Seeing the Smoke with green-tinted glasses

London's Environment
October 28, 2005

A successful Olympic bid, followed closely by an appalling terrorist attack, strengthened London's fame as a world city of great resilience and diversity. Since 2000, it has been governed by a mayor, Ken Livingstone, who is now a global figure. Yet until the unexpected success of the 2003 congestion charge, his regime was widely regarded as underperforming: a triumph of spin over substance.

Since then, the city's environmental policies have had wind in their sails.

The June 2005 establishment of the Climate Change Agency is regarded with widespread interest. Its first director, Allan Jones, cut carbon dioxide emissions by 77 per cent, energy consumption by 48.6 per cent and water use by 43.8 per cent in his previous local authority, Woking, between 1991-92 and 2003-04. Livingstone has asked him to replicate the Woking effect in London.

Were it not for this renewed commitment to making London an exemplary "green city", this book's mixed bag of speeches, essays and workshop notes from a 2002 conference on London's environment and future might have gone the way of most published conference proceedings - but a new political climate has given them traction. Included among the platitudes and flag-waving are more considered essays analysing just how bad things are, and how political solutions might be found.

The scale of London's global environmental impact is staggering: the city uses more energy than Ireland, and about the same as Greece or Portugal.

Its "ecological footprint" requires the natural resources of an area 293 times the size of the city itself. Having declined in size in the second half of the 20th century, London is growing again, and needs to find homes for another 700,000 inhabitants over the next 15 years.

One of the most pressing environmental issues is water. London and the South East face a growing crisis in water supply, as well as, paradoxically, an increased risk of flooding. While it is good to be reminded that the Thames is now the world's cleanest metropolitan river, there is now a threat of tidal flooding. Water consumption remains profligate, and while all water coming from the domestic mains is fit for drinking, only 5 per cent is used for this purpose: the rest is used for washing people, clothes and cars, flushing toilets and watering gardens.

The mayor would like Londoners to flush less, while nearly 40 per cent of London's water supply is lost through leaks.

For an academic enterprise, there are serious faults, notably the absence of a bibliography, editorial cross-checking or clarity in the presentation of statistics. In one essay we are told that 80 per cent of the world's population lives in cities, then a few pages later, the figure is 90 per cent. The claim that "Vienna, Copenhagen and Stockholm use only 10 to 20 per cent of the fuel required by American cities" lacks so much comparative rigour and explication as to be almost useless.

Nevertheless, two important themes are developed, providing new ways of seeing London and its environmental problems. The first is David Goode's comparisons between urban metabolisms that are linear and those that are cyclical, and how one should ideally move from the former to the latter.

The notion of circularity is easily understood and makes the conceptual and systemic processes of energy, water, waste and production cycles coherent at a glance. We live by metaphors. The other critical issue comes in an essay on "Dealing with disasters" by Dennis Parker and Edmund Penning-Rowsell, which raises the question as to whether environmental problems have increased as a result of decentralisation and car-based suburbanisation. Many new housing developments in the outer reaches of London not only lack social and transport infrastructure, but possess only the most attenuated forms of political decision-making - particularly around issues of place, community and strategies for increased environmental self-sufficiency.

One of the most serious omissions in the collection is precisely about this matter - how Londoners can renew their involvement in democratic decision-making and future planning. In my borough, an increasingly powerful elected mayor gained the votes of less than 15 per cent of the electorate. Local government has become almost entirely managerial in its ethos, its public face preoccupied with media presentation.

If people are serious about sustainable development - though some radical environmentalists now talk about sustainable retreat - is this most likely to come from stronger and more punitive regulation, such as congestion charging, water metering and compulsory recycling, or might it be secured through attitudinal change? If the latter, how is this to be achieved? Certainly public education remains a priority. One survey cited here revealed that in response to receiving a flood warning "many Londoners planned to take inappropriate actions, such as seeking to use the Underground system".

Ken Worpole is an environmental writer whose most recent book is Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West .

London's Environment: Prospects for a Sustainable World City

Editor - Julian Hunt
Publisher - Imperial College Press
Pages - 326
Price - £49.00
ISBN - 1 86094 486 8

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