac

Vauban looks modern but it doesn’t “feel” like a new town.  Its main street has ample shops and businesses, there are plenty of people walking and cycling.  The architecture is varied and well located around green spaces.

Though not designed to the same green standards, another major urban extension in Freiburg is the district of Rieselfeld [2].  Larger than Vauban, at nearly 10,000 residents on a 70-hectare site, it was also built on brownfield land – a former sewage works – without breaching the city boundaries to encroach on green space.  In Riesefeld too, the tram system was an early piece of infrastructure and now runs at the same frequency as in Vauban, taking 15 minutes to the city centre.

Both these developments are real expressions of Freiburg’s planning policy “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.” [3].  In pursuing this goal, the city’s planners have not been afraid to plan for high-density living:  Vauban’s population is currently 137 people per hectare, the highest by far of any of the Freiburg city districts, and the density in Rieselfeld is 100 per hectare.  The average for the city as a whole is 49 [4].


The policy response to Exeter’s housing need has been, reasonably enough, to get more houses built.  The key planning document, the Core Strategy (no longer as key as it was, but that’s another story), commits to an increase of at least 12,000 dwellings within the city boundaries between 2006 and 2026.  As a result, major developments of several hundred houses have grownn and are growing up on the city’s fringes, particularly to the east, pushing against the city’s administrative boundary.

Many of these developments are housing-driven, with little by the way of the services that make life tolerable.  In a growth area in the east of the city, a proposal for a shopping centre was refused by the city council on the grounds that it could have an adverse impact on trade in the city centre.  To be fair to the council, the proposal was a bit OTT, and plans for a more modest district shops and services centre would probably have been approved.  Meanwhile the residents are as far away for easily accessible shops as ever, yet another example why planning is too important to be left to “the market”.

A characteristic of Exeter’s housing developments is that they sprawl, often onto greenfields.  Despite fine words in planning documents, it seems to be impossible to impose any sort of density requirement on house-builders through the planning system, and to prevent the gradual (and not so gradual) erosion of unprotected green space.  It’s common knowledge that housebuilders prefer building 3-4 bed “executive homes” with garages and gardens, because they will make greater profits than from building 1-bed apartments.  It’s also common knowledge that they prefer building on green space rather than brownfield – previously developed – land.

One consequence of Exeter running out of developable space has been a new settlement, Cranbrook, over the boundary in East Devon.  Started 5 years ago, currently at 1,300 homes, it is planned to quadruple in size over the next 20 years, all on greenfield land.  This new town has very little to do with East Devon’s own housing need, and everything to with Exeter’s: as late as September 2015, a report to Devon County Council concluded that decisions needed to be taken on “whether Cranbrook would constitute a standalone development in the future or an urban extension of Exeter, linking with other developments taking place in its vicinity as part of a wider growth corridor” [5].

Cranbrook is modestly described in East Devon’s Local Plan [6] as follows: “[the} efforts in delivering this self-sufficient, low-carbon new town, the first stand-alone settlement in Devon since the Middle Ages, have won national acclaim.  A sustainable community located close to real employment opportunities, among them a significant number of highly-skilled jobs, will be an exemplar for green travel.”

Ho hum.  A quick, and admittedly not comprehensive, comparison with the green district of Vauban raises a few questions about these claims.

  • First, and crucially, there are no car restrictions in Cranbrook. Almost every house has a garage or a car parking space, so there is no incentive for the residents to use public transport.  This is not surprising because, second comparison, public transport is sparse.  There is a train once an hour from the new station – opened two years late – west to Exeter or east to Honiton and beyond.  The bus service to Exeter is half-hourly most of the day.

160807 Brooks Warren(1)


  • Cycles are a rare sight. On a weekday morning there was one parked at the railway station.

160817 Stn bike park weekday(2)

  • Vauban has its central spine, walkable from one end to the other in 10 minutes, but the overall shape of the place is rectangular.  Cranbrook is a linear sausage, planned to become even longer in the future.  Both are the products of the site allocated by the planners:  Vauban based on a former barracks, Cranbrook squashed in between a railway line to the north and a former trunk road to the south.  The planners’ density assumption for Cranbrook is 40 dwellings per hectare (excluding green space) [7]

Like Vauban, Cranbrook has a district heating scheme, which is laudable.

