Cities of Tomorrow

Transforming our cities could be the pathway to a Post-Covid world.

Sorry to bring doom to the doom but the sequence is this: public health disaster, shambolic elite failure, peak coronavirus, then the long reveal of the consequences.

There’s bound to be huge unintended consequences we can’t possibly imagine – but the two that seem absolutely inevitable are an explosion of complex mental health problems and an economic bomb that hasn’t hit yet.

It will be in the coming months not immediately that the economic impact manifests itself as people are laid off, as furlough is rolled back or as peoples meagre savings run out.

Already the worst fears of a coronavirus housing apocalypse are coming into view.

In America according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 31% of renters living in 11.5 million apartment units in the U.S. were late on the rent on April 5. That figure didn’t include the tens of millions of renters who live in single-family homes and other housing situations.

That future is mirrored here and is only going to get worse.

There is no sign of a rent freeze only a commitment to delay evictions. That’s not the same at all, that’s just storing up trouble, the virus as a savings bank for landlords.

The Scottish Government has launched its £5million loan fund for landlords. But it contains no agreement to protect the tenant’s interests post Covid leaving landlords free to evict for arrears & jack up rent for new tenant to finance loan repayment. The option for tenants is to claim benefits. This is both unjust and inadequate and is storing up a fresh crisis when the pandemic ends. Its testament to the narrow short-sighted political world, and as some have pointed out the fact that the political class is a propertied class.

Even the immediate benefits of the crisis are being wasted.

With the collapse of the Air BnB market in the capital, an open goal for re-setting the housing market was suddenly available. What happened? Instead we’re told that support worth more than £13m could be given to STLs in the capital.

The Greens Claire Miller stated: “It was with some dismay that I learned that the Scottish government decided STLs would have access to the small business grant fund. Now more than ever it should be clear that the government shouldn’t be putting money aside so property owners can keep potential homes empty. However it does present us with an opportunity. I know our council would like to do more to tackle STLs. If the government can work with councils and with Andy Wightman’s team in parliament we can use the information learned from grant applications to find those STLs that do not have planning permission and to return them to the long term housing market where they belong. Let’s come out of this crisis not with a business-as-usual city centre seeing more and more residents unable to find a home there but instead with a rejuvenated city centre which looks once again to being a thriving, unique city centre community.”

This pattern is everywhere to be seen.

As Adrienne Buller from Common Wealth writes:

“In the case of the world’s major economies, the priorities shown by governments in response to this crisis are those of finance, big business, “rentiers” and fellow affluent, global North nations. As several economists have warned, without stringent conditions and major structural changes to the economy, government stimulus, bailouts and an unprecedented influx of money from central banks will simply end up in the vortex of a financial system “unfit for purpose” and lining the pockets of the wealthy, as happened after the 2008 crisis.”

But opportunities persist.

The Changing City

A report by Dr Douglas Finch & Prof. Paul Palmer from the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh – shows dramatic reductions in the emissions of Nitrogen Dioxide due the reduction of traffic in the lockdown. As they conclude: “By adopting cleaner travel options, such as more electrically powered transport and more cycling and walking infrastructure, then we would see lower levels of nitrogen dioxide. Strategies to lower VOCs emissions would also reduce ozone levels and therefore improve respiratory health across the country.”

But where is the plan to do this? Where is the urgency to seize on this opportunity?

When this current crisis recedes, we are left with that other crisis, the climate breakdown that we were so studiously ignoring in the pre-covid world.

But what if some of the solutions from moving beyond the current crisis lay at a city-scale? We are so obsessed with the constitutional question we have ignored the municipal one. But some smart thinking is going on in pockets across Europe.

In Amsterdam the long-standing work of the ecological economist Kate Raworth (author of Doughnut Economics) is being implemented.

What is the Dougnut?

Raworth explains:

“Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.”


She has been working with the biomimicry thinker Janine Benyus to launch the Doughnut City project which asks the question:

“How can our city be a home to thriving people in a thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of al people and the health of the whole planet?”

