Green High Streets 2050: Reflections


11 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Green High Streets 2050 reflections

Climate change is happening. We are in a climate and environmental emergency as a result of human activity. If humanity takes collective action now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions it’s believed that we can limit the effects of climate change and adapt to them. To this end, the UK has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050.

So, with that backdrop, how can our town centres achieve long-term, sustainable economic growth from a low-carbon economy? Or, as Ojay MacDonald said in his opening address at the ATCM Place Management Conference 2020 “Climate change changes everything in a town centre economy. Are there economic and social gains to going green?”


Ojay MacDonald delivers his speech at High Street 2050
Ojay MacDonald, Chief Executive, ATCM

The conference focused on the Green High Street 2050 and took place ‘pre-lock down’, when we no longer shook hands but had yet to self-isolate or socially distance. It offered a set of instructive presentations based on the experiences of a host of speakers. The thread that wove through the conference was pragmatism – a fine philosophy – with the presenters each ‘giving form to experience’.

Writing this article helps me reflect upon the insights shared and issues raised, and I hope it proves useful in informing your own plans for action.

The Road to Decarbonisation

Our natural systems and human systems are vulnerable to the effects of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report ‘Global Warming of 1.5C’ discusses the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions and describes the potential effects if we fail to do so. It presents a number of adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development options that should be implemented if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. It is within this context that our high streets and town centres are operating. It’s irrefutable that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital and must be the collective responsibility of all of us – including local authorities, BIDs, retailers, professional associations and visitors. 

Decarbonise locally

Dr. Neil Jennings of the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London spoke about the benefits of blue and green spaces for the urban environment. Neil said that sustainable drainage systems and vegetation networks within our cities could mitigate flooding and increased temperatures while improving air quality and carbon storage.

Dr Neil Jennings
Dr Neil Jennings

So, first off, let’s establish or improve green spaces, such as parks and gardens, in our town centres and high streets. As well as absorbing CO2 and helping to mitigate climate change, such places benefit people’s health and wellbeing. Furthermore, trees, green roofs and green walls can help to regulate the temperature of buildings and, as such, reduce energy consumption. Naturally, I’m not suggesting an overzealous approach to urban greening and advocate for the involvement of planning professionals to ensure that the positive benefits of green spaces are maximised.

“With so many more people recognising what nature has to offer, we must take this opportunity to become nature-inclusive and create places that are better for both people and wildlife.  Building biodiversity and climate resilience into a scheme doesn’t have to be onerous but it does have to be well planned and deeply embedded into the Masterplanning process.”  – Dr. Phoebe Carter

As we construct or upgrade green spaces, let’s not automatically reach for the standard procurement catalogue, instead let’s take time to look at more innovative and sustainable building materials e.g. build walls using green-charcoal bio bricks that promote biodiversity or bio-based materials such as mycelium to create the panels of pop-up event spaces, such as award-winning The Growing Pavilion . We don’t always need a cart or a shipping container…

Shneel Malik PhD Student UCL

As well as familiar types of green spaces there is increasing interest in hydroponic living walls as well as fascinating research into bio-architecture that could be harnessed for high streets and town centres. For instance, Shneel Malik is undertaking a PhD at UCL’S Bio-ID Lab, ‘Viscous Biomaterials for Application in Architecture: Large-scale Manufacturing of Algae-laden Bio Scaffolds’. Shneel is leading the Indus project (image below) which is designed for areas with contaminated water sources, where people can pour water over the tiles to purify it. 

Indus: algae-infused tiles that can extract toxic dyes from water
Indus: algae-infused tiles that can extract toxic dyes from water

By highlighting these projects my hope is to inspire you to seek out innovative designs (and designers) that positively integrate our human systems and natural systems when planning better urban green spaces.

The value of multi-agency collaboration

Any place has to be mindful of the concerns of a variety of communities and stakeholders, and co-operation is therefore key. A presentation by a contingent from Brent in North London – including Brent Council, the FA, Wembley Traders Association, In Your Face Alternatives and waste management firm Veolia – demonstrated how local stakeholder collaboration can bring economic and environmental value (and an award Green Apple Award).

The team worked together on the Plastic Free Wembley initiative that seeks to reduce plastics and waste drastically at a local level, citing the potential to save £5 million of the council budget in the process. The initiative is part of the ‘Building a Better Brent’ strategy, which employs an integrated approach to environmental issues to achieve carbon neutrality.

Brent Team ‘Plastic Free Wembley'
Brent Team ‘Plastic Free Wembley’

This project that has achieved so much positive impact is not rocket science. It is perfectly achievable anywhere, in any town centre, as long as there are people in places of responsibility who share a vision and are willing to cooperate – as per the Brent team. This reminds me of a recent article that I wrote about innovation and the importance of asking a simple question of all participants at the start of a collaborative endeavour, “Do you listen and will you reshape your thinking?” It’s vital that all stakeholders answer “Yes!”

