TAPAS.network | 8 August 2022 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Coping with a world of unintended consequences

Peter Stonham

THERE IS PERHAPS no better example of how limited the forward thinking about the implications of human behaviour has been for transport than the explosion of suburban low-density car-dependent development that took place in the post-war period, and became known as suburban sprawl. 

Perhaps at its worst in north America - Los Angeles is probably the epitome of its adverse consequences - it has been nonetheless a very significant foundation upon which transport activity in the UK has moved in an unwelcome direction in terms of sustainability and carbon-intensive mobility, creating a legacy which is now urgently in need of remediation.

The new report from Urban Transport Group on transport in Suburbia is thus a welcome alert to this significant element of transport policy and planning. It provides both valuable background analysis, some useful case studies, and a set of proposed steps in a new direction for that part of the country which is home to an estimated 80% of the population, and arguably more in need of creative transport planning attention than either more traditional urban or rural areas which are much more often talked about.

Interestingly, the report’s title is an echo of the 1970s TV sitcom set in Surbiton. Called The Good Life, it told the story of an earnest and well-intentioned young couple who wanted to change the way they lived to be more locally rooted and self-supporting. It rather became an object of ridicule, as well as amusement, at the time. Maybe we should have learned much more from the far-sighted vision of Tom and Barbara Good.

Another area in which policies and thinking have been unhelpfully neglected is the matter of the use of road space — properly defined not only as the highways, but the kerbside and pavements that are alongside them too. These man-made corridors of concrete and tarmac are estimated to represent a significant part of the global populated land-mass - variously put at between 1.2%- 1.5%, and at a much higher level in built-up areas like cities, and the suburbs with their generously provisioned roads systems. 

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Rather like the couple in The Good Life, fifty years on some other radical people are now taking action to re-occupy space for more productive uses than stationery vehicles, by both creating new mini gardens and community facilities in the road instead of parking places

In his contribution in this TAPAS issue, Professor Phil Goodwin explores his concern that uses and abuses of road space have multiplied unsupervised in recent years, without there being any proper framework for their determination and regulation, leading to all sorts of consequences both inside and beyond the boundaries of transport itself. It is hard to argue with his contention. (See the article by Professor Goodwin).

Rather like the couple in The Good Life, fifty years on some other radical people are now taking action to re-occupy space for more productive uses than stationery vehicles, by both creating new mini gardens and community facilities in the road instead of parking places, and pressing for the many front gardens that have been paved over for car spaces to be returned to the useful natural character that they once were as a place for both flora and fauna, and in serving as important areas for sustainable urban drainage.

Alongside the incomplete thinking on transport in the suburbs, these two neglects of really important elements of the professional landscape serve to underline the extent of past failure to grasp the implications of actions and inactions. And probably the existence of present equivalent blind spots, in particular of the second order effects that create a raft of new downstream problems for us all — in transport and many other spheres of activity too. For example, the belated lessons emerging from the latest look at research into the impact of deteriorating air quality on mental health, in particular the onset of dementia, providing yet another reason that transport urgently needs to clean up its act.

Regrettably, it still seems that too few people have the insight and foresight to recognise the damaging outcomes that will flow from ill-judged human decisions and actions. It is in this context that I want to pay special tribute to one of my personal heroes, a man who was a quite exceptional thinker about such issues, and sadly passed away a week ago. You will see this below.

Read Professor Phil Goodwin’s Commentary: How best to use Road Space: a problem we can’t ignore, but it’s a multi-dimensional and complex one


James  Lovelock

A personal tribute


JAMES LOVELOCK was to me one of the most uniquely perceptive and clear- sighted observers of the way the human species has messed up very and badly and how it treats its home planet and source of life support. He spotted and studied the serious risk that we have now gone well beyond any reasonable expectation of what is sustainable in terms of our exploitation of resources and interference with the fundamental eco system of which we are part. Lovelock’s Gaia theory - that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet – was not perfect. But it is, in my opinion, the best available model to bear in mind when considering everything from global warming to the energy and water shortages we are now experiencing, and how we should radically change how we measure and review the acceptability of all kinds of development, technological experimentation and other invasive human activity. Lovelock’s final look at that topic came in 2009 in The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can.

James Lovelock himself lived to a remarkable age, dying at home on his 103rd birthday last week. Regarded as unconventional, a maverick and iconoclast, these very characteristics meant he had just what it took to be awkward enough to ask the difficult questions no-one else was. And to propose realistic solutions to advancing problems that society seems to mostly prefer to ignore. He was justifiably gloomy about the future of the human species - which he speculated that Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, with her patience exhausted, might now be assiduously arranging to soon see the back of. You have been warned. 

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT851, 8 August 2022.

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