Raworth writes: “Janine put it in her characteristically poetic way, ‘when a bird builds a nest in a tree, it takes care not to destroy the surrounding forest in the process’. How can humanity also learn to create settlements big and small that promote the wellbeing of their inhabitants, while respecting the wider living communities in which they are embedded?”

The project has its critics (its too technocratic) and some say it treats power and inbuilt inequalities as subjects that can be solved with a flipchart in a workshop. But it does have a solid basis and it is an example of deep holistic thinking.

Over in Paris the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has made phasing out vehicles and creating a “15-minute city” a key pillar of her offering at the launch of her re-election campaign. We are mapping similar for Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Citizen project.

What would that look like?

In a world where we work less and travel less and pollute less, it would mean that we have most of our basic needs for work, education, leisure, sport, entertainment localised.

The inspiration behind the 15-minute city idea is the Professor Carlos Moreno, from la Sorbonne who believes the “core of human activity” in cities must move away from oil-era priorities of roads and car ownership. To do this he argues: “We need to reinvent the idea of urban proximity. We know it is better for people to work near to where they live, and if they can go shopping nearby and have the leisure and services they need around them too, it allows them to have a more tranquil existence.”



The ideas have been embraced by Hidalgo who wants to encourage more self-sufficient communities within each arrondissement of the French capital, with grocery shops, parks, cafes, sports facilities, health centres, schools and even workplaces just a walk or bike ride away.

Called the “ville du quart d’heure” – the quarter-hour city – the aim is to offer the people of Paris what they need on or near their doorstep to ensure an “ecological transformation” of the capital into a collection of neighbourhoods. This, Hidalgo argues, would reduce pollution and stress, creating socially and economically mixed districts to improve overall quality of life for residents and visitors.

The Ville Du Quart D’Heure concept is based on Moreno’s idea of “chrono-urbanism,” or having leisure, work, and shopping close to home. This means “changing our relationship with time, essentially time relating to mobility,” says Moreno.

Moreno says he was inspired by the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

“A neighbourhood, she wrote, is not only an association of buildings but also a network of social relationships, an environment where the feelings and the sympathy can flourish.”

Jacobs was influenced by Lewis Mumford, himself a disciple of our own Patrick Geddes. We have our own rich tradition of urban theory and civics to draw on here.

“The quarter-hour city would reduce two serious problems plaguing many Parisians: the air pollution that kills 3,000 people a year, which is largely caused by car traffic, and the many hours lost in transport suffered to go to work,” says Delphine Grinberg, a member of Paris Sans Voiture (“Paris without cars”).

These moves are happening elsewhere too. Feargus O’Sullivan has written:

“Barcelona’s much-admired “superblocks,” for example, do more than just remove cars from chunks of the city: They’re designed to encourage people living within car-free multi-block zones to expand their daily social lives out into safer, cleaner streets, and to encourage the growth of retail, entertainment, and other services within easy reach. East London’s pioneering Every One Every Day initiative takes the hyper-local development model in a slightly different direction, one designed to boost social cohesion and economic opportunity. Working in London’s poorest borough, the project aims to ensure that a large volume of community-organized social activities, training and business development opportunities are not just available across the city, but specifically reachable in large number within a short distance of participants’ homes.”

What would the “ville du quart d’heure” look like in our cities?

It would mean some massive (and micro) re-design and re-invention, the end to “out of town shopping malls” designed exclusively with huge car parks. It would mean a vast investment in bikes and bike infrastructure, cargo bikes and e-bikes. It would mean localised food systems and extensive urban agriculture and co-working spaces that nurtured the sort of industries and businesses required for the new world. It would mean neighbourhood theatres and cinemas and music venues and bookshops. It would be a huge opportunity to make meaningful participatory democracy.

As Mayor Hidalgo says this is about: “proximity, participation, collaboration and ecology.”

How would we define these neighbourhoods?

It could be a messy and creative process defined by looking at what areas needs and existing assets are. It could draw on school catchment and parish boundaries and local and historical cultures and identities.