Urban planning for people

Cities are significant contributors to climate change and an integral part of the solution in fighting climate change. As more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, a number predicted to grow, it’s important that the needs of people are front and centre of urban planning and design.

Victoria Hills of the Royal Town Planning Institute promoted the idea of developing child-friendly spaces in town centres where children and families can thrive. She discussed the opportunity to design high streets that welcome children and act as a hub for building strong and vibrant neighbourhoods. At this point in time, I would add the need to design town centres that welcome all generations and enable intergenerational being. For too long groups of people have been ‘designed out’ of the public realm, and if we are not careful our town centres will become places devoid of rafts of the community = unacceptable.

Victoria Hills
Victoria Hills, Chief Executive, RTPI

Victoria spoke of child friendly inclusive planning and policies, and reminded delegates that children’s needs change depending on their age group, which would need to be accounted for in any planning. She highlighted global initiatives, pointing to  Abu Dhabi investing in children’s play spaces in town centres, and noted the need to frontload investments into such projects. An example of a more local child-friendly initiative started in Bristol, Playing Out, which seeks to provide opportunities for children to take precedent over cars and to play in their neighbourhood streets. Now it’s a national movement with over 70 councils supporting their model and around 1,000 streets having been used for play. 

Currently, Calvium is working with CityID and Bristol City Council on ‘PopMap’, a digital placemaking research project that seeks to map and reveal the local culture of a town or city centre through its cultural activities. There’s no (technical) reason why one cultural layer could not be ‘child friendly’…

An Holistic Approach to Carbon Neutrality

Achieving carbon neutrality requires an holistic approach, explained Victoria. Every aspect of urban planning must be aligned with the same goals. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There must be specific action plans that fit within the context of each distinct sector in town and city management.

bikes on high street

For transport, Victoria advised redesigning town centres for cyclists and pedestrians for an array of reasons, not least because transport was the largest contributing sector to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in 2018. It stands to reason that encouraging the use of bikes and making it easier to walk in towns should be a priority. That said, once again it’s all about design – and good design at that! In Bristol, as in any city, there are fantastically bad examples of integrated spaces for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers which are perceived to be dangerous and have caused people to forego the very public spaces the policy was intended to make more inclusive (see image below). It’s vital that we establish design and implementation practices that achieve the intent of policy and planning.

shows a pedestrian lane end at a wall
A pedestrian lane ends at a corner, forcing any pedestrian into the cycle lanes.

In the realm of energy, Gascoigne Estate in Barking Town Centre was a good example of decentralised energy systems with low-carbon, renewable resources. The place will be powered by an array of rooftop photovoltaic cells and a connection to the local heating system. This system is projected to contribute to a 40% reduction in carbon emissions.

To end her talk, Victoria made a great point that innovation isn’t always the new vision of the future. Basic tech such as bikes and scooters will stand the test of time, and they might just be what transports some of us to a carbon-neutral tomorrow.

A Call for Collective Action Against Climate Change

The ATCM Conference happened in the pre-lockdown era and the challenges presented were complex and vast. I’m now writing and reflecting as a citizen in lockdown. My present thinking sees great opportunities for the future of the planet if humanity makes the right choices from here – starting with a recognition of our common bonds and arriving at a sense of unity. However, now, the challenges presented by the climate crisis have been joined by the challenges of a global public health crisis and a knock-on financial crisis that has yet, by all accounts, to take hold. This is a critical moment in our history. 

As individuals we can make and enact the right choices by working together practically at the local scale, within our neighbourhoods and our shared public spaces, our town centres and high streets. If we were to grasp firmly the approaches and opportunities that were presented at the conference, and highlighted in this article, then we would be able to answer Ojay’s opening provocation “Climate change changes everything in a town centre economy. Are there economic and social gains to going green?” with “Yes, and here’s what we’re doing…”

Gale Burns
Gale Burns, Greenpeace Speaker

One final thing that really stood out during this event was Gale Burns of Greenpeace calling attention to the big challenge of keeping people from being paralysed by fear, anger, numbness and hopelessness because of climate change – such that they don’t act. He encouraged people to take part in mass movements. Fast forward to the present and we are witnessing collective action underway in response to the lack of PPE for health and social care workers. We have also seen that governments, institutions and societies have the capacity to act collectively and make radical changes to the ways we live – in a week we transformed our behaviour and lifestyles. So, it is possible for us to unite and take action!

I look forward to working with you to dramatically improve the environmental, social and economic futures of our town centres and high streets. 

If you made it to the end, you deserve a digital delight!
Here’s a digital delight!
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