What does clean connectivity look like for communities?

‘Mini-Holland’ initiatives like this one in Waltham Forest transform streets to be cycle and pedestrian friendly.

Good transport links between towns and cities are important for the UK economy but an emphasis on local connectivity can strengthen communities and meet the challenge of climate change, says Stantec’s George Daugherty.

The benefits of good transport links are well known – they can stimulate development and economic activity, increase access to employment and education, improve health through walking and cycling, support wellbeing by reducing levels of isolation, all while being sensitive to the environment. 

But while creating connections between large centres is important for the country’s economy, greater emphasis is also being placed on local connectivity to help strengthen the cohesion of communities. Smaller transport projects make a difference to local areas and the government’s latest levelling up whitepaper sets out 12 national missions, including the rest of the country’s local public transport systems becoming much closer to those in London. 

A local model

There is growing interest in the concept of the ‘15-minute city’; where quality of life is improved by giving residents access to everything they need in a 15-minute journey by foot or bike. ‘Mini-Holland’ initiatives that transform streets to be as cycle and pedestrian friendly as their Dutch equivalents are being funded, following the success of schemes in London. The concept of minimal travel among housing, offices, restaurants, parks, hospitals and cultural venues offers a new take on connectivity. In a localised future, connectivity will be seen as living close to what you need.

This is an important model to consider when planning communities fit for the future and one that could help ensure social value is embedded from the start. Something like Stantec’s Better Places approach considers how, through sustainable design, we can deliver much-needed housing developments that reduce congestion while also enhancing the lives of those who live there. 

Projects that improve routes between residential areas and local district centres via public transport, cycling or walking will help engineer out unnecessary car trips, reducing emissions and congestion to improve the safety of our streets and encourage active travel and healthier lifestyles. An increase in active travel routes in and around local centres could cement economic activity, help to support local businesses and create vibrant and diverse amenities for the communities they serve. 

We must put clean connectivity at the forefront of any plans.

Making local connections

In the past, the answer has often been to build or widen a road but as the need to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change becomes ever more urgent, we need to explore other avenues. 

One is public transport, with buses remaining one of the most crucial connections within communities. Last year’s national bus strategy placed local authorities as lead partners in the growth and improvement of services. It included more integrated and the ability to create simpler urban bus networks and through the wider rollout of demand responsive services more flexible rural networks. 

But will ‘Bus Back Better’ give us the bus networks we need? The Department of Transport awarded rural mobility funding to 17 English local authorities to trial on-demand bus services in their areas. Climate change is at the forefront here too, with £3bn in funds for 4,000 zero-emission buses. 

Walking and cycling infrastructure is increasingly being factored into Local Plans and Active Travel teams being established. To make cycling part of everyday life requires the infrastructure that provides safe high-quality routes and comprehensive supporting measures such as cycle parking. 

This often requires difficult decisions, such as designing new roads in a completely different way, reallocating road space away from cars on existing roads and in the case of cycle parking, changing building designs. 

The growing importance of delivering networks that are attractive to all, regardless of experience or mobility is reflected in new and updated guidance published by the UK government and in Scotland and Wales. This guidance requires more segregated infrastructure, following the Dutch and Danish approach where cycling is the most convenient way of getting around in many towns and cities. This year’s changes to the Highway Code give pedestrians and cyclist greater legal protections from motorised traffic.

The benefits of cycling and walking on our physical and mental health, road safety and community cohesion presents this opportunity for clean connectivity.

Clean connectivity and planning for the future

We must put clean connectivity at the forefront of development and regeneration plans. Wales has flexed its green credentials with the announcement to freeze all road building projects is one that local authorities will want to consider. As other sectors have been more successful at tackling the carbon transition agenda, transport has been left as the highest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions. 

Local authorities, 70% of whom have declared a climate emergency, will want to take action to demonstrate they are making the required changes and the most effective way to achieve this in the short term, is to find ways to move people away from driving and lock in the economic, health and environmental benefits of clean connectivity.

George Daugherty is a senior associate, community development, at Stantec.