Content marketing firm gives inside scoop on Base London conference

Content Communications’ Senior Environmental Writer, Nicola Martin gives her impressions of  Base London 2014, part of the Tomorrow’s City programme of events about the changing built environment.

With speakers ranging from Tessa Jowell MP to Solarcentury’s Jeremy Leggett to the inimitable Stanley ‘dad of Boris’ Johnson, Base London 2014 was full of big-picture thinking on infrastructure and its resilience to climate change.

The focus was understandably on London. And, as a non-Londoner, I couldn’t help but notice the sense of strain – the sense of London as a city in crisis. At the conference, there were calls for London to be example to the UK and Europe in terms of sustainability and resilience. But talk of the challenges ahead for London – shortage of housing, high cost of living, inadequate transport, and aging infrastructure – tended to overwhelm any clear-cut answers to those challenges.

A few key themes emerged from the seminar programme:

• Is a London-centric UK really desirable?
Although, for the majority of speakers, the answer was yes, Stanley Johnson asked: Do we actually want 11 million people in London? Should we be reducing the demand for London jobs/housing/transport, rather than trying to meet it?

• Infrastructure is plagued by short-termism
Gerard Lyons, economic adviser to the Mayor of London, wryly noted that Britain is very good at analysing itself, but then it doesn’t seem to read any of the reports it produces. This tendency to identify a problem and then not do anything about it means the UK is lacking in long-term plans for infrastructure.

• Strain on transport systems
Tessa Jowell MP cited a very interesting statistic: the capacity of London bus travel grew by 40% over the last 10 years, but use grew by 60%. This indication that population is growing much faster than infrastructure has worrying implications.

• Are medieval cities the ideal model for 21st century living?
The conference’s venue was the beautiful and historical Guildhall, which inspired David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, to comment that medieval cities like London could be the ideal model for 21st/22nd-century living, since they are designed for walking and can be easily adapted for cyclists. Let’s just say that the conference attendees weren’t entirely convinced by this idea!

• Climate change resilience
Is the UK prepared for climate change? In short: no. William Hynes, of Future Analytics Consulting, noted that London is only in the first stage of climate change preparedness, as compared to Copenhagen and Christchurch, which are already at stage 4.

• Is there incentive to change?
Mark Weil, of insurance company Marsh UK, also argued that part of the problem is that the government is insulating people from the effects of climate change (with financial packages like Flood Re, following the winter flooding), giving little incentive to change.

• Do we dig a bigger carbon hole or look to radically change our carbon profile?
Keith Clarke, of Forum for the Future, pointed out that rich cities are adapting to climate change by digging a deeper carbon hole, using more air-conditioning and energy-intensive desalination. What we need instead are flexible, ‘smart’ cityscapes that are able to adapt to new demands. Mr Clarke argued that the built environment is lagging behind technologically. It’s five years behind the automotive industry and 10 years behind aerospace – sectors where companies have bet on new technology.

• The need to build sustainability into the fabric of cities
Jeremy Leggett of Solarcentury cited the newly solar-clad Blackfriars bridge as an example of how we should be building clean energy into our infrastructure, instead of relying on a power station at the edge of the city.

• The perception gap
Noel Morrin of Skanska posited that part of the problem that’s holding back the built environment from true climate change adaption is that there’s a ‘perception gap’ – people think green building is more expensive than it is.

And finally… my favourite jargon term of the conference has to be: ‘turquoise cities’ – a turquoise cities approach apparently refers to the need for access to both green spaces (parks) and blue spaces (rivers, lakes, etc.) in new communities. Well, now you know!

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