London: an integrated and connected city? Commissioner Dr Paul Toyne’s Perspective

Has London become a more integrated and connected city in the last 20 years? Your own view on this may depend on how you interpret integration and connectivity – was integration and connectivity even being talked about in those days?

Regardless of this, such a current day interpretation will also effect what measures are needed if London is to improve. Here I offer my own interpretation focussing on London as a place to live and work, as well as the physical stuff – infrastructure like energy and utility systems, transport networks, and buildings.

For me, London is an integrated city; if it were not, it simply would not work. But integration does not necessarily mean it is an efficient city. It is integrated on many levels, first at a cultural and community level: London has always had a wide cultural diversity, a tolerance and ability to cater for people from all backgrounds.

Of course, there is more it can do. Social equality is one such area. London needs to continue to be an affordable city to allow it to remain both competitive and attractive to its residents and visitors. London needs to provide affordable housing, public transport and employment opportunities.

As London successfully demonstrated during the Olympics, its network of transport modes allows people to navigate the city. Travel information is more accessible than ever before, enabled by the web and smartphone applications, stuff of science fiction back in the day of the Rio summit. The use of smart technology has enabled the successful adoption of the Oyster card and supports the congestion charge zone operations.

But I would not consider London to be a smart city as the use of technology to enable better integration and drive more sustainable outcomes could be much better. For example, we are still a long way off instrumentation at the building level to be able to measure and monitor water, both potable and wastewater, particularly true for homes.

Instrumentation is the basic first step to getting smart. If we had automated metering infrastructure it would allow us to respond to changes in demand and consumption – getting smarter at running a more efficient, integrated system.

Integration in the environmental sense for me would mean that resource flows and cycles were operating in a closed loop cycle, adopting cradle to cradle principles where nothing is wasted. Clearly London does not have this degree of integration, but few have. Material re-use and recycling, for example with food, is a good example considering how wasteful London is, and there is clearly room for improvement in local food production, although schemes such as Capital Growth demonstrate how we might achieve that.

But there are some encouraging signs, for example the mapping of London’s heat networks and the establishment of large scale district heating schemes in Victoria and Westminster; the establishment of London Green Fund using EU structural funds that will help finance energy from waste processing plants helping to divert London’s waste from landfill.

Aside from investment to further integration, another big hurdle worth mentioning is the challenge of keeping London functioning while our infrastructure is upgraded. There is only so much disruption to our daily lives that we can bear. So getting the balance right is important.

I think we have learnt a lot in the last 20 years. For me, while recognising the tremendous pace of the green building movement and the increasing tougher building regulation featuring environment performance, the significant advance is the recognition that we need to consider the systems within which these individual buildings operate.

Thousands of green buildings on their own will not make London a sustainable city. They would of course help, but things like renewable power generation, zero carbon transport systems and closed loop material flows would give us better results. Connecting up these systems and understanding how our buildings fit within them is key.

And let us not forget us…  We need London to be sustainable, attractive and competitive, providing a healthy, secure and comfortable place to live and work; one which everyone can afford.

London, as other megacities around the world, needs to transform in the next 20 years, otherwise the unsustainable consumption and waste it promotes may well just cause the tipping points that will lead to its demise. I don’t think anyone wants that. Do you?

Dr Paul Toyne is a Commissioner with the London Sustainable Development Commission and Group Head of Sustainability at WSP Group, follow him @Paul_Toyne

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