Safer cities: why responding to the climate crisis means prioritising people too

Written by Leah Stuart Director Civic Engineers

As cities work to respond to the climate crisis, we face a great opportunity to prioritise inclusivity. Climate change will impact all of us, but not everyone will be affected in the same way. Leah Stuart Director at Civic Engineers explores how cities like Manchester can create a more inclusive built environment and make towns and cities safer.

It’s never been more important for us to prioritise inclusivity, particularly as we respond to the challenge of the climate emergency. Climate change will impact all of us, but the UK’s Climate Change committee has identified that, due to inequalities in society, not everyone will be affected in the same way.

Women, minority groups and older people are just a few of those who are most at risk from climate-related effects such as flooding and air pollution. Many are on lower incomes or are primary caregivers, impacting their capacity to adapt.

We must urgently prioritise addressing these issues in our response to the climate crisis. And this means organising our built environment and designing our transport systems with more people in mind, to help rectify systemic inequalities and make our towns and cities safer.

Delivering climate commitments in a fair way

Tackling climate change is now a top priority on a local and national scale, and a major focus of investment. In Yorkshire, the home of UKREiiF, the Mayor of West Yorkshire and West Yorkshire Leaders declared a climate emergency in 2019, going further and faster than national Government to set a target for the region to be Net Zero by 2038, an ambitious goal matched by Manchester’s own aim to become a zero carbon city by the same year.

In Leeds, plans to decarbonise the city’s transport include the rollout of more than 200 zero emissions buses; an electric vehicle charging strategy and a local electric vehicle infrastructure programme; the Leeds city bike scheme and funding for active travel schemes.

The impetus to change is clearly gathering pace, and these commitments are just the tip of the iceberg across the UK. This presents us with the opportunity to deliver a better future that is just, fair and more equal. An integral part of this should be considering women’s experiences of using public spaces and moving around our towns and cities.

All too often, transport systems and streets are designed to favour people who are already privileged, and disadvantage people who have to travel in bad weather on foot. When we look at UK travel statistics, women make more frequent, shorter trips and are more likely to walk or use the bus. They are also three times more likely to take children to school. Taking a more inclusive approach would see substantial infrastructure investment focussed on the smaller micro-journeys made by people with lower incomes, more caring responsibilities, more than one job and more to carry. So how can our built environment industry work to collectively address these issues?

Collaboration, engagement and inclusive thinking

Firstly, we must ensure that any data and information we use to inform our design and planning decisions is representative of local communities, and factors in women, gender-diverse people and minority groups. For example, if we spot a marked increase in cycling, as has been the case in West Yorkshire, we must interrogate the data and understand in greater depth what has prompted this shift. That way, we can create more inclusive spaces that better reflect the needs of local communities and help them to live happier and healthier lives.

Allowing equal access to active travel and sustainable transport also means we must address the problem of safety concerns. Creating safer streets, parks and public spaces is a given, but we must also consider perceptions and feelings of safety, and everything in our culture that contributes to that. If women feel comfortable and welcome in a space, they will be more confident to travel to and through it, to exercise, to walk, to not go in a car and contribute to emissions.

Creating more walkable, well-lit pathways and streets, open gathering spaces, secure locations to shelter and safe cycling routes for those travelling with children, are just some of the ways we can improve the accessibility and safety of our towns and cities. And operationally, making sure bus routes take into account the school run, and that we’re gritting pavements so that they’re passable with a buggy in the winter is a must. At the Climate Innovation District, one of our projects in Leeds, the priority was to create a walkable, healthy, family-friendly environment with integrated amenities, and the neighbourhood has gone on to win widespread praise for the impact it has had on local people’s lives.

On all levels, we must involve women in policy making and planning throughout the industry and increase the diversity of the sectors that are going to design our way towards Net Zero. Diverse teams deliver better and more inclusive results.

It’s also imperative that we connect with, empower and incentivise communities and groups most impacted by inequalities. We need to allow, train and incentivise people to tackle issues that are important to them, and find better ways to collaborate.

Transforming our urban landscapes in response to the changing climate presents us with a unique opportunity to change our systems and plan our future in a fair and just way, and one that actively benefits not only women, but everyone. We must factor accessibility, safety and inclusivity into planning decisions and designs, if we’re to advocate for sustainable active travel, public transport and encourage people outdoors.

Leah Stuart is a director at Civic Engineers.