Cranbrook’s housing design has been largely left to the developers and house builders.  Apart from the broad locations of housing set out in the Local Plan, there is – perhaps surprisingly – no development plan for the town.  East Devon District Council is currently preparing one, which won’t be adopted until mid-2017 [8].  There is something to be said for not designing a place in full until there are sufficient residents to generate worthwhile public input; but it leaves a great deal to house-builders at the outset.  And, unlike Vauban, the big house-builders are all that’s on offer: Bovis, Taylor Wimpey, Charles Church and Persimmon all strut their stuff.

That said, there have been serious efforts to provide affordable housing.  In the first development phase, 300 houses were offered at social rents or on shared ownership terms, and a further 100 at below market prices on the grounds that their rooms are 20% smaller than average. [9].

It’s probably unfair to judge the “feel” of Cranbrook at this stage.  It’s still being built, and it’s dwarfed by housing.  Yet I’ve met people who live there and rave about it.  Let’s just say it’s got a very long way to go to be a green exemplar, though with intelligent planning and strong local leadership it could get there.

 So what?

These differences between Freiburg and Exeter reflect in large measure wider social and political differences, in particular the embracing by the UK’s – or at least England’s – political classes of market-driven doctrines over the past 30 years.  This contrasts with the “managed social economy” approach prevailing in Germany and much of the rest of the EU.  Whether England’s bosses will ever realise that the market is not the solution to everything is at present unanswerable.

Meanwhile there are lessons in the Exeter-Freiburg comparison, which I will elaborate in future posts: how plans are developed, and community engagement; the relationship between local government and the private sector, and the former’s relationship with central government; the involvement of social and co-operative enterprises; and investment in transport.



[1] The website www.vauban.de provides a wealth of information about the origins of the district, some of it in English (though much needs updating).  Freiburg City Council’s website is authoritative but mostly in German: for Vauban, see http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208732.html. The Google translation tool at [..] makes a valiant if not wholly successful effort at rendering German planning-speak into English planning-speak.

[2] See the entry in Freiburg City Council’s website at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/,Lde/208560.html (in German)

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

[4] These figures refer to population per hectare of developed land (“besiedelter Fläche”), so are less prone to distortion from large areas of greenspace in an area.. They are from page 34 of the 2015 edition of the excellent 300-page compendium of statistics published by Freiburg City Council, available at http://www.freiburg.de/pb/site/Freiburg/get/params_E1938626907/906571/statistik_veroeffentlichungen_Jahrbuch_2015-NIEDRIG.pdf  .

[5]  See para 9 of the report at http://www.devon.gov.uk/cma_report.htm?cmadoc=report_cs1519.html

[6] Available at: www.eastdevon.gov.uk/planning/planning-policy/local-plan-2013-2031/

[7]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/planning-libraries/evidence-document-library/chapter8.1-housing/hsg012-cranbrookexpansionoptions.pdf

[8]  http://eastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook/

[9] More detail at http://www.exeterandeastdevon.gov.uk/cranbrook-new-community/



The Freiburg Charter

Freiburg’s experience of becoming a green, sustainable city owes much to its governance and political continuity.  What is being achieved there has been distilled into 12 principles, developed by the City of Freiburg and the Academy of Urbanism.  Published in 2012, it is known as the Freiburg Charter, and I reproduce it below.

There is much in it that is already practised in Exeter, and more that could be.



Spatial Principles


Encouragement of a balanced age and social profile within functioning neighbourhoods, with the provision of appropriate workplaces for all sectors of the population and the encouragement of innovative residential models.

The provision of facilities in public and private infrastructure for all generations with the provision of well-managed places balanced with free spaces.

The provision of a full range of facilities, especially for very young and very old citizens.

The integration of all strands of society irrespective of ethnicity, gender or age.


Decentralised governance, with a defined degree of empowerment and personal responsibility, is indispensable for cities and should be actively encouraged.

Decentralised governance is of particular importance in: residential living and working, social infrastructure, education and culture, recreation and management of green spaces and networks.

The protection of a city’s identity is a precondition for sustainable urban planning and development.


Existing facilities should be enhanced and new ones introduced in such a way that they are in accordance with the idea of the Compact City.

Accessibility to all infrastructure networks on foot minimises car traffic and leads to an improvement in environmental quality.

