Feature: Time for the net-zero revolution of UK town centres

By Andrea Arnall, Planning, Director, at planning and development consultancy Turley 

It is widely acknowledged that town centres play a symbolic role in representing the values and priorities of their wider community and region; often showcasing acclaimed architecture, landmark buildings, and well-known public spaces. Given this central role, there is an onus on development in our urban areas to lead the UK’s commitment to reach net-zero by 2050. At present, however, much of the vital infrastructure upon which our town centres are built – such as our energy, transportation, and utility networks – are responsible for a large proportion of the UK’s emissions.

Town centres are a key component of local economies, and the design and infrastructure has often revolved around the needs of business, spending and consumption.

However, as changes in shopping patterns and wider lifestyle changes take hold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to adapt to meet the changing needs and priorities of communities. Through initiating wholesale net-zero focused redevelopment initiatives in several key areas, there is the potential to deliver future-proof net-zero town centres across the UK.

Net-zero homes and buildings

At the heart of the Government’s commitment to nationwide levelling up, is a promise to rapidly increase the rate of new housing development. Certainly, the development of high-quality, energy-efficient homes within close proximity of town centres can deliver substantial reductions in town-centre-related carbon emissions when managed wisely.

Firstly, more energy-efficient homes and nationwide retrofitting projects on existing housing stock would help to reduce the emissions produced in heating, cooling, and powering homes. Similar energy efficiency goals should be attached to commercial buildings as well.

Secondly, ensuring residential developments are closely situated in or near town centres, which are generally the focus of public transport connections, has the potential to reduce the current reliance on private cars. This thinking has given rise to the ‘15-minute neighbourhood’ concept, allowing people access to all their community needs within a short distance of their home, reducing car use and encouraging active travel.

One of the biggest drivers for net-zero buildings and homes will be the switch away from fossil fuels to low carbon heating technologies, including heat pumps, low carbon heat networks, direct electric heating and emerging technologies such as hydrogen. At present about 50,000 heat pumps are installed in homes each year, and the Government aims to increase this to 600,000 per year by 2028. By hitting these targets and raising building standards across the UK, tangible short-term reductions in emissions can be secured.

However, as the Environmental Audit Committee recently warned, we must approach carbon assessments by looking at the ‘whole-life’ of buildings and homes. A significant amount of carbon emissions arise from the construction and maintenance of buildings and homes, with the production of concrete and steel accounting for 16% of global CO2 emissions.

The journey to delivering net-zero homes and buildings must employ lower carbon alternative construction materials. An increased drive to consider the adaption of existing buildings, before diving into the carbon-intensive demolition and replacement approach to urban development, will also help. There are ever increasing examples in our centres of how, when working within the confines of existing structures, transformational change to buildings and spaces can be successfully achieved, while producing far less carbon.

Net-zero transportation

One of the biggest challenges facing both cities and town centres across the country is how best to reduce carbon emissions generated by transport networks, while at the same time maximising the viability of town centres by increasing regular footfall. There is universal agreement that the delivery of net-zero town centres will require a significant transformation in people’s travel habits as they move away from private car dependency to lower-carbon alternatives (i.e., cycling, walking, buses, trams, rail and even e-scooters).

To support this transition, it is essential our town centres receive sustained investment to provide the infrastructure needed to support lower-carbon travel alternatives, making it easier for the public to implement necessary lifestyle changes.

This shift will take time to come to fruition. To avoid impacting footfall or alienating community members from town centres, lighter intermediary measures may be favoured in the short term. For instance, those reluctant to part with private cars as their primary mode of transportation might be encouraged, through the introduction of ultra-low emissions zones, to swap to lower emission vehicles. This could then be followed by an acceleration in the promotion of new electric cars by ensuring the wide provision of public electric vehicle (EV) charging spaces in town centres.

It is crucial we do not forget that town centres are places to come together, share ideas, and communally shape our behaviour. It is, therefore, essential that full consideration is given to taking all members of the community along on the net-zero journey for their town centres together.

Our net-zero town centres

Often initiatives aimed at reducing the carbon intensity of our current methods of constructing, maintaining, running, and using our buildings, homes, and transport networks are reactive in nature. For example, thinking about how we repurpose unused buildings to breathe new life into them.  Increasingly people are looking to develop such units into flexible spaces that enable the wider community to come together and benefit from co-location of facilities.

However, as we seek to rectify failures of the past we must also adapt for the future, and a significant hurdle in developing net-zero town centres is transforming the way we plan and develop them.

The pandemic provided a significant level of disruption to our daily routines and has opened the floodgates for bold new thinking. Prior to the pandemic, town centres were still primarily focused on the purposes of shopping and work, two activities which are now being conducted increasingly remotely. During the depths of the lockdown, many began to rile against their limited access to green spaces, and now tree planting and the provision of more small-scale nature areas in town centres has received specific funding in the last Budget. As our appreciation of the outdoor grows, there is an opportunity for town centres to include broader biodiversity to show that we have moved from mere mitigation of the impacts of climate change to proactively improving the environment around us.

The ‘town centre’ identity crisis accelerated by the pandemic may perhaps provide the catalyst for revolutionary new ways of designing our public spaces to deliver much-needed net-zero town centres and support a more sustainable future.