Tag Archives: UK

Smoking is the Worst Thing Ever and Smokers Should be Ashamed of the Costs They Impose on Society

I’m hoping that my co-blogger will write a counter-p0int to this post, so I’m keeping the title just the way it is.

Because in our family, there is a schism (or maybe just a spectrum): my mother smokes. My sister isn’t bothered by smoking. My father finds it unpleasant.

And I find it completely unacceptable behavior, and cannot believe that the Western world has continued to allow smoking to occur.  The notion that smoking is legal actually boggles my mind. And I do not remember a time when I didn’t think smoking was disgusting.  As desperately as I wanted to be popular in middle and high school, as much as I was surrounded by cigarettes in college, and as much as  I envied the architects (already wayyyy cooler than the urban planners) in grad school when they made an intimate cabal under the pillars, I have never considered smoking.

So all that said, I have become even more militant about smoking.  At (SO CLOSE TO) seven months pregnant, I have become an anti-smoking vigilante, going so far as to involuntarily screech at someone yesterday when they blew smoke in my face from their bicycle.  It was a reflex, I swear.  I stomp behind smokers as I walk to work in the morning and I take a lot of pleasure in farting as I pass smokers (at socloseto seven months pregnant, I can more or less fart on command). They probably can’t smell it but I like to think I’m sticking it to’em, nonetheless.

All of this is a prelude to saying: I think smoking is an urban planning issue.  A public health issue, too, but also something that raises fundamental questions about the way we allocate public and private space, and how we direct public resources (for example: in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, there are hordes of employees tidying the cigarette butts from the meticulously maintained gravel.) And the move to outlaw smoking indoors reflects the fact that, while my opinions are more vehement than most, there is general acceptance of the notion that people who smoke impose a cost on those who don’t. And as smokers are increasingly concentrated in public space, they are increasingly imposing a cost on others who want to use that public space.

On the one hand, all of this is increasingly rendered irrelevant as the number of smokers decreases: in California, the percentage of smokers is only 12%, and in the US as a whole, it is down to 18.6%, which is significant because conventional wisdom has  been that 20% of people are ‘hardcore’ smokers who cannot be persuaded to quit (according to The New York Times). In the UK, the percentage of smokers was 39% in 1979, but has dropped to 21% today (says Wikipedia).  One could argue that my whole rant is moot: smokers are already a marginalised population, right?

I don’t think so. If you smoke, you are not bothered by other people smoking (I assume), even though you are still exposed to the risks of secondhand smoke…and firsthand smoke…  But as the population of non-smokers increases, the amount of people who are unfairly exposed to secondhand smoke, who would really like to have a relatively carcinogen-free walk to work, increases. The relative cost that a single smoker imposes on everyone else increases.

In the US, cities around the country have adopted measures to restrict public tobacco consumption.  In New York City, a 2011 law means smoking in public parks can result in a $50 fine. Boston Common is smoke-free.  Burlington, Vermont has adopted a law requiring all public places to be smoke-free (though not necessarily public streets).  And Boulder, Colorado is currently weighing a proposal to make all public space, including cars parked in public space, smoke-free.  This is ironic given that the same state decriminalised marijuana about five minutes ago. In the UK, smoking is illegal in pubs and transit hubs, but ‘Please do not smoke here’ signs are roundly and gleefully ignored.  Cigarettes are actually cheaper here, and loose tobacco and rolling papers are widely available and much more popular than in the states.

While smoking is decreasing, I don’t think any municipality (save for Boulder – go Boulder) is doing enough to curb smoking. There are a number of things both countries, and any governments (city, county, state) within those countries could do to reduce the prevalence of smoking. Some proposals include:

1. Regulate vapor cigarettes and then make them widely available and subsidised.  The idea that they are a ‘gateway drug’ is preposterous and makes me kind of stabby. How many people took up smoking after they just couldn’t get enough of Nicorette? Zero.

2. Tax the crap out of cigarettes.  They’re $12 in New York, but I’d be happier if they were $15. Or $20! why not? In the UK, a box of cigarettes is about £7 (which equals about $10.80).  This is the only consumer good I can think of that costs less in the UK than it does in the US. For real.

3. Sell cigarettes in a variety of increments. A friend of mine who is trying to quit smoking recently pointed out that though he is down to 2 cigarettes a day (go, friend!), he still buys 20 at a time. And if he buys 20, he’ll smoke 20.  In England you can buy them in packs of 10, and I think there are some brands in the US that sell half-packs. But the act of buying things makes you more aware of your consumption, and makes people more aware of how much they’re spending on cigarettes.