The development of public transport and pedestrian and bicycle networks should be given priority over the use of private motor vehicles.


Public transport needs to be closely integrated with the urban design vision and, as a general principle, must always be given priority over car traffic. Increased urban density along public transport routes should be brought about in a sensitive and sustainable manner.

Land uses with civic function and high frequency of use should be located in close proximity to public transportation nodes in order to increase urban intensity.

Content Principles


Schools and universities, research facilities and cultural institutions make a significant impact on the attractiveness and the quality of a city. They have a strong influence on public life and can have a decisive influence on the planning culture of a city.

A city has to create opportunities for personal development and life-long learning.


The most important task for the future is the conservation of existing employment and the development of groundbreaking and innovative businesses. In order to achieve this, we must fully tap into every opportunity that enables the city to maintain existing jobs on the one hand, and to develop new ones on the other.

The trend to greenfield development and ‘edge city’ has to be counteracted with a concentration on the regeneration of existing urban fabric. The proper application of these principles is indispensable.


The conservation of biological diversity, the wise use of resources for the benefit of future generations and the protection of a healthy and liveable environment are key objectives for urban development.

All areas of planning have to be evaluated for their impact on the environment prior to implementation, in order to safeguard the habitats of animals and plants as well as historically-important cultural landscapes.


Most planning decisions shape the appearance of the city for generations. These decisions must therefore support and enhance the character of a city by promoting the highest qualities of design.

Public spaces play a key role: together with their neighbouring buildings they form the public face of a city.

Public property rights and the authority for disposal of public space must remain with the body politic in order to mediate between different interests and to counteract undesirable development.

The development of key building projects has to be led by the planning authority from initial concept through to realisation on the ground.

Tools such as architectural design competitions, multiple commissioning and expert panels should be employed as a general principle, in order to find solutions for important buildings and public spaces.

The structure of the plot plan – as a starting point for diversity – plays a very important role.

Processes of urban redevelopment will be of special importance in the future.

Process Principles


Consistent urban planning and development needs to follow a unifying vision that refers back to the city’s past and projects forward several decades.

The face of the city must not be submitted to short-lived fashions or political whim. Additions to cities that have evolved over historical timeframes must anticipate the needs of future generations (conserve the old and celebrate the new). Only in this way can the uniqueness and the character of a city be developed, maintained and enhanced.

Continuity, quality and awareness of the intricacies of a location are important attributes for a sustainable, future-oriented city.


Communities must work continuously on their collective vision for the city through public discourse that becomes manifest in public spaces and in city culture.

Continuous communication must be supported among the protagonists and stakeholders inside and outside the city administration. The outputs should be fed directly into planning processes to help create transparency and to inform political decisions.

All parts of a city’s population must be invited to participate, co-operate and engage through appropriate modes of communication – in all phases of development from initial visioning through to detailed planning, delivery and management.

A culture of engagement should be established, employing a wide range of techniques available to central, regional and local authorities.


A citywide concept, with principles of consensus, creates the proper environment within which all the participants in urban development can act with equal rights.

In order for the city to become a reliable partner for all citizens and investors, urban policy needs to be founded on basic resolutions that have a binding effect on the city administration.

Basic principles need to govern site development guidelines and standards of sustainable construction. Guidelines such as the City of Short Distances have to be enshrined in subject-specific policies – such as the retail concepts embodied in Freiburg’s marketplaces and sub-centres. These principles should be made legally binding through development masterplans.

A level of trust should be created between the protagonists within the city’s administration and those outside, based on continuity and with sufficient freedom to enable innovation and creativity to flourish.


Co-operation and participation serve to distribute and share the burden of complexity of urban planning and development with many.

Financial support for projects creates incentives for investors and can also serve to guide them.

Exemplary action by the community with regard to urban design can stimulate private action and also help to initiate self-fulfilling processes.

Agreements and contracts with stakeholders, the support of – as well as the demand for – citizen commitments, all make wide-ranging urban redevelopment processes possible.

Scientific institutions, universities, industry and professional bodies are important players in innovative urban development.


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.



[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.



