Places fit for the future by Carole-Anne Davies, Design Commission for Wales
The world recently mourned the loss of one of our greatest scientific minds, Stephen Hawking, who famously said, ‘intelligence is the ability to adapt to change’.
And that ability to adapt to change for the future is needed now more than ever. From phones with facial recognition to shopping by robotic automation, new technologies signal a previously unimaginable future. Unprecedented acceleration in the pace of change is affecting the ways in which we live, work, consume and communicate. Our world is changing beyond all previous experience and the way we construct places for the future needs to keep up.
In our built environment the dominant characteristic of this change has been rapid urbanisation, shining a light on the importance of the quality of our places: our villages, towns and cities. This continuing trend is a critical issue for Wales – but what does this mean for people’s lives? It’s about more than the familiar patterns of property development, construction, retail and commerce. Expectations for better quality of life, better environmental quality, secure and meaningful jobs and skills for the future, life chances and equality of opportunity are high.
If we are to meet these expectations, fresh perspectives and a new approach is needed to deliver a sustainable future for both the public and public. We have an opportunity to drive this through the Well-being of Future Generations Act, and its goals and ways of working now sit at the heart of policy and decision-making across Government and public bodies.
We can no longer allow situations in communities where GDP may continue to rise for some, whilst many people remain entrenched in social, environmental and economic inequalities where loneliness is reportedly reaching epidemic scale.
We need sustainable places which support and enhance quality of life. This means making it easier to travel by public transport, to cycle and walk to work; to enjoy and share our streets and commons and vibrant, attractive and safe communities. It was also Stephen Hawking who said, “it would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”
Housing requirements in relation to population growth are beyond anything we have previously experienced in both our urban centres and smaller, more rural areas. The demand for housing, better access to employment opportunities, the development of transport and infrastructure and the move toward strategic city regions across Wales, are just a few of the myriad factors making up the complex puzzle of our modern lives. Our altered living and working patterns, the function and purpose of cities, towns and villages in a digital age, our requirements on public services, education, healthcare, well-being and expectations around quality of life, all require, better place-making – starting with early decisions on location, quantity, density and mix of uses.
Wales is distinctive, our landscape and countryside the envy of the world, our culture thriving with talent. But our urban centres are growing and we must change the ways we shape them if we are to benefit. We must be bolder and more creative. No country can continue to plan, manage resources and address services in the way it always has done. More of the same will not engender change and it is now not only a nice to do but a statutory obligation for our public bodies here in Wales to redefine business as usual.
We need to address questions of connectivity; of walkable, networked, well connected places that help us harness the potential of creative and technological change. We must act upon the need for blue/green infrastructure, food and energy security, and placing low-carbon technologies at the heart of place-making.
In embedding the Well-being of Future Generations Act into policies such as the revised draft Planning Policy Wales 2018, currently available for consultation, it is vital that the policy will be a tangible source of guidance for when difficult questions are posed by seemingly competing or conflicting priorities.
Legislation and policy can achieve this only if we accept collective responsibility and ensure that the policy and subsequent practice adds value and genuinely assists the creation of the sustainable places we need.
Thinking and acting in the interests of a positive, sustainable legacy is among the most difficult of things to achieve. Nevertheless, to avoid terminal short-term thinking, it is an absolute necessity.
What if we focus on the collective reward, prioritising people and places that are sufficiently well made as to sustain us now and for future generations? Give it some thought. Play your part. Bring your talent, enthusiasm and expertise to the consultation. It’s harder than staying on the sidelines, but you never know. You may have exactly what’s needed to shape the effective policy required to create places fit for the future.