There was a moment, about halfway through the final event of the Midtown Big Ideas Exchange (“MBIE”) series of 2019/2020, that summed up why we chose to focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) this year. At the front of a packed room at Connected Places Catapult, a government-backed network of not-for-profit technology and innovation centres that picked Midtown as one of its UK hubs, the Catapult’s Executive Office Director Sam Markey asked the audience whether Midtown will one day be regarded as a pioneer in developing a more sustainable future for London and other cities around the world.
"As a small business, there is a limit to what you can control. You cannot exert huge influence. But you can make good decisions about why and where you operate – such as choosing a workspace with sustainable credentials."
The dozens of people - architects, designers, engineers, financiers, public officials, media workers and economists among them - in the room agreed: Midtown, a melting pot of innovation and creativity, is uniquely positioned to make a difference and that this reflects the district’s competitive advantage.
The event focused on issues related to the sustainable growth of cities, from the local, such as the impact of Crossrail on Midtown and the steps that businesses in the area are taking to make their workspaces more sustainable and attractive for workers, to the global, including the challenges posed by the rapid emergence of new megacities across the developing world.
The event took as its inspiration SDG11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities. Within this Goal, a number of issues are considered. These include:
While recognising that many of these issues are more acute for cities and communities in the developing world, there are clearly also considerable problems closer to home. As London continues to grow at a rate of about one million people every decade, we will have to make some difficult choices to accommodate that growth, including increasing the housing density in central areas in attractive and sustainable ways, reflected Alexander Jan, Head of Economics, Arup, and Non-Executive Chair, BEE Midtown.
These are of course big challenges. One of the speakers, Araceli Camargo, Lab Director and Co-Founder, The Centric Lab, drew intakes of breath from the audience when she said, “we have run out of fresh air”.
Incremental change will not suffice, said Dr Geoff Kendall, Co-Founder and CEO, Future-Fit Foundation, who argued that we need to completely re-imagine the world we live in. Ms Camargo admitted she finds “sustainability” as a concept too modest and we need to radically alter the way we plan our ecology.
The event also heard how small steps can make a difference. Ms Camargo runs to work and between meetings and restricts international business travel. Oliver Kampshoff, Director of Architecture, Carey Jones Chapman Tolcher, says most people at his firm cycle to the office. Mr Jan said many businesses are designing workspaces as large, airy, open and fun environments in part to compensate for many of their employees living in cramped or unhealthy conditions.
Midtown’s success as a destination of choice for businesses and tourists presents its own problems. Crossrail is coming, bringing hundreds of thousands more visitors each year, putting additional pressure on local services. Public realm improvements are being delivered but there is so much more to do.
BEE Midtown will continue to play its own part in finding solutions to the problems of urbanisation and growth. Our BEE Wild project aims to increase the diversity and abundance of pollinating insects across Midtown’s green spaces, gardens, balconies and rooftops. We are a partner in the Making a B-Line for Camden project, working with Camden Council and Buglife to connect green areas from Hampstead Heath to Holborn.
At the same time, we’re working closely with local councils and Transport for London to support further initiatives to improve the public realm in and around Midtown. We also will soon be upgrading our information kiosk at Holborn which will help get everyone from A to B as well as being an air quality monitoring station for London.
At BEE Midtown, we hope to be able to continue to do everything we can to promote sustainable development for London throughout the 2020s.