Opinion

Londoners want a greener city - why is that so hard to do?

27 March 2015

Open-City's Victoria Thornton OBE Hon FRIBA on the need to raise our green ambitions.

Each year more than 250,000 Londoners take part in the Open House London weekend, actively engaging in their city’s built environment. Over the last decade they have called on Open-City, the organisation behind the event, to include more sustainable exemplars in the programme, so that they can find out more about greening initiatives – not just in homes, but also in offices, schools and many other building types.

We are seeing a very real appetite for this from the public. Our Skanska-partnered Green Debate during Open House London 2014, held at the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the London School of Economics, was 20 times oversubscribed. And when asked “where do you make the most effort to be sustainable, at work or at home?” 91% of the 2,100 surveyed in Open-City’s public poll said “at home” rather than “at work”.

As citizens, it is clear to me that we are interested, engaged and willing to make London a sustainable city. However, is the industry reacting to this and showing its green objectives properly to the public? No, or at least, not enough.

A major barrier I hear again and again is the key issue of responsibility and leadership. Who is leading the green agenda? Who is responsible? In order to make a more sustainable city do we need the architects to design a green building? The developers to state a green brief? The end-occupiers to demand a green environment? The government to implement greener policy? Or tick yes for all of the above? Success will come from the sum of all of the parts, from joined-up thinking across the silos of industry and with the London public.

"In terms of single builds, there are great examples such as Derwent London's White Collar Factory with Brookfield and Arup. Leadership must come at both macro and micro levels."

Yes, the challenge is big, we know this, but there are real solutions that can be done and, most importantly, are being done. I believe we need to focus on what is being practically implemented and focus on making these extraordinary projects the norm. There are excellent, world-leading built environment organisations and individuals taking responsibility for the green agenda and forging ahead of the industry curve.

The Crown Estate’s work on Regent Street, for instance, shows a conscious whole-life strategy for an entire estate. Crossrail is currently presenting the industry with a critical opportunity in building a sustainable railway. In terms of single builds, there are great examples such as Derwent London’s White Collar Factory with Brookfield and Arup. Leadership must come at both the macro and micro levels.

Next month more than 50 foremost industry firms will showcase London projects that are leading the charge in delivering real sustainable design. From 20-24 April, in our Green Sky Thinking Week programme (now in its fifth year), professionals from all industry sectors come together to deliver honest appraisals of their projects. The events, open to all professionals, aim to provide a critical platform for discussion and exchange across the board, highlighting best practice and successful schemes for us all to learn from. They bring a “less talk, more action” approach to the city-wide challenge. Attendees will hear the lessons learnt from organisations such as Skanska, BuroHappold Engineering, Mace, British Land and Argent.

The on-going success of Green Sky Thinking Week is yet another example of the need for collaborative exchange and onsite showcases. It is time for the industry to stand up and be counted. Together.

Victoria Thornton is founding director of Open-City, an independent, not-for-profit organisation that champions excellence in design quality and an inclusive and informed approach to urban development. The events are free but booking is essential. www.greenskythinking.org.uk

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