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Infrastructure in 2014: A focus on future

With continuing urbanisation meaning that 90% of the UK population now live in urban areas, creating a clear vision for each conurbation is vital to ensure economic and social success.

Atkins futures director Elspeth Finch is definite about her hopes for the UK in 2014. “The aspiration should be to have a very clear vision for what we want each of our cities to be and what we want them to deliver from a broad social and economic viewpoint,” she says, explaining that this then enables planning of the right supporting infrastructure, from transport and utilities to green spaces and telecoms.

“There are lots of scales of infrastructure, from global connections and airports to regional rail networks and local needs. We have to understand what is needed at each level and how interconnected all the different parts of infrastructure are, because they are incredibly complex.”

Articulating this individually for each city could have huge benefits for development. Atkins major projects director Steve Tasker points to Manchester as an important example of how major commercial growth can be encouraged through its new Airport City and expanding regional tram network. He says investors are keen to see how this fits into wider developments.

“There are a number of significant developers that are interested in plans for the ship canal, the port at Liverpool, the development of the airport and the new enterprise zone, but you don’t see that vision written down and articulated in a joined up way,” he says.

If it was, investor confidence could be much higher, especially given the city’s connections with the South East. Aviation expert and Atkins airport business director Mike Pearson says that there are other advantages too: “The Airport City development catalyses other activity which then encourages more population growth in the North, dragging some of it out of the South East.”

In this context, he notes, a potential high speed rail link between London and Manchester has really transformational benefits.

But more pressing for London is the need to define its future aviation plans, and to this end Pearson recently advised London mayor Boris Johnson on developing a new strategic multi-runway airport hub for the city. “We get bogged down in where the road and rail lines need to be before we get anyone excited about the benefits the overall project will bring. Sometimes we have got it a little bit backwards, and there are examples around the world where they get the vision first.”

“We get bogged down in where the road and rail lines need to be before we get anyone excited about the benefits the overall project will bring”

Mike Pearson, Atkins

This is not always the case, however, and the team highlights a number of important developments in the UK where creating a vision for a city has led to investment and growth. Commitment by Transport for London to the Northern Line extension, for example, has seen investors confidently plan projects in Nine Elms and Battersea. Successfully modifying existing infrastructure in this way to ensure cities are fit for the future is critical, says Atkins director of strategic advice on highways and transport Tony Meehan: “How do you make the best use of existing infrastructure and modify it to get an improved urban environment? That takes you beyond roads and guided busways. It brings you to technology and how much you are prepared to spend to take conventional infrastructure into new places.”

This could mean placing road junctions underground, preventing car use or optimising existing networks with data gleaned from improved monitoring. “Given the timescale it takes to get infrastructure in place, the danger is that transport solutions are not delivered quick enough to enable these towns and cities to thrive,” says Meehan.

Improving public spaces is another important retrofitting option to ensure the success of the UK’s cities says Finch. “Public spaces in cities have had increasing investment because this helps people to connect at the local level by making sure that there are places where people want to live and spend time.”

Finch points to London’s Regent Street estate as a good example of the benefits of redeveloping the public realm. “It was redeveloped to improve the connections between the two parts of Oxford Street and Regent Street, reducing the physical obstructions that had effectively closed off space, and encouraging a better flow of people around the shopping areas,” she explains. The result has been a rise in both incomes and property values in the area.

However, achieving the type of vision that is seeing some areas flourish is not always straightforward, with the UK’s planning regime and constant debating of projects ensuring that schemes take a long time to reach fruition. “The length of time that it has taken to get fairly simple schemes through planning or funding can be 10 to 15 years. That timeline has to be moved,” says Meehan. This is not just critical for transport projects. At current demand London is set for a water deficit by 2030. “There has been no increase in reservoirs since 1976 and we still operate a 150 year old trunk network. Water infrastructure takes a long time to develop and put in place, so we need to be starting to address this now,” says Finch.

According to Tasker, Atkins is working hard to support the decision-making process for engineering projects and hopefully accelerate the process.

“One thing about the UK is that we have world class engineers and architects that can solve all sorts of complex problems,” he says. “So if we have all this, why are the problems not being fixed? The truth is that it is because of a lack of joined up planning and decision-making that prevents larger complex interconnected schemes from going ahead and delays them as they sit being debated for years and years.”

Progress is being made, though, and cities that are taking a more ambitious approach to their development are going to reap the rewards in the future, says the Atkins team. “Authorities need to think across big sites about what sort of employment and change they want - like Bristol, which is planning a large arena in its enterprise zone and really changing the dynamics of the city,” says Meehan.

Technology also has a role to play. Investments such as next generation broadband will make cities more attractive places to live and work, whereas smart infrastructure has the potential to change the ways people go about their daily lives.

“Public spaces in cities have had increasing investment because this helps people to connect at the local level by making sure that there are places where people want to live and locate

Elspeth Finch, Atkins

Beyond the UK’s cities, there are also global considerations. Finch points out that climate change related issues on the other side of the world can affect cities in the UK, and planners need to understand these complexities.

“Floods in Bangkok had an impact on the supply of goods to UK factories, which then had a major impact on trade. So we have to ensure that what we are doing doesn’t unintentionally impact long term success,” she says. “We have infrastructure on all levels to consider - global, regional and local - and what’s needed is different at every level.”

The good news is that the UK has the technical capability to plan, design and deliver the innovative infrastructure needed to support increasing urbanisation and growing populations. Cities that can articulate their vision clearly and commit to their plans will reap the rewards of increased investment and economic growth and ensure that the UK’s cities remain successful for the long term.


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