Opinion: Cities of the future

Modernism, by definition, is concerned with the future. When T. Dan Smith was making plans to build a central motorway through the middle of Newcastle city centre, it was visions of a future given over to the car that occupied his mind. Richard Dawson looks at how the legacy of modernist town planning is being replaced to tackle climate change, air pollution and pandemic

When you walk through the city of Newcastle today, the legacy of modernist town planning is everywhere you look.

From the central motorway that runs through the heart of the city to the network of concrete pedestrian walkways that hang over its streets, it’s difficult to imagine what Tyneside would be like without modernism.

But while Newcastle Civic Centre is a standing triumph to brutalist architecture, the urban planning revolution that spurred its creation is also responsible for a lot of the problems we are racing to solve today.

In the 1950s and 60s, many local authorities, not just in the UK but across Europe and North America, were gripped by a set of planning ideas that glorified the automobile as the transport of the future.

Many of our cities, particularly those with a strong industrial base, were designed around the needs of the car as a result.

In Newcastle, planners imagined a vertically segregated city where the street level was reserved for cars and pedestrians were restricted to concrete decks and walkways above.

Under the stewardship of the infamous leader of the council, T. Dan Smith, this blueprint for a multi-level city, built around the car, started to be realised, if only partially in the end.

Half a century later and we discover that while being good for motorists, these ideas are having a negative impact on the environment and on the life expectancy of city dwellers.

For example, cities are now thought to be responsible for around 70 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, despite occupying only 2 per cent of the world’s landmass.

A recent report by the Royal College of Physicians also estimated that air pollution is behind about 40,000 deaths every year just in the UK, with the nitrogen dioxide produced by road traffic one of the biggest factors.

That’s why the Government has mandated councils to clean up their cities with measures to improve air quality and reduce carbon footprint.

Part of that is about encouraging individuals and businesses to do their bit for the environment but fundamentally it’s about reducing the incidence of cars in urban areas.

Newcastle councillors were in advanced discussions about how best to do this, following a public consultation on air quality proposals that could see the introduction of a Clean Air Zone (CAZ), which would charge high-polluting vehicles for entering the city.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and presented a whole other set of challenges.

Councils are now having to think about how to make changes to the layout of the city that can help limit the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, the measures being proposed will also support efforts to address the longstanding issues of climate change and air pollution and row back on decades of automobilization.

Curving slowly to the east in the best Georgian style, Newcastle’s Grey Street is world-renowned for its beauty and never ceases to inspire onlookers walking up from the Quayside or down from Grey’s Monument.

The iconic sandstone street is also the first to be transformed under changes implemented to create more open space for pedestrians, cyclists and the growing number of bars, restaurants and cafes that are based there.

Newcastle City Council aims to create pavement cafes on Grey Street, which local businesses can use as outside seating for customers. There will also be a new cycle lane on the northbound side, with traffic restricted to one way going southbound.

The changes are being made temporarily to support social distancing in response to the pandemic, but the council will set out plans to make them permanent next year as part of the city-wide initiative to reduce pollution and create a more people-friendly and carbon-neutral built environment.

Councillor Arlene Ainsley, cabinet member for transport and air quality, said: “We’ve been working closely with NE1 and local businesses to ensure that the layout and appearance of the changes we’re making are appropriate and we look forward to seeing businesses being able to use the new space for pavement cafes and outdoor space for their customers.

“We have already seen a series of successful changes to our transport network to enable people to get around safely as the city starts to reopen, including improved opportunities to walk and cycle.

“We will be looking at how these short-term changes could help us deliver our longer-term ambitions for a cleaner and healthier city centre with a greener transport network and reduced pollution.”

The Grey Street transformation will see the removal of the majority of on-street parking bays to make way for the extended pavements and cycle lane. It’s a subtle but significant indication that modernist town planning is firmly in the rear-view mirror.

That’s not about inconveniencing motorists, it’s about preparing Newcastle for the future, a future where city dwellers will want more investment in the public realm, more green spaces, better quality accommodation, experiential retail and a diverse leisure and hospitality offering.

Adrian Waddell, chief executive of NE1 Ltd, said: “Managing the public realm in Newcastle is crucial to the city centre’s economic survival. We need to get it right and we commend the council for their rapid efforts and the vision they have had for the city post-COVID.”