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It Wasn't Built in a Day

Why transforming the material fabric of cities matters

Cities: producing and reducing CO2 emissions

Cities are frequently portrayed as significant producers of carbon emissions. Calculating carbon emissions is notoriously problematic. But given the concentrations of buildings and populations in cities, it is estimated that in cities such as London buildings account for nearly 80% of carbon emissions (1). It follows from this that reducing carbon emissions is seen to require policy interventions that re-think and re-shape the ways in which energy flows into, through and out of buildings in the city.

For city authorities, what needs to be done in existing buildings, through new forms of energy generation, insulation and building materials is relatively well understood. This is often characterised as the retrofitting agenda. This includes the retrofitting of existing buildings, developments and the energy that flows through them. This agenda is often understood at a city level (local authority or metropolitan) and involves a combination of long-term carbon reduction targets and the kinds of technologies, buildings and projects that will contribute to achieving such targets. How retrofitting will effectively be undertaken at the scale of the city is less clear.

City interventions: business as usual or transformation?

Whether this results in a continuation of business as usual, piecemeal retrofit approaches or something more transformational is key. Cities are constantly being worked on and made anew. The dynamism of cities is bound up in the organisation of their populations, buildings, political structures, business activities and historical legacies. So change and the re-making of cities is an inherent part of what cities are.

Yet, the re-making of cities can also be seen as something which is less about the accretion of ongoing piecemeal activities in the city and more about purposive attempts to re-think and re-shape the city. This view is concerned not with the ongoing remaking of the city but with transformation of the city.  

Disconnected knowledge and resources

There are significant issues that mean that transformation of the material fabric of cities, to meet the challenge of decarbonisation, is not being addressed effectively. The broader context in which transformation needs to be understood includes financial restrictions and austerity and also the environmental, demographic and social challenges facing government.

The challenge both for national government and for city authorities and agencies is to effectively integrate knowledge and resources in delivering policy around the built environment and provision of energy. Yet, for both national government and for city authorities the capacity to identify, absorb and make use of knowledge in this area varies across departments and agencies.

Building collaboration in Greater Manchester

There is a critical role for research in contributing to not only what retrofit might look like but also how, through bringing disparate interest, expertise and resources together, it will be achieved. This role is not one that prioritises conventional research but which promotes an action-based approach to research where partners co-produce research.

Bridging both the national level and producing more effective local responses is the EPSRC-funded Retrofit 2050 project. The project, a 42 month collaboration between universities, policymakers, industry and other social interests, has worked to build a series of generic visions of what the retrofitted city of the future will look like in 2050 and to develop pathways for how this will be achieved.

The visions were developed through integrating academic knowledge with a scenarios process. Workshops with policymakers, industrialists, community organisations and academics, developed and detailed three visions of the retrofitted city of the future: the self-reliant city; the networked city and the compact city.

A further process of working with city-level interests has sought to make these visions and pathways relevant to city-regional contexts in Greater Manchester and Cardiff. This is important because there are specific as well as general challenges for effectively developing retrofit in Greater Manchester and Cardiff.

Themes for future work: expanding, engaging, connecting

One of the important findings from both the Retrofit 2050 project and work on retrofit in Greater Manchester as part of the first year of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform (GMLIP) was the centrality of retrofitting the physical fabric, the built environment and the infrastructure networks of Greater Manchester policy debates. This agenda focussed largely, though not exclusively, on the urban core and was promoted as an economic development agenda.

Yet, beyond this dominant agenda there are very many experiments, examples and exemplars of retrofit in Greater Manchester which are not well understood. How the dominant approach to retrofit in Greater Manchester relates to ‘alternative’ approaches is also not well understood despite it potentially offering a basis for more effective approaches to retrofit in the city-region.

It is critical, therefore, to understand the many ways in which the material fabric of Greater Manchester is being re-made through retrofit projects.

  • To understand, engage with and assess the projects remaking the material fabric of GM;
  • To understand how these are organised and what this tell us about the relationship between the way that economic activity and environmental responses are organised in Greater Manchester;
  • To identify practical and fruitful points of connection between dominant approaches to retrofit and these alternatives.

In 2013 in the GMLIP the Remaking the Material Fabric of the City project aims to address these issues. It does this to contribute to rethinking the relationship between mainstream approaches  and a whole range of alternatives; and to provide a basis for working through how knowledge and resources across these approaches can be effectively integrated.



Find out more:

Mistra Urban Futures
Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform  
Re-Engineering the City 2020-2050

Photo of It Wasn't Built in a Day taken by Alex Wharton