These neighbourhoods wouldn’t be isolated they’d be interconnected, just as the city would be connected to the peri-urban and the rural around it. It could re-frame the city as a place where diversity and local democracy were resurgent, and a place where sustainable mental health and our zero-carbon futures were possible.

No doubt much of this will be derided. But the case for a return to the system failure we were enduring before the pandemic looks even more ridiculous than the utopian thinking we need to get us out of here.

Comments (37)

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  1. Chris Connolly says:

    This quote comes from an article put out by the University of Columbia in January, when only Wuhan was locked down and the rest of the world was still carrying on as normal:

    “Your carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases—including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases and others—that you produce as you live your life. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project determined that in order to hold the global temperature rise to 2˚C or less, everyone on earth will need to average an annual carbon footprint of 1.87 tons by 2050. Currently, the average U.S. per capita carbon footprint is 18.3 tons. By comparison, China’s per capita carbon emissions are 8.2 tons. We all have a way to go to get to 1.87 tons.”

    We were going to hell in a handcart before COVID-19 came along and accidentally imposed cleaner air and a reduction in CO2 emissions on us. It would be a tragedy – and in my opinion an insult to everyone who has died or lost loved ones or lost their means of earning a living – not to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.

    It was reported this week that a study predicted that in 50 years time 50% of the world’s population will find themselves in parts of the world that are too hot for them to bide in. We don’t want to bequeath such a disaster on our children and grandweans so it’s absolutely vital that we don’t simply go back to catching aeroplanes for foreign holidays or for conferences that can take place over the internet, that we don’t put economic growth above the environment as a priority and that we stop producing more and more consumer goods that have a lifetime of a few weeks, having been made in a sweatshop in the Far East and flown across the world before being flung into landfill shortly afterwards. Stop campaigning for more roads, and as for HS2 don’t get me started.

    A fine article in my opinion, Mike. Thank you.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    We are all thinking about the opportunities for change and how we would like things to go forward. Unfortunately we will probably all find ourselves back in “business as usual” as soon as that is possible. Our movers and shakers like things the way they were with those that have increasing their wealth at the expense of those that do.

    1. That’s not inevitable Dougie

  3. Deirdre Forsyth says:

    Dennistoun pretty much fits into this 1/4 hour community, I think

    1. Hi Deirdre, how is it for food production?

      1. Wul says:

        Looking at old maps of the suburban area where I live (not even that old, say early-mid 1900’s) it is astonishing the number of “Nurseries” listed. These were market gardens producing food and also flowers and plants for gardeners.

        Even as late as the mid-70’s I can remember four nurseries within a 15 minute cycle of where I live now (currently surrounded by street after street of mono block driveways with 2 SUV’s on each one). There were also several “Small Holdings” on each of the A roads in and out of the town. None of the small holdings produce food any more.

        There is massive potential to grow food in cities and their environs.

        1. Yes Wullie, you’re right and we can also look to Havana which for years under US boycott produced food for everyone through extensive urban agriculture

        2. Colin Mackay says:

          There’s actually quite a few small scale growers in Glasgow that could potentially get going if adequate land was made available. These are people who are usually able to use very productive and sustainable methods to grow a variety of crops on fairly modest sizes of land. The problem of land access is a huge one and has been raised at various levels over the years. The council at least is starting to help somewhat but even still this is in it’s infancy and is going to take a long time. The amount of land banking by developers is ridiculous and ensures that there are huge amounts of unproductive land in Glasgow that could otherwise be used for food production or for local communities/environmental benefit etc.

          1. Absolutely right Colin, this shouldn’t be an insurmountable issue

          2. Wul says:

            Colin: …”this is in it’s infancy and is going to take a long time. ”

            It says “6 -7 weeks to harvest” on the seed packets I bought. Not such a long time.

            You are right of course, I’m just joking. However, one thing this virus has taught us is that we can make massive changes very, very quickly when we want to. There were four small farms within a ten minute walk of my childhood 1960’s housing estate. Now, they are all “luxury steading apartments”.

            If we incentivised small scale market gardens and small holdings (the way we incentivise property speculation) we could have them very quickly.

