UK’s urban sprawl needs to be binned

Mark Anderson reports on the damaging social and environmental effects of UK zoned, suburbanised town planning.


Even before the recession, the frequency with which councils were collecting household waste was diminishing. Today we count ourselves lucky if our local council affords us a weekly bin collection. In less-wealthy Spain, by contrast, refuse continues to be collected on a daily basis. This despite the fact that the Spanish equivalent of council tax is much lower than that paid in the UK.

In Britain, 86 per cent of us live in detached, semi-detached or terraced housing, with our towns and cities divided up into areas for living, areas for working and areas for shopping. The result of this zoned, suburbanised form of urban development is an atomised, sprawling, wasteful urban landscape where social dislocation is rife, the car is often the only practical mode of transport and people do their shopping in bland, faceless retail parks.

In Spain by contrast, 65 per cent of people live in apartment blocks, most of which are ringed on their ground floor with retail units, with some apartments given over to office space. This density-rich, mixed-use approach to urban planning creates vastly more compact, efficient and socio-economically vibrant urban areas.

Compact urbanism eases pressure on the green belt, reduces the cost of transport and public infrastructure and increases the affordability of high-quality, comprehensive public service provision. Efficiency savings from more compact city development have been found to be as high as 20-45% in land resources, 15-20% in the construction of local roads and 7-15% in the provision of water and sewage facilities; as found by Dr. Robert Burchell et al. in 1992.

A notable product of the zoned suburbanisation of the UK is the lack of community cohesion. On the lifeless estates, cul-de-sacs and residential streets that litter our towns and cities, collections of bored-looking young people are automatically identified as sources of intimidation and potential danger.

In compact, mixed-use Spain where the ground floors of residential quarters are taken up by shops, bars and restaurants and open spaces are infused with a busy street-life, any notion of youth intimidation or attack is made obsolete by the fact that ownership of the streets is already in the hands of society, young and old alike.

With more compact, mixed-use urban areas there is less need to travel by car. People walk and cycle more, benefiting their health and their pocket as well as the environment. Social interaction increases. People’s work and leisure lives can take place closer to home and, as a result, a greater sense of trust and responsibility is engendered in society.

A 2009 European Commission survey (pdf) found that, when comparing cities of similar size, Spaniard’s sense of safety in their cities and in their communities to be generally significantly higher than that of their British counterparts, while UK respondents had longer commutes and greater levels of mistrust for their fellow citizens.

What is more, by increasing population density and ringing apartment blocks with retail spaces – thus increasing footfall and the number of lettable retail units available – it becomes more affordable for local people to open up shops and restaurants of their own and easier to compete with larger outfits. This in turn raises standards and lowers prices throughout the retail and service sector.

In large measure as a result of its urban planning policies, Spain has twice the number of retail and restaurant small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) compared to the UK, despite its smaller population. As a result, a term such as “clone town” has no resonance in Spain, and traditional cuisine has succeeded in restricting McDonald’s et al to the cultural margins.

In short, a more high-density, mixed-use approach to urban development would reduce the strain on the public purse, encourage investment in infrastructure, improve the quality of services, and result in safer, more vibrant towns and cities with healthier, wealthier, better connected citizens, more readily dining out on toad in the hole than a Big Mac™.

I would miss my garden, but not that much.

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13 Responses to “UK’s urban sprawl needs to be binned”

  1. The Dragon Fairy

    RT @leftfootfwd: UK's urban sprawl needs to be binned: says Mark Anderson

  2. Stuart Singleton-White

    It’s a shame this article’s arguments are a little undermined by the use of image which is not from the UK. If you’re going to talk about the important issue of urban planning and community dislocation in the UK at least make the effort to show a UK image.

  3. Matthew Davis

    Generally, ownership of a plot of land around your house means that much greater care is taken to look after it.

    Conversely ‘Council flat’ is synonomous with a community not being cared for.

