Newcastle: a ‘green’ city?

‘Green City’ Award (Forum for the Future)

There is much talk of ‘sustainable cities’ but sometimes it is little more than a touch of green gloss, camouflaging a very ungreen reality.

Newcastle from air

In 2009, the British organisation Forum for the Future described Newcastle in the NE of England as Britain’s greenest city.[i] Certainly the good work that is being done does deserve recognition yet, in reality, only small progress is being made. In terms of necessary urgency, given the speed and scale of threatening change regarding global warming, peak oil, and many other ecological threats, it is very much a matter of too little, too late. The failure of Newcastle in the EU Green City Award reflected that, with a very damning judges’ report.[ii] All kinds of policies also being pursued by the council that contradict what limited sustainability initiatives it has taken. At the same time, equally unsustainable social inequities within the city remain grievously wide.

There is much that is appealing about the city: the Grainger-Dobson architectural legacy, the Metro system, cutting edge health facilities, some attractive residential areas, parks like Jesmond Dene, the Ouseburn project… Rose-tinted spectacles must, of course, be discarded when viewing the city’s past. The old Quayside was ugly and badly polluted, especially around the old Thomas Hedley factory (later P&G). Its redevelopment had a number of pluses, even if some of the new architecture is a bit like a Legoland construction, designed by Albert Speer. Local air and water quality is generally much better than, say, 100 years ago. For all the talk of ‘yobbery’ and unsafe streets, it might be remembered that, only 40 years ago, local teen gangs such as the ‘Droogs’ swaggered around in search of violent ‘entertainment’.

Some of these qualities are rightly spotlighted in the Forum for the Future ‘Sustainable City’ assessment. Yet, overall, the indicators it uses are of limited utility. Sometimes it is a bit like comparing oranges and lemons, with little sense of what must come first for overall well being and how the different pieces of the jigsaw fit together. Thus there is a category called ‘ecological footprint’ yet this is separated from ‘climate change’, biodiversity’ and ‘air quality’ (water is omitted) as if the human impact was something separate from these key components of ecological systems.

More seriously, employment is treated as an independent variable. Yet some jobs might be very destructive in ecological terms, even if others may be useful and sustainable. No distinction is made, however. ‘Economy’ is separated from both employment and environment so the opening of a number of highly automated plants making armaments would have boosted Newcastle’s green standing. Such classifications are as meaningless as that grotesque picture of the national economy, Gross Domestic Product, counting, as it does, both ‘goods’ and ‘bads’. [It is estimated that, in the USA, each murder increases the GDP by $1 million, so a more murderous Newcastle would be a more economically ‘successful one’!].

So the yardstick of the number of VAT registrations used in the survey to measure business start-ups will include new lap dancing joints, burger bars, casinos, SUV salesrooms, and so forth. The proliferation of ‘value’ stores (Poundstretcher etc) and pawn brokers tend to suggest a decrease in well-being but all signify “economic vibrancy” according to Forum for the Future’s criteria.

In most cases, the categories beg more questions than they answer. So recycling is used as one indicator. But a high score just based on material collected as a percentage of total waste gives little insight into the actual ecological worth of the activity. If it means an energy-intensive collection system in which collected waste is sent long distances for recycling, then it might do more ecological harm than good. Newcastle’s system seems designed to suit the likes of Biffa and Sita rather than make it as easy as possible for local citizens to minimise the waste they generate. The amount of litter strewn all over the city needs no comment here nor does the level of sheer noise.

Similarly the criterion of ‘green space’ could cover sterile lawns, parks playing fields or wildflower meadows. It says nothing about land use practices on such sites, such as use of synthetic chemicals and cutting regimes. Housing is not given any prominence, so histories like all the unnecessary demolition under the ‘Going for Growth’ programme go ignored. So too does the bias towards cul-de-sac and often quasi-gated ‘executive housing’ developments. [Anna Minton’s Ground Control (Penguin, 2009) has good sections in Newcastle’s record here.]

Education does feature but its assessment is more complicated than suggested. For a start, given problems like grade inflation, pass rates are no longer a good guide to how schools are actually doing. Allowance must also be made for the fact that many Newcastle schools are sited in comparatively poor areas where broad social factors hinder attainment. In such circumstances, a school might still be achieving considerable success even if pass rates look comparatively low. Given that one or two of the city’s ‘best’ schools like Gosforth High are seeking to opt out and gain ‘independent’ academy status, it looks as if educational inequalities are set to widen in the locality.

In terms of sustainability, any judgement would need to study both the curriculum, exploring the extent to which ecological dimensions inform what is taught, and the environmental impact of the schools themselves. Given that one Heaton primary school won several awards for its building – despite the fact it is so dark indoors that lighting has to be left on all the time and that it seriously overheats – a degree of caution may be necessary about some of the claims made for local schools.

