Marnix Elsenaar and Paul Minto discuss the challenges planners face as technology evolves faster than policy making

We are fast-approaching the future Ridley Scott envisaged in his 1982 classic film Blade Runner, set in a 2019 Los Angeles. While we are perhaps a long way from human-like replicants and colonising other planets, who could have imagined in the early 1980s that in 2018 we would be wrestling with the challenges posed by the use of autonomous vehicles, drones, artificial intelligence and personalised digital advertising?

The Blade Runner future may not be as far away as we think, as planners, developers, consultants and city dwellers contend with the prospect of greater volumes of people living in our cities, and the impact that has on how we move around, the spaces in which we live, and the air we breathe.

The challenge of mass public transport, limited and expensive living space, and increased levels of air pollution, are all real and we must consider how the planning system and infrastructure policies respond to fast-moving technological changes. How will planners set policies that may be out-of-date by the time they are adopted?

Rapid city-centre living
Take London for example, where job growth is fuelling the requirement for 42,000 new homes every year, and the associated space, congestion, pollution and planning issues which are likely to come as a consequence of more people living in the city.

In the capital, we are seeing the growth of co-living and micro-living, and we are starting to see examples of this in other parts of the UK, where the demands of people living and working in city centres are very different to their predecessors’, and perhaps at odds with local authorities’ minimum space standards. We need to think about housing which meets the needs and demands of its residents, rather than being overly prescriptive.

Across the UK we can see examples of a rapid increase in city-centre living, fuelled mainly by young people with different lifestyles, standards and expectations. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of 20 to 29-year-olds living in the centre of large cities tripled in the first decade of the 21st century. It’s no coincidence that the rise in city-centre living has grown alongside, although not perhaps because of, technological advances. However, the two are inextricably linked.

With such demand, city planners should be thinking carefully to future-proof their plans to contend with and accommodate technological advances. How will cities plan for the growth in autonomous vehicles and their impact on urban areas in the context of sharing space with pedestrians or other important infrastructure?

It is encouraging to note that the Government is acutely aware of some of the challenges being posed. A Grand Challenge emanating from the recent Industrial Strategy, the Future of Mobility consultation is seeking views to ensure our transport needs for tomorrow are met, particularly in our urban areas.

It is also encouraging to note the Law Commission’s consultation on the legal framework for automated vehicles, requested by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.

Our planners are paying close attention to learn from other countries with similar challenges. Take Singapore for example, with a population of 5.6m and growing and 15 per cent of its land covered by roads; strict controls are placed on new roads being built, there is a fixed vehicle quota, and car ownership is carefully managed. Some would see that as over-authoritarian. Others see it as planning for the future. However, questions remain about the long-term impact of such policies on social mobility and equality. We examined this topic at a recent seminar titled Retail Travelution alongside other themes such as retail logistics.

Changing retail habits
As our retail habits change, and the challenges faced by High Street retailers are well-documented, so do the trends we see in the supply chain adapting to consumer demands. We are seeing new inter-modal hubs being developed but will the need for such hubs be reduced as retailers develop strategies to enable delivery straight from factory to store? Linked to this is the on-demand nature of our shopping habits, leading the Government to consult on last mile delivery, including the use of ‘green’ vehicles such as e-bikes.

Amazon is talking to the Government and Civil Aviation Authority about the increased use and application of drones in our society. Technological advances are pushing boundaries beyond the current regulatory environment.

Environmental concerns
With more people living in our cities, and retail habits changing, the impact on our urban environmental health should be closely monitored. In 2015, the Government called for Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton to introduce clean air zones in a bid to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels or face big fines – the plans for Birmingham and Leeds will be implemented next year. Is it a coincidence that the number of people in each of these cities has grown significantly since 2002, according to the Centre for Cities (Birmingham by 163 per cent, Derby by 32 per cent, Leeds by 150 per cent, Nottingham by 81 per cent and Southampton by 94 per cent)? The plans being developed by local authorities are prompting significant local debates and it is foreseeable that national transport policies could be influenced because of what is being discussed at a regional or local level. What is important to note is that underpinning these policies are conditions which cost drivers money and we therefore anticipate a change in travel behaviour to increased public transport or electric vehicle use.

But it’s clear that the environmental challenge is not unique to the UK. We are seeing new cities in China struggle with serious levels of air pollution and the Chinese government is implementing strict regulations as a result. The challenge for policy makers is to ensure that pollution levels are kept within acceptable limits rather than reaching levels which create severe risks to public health.

Conclusion
In an ideal world, the regulatory environment would be agreed first, but we are increasingly seeing technology developers influence the regulatory discussions. The Amazon drone example illustrates how the private sector is leading the discussion and policy makers struggling to catch up.

The development of cities is being led from the bottom up rather than the top down. Evolving technology and living habits mean that cities need to change but there is a risk that, without careful planning and regulation, the opportunity to effect change that enhances our environment and improves quality of life for all, will be missed.

The debate around the extent of powers given to the UK transport authorities is critical to the development of our smart cities. The interaction of digital technology and transport planning is in its infancy but the imminent arrival of Clean Air Zones across the UK is fuelling that debate and we can expect significant developments over the next few years.

It could be argued that Blade Runner 2049, compared to its predecessor, does not feature the same level of futuristic technology not yet dreamed of, but of a world ravaged by environmental catastrophe. This is perhaps an indication of the rapid pace of technological change in the last 30 years, but the worries over the environmental impact are perhaps far greater, which should be of great concern to everyone with an interest in creating our cities of the future.

Marnix Elsenaar is partner and head of planning, and Paul Minto is partner, energy and utilities, at Addleshaw Goddard, a premium business law firm with international reach and an exceptional breadth of services. Its reputation for outstanding quality and certainty of service is built upon long term relationship investment and a deep understanding of client markets which creates and delivers superb value and results. Its approach combines a deep understanding of its clients’ businesses, markets and sectors with high calibre expertise, straight talking advice and a collaborative team culture.
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