A key to controlling emissions

More buildings in a city’s unused spaces

Elephant Park, a newly built park part of the Elephant and Castle redevelopment project in London, September 13, 2022. (Photo: NYTimes)
Just south of the River Thames in the heart of London, the whine and hammering of construction mingles with the laughter of children playing in a park behind Elephant and Castle, one of the city’s largest and ugliest road junctions.اضافة اعلان

This is Elephant Park, a 1.2 hectare plot of fountains, swings and slides, and open space at the center of a large redevelopment that has seen the brutalist architecture of a 1,200-home public housing estate replaced by a new neighborhood that by 2026 will hold about 2,924 apartments and townhouses.

About 2,000 units are already occupied, and the residents who walk their dogs in the park or watch their children playing seem happy to chat about the normal issues surrounding regeneration projects, such as the fate of the previous residents and whether the gentrification will drive away noisy youths who still loiter in the park after dark.

One resident walking her dog complained recently that her rent is becoming unaffordable, before quickly adding that she is delighted to have a supermarket and gym in the same building as her one-bedroom apartment, with rail and Underground stations right next door and shops, bars, a yoga studio, a library, and medical facilities sprinkled through the development.

But another debate is drawing extra attention to Elephant Park: the role of large-scale urban renewal projects like this in fighting climate change.

“It is an absolutely exemplary example of what we need to be doing to make cities greener, and we need to be doing it quickly and all around the world,” said Kate Meyrick, a British-born urban consultant based in Brisbane, Australia, who studies urban developments.

“The developers were primarily just trying to make a great place for people to live, and they have achieved that with a really interesting mix of spaces and services,” she said. “But a byproduct is that they have also created real climate benefits.”

In April the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said one of the most effective ways to cut the carbon emissions of cities was to stop the relentless expansion of urban sprawl by promoting infill housing, the carefully planned creation of extra housing in underutilized parts of cities to reduce car dependence and improve the efficiency of infrastructure and energy use.

Meyrick is adamant that the biggest benefits of infill housing come with neighborhood-scale developments like the Elephant Park project built by developer Lendlease, rather than scattering new houses and units through backyards and other empty city spaces.

Large-scale infill developments have reinvigorated cities from New York to Milan over the past two decades, Meyrick said, “but they have generally been driven by the need for housing, and now they need to be much more recognized and promoted as a weapon against climate change.”

Hélène Chartier, the Paris-based director of urban planning and design at C40, a network of 96 of the world’s leading cities, agreed that the greatest climate benefits of infill housing come at the neighborhood scale. She said there should be urgent public investment and revamped planning rules to support such developments.

Planning officials from Melbourne, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand, to Paris have focused on the concept of five-minute neighborhoods or 15-minute cities, meaning denser housing in which people live closer to the facilities they need instead of traveling for hours between separate areas to sleep, work or go shopping.

Peter Newman, a professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Australia, who has taught at universities in eight countries, including at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, says many cities are trying to stop urban sprawl by allowing property owners to build in their backyards, “but tackling it one block of land at a time doesn’t work.”

The answer, Newman said, is precinct-level redevelopment in “the greyfields”, or low-density suburbs of aging houses, a process that requires innovative planning reforms and incentives to encourage the owners of 30 to 40 properties to work together.

It was local government resistance that led the California state Assembly to pass a bill in August promoting the development of infill housing on commercial-zoned land. A dire housing crisis in the state has pitted local authorities against the state, where legislators, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and other officials are mounting a broad effort to address the so-called NIMBY-ism — “Not In My Backyard” — of homeowners, communities and entire municipalities to block more condensed development.

Dr Dan Silver, a physician and executive director of a southern Californian conservation group, the Endangered Habitats League, said the infill housing bill was needed because “no matter how important it is to stop urban sprawl there will always be some people who don’t want their own neighborhood changed.”

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