4. A halfway policy: make littering cigarette detritus illegal.  No more flicking cigarette butts! Someone once said to me, ‘if I lit up a piece of paper and dropped it in the street, that would not be regarded as acceptable.’ But that’s exactly what smokers do, hundreds of thousands of times a day every day (except my mom. she doesn’t do that. Thanks, mom). Littering is not allowed. Let’s start there.

5. Make smoking in public places a fine-able offence. I don’t think smoking should be illegal; I think tobacco and marijuana should both be legal and regulated and expensive and commercially available.

On the other side of the coin, let’s please get rid of DARE and other education programs that have never worked, ever, and use that money elsewhere. Let’s make faux-smoking easier to do, and let’s allow THAT in public places (assuming there’s no health risk to everyone else). And let’s use the money from all the fines I just proposed for a public-health bonanza – I don’t know what that would look like, but I would vote for public transit investments and infrastructure to address food deserts, and possibly health care to marginalised people, who are the most likely to smoke (hell, I would too). I don’t want to criminalize smoking; I just don’t think I should have to be faced with secondhand smoke, and nor should anyone else who doesn’t want to be.

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Impressions of Tibby’s Triangle, Southwold

Last month, my friend Jaime visited from Israel and I had five days to give her a peek into my exciting (not so exciting) UK life.  Jaime and I met in planning school, so I particularly wanted to take her to see a really cute, quintessential British seaside town.  We settled on Southwold for 2 main reasons: 1, there is a new Ash Sakula housing development there that I wanted to see and 2, Adnam’s Brewery is there.  Holler!

The scheme, as you’ll see from the movie, is a small development – 26 houses – just off the main drag in Southwold, near a cemetery, a playground, the beach, and a whole bunch of super cute seaside-y houses.  It was built on some land owned by Adnam’s, and the architects also designed an adjacent pavilion, cafe, and shop owned by Adnam’s.

For the most part, I really liked the development.  In the video, the architects talk about trying to mimic Suffolk vernacular (which is something I’ve heard a lot about, in design reviews in Suffolk).  They tried to do that by using referential materials, incorporating lots of small-scale cut-throughs, and including small-scale green spaces into the development.  All the houses have access to some outdoor space, which is nice, and (as promised in the video) none of the building heights are the same.  There’s also a flatiron building in the middle of the development that I think is particularly cute.

The  image above shows some of the pros and cons of the scheme.  The pros I think I’ve already established: its cute, it clearly takes Suffolk as its inspiration, its visually interesting, its porous.  All good stuff.   The pros outweigh the cons, but there were two things that I really, really noticed that I would have done differently: first, as you can see from the image above, the space to the left of the flatiron building is devoted to cars.  Every house has its own space, which I understand it necessary from a real-estate perspective.  The amount of asphalt may have been a requirement for fire truck turning radii or something – but the edges of the development have a fine-grain, intimate feel; its weird that the middle of the thing is basically a parking lot.

The other complaint I have is with one of the housing styles (despite the variety, there were three or four house themes and palettes that were repeated throughout the development):


This is where I think the commitment to vernacular references broke down.  But I don’t object to this house (there were several of them) because they’re modern; I object to them because they’re ugly. I think the windows are awkwardly set into a boring facade.  The thing that I really hate, though, are these semi-enclosed parking spaces. I think they are the worst sort of faux-modernism; I think they destroy the intimate pedestrian feel that the architects worked so hard to cultivate in the rest of the project, and I think they aren’t even that useful – there’s no storage; there’s no extra living space; the half-garage has a larger surface area than two surface parking spots – its just stupid.  It made me angry.

I think at heart my biggest objection to the scheme – which I did find quite lovely – is that the architects smushed together the car space and pedestrian space without really reconciling the two.  The alleys through the little neighborhood are dominated by pedestrians, but (especially around the flatiron building), people on foot feel like interlopers – a feeling reinforced by the architecture, planning and landscaping across the site.

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Since moving to Cambridge, I’ve heard and read about the award-winning Accordia development in Cambridge, 300-some units of housing built in 2004 and designed by architecture heavyweights Feilden Clegg Bradley (plus some others).  I was lucky enough to tag along on a tour led by Peter Carter, who worked for the Cambridge planning office as one of the point people when the development was given planning permission.