Let’s support the thinkers

Change – particularly difficult or contested change – needs a clear purpose if it is to stand any chance of acceptance.  Why should I leave my comfy car at home and stand on a freezing railway station waiting for a delayed and crowded train?  Why should I turn down the central heating in those parts of the house which the warmth from the multi-fuel stove doesn’t reach?  Why shouldn’t I fully participate in the annual orgy of consumption that is Christmas?

The answer, of course, depends on whether you believe we can go on plundering the planet’s resources.  Climate change deniers think we can, but they’re not looking at the evidence.  The overwhelming consensus among people who know what they’re talking about is we need to change our consumption habits.  But we need help.

Public authorities have generally been slow to promote innovation.  That’s not surprising, even though depressing, because politicians are risk-averse.  So we need new approaches to encouraging change.

Exeter City Futures is a new kid on the block.  It’s a not-for-dividend community interest company, with a small staff of bright people [1].  They are exploring options for making Exeter a sustainable city, starting from the premise that our current level of energy use is too high for the planet’s continued existence and that the level will increase by 50% unless we intervene to change things.  Unlike large cities where turnaround times are going to be up to 50 years, Exeter is sufficiently small for ECF to believe that significant change can be achieved within 10 years.

Sensibly, ECF is not trying to do everything.  At least initially, there is a focus on two goals for Exeter: to become energy-independent, in the sense of generating its own managed energy needs; and to reduce traffic congestion to zero.  Because transport – or more accurately our mobility needs and urges – is a key driver of energy use (40% of the total according to ECF using government figures), and because it occupies a central place in spatial planning, that’s what this and some subsequent posts will discuss.

A key element of the ECF analysis is that we use our resources inefficiently.  Congestion exists because there are too many private vehicles, which sit parked for much of the day doing nothing.  The aim should be to design a system where all vehicles are in use all of the time moving people to their destinations.  It’s worth recalling that the public sector railway industry spotted this decades ago:  those of a certain age may recall railway sidings full of carriages that were only wheeled out at summer weekends for the extra traffic.  Well before privatisation, the sidings became grass or houses or supermarkets, and the carriages were long gone to the breaker’s yard.

So the ECF approach is to develop carrots that will change social norms, so that – for example – owning your own car is seen as odd behaviour.  This is where MaaS (Mobility as a Service) comes in.  Taken to its full potential, you would buy a mobility package like you buy a mobile phone package.  Depending on what you pay for, you could have public transport and/or private car journeys on tap, without having to own a car.  It’s beginning to happen in Helsinki.

There are other approaches which don’t go the whole hog to MaaS.  For example, driverless cars – which are legal in the UK, though not in most of the rest of Europe – enable you to spend driving time working or thinking or looking out of the window or talking to your partner.  And the technology means that the hire car will come to you, saving that tedious journey to go and pick it up.

On air quality, electric vehicles have greatly improved.  Affordable electric cars can hold a 100-mile charge, which would cover about 3 days of commuting in and out of Exeter.

Journey information is a mis-used term.  Think of all those pretty LCD signs that used to adorn the bus stops in the centre of Exeter.  Or the invitation to text a bus stop code to find out when you might be on your way.  Sadly, all they told you was when the next bus was due, not when it was actually coming.  New panels are now appearing, hopefully with real time information.  Knowing when your bus or train is coming is key to encouraging people to rely on public transport.

Simple things, like tickets (or smart cards) that can be used on buses and trains.  London’s Oyster Card is brilliant, and the challenge is to do it in a fragmented transport system like Devon’s.  But it makes life easier, and making life easier is an important carrot to get people out of their private cars.

ECF are looking at these options, and more.  They deserve encouragement, though they’ll need to carry people with them at the same time.  The local authorities will need to open their minds to radical thinking and be prepared to take a few risks.  Carefully chosen demonstration projects should help.

Nothing is straightforward.  Devon is a large rural county.  If you can make the train service from, say, Honiton to Exeter more attractive, how do you make it so compelling that people who have to drive from their rural homes to get to Honiton don’t just decide to carry on in the car to Exeter?  Any answers?

Funding is the elephant in the room.  I’ll look at this in future posts.


[1]   This post draws shamlessly – and selectively – on two presentations by ECF.  One by Glenn Woodcock, the CEO, to the Exeter Civic Society on 18 June; the other by Stephen Dunphy, the mobilty issues lead, at an ECF seminar on 23 June.