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What sort of city do we want to leave our children?

This column first appeared in the Western Mail in June 2021

Earlier this year, a stunning mural appeared on the side of a house I pass every day. 

The painting depicts a humpback whale and its calf swimming under the steel structures of a partially submerged Millennium Stadium. It’s a genuinely arresting piece of art, and I recommend a trip to Merches Gardens in Grangetown to see it for yourself. It’s also a warning, dreamed up by four environmental groups and artist Spike Clark, about the nightmare awaiting our capital city because of climate change.

According to a study by environmental consultants Afallen, unless we take urgent action on the climate crisis, many parts of Cardiff and several iconic buildings could be underwater within 80 years. 

Residents of the capital can expect to see iconic landmarks such as Cardiff Castle, the Senedd, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Sophia Gardens and the Principality Stadium suffer from persistent flooding.

And if that seems too distant to comprehend, then take heed of the new maps published this week that show many coastal and low-lying areas of Wales will be entirely submerged by 2050 because of rising sea levels. Those maps include large parts of Cardiff, Newport, Barry and Swansea. 

The threat posed by climate change is immediate, and it is real. And if we’re going to do anything about it, we need to cut carbon emissions dramatically and quickly. 

According to the United Nations, the world will heat by more than the 1.5C “safe” threshold unless we can halve emissions by 2030. This means the UK’s current net-zero target by 2050 is nowhere near ambitious enough.

Less than one mile from the Grangetown whale is Castle Street, one of the main thoroughfares through our capital. We saw that it is possible to do radical, previously unimaginable things during the pandemic when Cardiff Council shut the street to traffic and turned it into an outside dining area. Air quality in that part of town improved dramatically as a result. 

When you think about it, the fact that we had a massive four-lane road clogged with fume-pumping cars running right past one of our most iconic buildings seems kind of crazy. Suddenly, with the road closure, that part of town felt safer to walk and cycle around and, just, well, cleaner. More like a liveable city. 

And that’s the thing about cities. Primarily established by long-irrelevant economic forces, we also need to make them places where people can live active, healthy lives, or else what is the point of progress? 

So, it was disappointing that the council decided to reopen the street to traffic last week. A public consultation revealed that – quelle surprise – respondents aged over 55 were heavily in favour of reopening the road to cars, while those aged under 35 were generally in favour of keeping it closed. Perhaps because the latter group are more likely to be laying sandbags in their lifetimes? But ye gods, haven’t we learned enough recently about handing the keys to our dystopian nightmares to people who won’t be around to mop up the consequences? 

The council’s justification for reopening the road – a temporary measure they say – is that air quality in surrounding residential areas is predicted to decline as traffic is re-routed through places like Riverside and Grangetown. What is the benefit of protecting the air quality around Castle Street, only to push pollution into parts of the city where more people live, they, perhaps reasonably, ask. 

As a resident of Grangetown, I can see their point – our roads have indeed been clogged with cars trying to find alternative routes around the city. Far from ideal.

But I also know enough of nudge theory to realise that the way to solve this complex problem is not to halfway house it. If we want more people to get out of their cars and onto bikes, their legs and public transport (and we don’t want, we NEED. Our city’s future depends on it), we need to make it inconvenient for people to drive. Because all the research shows that minor inconveniences can have a huge impact on behaviour. That’s where policy levers like congestion charges can be incredibly effective. Alongside that, we need to offer people viable, attractive alternatives. That’s the only way to create sustainable behaviour change. 

So, you know that eyewatering £300k it’s going to cost to install the infrastructure required to reopen the street to traffic? Might it not be better spent investing in better, more accessible alternatives to the private vehicle? It’s not as if there are wads of cash sloshing around Local Authorities right now. 

We need leadership and decisions that look beyond the next electoral cycle. As citizens, we also need to do our bit. Just over 6,000 people responded to the Castle Street consultation – less than 2% of the city’s population. If we want a different city, a different future, it’s incumbent on all of us to demand it.

Coming out of a pandemic where we’ve shown how Wales can do things differently – and better – it’s galling to watch the great European cities setting out ambitious visions for different, car-free futures. 

Paris, for example, is investing £225m to transform the car-choked Champs-Élysées boulevard into an “extraordinary garden.” The city also plans to remove 140,000 on-street parking spaces. 

Tonight, Wales will play Denmark in the Euros. Whatever happens on the pitch, we could – and should – learn a lot from them about creating a national culture where cycling is the norm and car driving the exception. But, of course, the Danes’ high taxes fund a much better public transport system while 100% VAT on cars deters ownership. 

It all comes down to what sort of city, and country, we want and are prepared to make compromises for. 

If future generations are to forgive us for the decisions we take now, while we still can, we need bold leaders prepared to make unpopular decisions. We can’t all paint beautiful murals. But we all have a voice and a vote. And we can – if we accept that the alternative is too terrifying to contemplate – demand to be heard. 

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