COVID, net zero and other factors are changing the way we live our lives and what we want from our towns and cities. WCS is heavily involved in infrastructure projects such as designing substations for connecting renewable power sources to the grid, and updating the rail network; this makes us interested in anticipating the infrastructure requirements for the towns and cities of tomorrow.
Here, company founder and MD Asa Whitfield shares his thoughts on the topic of Future Cities, and the role WCS will play in helping to shape them.
Why Future Cities?
The future of our cities, and the need for them to become smarter, is a transformation that has been proposed for some time. Back in 2013, the Government released its Future of Cities foresight project, looking at the opportunities and challenges facing UK cities over the next 50 years. You can read more about that here.
The discussion continues, and interests everyone from urban planners and those working in the transport, construction and energy sectors, right through to the people who inhabit our urban environments. The many discussion points do apply to smaller settlements too, but they are most relevant, and provide the greatest challenges, when applied to our great cities.
Towns and cities shape, and are shaped by, the way we live. Cities came into being as communities grew, supporting a growing pool of centralised specialists in livelihoods such as writing or tally-keeping.
Innovations like the railway and the motor car changed what we needed from our cities and how we accessed them. With the development and use of the internet, that change is now happening much quicker. From adapting to new working patterns, to reaching net zero, it’s worth thinking about the ways in which we might influence future cities to our advantage. One thing is clear, infrastructure upgrades and innovation will be vital as we transform our urban environments into cleaner, healthier and more efficient places.
The impact of changing work patterns on our cities
The idea that a typical office worker wouldn’t attend the office every day would have seemed eccentric until very recently. COVID forced us to make changes, but many of those changes appear to be staying with us. Employers insisting on a resumption of ‘traditional’ working patterns seem to be encountering resistance from workers unwilling to return to the ‘old ways’.
A key point here is the technological advance which enables these changes. Take us, for example. WCS have engineers and designers working from Mainland Europe, the Indian subcontinent and even Southeast Asia, with colleagues collaborating on projects and management using Microsoft Teams. This works very well, but wouldn’t have been possible without today’s software tools and connection bandwidths. Previously, the daily commute, in other words, wasn’t mere custom, it was the only way of collaborating with colleagues. COVID accelerated change and necessitated experimentation, demonstrating that another work pattern was now feasible.
Hub and spoke transport infrastructure
Transport infrastructure in cities is assumed to have a hub and spoke arrangement, with many people travelling into the centre on most days. While that won’t vanish entirely, undoubtedly how we use it has changed, and many people are now travelling between cities, out of cities, and internationally. Transport infrastructure is vital to how we work and live – and we’ve seen major infrastructure projects such as HS2 develop in response to the need for adaptation.
Another interesting development is the trend of local or borough authorities promoting the idea and use of local hubs. City centres – and local high streets – are reinventing themselves, delivering mixed-experiences and catering more for leisure, shopping and non-work needs – and transport infrastructure is evolving to reflect that – recognising the importance of cost effective, convenient and reliable local networks.
As people increasingly live and work within the same town, urban planning approaches have developed to reflect this, aiming to create vibrant communities where residents can reach all the places they visit for work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure – by walking or cycling – and that are connected by sustainable transport routes.
This includes continuing the idea of Garden Cities, Towns and Villages – a concept that dates to the nineteenth century – showing how we continue to adapt and build new communities. In a recent piece, we discussed our involvement in the Welborne Garden Village project, just one of a number of such projects the government is supporting.
WCS provided the civil engineering services for the new 132kV substation that will bring power to Welborne, an all-in-one community featuring shops, schools, factories and other places of work, as well as thousands of homes, and a science and technology park.
We’ve explored some reasons why the places we live in and the ways we travel might be changing, recognising how fundamental transport and power is to our communities and economy – and the ways in which we can continue to adapt and evolve. Another part of the equation is climate change, making us think about how we can make changes to reduce the carbon footprint, meet net zero goals and create sustainable networks that are resilient for decades to come.
Government-backed projects like Crossrail and rail electrification reduce the carbon footprint of travel – as well as improving the efficiency – by encouraging us to switch from cars to trains, or diesel trains to electric ones. According to a rail industry group that has invested in a new emissions calculation tool, rail travel is more carbon-efficient than previously believed.
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train companies and National Rail in the UK, commissioned the development of this tool to accurately assess their carbon footprint. The tool, created by Thrust Carbon, a sustainability intelligence platform, incorporates seven sets of data, such as engine and fuel type, occupancy, carriage layout, and precise journey distance. You can read more about it here.
This new transparency and analysis around carbon emissions is a strong argument in favour of the government and rail operators investing in newer, more energy-efficient trains and advocates for the electrification of additional lines.
Other governments are pushing harder than our own, however. Rail is often more expensive than flying here, with subsidies limited, as we noted while discussing rail electrification previously. Meanwhile, in France, the government has decided subsidy isn’t enough, and has banned most short-haul flights that can be replaced with train travel.
What can we do?
We can’t look to the government for all of the answers, though. We live in a society, and we all have a responsibility for its future.
WCS is actively committed to understanding and reducing our own energy consumption and carbon emissions. Personally, I cycle to work, and we have a scheme to encourage others to do so.
We’re also accepting of the new model where staff come into the office less frequently. We think consciously when contemplating work travel: questioning whether attendance in-person is needed in the first place for a short meeting for example, and we travel to site visits via train whenever possible. We’re looking forward to attending the 8th Railway Forum in Berlin in September by train!
Moreover, we acknowledge the positive influence we can have on our clients by incorporating environmentally conscious designs into their projects. A prime illustration of our dedication is demonstrated through our use of the Rail Carbon Tool. For instance, when we conducted a carbon assessment for a footbridge renewal project, this carbon assessment, along with the associated environmental analysis, played a significant role in finalising the options for strengthening and renewal works. Using this tool from the project’s inception, we engaged key stakeholders to develop the most efficient and cost-effective energy strategy for the design.
As a company, we’re involved in projects involving renewable energy and substation design – ensuring suitable power provision for new or expanding developments – as well as rail electrification projects and civil engineering designs for electric vehicle charging points to support more efficient and sustainable travel. We work in these areas in part because we believe these sectors will grow to accommodate changing infrastructure requirements. But, it also does feel like we’re ‘doing our bit’ to move towards ensuring how we live, work and travel in the UK – be that in cities, towns, villages – by rail or road – is ready for the future.