        3. Colin Mackay says:

          Hi Wul,
          Do you have any links to information about these smallholdings or anything similar that was in Glasgow back in the day? I’d like to research it further but finding very little online.

  4. Wul says:

    The free-market actors that got us into this mess were able to hijack the dominant narrative to their own ends. We need to reclaim control over the narrative in order to gain support for changes like the examples given in the article.

    Fortunately, even conservative voters may be receptive right now to much of the messaging that could bring about change e.g:
    “Good Clean Air”, “Self Sufficiency”, “Make do and Mend”, “Local Produce”, “A Proper Family Life”, “Safe Neighbourhoods” “, “Debt-Free Living”, “Local Jobs for Local People”, “Corner Shop”, “Walk to Work”, “Good Health”, “Neighbourly Atmosphere”, “Market Garden”, “Village Life”, “Practical Skills”, “Saving for the Future”, “Cut out the Middle Man”, “Quality of Life”, “Physical Exercise”, “Thrift”, “Green Belt”….

    And the Enemy:
    “Nasty Pollution”, “Stuck in Traffic”, “Smog”, “Urban Decay”, “Dead End Jobs”, “Never Never”, “Spivs”, “Rat Race”, “Car Fumes”, “Crowded Trains”, “Unaffordable Homes”, “Wasted Time”, “Killing Trees”, “Stress”, “Debt-Ridden”, “Alienation”, “Panic”, “Commute”, “Punishing Schedule”, “Consumerism”…

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, indeed, I am imagining two series of posters with your titles right now, perhaps to be displayed in some far-future retrospective exhibition. Was it the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition who shut down the Central Office of Information in 2012, even though the need for reliable public information campaigns has been rather painfully reasserted?

    2. Paul McMillan says:

      Local jobs for local people…..tough luck if your an ‘immigrant’. However you define the term.

      1. Wul says:

        “Local” as in near to where you live. Not where you were born!

        Wouldn’t you rather walk to work than commute an hour each way? The splitting of neighbourhoods into “zones” for planning can be detrimental. Recently, 900 new homes were built near me. Infrastructure provided? One Spar store.

        There’s no reason why that 900-house development couldn’t have included light industrial units, small offices with super fast broadband, a children’s nursery, a pub/restaurant, allotments, bakery etc. Especially since it was built on the site of a former hospital which had it’s own farm, workshops, bowling green, shop and ballroom.

        There’s plenty of examples amongst Glasgow’s older tenements of garages, small “works”, joiners, plumbers yards being integrated into residential housing. The separation of workplaces from homes creates needless commuting and pollution.

        1. Paul McMillan says:

          ‘Immigration’ creates pollution….all those flights.
          Can’t have it both ways.
          The dilemma of the modern world.

      2. That’s not the consequence at all

        1. Paul McMillan says:

          I’m afraid it is. ‘Localised’ economies means people are no longer free to move around, although people only ‘move around’ i.e emmigrate to find better opportunities.
          If the world was more ‘equal’ then we’d all be happy to stay in our locality.

          1. That’s not what I’m advocating at all. There’s plenty of opportunity for us to be open and in solidarity but also operating a local democracy.

          2. Nothing about what is proposed suggests exclusion. You are simply wrong.

  5. David McGill says:

    When I was an architectural student the whole of the second year curriculum was devoted to housing and town centre planning. The class was split up into groups of five or so students, each of whom chose a town. There was a lot of original thinking involved. This may still be the case.

    Promoted by the SG could the nine? institutions in Scotland which run architectural courses, each be invited to submit proposals for public exhibition and comment. Groups would work closely with local authorities, planners and environmental and community groups. I for one would like to see the ideas of the generation which will have to live in post-Covid, post-austerity Scotland.

    1. This is a great idea David, I’d like to see ordinary people be at the heart of this process drawing on the skills and experts of architects rather then being handed down designs, but yes a very good idea.