Forum for the Future takes such a narrow view of sustainability that it ignores the fact many new developments like Kenton School are funded by the Private Finance Initiative, thereby crippling future generations with unsustainably massive debts. In Jesmond, PFI deals have also created a situation whereby school buildings can no longer be used at night for adult education and the like due to the contracts. In a sustainable society, full use would, of course, be made of buildings to maximise efficient use of resources.

On transport, the measure used is the number of minutes it takes per month per person to travel to four key services: food, GP, Further Education and secondary school. This gives little insight into different modes of transportation and their impact. For instance, pedestrians and cyclists are still ill-served compared to private drivers, while the on-going march of big superstores, welcomed by many councillors, will mean the closure of more easily accessible local shops. At times, as in the case of Percy Street, quite contradictory goals are being pursued, namely road access to two bus stations and two big multi-storey car parks. While the Metro might boost Newcastle’s overall sustainability rating, that would mean little to the west half of the city which, of course, it does not serve. The very high cost of public transport, compared to, say, parking meters, also reflects the unsustainable priorities in traffic management.

Nothing has been said so far about leisure. Again it is a picture of unsustainability and inequality. Facilities like public libraries and swimming pools have tended to contradict, the odd glossy new building notwithstanding, while expensive private fitness clubs and the like have expanded. City centre pubs have been largely lost to ‘vertical drinking’ where there is so little seating and so much noise that the downing of more and more alcohol becomes the main option. Many people, especially older ones, regard the night-time city centre as hostile territory.


Imagine what would happen were a city such as Newcastle to be sealed by some giant bell jar. Its fate would suggest the real meaning of sustainability and ‘greenness’. Would the city’s people suffocate in the accumulating foul air, drown in their wastes, or die first due to a lack of clean water, food, fuel and other resources? Of course cities are not closed systems in real life. But their overall state and future prospects can be judged by the sustainability of the various inputs on which they depend and on the outputs created by their ‘metabolism’. In terms of impacts at distant sources and sinks as well as direct ones on their own patch, cities such as Newcastle have a massively unsustainable footprint.

So the greenness of Newcastle cannot be separated from the impact on far flung farmlands of the food it consumes…of the mines, quarries, open cast sites, oil and gas wells and reservoirs from which fuels, water, and minerals used in the city are derived… of the ‘tree factories’ whence timber and other wood by-products it uses stem… on the wildlife habitats destroyed or shredded to extend or intensify human production systems. Nor can it be separated from the impact of all the solid, gaseous and liquid wastes that flow from Newcastle’s homes, workplaces, transport systems, schools, hospitals, crematoria, leisure facilities, and so forth. Nor the land sterilised under its buildings and other infrastructure.

The Council must redirect much more of its research resources into the field of ecological footprinting (see the pioneering work of people like Bill Rees, Mathis Wackernagel and Herbert Girardet). In the case of London – contrary to the claims that it is the nation’s wealth generator – the ecological footprint of its citizens is roughly 49 million global hectares, 42 times its biocapacity and 293 times its geographical area. This is twice the size of the UK, and roughly the same size as Spain. Ecologically speaking, London is a wealth devourer.

Obviously Newcastle’s footprint is not nearly so great. Nonetheless it is excessive. Newcastle is, of course, not alone. It is part of a country that is in a general state of ecological ‘overshoot’. The ‘footprinting’ approach gives a fuller picture than the methodology of the Sustainability City Index. Forum for the Future may reply that it is only meant to paint a general picture. The accompanying text claims that the award “is intended to encourage healthy competition, stimulating discussion and giving citizens the tools to hold their leaders to account, (and raise) awareness of what it means to be a sustainable city”. That is fair enough at one level but not if it reduces, not increases, proper appreciation of the scale and urgency of ‘green redevelopment’ necessary.

Finally it must be noted that the Sustainable Cities Award says little about the citizens of the cities it ranks. Like so many studies of its kind, it is silent about population levels and local carrying capacity as if numbers don’t count. It also says nothing about values, aspirations and priorities prevalent amongst the local population. They matter! The Council is not only constrained by its budget and by central government directions. It also cannot get too far ahead of general public opinion.

The state of popular beliefs and lifestyle preferences in the city can be judged in many ways. Perhaps the most significant is how people shop and travel. The crammed shopping trolleys being wheeled to parked cars at Kingston Park and such sites gives a good indication how people are ‘voting’ with their wallets against long-term collective well-being. It is symptomatic of an underlying cultural crisis, the fundamental reason why Newcastle is not a sustainable city.

Tourist posters at the airport welcome visitors to a city full, they proclaim, of “passionate people”. Well, a great many may care deeply about, say the future of Newcastle United football team. Somewhat fewer, as yet, seem to care as much about the prospects of Earth United. So the real challenge of building a sustainable city remains the same as ever: persuading people that only way forward for sustainable and humane living is the green one.





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