Designing development to deliver on nature, climate and housing

Rebecca Pullinger is the Land Use Campaigns and Policy Officer at CPRE, the countryside charity. She tweets at @beckyjpullinger and in this article makes the case for careful design through which, she says, we must address the contribution of development to the climate emergency and ecological crisis while building the homes that we need.

We are in a world full of crises. There have been a host of reports showing us the dire straits we are now in and the imperative that we act now. These include:

  • The Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that up to 1 million species are at risk of extinction;
  • The recent report from the Committee on Climate Change showed how the Government has delivered just 1 of 25 critical policies needed to meet net zero by 2050; and,
  • CPRE analysis of government figures found that it would take 130 years house those on the waiting list, given the current rate at which new social housing is being built in rural areas.

We must look for solutions that enable us to address all of these and avoid unintended impacts on each – we must not build affordable houses that destroy habitat, or provide environmental net gain that pushes up prices beyond the reach of ordinary families. We must look at ways we can reduce, mitigate and adapt to bring about the changes needed. Development can be sustainable and we can deliver homes that meet the needs of today’s generation and future generations to come. At a recent UK Housing Delivery Conference, I was pleased to see acknowledgement from across the sector, from planners, councils and developers, that we need to do more to match housebuilding aspirations with the climate emergency. 

Here are a few ways how:

  • Selecting sites

The location of development should be evaluated through planning processes. This should seek to site new developments so that harm to existing nature is reduced. 

Sites should also be selected to avoid land that has the highest potential for mitigating and adapting to climate change. 

Careful selection of development sites should minimise the need for new infrastructure, and maximise use of existing infrastructure. This is particularly important with regard to the type and amount of energy used and emissions generated by transport. This can be achieved both by the strategic location of such developments, and their internal arrangements (see section 2).

Recycling land is as important as recycling our waste. Reusing suitable brownfield land, or land which has already been developed, avoids harm to existing nature and reduces the need for new infrastructure. Many brownfield sites are located near jobs and amenities, reducing the need to travel. They also enable the use of existing infrastructure meaning less energy is required for homes’ construction and maintenance. This reduces the costs associated with infrastructure and is perhaps the reason why brownfield sites are delivered much quicker than greenfield sites once they have been granted planning permission.

Cleaning up brownfield land removes contamination and local eyesores, attracting investment into urban areas and regenerating our towns and cities - doing more to build on brownfield land is the most popular solution to the housing crisis.

On the other hand, greenfield land is most likely to have green habitat, such as trees, grasses, and hedgerows. The removal of these would mean the removal of key carbon sinks from an area. The role of soil should also not be overlooked; concreting over soil means that it cannot do its vital job in sequestering carbon.

Whilst some brownfield land does have high environmental value (6-8% of the total) much of it is suitable for redevelopment. In fact, we now know, thanks to the brownfield registers published by all 338 Local Planning Authorities in England as a result of CPRE’s campaigning, that there are over 18,000 suitable brownfield sites with space for over one million homes. The majority of these homes are on shovel-ready sites, and the registers also prove that brownfield land is a renewable resource with new sites coming forward all the time.

  • Designing places

Planning policies should seek to ensure sustainable design of new development, supporting new communities to live happy, healthy and environmentally-friendly lives.

As noted earlier, the delivery of more compact forms of development with a mix of uses, as found in many European towns and cities, can help to reduce the need for new infrastructure, or promote the increased use of existing facilities. 

In terms of energy consumption, this can be achieved through the layout, form and massing of buildings, for example aligning buildings to make best use of passive solar heating and reducing heat-loss through wind-chill. New development can be energy-positive by including renewable energy generation, such as solar panels on the roofs of buildings and other forms of microgeneration. These can also help bring down costs for those living in new developments. 

Increasing the density of development can also help create more sustainable places. For example, research suggests that housing density upwards of 60 homes per hectare is required to support public transport services, and yet current average development densities are half this. Designing new development to reduce car-dependency, achieved through higher density and designing a mix of uses, means that those who do not own a car are more able to thrive in new communities -  including both young and elderly people as well as socially deprived families.

Transport for New Homes have shown how higher density development, in reducing the need for cars, leaves more space for nature within and outside of developments. Urban greenery, such as street trees and wild verges can help create places and communities where people want to live, help address air pollution and support the health and well-being of current and future residents. 

If you double the density, you can halve the amount of land needed to deliver the same number of homes. This can leave more open countryside, with accessible green spaces near where people live, while providing more space for nature.

  • Building homes

The design of homes themselves can also reduce energy use. UK building standards on energy and emissions lag far behind what is required to address climate change, especially since the government withdrew from commitments on zero carbon homes. Buildings, especially homes, designed to higher standards can help to meet other objectives, including reducing both energy demand and fuel poverty. Building regulations should set and enforce appropriate minimum standards for the energy and emissions performance of individual buildings. 

Building regulations and planning can work together to provide minimum standards for the performance of materials used in buildings. Again practice in the UK lags behind many other countries. Performance of materials can be considered in a number of different ways, including: 

  • thermal characteristics, from simple insulation to passive solar heating;
  • longevity, reducing the need to replace buildings over time;
  • recyclability, whether the material is itself recycled, as can be the case in brownfield redevelopment, or after the lifetime of the building; 
  • potential for long-term carbon storage, for example wood and straw bale construction; 
  • Local provenance and distinctiveness, reducing transportation of materials, and supporting local character.

Water conservation and management is an essential component of climate change mitigation, since demand for water will inevitably increase at the same time as climate potentially resulting in fresh water becoming scarcer. Simple measures in building design and technology can help to reduce water use and water loss, and maximise the recycling of water, including its safe and clean return into the environment.

  • Sustainable development

Through careful design, we must address the contribution of development to the climate emergency and ecological crisis while building the homes that we need. This includes through siting development in the right places, designing communities to reduce consumption and infrastructure needs and building homes that are sustainable. The introduction of an environmental net gain as part of the development process could help to bring these different levels of good design together. Done well it can help us go from a no net loss mind-set to delivering more positive outcomes through an integrated approach to planning and development. Only by building homes that help us to address the climate crisis can we create thriving communities to the benefit of us all.

Rebecca Pullinger, Land Use Campaigns and Policy Officer, CPRE

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