  6. Dirk Bolt says:

    Hello Mike Small

    Thank you for your articles on our cities in Bella Caledonia and the Seven days supplement the National of 10 May, You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    My name is Dirk Bolt, I an architect and urban planner; you’ll find me on Google. In 1970 I became concerned about ‘modern’ cities, so I organised what may have been the first international. Interdisciplinary conference on the topic: Canberra FORUM ’70. As nothing was done in Australia, I joined the UN Human Settlements effort through the UN Office of Technical Cooperation. I worked in developing countries for seven years, then went teaching at Auckland University, where I wrote a PhD thesis named ’The Development Ratio: A model for a human urban future’ (the examiner was Prof Percy Johnson-Marshall, Edinburgh). The thesis incorporated a proposal named ‘Gungahlin; Canberra’s first low energy new town’, and was followed by two studies for the Dutch government named ‘Urban form and energy for transportation’ and ‘Fundamental Energy Conservation (1983).

    By the ‘90s, when I became professor of urban planning in my native Netherlands, I had written many papers and proposals for a new kind of city, a new urban DNA. There was a problem. Nobody read the papers or looked at the proposals. Most people thought that our cities were fine, and that we needed more of the same: the World Bank thought they were good for the economy.

    I am not, like you, a writer but after moving to Scotland in the late ‘90s I realised that my message about cites was not getting anywhere, so I decide to take a different approach. I would write a book about our crazy adventures: being surrounded by lions in Africa; robbers; a military coup in the Pacific; discussions with Presidents and so on, and between the lines explain why it was that I came to believe that we needed a new kind of cities. The book will be out shortly, named ‘Of Towns and Countries’. It has two appendices, the first explaining my concept of how to urbanise, and the second providing a time-line of post-WWII literature about cities, and a discussion of the disquiet that grew amongst many writers; a long list now joined by you.

    ‘Of Towns and Countries’ only lifts the lid on the message, it now needs to be taken off and the idea needs to come across loud and clear. Seeing that you are a writer and that I am a planner, I suggest we put our head together to produce a readable book on how to actually put lines on paper (because in the end that’s what needs to be done); and to answer the questions you ask in your article: ‘How do we define neighbourhoods?’ ‘How are they interconnected?’ ‘How do we reframe the city as a place where diversity and local democracy are resurgent?’, and how, in my words, do we promote ‘societies in which there is equity in access to the processes and fruits of development’ and where there is ‘space for all living things’?

    I offer not ‘Utopian thinking’ but a Eutopian approach, because Utopia means a ‘place of nowhere’ and Eutopia, to the minds of the classics, a ‘place of felicity and sweet reason’. If you are interested in a joint Journey to Eutopia, I would be happy to take the matter further. My contacts are below.

    Looking forward to your response


    1. Chris Connolly says:

      That sounds like a kind offer. But unless Google Images are giving us an unrepresentative sample your buildings look like the kind of architecture that blight rather then enhance our town centres. I don’t mean to be hurtful, Dirk, but we’ve all seen enough brutalist concrete to last us for ever. My local town an attractive one apart from the bits that look exactly like the parts of Canberra that you designed.

      Mike might feel differently, of course, and I hope he gets back to you.

      All the best


  7. David McGill says:

    Given that ‘home-working’ could become commonplace after the Covid pandemic, might there not be a surplus of industrial and commercial properties in Glasgow, Edinburgh , etc in the future. No longer used for their original function these, along with already derelict buildings, might provide a starting point for local small-scale food production until land issues are resolved.

    1. Chris Connolly says:

      That seems like a great idea to me, but let’s not just concentrate on towns & cities (which this article was all about but never mind). Vast areas of Scotland are owned by absentee landlords and wasted on the huntin, shootin & golfin fraternity. I’d like our independent Scotland to take this land back and use a portion of it for sustainable agriculture and the rest for us all to enjoy.

      If we leave things to the movers & shakers we’ll just go back to the shambles we were in a few weeks ago but the point of sites like this one is to encourage all of us to move and to shake.

      There’s no point in us inheriting a country that’s not fit to live in. We all need to become environmental activists and we need to do so now.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    I have read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Interestingly, her book starts with the worldwide student revolt against the narrow, ideological, crash-ignoring, mystery-stacked teachings of academic economics’ ‘old goats’. One of those hard-to-predict political shearing events. Certainly worth reading for an engaging big picture view.

