We can build a more sustainable Leeds after COVID-19. Here’s how.

Paul Chatterton, University of LeedsProfessor of Urban Futures, reflects on how the experience of lockdown has shown what a more sustainable future might look like for Leeds and shares his ideas on how the city might get there.

Lockdown Leeds

A pause has been forced on life in Leeds. Quiet roads, empty skies, deserted high streets and parks, closed cinemas, cafés and museums. The lockdown is slowly lifting and Leeds will begin to hum again to the familiar rhythms of work, leisure and shopping. This will be a huge relief for us all. Yet this lockdown has given us time and space to take stock and think about how we can #buildbackbetter to create a fairer, greener and healthier city to live in.

Our global world, and all the positives it has brought Leeds in terms of culture, trade and travel, also has a flip side. It created the perfect conditions for creating a crisis like coronavirus, and it’s also proved pretty bad at dealing with it. Something else is required to guide us into the future. COVID-19 raises a big question: what in essence is Leeds for? Is it to pursue economic growth at all costs, attract inward investment and compete against global rivals? Or is it to maximise quality of life for all, build local wellbeing and resilience, strong community economies and sustainability?

It’s not a simple question of either/or, but a better balance is needed. The old story – in which cities compete against one another to improve their place in the global pecking order – was never great at meeting needs in Leeds. However, now it’s looking very risky, given the need for increased cooperation and local resilience. Most people simply want to be safe and healthy, especially faced by future threats, be they climate, weather or virus related.

After the worst of coronavirus is over our attention will also return to longer-term problems that haven’t gone away for Leeds: congested transport, dependence on fossil fuels, rising carbon emissions, poor air quality, dysfunctional housing markets, loss of biodiversity, divisions between the rich and the poor, low paid work, under resourced public services.

The last few weeks of lockdown in Leeds has thrown us all into a real-time laboratory full of living examples of what a more sustainable future might look like. We have a perfect opportunity to study and explore which of these could be used to build a recovery plan for a sustainable, fairer and safer, Leeds. Below I discuss three key areas for action:

Breaking Car Dependency

Before lockdown, Leeds’s transport was creaking at the seams. Lockdown created the conditions for a radical rethink: more physical space for social distancing, cycling and walking on quieter roads, better air quality, speed reductions to reduce accidents and strain on emergency services. There’s only a small window of opportunity until pre-lockdown vehicle levels return. In this pause, cities are experimenting with locking in gains through trial street closures, wider pavements, lower speed limits and pop up cycle lanes. This is super-charging the city’s ambitions to tame the car, rising carbon emissions and poor air quality and create more balanced and sustainable options for getting around. It’s one silver lining of this terrible crisis.

The UK Government has announced £2b for active travel and within weeks cities like Leeds will use their share to roll out activity on the ground. Councillors and officers already committed to moving away from ‘Leeds motorway city’ are using this opportunity to accelerate plans for a cycling and walking revolution – through low traffic neighbourhoods, active travel networks and reduced speed limits. Communities across Leeds are being asked to make suggestions for more changes via an online platform.

A COVID transport recovery plan will sensibly focus on issues of wellbeing and local resilience. This presents us with an opportunity to ask important and uncomfortable questions about the future of Leeds’ transport: do we really need an expanding airport, more road investments, car-based housing developments, more suburban retail, and investment in HS2? Home working patterns normalised in lockdown, may change how and where we travel, as well as future development trends for the city centre.

Building on what we saw in lockdown, there’s an opportunity to create a renaissance of local life, especially through the idea of the 15 minute neighbourhood – where most things that we need in our daily lives can be easily reached by a short journey by bike or foot. This locks in a whole range of potential benefits around local employment and business, physical activity, better air quality and safer roads. And many people still face transport poverty, affordable keyworker transport needs to play a prominent future role. There also needs to be a new approach to road safety through ‘Vision Zero’ policies where no road deaths are acceptable.

But the task ahead of breaking Leeds’ dependency on the car remains daunting. Traffic levels have to be reduced, some say by up to 60%, between now and 2030, to avoid dangerous levels of global warming. And much more will need to be done to tackle the city’s long standing air quality crisis. In the coming months the Leeds city-region still needs a multi-billion government investment in a future mass transit system, as well as a congestion charge and workplace parking levy to really reduce car flows. We will need city planners, highways officers and elected members to do much more than their best. They will need to do the impossible.