  4. WHAT!

    Sign up now for your state-dictated box flat in a faceless high-rise. State-dictated wallpaper, tv, fridge, cushion colour; all chosen to reduce our impact on the environment of course…

    I don’t want to live in a flat, so I won’t. This article is demonstrably mad: Why don’t you accept that people have a choice and that means they can choose to live where they want.

    Being alive has a negative impact on the environment as well and it’s unsafe. How far do you want to go?

  5. Mark

    Come on, this is campaign for the protection of rural england propaganda; houses cover just 1% of the UK surface area, if you include gardens it’s 5% – We can afford to spread out a little. We can reduce land values by freeing up underused land and build much needed homes that are affordable to everyone; lots of hamlets that follow the rural pattern will not be noticed. We don’t need to live so close together to suit the big land owners. Spread out – Spread the word

  6. Jonathan Phillips

    What? Oh really! Many flats are owner-occupied, many more are privately rented, and no-one tells you what to put in them. It could well be that we would all feel better off if we lived in the kind of urban surroundings Mark is talking about, and that we’d find the loss of a private garden a small price to pay for the benefits that would accrue. And anyway we could have balconies and roof terraces with interesting views. Individual decisions based on short-term views of personal benefit can easily lead to a situation is which everyone feels worse off. It’s always more comfortable to travel by car than by bus, but eventually the congestion and delays become unbearable – and we all start wishing we had nice comfortable quiet trams to ride round in and everyone left their cars at home.

  7. Mr. Sensible

    The government’s planning policy is a bit of a joke; they got rid of regional strategies saying they would protect the Green Belt, and then we get a development free-for-all in the budget!

  8. Mark Anderson

    Well said, Jonathan.

    What!, I’m not arguing that we should all of us live in apartments. The problem in the UK is precicely that there is a lack of choice within the available housing stock due to the significant lack of centrally located mixed-use apartment blocks.

    One point I forgot to make is that the effects of urban sprawl and zoned planning are particularly deletirious on the elderly, for whom mobility is a vitally important issue.

  9. Daniel Rees

    RT @alexsmith1982: RT @leftfootfwd: UK's urban sprawl needs to be binned < controversial, but correct.

  10. Nicholas Ng

    UK’s urban sprawl needs to be binned

  11. greg

    @matthew davies. Who says they have to be council flats. Most developments of apartments now are private as it is.
    council flats were poorly run and stupidly implemented in the 60s and that made them a problem but look to america/japan/spain etc on how to create apartments well.
    there are actually a few blocks of council flats form the 60s that through changes like rennovation, adding in doormen/receptions etc they have become fairly decent places to live.
    and apartments in the american/spanish model are a far better option than how they were done in the uk in the 60s
    @Mark, nothing to do with the protection of the countryside, there are many hard and fast social and economic benefits to stopping suburban sprawls.

    There is a great book called Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier by the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser (he has done a bunch of interviews and so on talking about the main points of the book such as on the freakonomics podcast)

    and there is hard economic data showing how cities are better than the suburban sprawl (which damages economies) and goes into the way they are better for us in so many more ways than this article talks about.

    Also the young generation (myself included) are not settling for suburban life (for a whole host of reasons),previously people lived in the cities and sought out, now people are seeking in. People are moving back to the cities which are now the new aspirational areas. We will need apartments etc to actually accomodate people because it wont be done any other way.

  12. bertandnairobi

    I can only agree. Among the probems is that the system is so entrenched. When you start a discussion on higher density people think immediately of 15 storey blocks. Building technology is good enough now for people to live in 4-6 storey blocks with no risk of noise disturbance from neighbours. But most people don´t think about that. They worry about neighbours and the problem parking their car. Once you live at moderate density you don´t really need a car. So many other problems go away at moderate density. How can can we get back to this? Architects and planners are committed to either low density sprawl or high rise blocks. I have been discussing this in Denmark for years and I am gettting nowhere. They continue to build suburbanised areas between towns and the inner cities are marked out to have more high-rise towers built.

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