Much talk of new ‘sustainable living’ approaches is doing the rounds. Yet the oft-touted benefits will not happen if we do not pay attention to the ‘real green’, the plantlife next to your home.
18/03/2021. I’ve just been reading about an innovative housing development in Bristol. Apparently the UK’s first net-zero domestic-housing microgrid project, the Water Lilies project combines solar power, air-source heat pumps, central battery storage and electric vehicle charging, all within a small modern housing development focused around sustainable living.
The project represents one of a number of smaller community-funded sustainable living approaches that are becoming more and more common across the UK. Like other such developments, it is partially funded by a community share offer from Bristol Energy Cooperative, which has now reached 85% of the funding target.
I wish them well. As I write this, it is sunset in the north-eastern suburb of Oxford where I live. Stepping away briefly from the computer, I go outside into the back garden. The last birds are singing the evening chorus, the resident blackbirds and perhaps a robin being the most emphatic, and for a few moments I can taste the evening air, start of the onset of night.
Yet the sound of birdsong is dwarfed by that coming from Oxford’s northern bypass, that section of the A40 that fringes the north of the city. Constant east and westbound columns of traffic give off a steady roar which dominates all other sounds.
Of course it is only March, and the lack of leaf cover this early in the year means that the bypass can be heard more clearly than later in the season. Which is a shame, because the air outside is so much fresher and cleaner at this time of year, without the air pollution that builds up during the day in summer.
And so I got to wondering what it would be like to just have the birdsong, without the constant background noise of rush-hour traffic being so overpowering. It would be wonderful, I think. But I wonder if I will ever hear it so clearly in my lifetime.
I should say hear it again, because when my family first moved to this suburb in the 1970s the northern bypass, as it was known then, was a convenient major road that diverted the worst of the traffic on the A40 from the centre of this medieval city.
For many years it remained a local road, and as I worked locally then, it was still possible to drive to work and shave at the same time, most traffic being relatively gentle in speed. And yes, we were able to get away with such things in the 1970s and 80s.
But that was then. Today the A40 is permanently busy late into the night, and since the easing of the Covid-19 pandemic seems noisier than ever. In fact you can usually tell the local drivers from the others, in that they are quite happy to trundle along at 50 – 60 mph, knowing that they are going to meet those hell-bent on getting by faster at the next roundabout or set of traffic lights soon enough.
As a local resident and now older, and hopefully wiser, I mourn the loss of the peace and quiet that used to descend on this part of Oxford during the evenings, and routinely curse the developers who have brought the pressures of greater population to my door. May the green villages that they so often choose to live in themselves also be cursed by new developments and traffic, I think.
But perhaps I shouldn’t take that attitude. There are signs on the horizon that, post Covid, city life is about to undergo the kind of once-in-a-generation change that last came with the industrial revolution. There is such pressure now for an end to the domination of the motor car, and a realisation that we have to put an end to the curse of traffic-borne air pollution in cities or we will all simply choke to death.
I don’t wish to be like the old man I saw years ago in a small village square in rural Spain. As I drove by, he was sitting outside his front door watching the traffic go by, with two oxygen tubes running into his nostrils to give him enough oxygen to breathe. I felt so sorry for him and so guilty that by simply being there and driving past I was contributing to his problem, that the image has stayed with me ever since.
We have developed this kind of society because no-one saw any other way of providing housing other than endless new housing developments, infill building and new villages, nearly all of which still rely on the car.
Yet I believe that model of housing development is now dead. Some developers may refuse to accept it, but the writing is on the wall for traditional housing developments, as shown all too clearly in the number of incentives required to get people to buy such homes. The idea of facing ever-increasing congestion on a daily basis is repugnant at a time when most of us (and our governments) are committed to reducing carbon use in all its forms.
Add to that social pressure the urgency of change brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, and you have something of a perfect storm in changing attitudes to how to live and work. The pandemic has focused minds in government as well as in society at large. People want to be able to work from home, to have a garden or at least some green space nearby, and if that means doing without a car then so be it.
Combine such societal pressures with the realisation for many that, even if they have always relied on their own personal transport, the latest electric bicycles can now deliver most of the personal travel they need. Online deliveries can take care of the bulky shopping, while car-pooling, buses or taxis take care of the rain, and the train is the solution for longer distances.
Many of the younger generation have realised that it is perfectly possible to live a good life, even in the city, without the personal car. In that respect perhaps we are returning to Victorian times, when longer distances meant the train, and the annual holiday brought, amid great excitement for children, a real journey.
This last year, marked by Covid-19, has been a terrible one. For me, like so many people, it has been a true annus horribilis, a year lost, a year to commemorate only the awful loss of family members and friends.
So many are grieving the loss of loved ones in the last twelve months. Is it possible to believe that amidst all this greyness and depression, something positive could emerge out of the pandemic? Could it bring about changes to the way we live and work that are beneficial, that actually contribute something to our future?
I don’t know. But I am encouraged by the multitude of small shoots I see emerging in new attitudes to communities and how to live and work. Many people are questioning the way they live, and if there might not be something better.
Most accept that the future will have to be greener. The idea of the ‘green economy’ is one that has become largely accepted by government and business. Thirty years after that opinion outlier Greenpeace began saying that diesel vehicles should be banned from cities, it looks like the message about urban air pollution is finally sinking home.
For the mainstream, that message has been interpreted to mean that one day we may be driving all-electric, or perhaps on hydrogen power. But there is another possibility, that we may not be driving at all.
City planners are starting to realise that we could be living and working far more in areas where home and work are walking or cycling distance, at least for most of the week. It is possible we get more fed up of the computer screen, but the proposition is that at least we’ll be able to take a walk in green space to make up for it.
It will take years of course. But big cities around the world are showing the way, in that if you cannot have a large house and garden, then communal green space with the right variety of trees and plants can compensate.
Which brings me back to this sustainable housing development in Bristol. I find the Water Lilies project hugely encouraging, but I qualify that approval with the need for planning the ‘real green’ – I mean a focus on the plants and the importance of the plantsman.
I have known many city-centre greens in continental Europe. Often they come under such pressure, especially during summer, that they end up being mostly brown rather than green, an over-trodden semi-wasteland where even the grass struggles to survive. Such places contribute little to city life other than as a rare change from the concrete acres.
Yet imaginative city planners can enhance even these spaces. Summertime city temperatures in France, Spain and Belgium can be compensated for if the right plants are chosen, and sufficient thought given to irrigation and care. For an elderly person in a small city centre flat, a walk amidst the night-time fragrance of jasminum officinale can make life seem bearable once more.
I am a latecomer to the importance of plants and the garden. But the older I get, the more I realise the importance of clean air, and being able to smell plant scents without them being submerged under the stink of urban pollutants or the dead air downwind of an urban incinerator.
We worry about the disappearing insect life, but no-one asks the obvious question. When was the last time you were actually able to smell anything in your local street? If a greener economy can dispatch such urban ills and bring back the fragrance of nature, then the sooner the better.
© Philip Hunt, 2021.
The Water Lilies housing project in Bristol
Ethex – helping everyday people make ethical investments
Bristol Energy Cooperative – community-owned organisation expanding local green energy supply
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