A million homes in 30 years. That’s the target the government has set to build in the prosperous ‘brain belt’ from Oxford via Milton Keynes to Cambridge. Take this as a microcosm of UK wide plans for development and imagine the infrastructure required. Then zoom out again on your mental Google map to see it in planetary terms. The need for secure affordable homes and the opportunity to live, work and thrive, for our families to flourish. Basic human needs. Bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Yes, without doubt there is a housing crisis. And, without doubt there is an environmental crisis too. Can we square this circle?
The capability exists today to build zero carbon homes, which is to say more precisely, to build very low carbon homes with renewable capacity built in repay that investment over time through feeding clean energy to the grid. With thoughtful design of houses and urban landscapes, natural environments too can flourish. And these tend to be the homes and communities people want to live in. A virtuous circle of the good application of innovation in design leading to more demand leading to more investment in innovation. The problem is not a technical one, or ability to apply technology. The problem is one of unshared objectives and a lack of joined up and systemic thinking.
Listening to the well-intentioned and knowledgeable speakers at a recent conference on infrastructure development – national and local authority leaders, elected and professional; property developers; infrastructure and urban planning experts; homes and housing civil society organisations – there is no lack of goodwill or positive intention. But listen to the exchanges and it’s clear they are speaking different languages and framing the problems in different ways. And inevitably the weakest ‘voice’ in the room, though it was present, was that of the natural environment, the land upon which these homes and schools and workplaces and roads and trainlines and motorways will be built. The doctrine of economic growth equalling prosperity is so ubiquitous as a fundamental mental model, a paradigm, that no-one is willing to ask the questions of what this means for nature. Even the question of fresh water is couched (understandably) in terms of availability to those multi-millions of people who will need access to clean drinking water and effective sanitation. Not in terms of where it will come from and the harm that may accrue in diverting it. But these are vital questions.
How do we start to have truly meaningful conversations about creating spaces where people and nature thrive together? This is more than the hackneyed ‘living in harmony’, that suggests living side-by-side, that’s being good neighbours. I’m talking about a close-coupling that recognises that we too are nature and dependant – wholly – on the world we occupy.
Platforms like the conference provide opportunities to explore the complex systemic webs, the intricate interconnections, of a challenge like housing. The need for economic prosperity – for worthwhile ways to generate personal income, to sustain self and family – the need to make the region attractive to the businesses, investors and entrepreneurs who will help create jobs and opportunities, the need for healthy communities in which to grow up, learn, develop as young people, and the need to ensure that non-human life also have opportunities to live, thrive, find food, make homes and raise their young.
The capacity to create spaces for real dialogue and integrated thinking, to fathom the many tensions and relationships across many human-made distinctions (human and non-human, nature and economy) is there but it requires a boldness of vision and a willingness to truly engage with the multiple framings of the challenges, and ways of seeing the problems and seeing these as more than political positions or personal hobbyhorses. There is enough evidence now – far more than enough – to persuade us that this is an urgent requirement. We have to start listening and doing the hard thinking.