Green Debate 2014

London: Design for healthy living?

Green Debate Review

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On Tuesday 16 September Open-City held its first-ever Green Debate to launch the Greener City strand of Open House London 2014. Hosted by the London School of Economics at their very own green exemplar, the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, the expert panel was welcomed by 200+ public and professional attendees.

Julian Robertson, Director of Estates at LSE opened proceedings with the LSE’s approach to the brief of the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, the debate venue. Having asked for the "best student building in the UK" and now open for 10 months with an excellent POE report – he thinks he got jut that. Stating Ruskin’s quote that ‘We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.’ The centre is a vibrant and lively space and thereby creates a healthy environment for its student population in the midst of the city centre.

Tackling the challenge of health in urban space the debate was then begun by chair Dan Hill, Executive Director, Future Cities, with panelists:

  • Dr Yvonne Doyle, Regional Director, London, Public Health England
  • Paul Heather, Managing Director for Skanska
  • Dan Epstein, Director, Useful Simple Projects
  • Marie Murray, Manager, Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
  • Ben Plowden, Director, Planning, Surface Transport, Transport for London

Content covered:

Dan Hill (who works for Catapult - an organisation that makes projects happen in our cities that we all know should be happening but aren't) contextualized the debate with trajectories such as

  • We are a C19th citiy facing C21st problems
  • The Department of Health can't fix health on their own any more
  • How do we innovate when we don't know all the questions [let alone] the answers
  • Do we understand the value of 'green and blue' infrastructure?  
  • How do we invest rather than spend on health (i.e. preventive rather than curative)?

Each panelist then argued their positions – each from very different backgrounds and perspectives.

Yvonne Doyle

"We must harness the efforts of the whole of society to solve problems.  We [medical experts] don't know all the answers"

"London needs to looks at what it offers to all its residents"

"Mayor has set up London Health Commission, to be launched in 4-6 weeks"

Dan Epstein

"The Fiscal Cliff in 2019 will undermine local authorities' ability to deliver services"

"There is more money than ever in London but it's in fewer people's hands"

"How do you manage the increasing privatisation of public space?"

Paul Heather

"We could be heading for an environmental and economic disaster if we don't act now"

"Hard-hitting legislation can make a difference but tenants' demands could be just as important"

Marie Murray

"Must design in opportunities to be sociable"

"Places to feel safe, to nurture and to be nurtured"

"We need social spaces in local neighbourhoods that allow people to interact"

Ben Plowder

"We're about to spend just shy of £1bn on cycling over the next 10 years"

"Everybody's talking about placemaking"

"The pace of change when you're a campaigner is unbelievably slow.  The pace of change when you're inside a big organisation is unbelievably quick”



Opening to the floor the debate brought about many further issues and nuggets of thought:

 "In Britain about 30,000 excess deaths happen every winter " and this is more a matter of indoor temperature than air quality so we should focus on building design to alleviate this.  Older and poorer people are not as assertive as others but their needs are often greater’

 "Do we have too much green space in London?"  Is the balance between affordable housing and poor quality green spaces right?  Can we really afford to have golf courses or rarely-used school playing fields?

 "How do you set up community organisations to manage green spaces?"

 "we tend to separate big infrastructure from fine-grain"

 "Health of the city is its core asset"

To hear a read a more indepth feature – read Dan Epstein’s perspective on Healthy Cities.

Public Opinion Facilitates the Green Debate

In the weeks leading up to the Green Debate, Open-City launched an online public poll to get a sense what we want from our city and how healthy we think London is and could be. Hear are our main resultes:

  • 60% believe that London is a healthy city to live in
  • 46% surveyed are ‘not involved at all’ in the planning, consultation or development of their neighborhood
  • 97% believe that well designed spaces effect positively on your mental well-being

What initiative has made a change in greening the city?

  • Boris Bikes
  • Ken Livingston's Green Roof policy, sadly not followed up
  • The requirement for green space in new developments
  • Kings Cross area by the canal
  • The central London traffic congestion tax
  • The plan for garden bridge
  • Olympic park
  • Oddly, the tube. The amount of green space that would be lost to accommodate the transport needs of the city without would be immense

What physical environments would you like to see improved?

  • ‘Cycling routes greened and separated from car traffic (cyclists made to
    obey the rules of the road)’
  • ‘Oxford street to be pedestrianised – more pedestrianised routes in general’
  • ‘The Embankment would be marvelous without cars’
  • ‘Bury all the roads in tunnels and turn the resulting spaces green’
  • ‘A focus upon "left over" bits of land, such as in 50's-70's estates. These are
    often poorly planned and laid out with large areas of wasted land. So much
    potential for this space’
  • ‘Green/habitat/brown roofs mandatory (reinstated) on every roof except for
    the existing pitched roofs’
  • ‘A drastic reduction in street furniture, parking notices in particular. The
    whole city looks in a sense like you are entering a supermarket’
  • ‘Park playgrounds have improved but more still needs to be done to make
    them exciting places to play also more places like this for teenagers with
    youth centres centred in green spaces to encourage sports’
  • ‘Utilising the Thames as a commuter route’

Ask the panel…

  • Big issues demand big ideas. What one MASSIVE idea would you propose to improve London's livability?
  • Should the residents of London be given more responsibility for the
    maintenance and development of public open space?
  • Is London's reputations as being 'a good place to do business' and 'a city
    designed for healthy living' mutually exclusive?
  • To what extent do you believe in car free zones?
  • Why isn't more being done in regards to lowing pollution levels?
  • How much public health research do the panel incorporate into their work?
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that by 2020 mental illness will be the third leading cause of disability life-adjusted years globally. Do you believe urban form has an impact on mental health?

Open Debate 2014Read more about '8 million and growing... will London grind to a halt?'

Open Debate 2013
Read more about last year’s debate ‘Is London building a sterile city?’