A ‘socially useful’ Leeds economy

We familiar with some of the shortcomings of Leeds’ economy – low paid and precarious jobs, independent businesses squeezed out by large corporations, land and resources shifting from private to public hands, growing divisions between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Coronavirus has thrown many of these into stark relief. But what has been most staggering about the response to the crisis is the rapid uptake of measures that only weeks ago would have been unthinkable: mortgage and rent holidays, statutory sick pay, shifts to nationalise services especially health and transport, wage guarantees, suspending evictions, and debt cancellations. The current crisis has ripped up ideas led by the free market.

We now seem to be revaluing what matters: key workers who support our wellbeing; local shops that offer commitment to their community; access to local greenspaces, goods and services. This crisis has also highlighted who has enough money to live on. Beyond government job retention and self-employed income schemes, more radical propositions are emerging that are changing people’s relationship to work. A universal basic income is an idea that has come of age during this crisis – an unconditional, automatic non-means tested payment to every individual as a right of citizenship. The Spanish government has agreed to roll out such a scheme nationally as soon as possible, and there is sustained interest in many other places. The idea of a minimum income guarantee is also gaining momentum; a renewed interest in the idea of a universal and unconditional safety net that can offer dignity and safety and offer options for more sustainable living. As we look towards a West Yorkshire mayor in 2021, creating a West Yorkshire Citizens Income is an idea that could lift people out of dependency on benefits and low paid, insecure jobs and debt.

Focusing on Leeds’ social economy should be central to the city’s recovery plan. Made up of community businesses, co-operatives and voluntary organisations, this social economy creates goods, services and employment that are more locally based, and community grounded in a range of areas: renewable energy, sustainable housing, food and micro-finance. They build in benefits including local employment and procurement, fairer pay, better conditions, sustainable resource use, democratic accountability, and a commitment to social justice. Refocusing the city’s economy around its social economy would sharpen our focus of what our economy is for and who it should benefit.

As part of this, derelict buildings and land banked by large scale developers across Leeds could be redeployed by community organisations to build local resilience through community farms, renewables and housing, as well as leisure, local biodiversity and carbon storage. Creating a new public-community land trust to acquire and develop these assets could play a key role in our COVID recovery. There are signs of how the economy can change in positive directions. Many firms are temporarily shifting to more socially useful production, making, for example, hand sanitiser, ventilators and medical wear. These glimpses of a more socially useful economy should provide inspiration for Leeds’ regional economic base. We could create a Leeds Lucas Plan – through shifts in subsidies and investment in reskilling, factories could transition to manufacturing wind turbines, e-bikes, insulation panels and heat pumps. And excess downtown corporate office space or high end apartments in Leeds, much of which could be less full in a post-lockdown world, could be retrofitted to support socially useful activities – key worker accommodation, libraries, creches, day centres, colleges for transition skills, and socially distanced co-working.

Mass city greening

During lockdown, people are more aware how little green space they have access to on their doorsteps in Leeds, and how disconnected our city is by road networks.  Quality public and green places need to be radically expanded so people can safely gather after the trauma of this experience. Now is a good time to supercharge such plans. Diverse green spaces directly underpin our emotional and psychological wellbeing and offer a range of positive effects on storing carbon, cleaning air and preserving wildlife.  

Neighbourhood design inspired by nature can support this. As we did at Lilac in west Leeds, interweaving the places we live with extensive natural spaces linked to active travel opportunities can improve air quality, wellbeing, increase biodiversity and create options for meaningful leisure on our doorsteps. They can also incorporate local food production and features to cope with flooding, such as sustainable urban drainage and water gardens, further increasing future crisis resilience. These should be at the centre of planning and design decisions for our city through a new climate-safe, COVID recovery planning guidance.

We also need to prioritise street-by-street retrofit and convert our city colleges and apprenticeships to this task. In the event of future lockdowns during cold months, war, low energy and well insulated homes can help reduce other problems around fuel poverty and excess winter deaths. Finally, this moment offers a real opportunity to lay the foundations for a new deal for nature and animals. This is more important now than ever. Animals and wildlife, normally in rapid decline, found ways to regain a foothold during the respite of human activity – but they may be further threatened when lockdown comes to an end. Leeds can expand habitats for wildlife, connect greenspaces and restore damaged natural areas.