I was really blown away by some of the development (which is large enough to constitute its own neighborhood), and really disappointed by other parts.  There are three green corridors running through the neighbourhood, which pre-date the development; the houses are snuggled in between the trees and on a beautiful sunny day are dappled with sunlight and shot through with green open space and greenery.  Toward the back of the development, the trees peter out, and there are some big open spaces mixed in with higher-rise development, but the relationship of building and open space is vastly different.  At one end of Accordia, the scale is perfect – three-story buildings along narrow streets with greenery and balconies at all three levels (on the ground, first-floor terraces and second-story balconies, all of which have dense planting).

At the other end, the buildings are larger, and the design quality is equally high, but there’s a serious drop-off in the quality of the landscape architecture.  The space opens up – but too much; the slight step-up in density doesn’t correspond to the large increase in circulation space, and the lack of green space means that the space just looks unfinished.

I have some quibbles with the layout but the architecture is, for the most part, amazing.  The UK requires that 30% of all new developments be affordable units, and a good chunk of them are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric.  Another chunk of them are included in larger apartment buildings, the tallest of which is 8 stories.  There is a row of houses at the back that look a little worse for the wear, and many have wood doors that have weathered differently and shabbily. On the other hand, the houses at the front are amazing and there are two taller buildings that I would love to live in, if they didn’t front onto an awkwardly-scaled public square.

A couple of caveats: the Accordia development is still in development; the last few houses are just being complete now.  There was evidence of construction in some corners of the space that will be removed in the next couple of months.  The atmosphere in one corner was seriously affected by a “historic” bunker that still stands, disused and surrounded by seriously ugly fencing – obviously through no fault of the developers. And finally, we were there on a Wednesday afternoon in August, which is not historically the busiest time of year in a residential development in the UK, when everyone and their mother is on vacation.

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So what’s your job, exactly?

A future development site and the site of a Shape East design review

I have a master’s in urban planning from an American university, but relocated to the UK a few months after graduating. The planning system is very different here, so it was a challenge trying to find a niche. Ultimately, I ended up at Shape East, the centre for the built environment in the east of England.  I started working for Shape East as their Design Support Manager in February, a job with a description that continues to evolve as I learn to think more and more expansively about what Design Support can entail.

“Design support” is broken down into two broad categories – design support and design review.  Design review is a particular process of peer review, wherein we provide a panel of built environment professionals (architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects) to offer their commentary on a scheme that is about to be submitted for planning permission.  Usually, the planners at the relevant office will suggest to the architects or developer that some peer review would be beneficial, or a controversial project will undertake it voluntarily with the understanding that it will help quell opposition. Design review is a formal meeting with a particular protocol, and Shape East is part of a national network of design review providers, each with their own discrete reservoir of panel members.  Many of the architects on the panel are Kind of a Big Deal; others have a particular specialty.  The idea of design review is that a higher level of scrutiny will result in a higher degree of design quality, a premise I believe in.  My role is to organise all the design review meetings, take notes, and then summarise the recommendations for the local authority and the design team – the finished product is a letter, usually about 1000 words long, that is an official record of the 2-ish hour meeting (including a site visit) and the suggestions made by the panel of architects Shape East provides.

Design support is less specific.  It can happen at any time during a project’s development, up to the point where it receives planning permission.  Recently, we held a meeting with some important people in a small seaside town to help them develop a brief for a new public square.  We also helped a design firm work with a local town council to redesign the facade of an economic regeneration project.

The best part of my job is that I’m a believer in the value of our product.  Design review isn’t always helpful, but in many cases it makes a huge difference in the finished product and almost always results in positive changes to the design.  And design support is even more important, because it typically involves getting people outside the design and planning community involved in the process.

Design support, which typically focuses on a single development, is one half of what Shape does. The other half is more general education – we offer walking tours, public lectures, and other resources (many of them web-based) to help people learn about architecture and design.  Historically, Shape had done lots of outreach in schools and with young people, and at present we’re collaborating with Kettle’s Yard, a local art gallery, on outreach related to the construction of a new gallery space.

To my mind, the opportunity to get constructive criticism is one of the few pros of a planning system that is painfully vague and subject to personal opinion.  The UK is fairly unique, I think, in having providing so many opportunities for designers to get input from a “critical friend,” often from big-name design professionals and, at the very least, from designers that have been vetted and selected for their suitability for the project.  At Shape, about one in four applicants to the panel were ultimately chosen, and the competition for the position of chair and vice chair was stiffer.  My job is to try to convince people to avail themselves of this expertise.

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