    The quarter-hour city is new to me, and equally intriguing as the doughnut concept.

    Back when I was studying a term of Urban Politics, there was still some visible emergency planning at local level (amid much UK official secrecy) at the tail end of the Cold War. Perhaps the most dramatic and incisive uncovering of the insufficiency of such plans at national and local level was back in Peter Watkins’ 1966 The War Game, although the BBC refused to show it until 1985, I think. We learnt that the UK was exceptionally centralized compared to European national norms, and the question of what local government could and should do were framed between the terms ultra vires (what were outside its powers) and mandamus (what must a local government do or provide). What leeway did, does and should local government in the UK, and particularly in Scotland, emergency planning-wise? I found this hard to discover from my local council website, although we have recently completed a public consultation on climate change. Emergencies of different natures may be served by a combination of common and differentiated measures. For example, some emergencies may best be served by centralised resources, others by distributed resources.

    If a significant responsibility for emergency planning was (by popular mandate) devolved to a (coordinated) local level, it would give people more control and responsibility for emergency and disaster planning, and may change the political discourse somewhat for the better.

    Raworth’s book ends back with those students, still railling about intellectual inertia at the top, and preparing to ‘storm the citadels’ of academia.

  9. Robert Harman says:

    I really liked this article but I don’t know what as STLs are. Could you define it for me please?

    1. sorry, Short Term Lets, like Air BnB

      1. Jell says:

        We have to keep ‘imagining’ what social egalitarian stuctures and processes we want in place of those of the ancien regime. Again Mike has set the stall out this time being human living in urban places. Around 1985 I was given a Manpower Services Grant to do Urban Design and Regional Planning at Edinburgh University.

        Although Percy Johnson-Marshall, the Director, at Patrick Geddes Centre for Planning Studies, impressed me with the great sense of humanity in his work, the department was already infiltrated by hard line free market people; the writing was on the wall I was glad to move on to Energy, Rail Safety and Environmental Engineering.

        Percy was the man who was ” head of the Reconstruction Areas Group, in which he exhibited great zeal as a team leader. In the years between 1955 and 1965 he undertook a mammoth survey in recording the reconstruction plans which had been prepared for the bombed cities of Europe”. As it may indeed come to physically and socially ‘reconstructing’ our cities and urban places, it may be worth bearing in mind how this was done. Not only the actual physical outcome, which can be criticised, but the project process. My old colleagues know well how valueable the abilty to draw down project experience may be.

      2. Tim Hoy says:

        Thank you. I tried Google for STL and it listed Stereolithography which didn’t help. I guessed at something like short term landlords, so wasn’t far off.

  10. Wul says:

    I often think about the vast network of railway lines that were abandoned in the “Beeching” closures of the 1960’s.
    The amount of land engineering work that went into creating these railway lines was huge. The embankments and cuts are still there, a valuable resource, and could be re-opened as a very efficient travel network for bicycles and E-bikes (no hills).
    Some form of compulsory purchase powers would be needed to re-claim the bits of track absorbed into private land. Some sections are lost to roads or overbuilt, but could be re-routed.
    To have abandoned this vast network of low-energy pathway was very foolish.

    1. Jell says:

      If this helps the BRB records are at the National Archive, Kew Gardens.

      BRB (Residuary) Limited, which is a Companies Act company set up to get those assets and liabilities of the British Railways Board that didn’t go somewhere else. The Board is/was a separate, statutory corporation.

      1. Wul says:

        Thank you Jell. I shall have a look at that.

  11. John McLeod says:

    This is a brilliant article. Thanks.

  12. Morag Williams says:

    It is disappointing that the Scottish Government is propping up the short term lets.

    The Australian Government has said that tenants can’t be evicted in the immediate Covid-19 period, but it remains to be seen what will happen in the longer term. In Melbourne, rents have dropped about 15% in the last couple of months . . . some landlords are also offering rent-free periods in order to get tenants. Some rent and/or the prospect of some rent is apparently better than no rent.

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