What next for Leeds?

COVID-19 clearly presents a significant juncture for Leeds. This could mean more of the negatives of city life – insecurity, privatisation and division. And as lockdown ends, there may be a rebound effect, as people understandably rush to embrace travel, work and consumerism, creating a significant emissions and pollution surge.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The positives that are glimpsed during this crisis could feasibly be locked in and scaled up to create a fairer, greener, safer urban future. We can live well, and even flourish, in Leeds even if we have and do a little bit less of the things we have become used to. Revaluing what’s important – community, friendship, family life – allows us to see how much we already have in this city that can improve our wellbeing.

We need a big new idea for Leeds. One such idea is the Green New Deal – a proposed set of policies to tackle climate change and inequality, create good jobs and protect nature. It’s an approach which has a lot to offer cities after this coronavirus crisis. It points to an economy based on key foundations of public services, operating within the ecological limits of our precious world, with a social safety net for all. These ideas are now being seriously considered by some cities, such as Amsterdam, as they think about how to rebuild their economies. Changing the way we govern Leeds can help with these changes. Giving citizens more decision-making powers can lead to more trust, understanding and ideas that work. This can be done through citizen’s assemblies, participatory budgets and more transparency over data and decision making.

It’s difficult to predict how things will actually turn out in such a fast moving environment. What I have presented here are some glimpses of doable, common sense actions that could be used to build a more sustainable and fairer Leeds out of the coronavirus crisis.

Ten ideas to improve Leeds

  1. Changing our roads – putting people first through wider pavements, more crossings, secure cycle parking, no parking on pavements, and a city-wide network for cycle and walking.
  2. 15 minute neighbourhoods – within a short cycle or walk from your home being able to reach local independent shops, job opportunities, green spaces, parks and leisure options.
  3. A network of Hubs for community resilience, climate action and Covid recovery – focusing on action, learning and skills.
  4. Greenspaces in every neighbourhood – for leisure, wildlife, biodiversity, storing carbon, flood management, food growing and renewables.
  5. Warm affordable homes for all – street by street homes retrofit undertaken by community businesses.
  6. Neighbourhood assemblies, to work with the City Council to review policies and agree city budgets
  7. Security for Leeds workers through an income guarantee and living wage for all
  8. Leeds COVID Recovery fund – interest free loans and grants to fund community projects and sustainable community businesses.
  9. A socially useful economy – converting Leeds factories and businesses to socially useful making for all.
  10. Measuring what matters –  wellbeing, health, safety, air and environmental quality not just economic growth and output; and using these to shape the future of Leeds’ development.

About the blogger

Paul Chatterton is a writer, researcher and campaigner. He is Professor of Urban Futures in the School of Geography. He is currently Director of the University of Leeds’ Sustainable Cities Group which has launched the ground breaking MSc Sustainable Cities. Paul is also co-founder and resident of the award winning low impact housing co-operative Lilac and Leeds Community Homes to help promote community-led housing. His recent books include Low Impact Living (Routledge) and Unlocking Sustainable Cities (Pluto Press) (www.unlockingsustainablecities.org)

Twitter @paulchatterton9

3 thoughts on “We can build a more sustainable Leeds after COVID-19. Here’s how.

  1. All fine stuff. Just a reminder that I keep suggesting an idea – an unconditional basic income – which I think is obvious as a catalyst or lubricant for the more obvious changes which the lockdown revealed as beneficial. This would be national rather than local. My weblog tries to explain:


  2. This is an inspiring broad brush plan to redesign & refocus Leeds in a climate friendly, people centred & equitable way.
    In terms of detail Paul can you please explain how the WYCI could be funded?
    As we look towards a West Yorkshire mayor in 2021, creating a West Yorkshire Citizens Income is an idea that could lift people out of dependency on benefits and low paid, insecure jobs and debt.
    If as should happen but may not the airport planning application is rejected & with it the expansion plans how can alternative jobs be created for existing airport staff & which would best fit the skill set of existing airport workers?
    Both relevant for town council meeting on Monday so early reply appreciated


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