Glenn Woodcock is the CEO and Founder of Exeter City Futures. He has 25 years of experience in senior management positions across venture capital, software product development, credit risk and regulatory reporting. He’s also led and completed more than 10 major venture investments and holds a number of directorships at investee companies.

In this series of blogs he will look at why Exeter City Futures is building an Analytical City to achieve its goals of Energy Independence and Zero Congestion. ‘The role of “place” in making Exeter a Sustainable City’ looks at the rise of distributed placemaking and why things need to change in the wake of the fourth industrial revolution.

Since the Victorian era we’ve understood what it means to make a place. In the wake of the first Industrial Revolution the Victorians did it by building railways, connecting places of economic activity, to places of low economic activity. There’s evidence of this all over Greater Exeter in the form of its Victorian rail infrastructure which was built to bring tourists from London to popular seaside towns in the South West.

On a national scale this new infrastructure helped us to import or export people’s energy and activity levels, which had a profound effect on the rate of the country’s growth and prosperity.

With the second Industrial Revolution and advent of the motor car in the early twentieth century, or at least its heavy usage, the way people got around and the way that places got made changed. They were changed by building roads, and in a sense we got addicted to that as a way of making places, and addicted to cars as a way of getting around. This type of distributed placemaking has had a profound impact on the way we live our lives, and on the sustainability of cities.

Distributed Placemaking

There have been lots of good things about distributed placemaking, it has democratised services and leisure activities that had previously been rare. However, the way that the car enabled it meant that planners didn’t have to focus on developing very local places.

Our out of town cinemas and shopping centres are two examples of important parts of communities that were extracted and made really big somewhere else, and then connected up to lots of other places. This change has encouraged a population to jump in a car for their leisure activities and has, over time, had a significant impact on communities where people live.

How distributed placemaking has transformed leisure and entertainment for communities is just one way it’s impacted our lives, it’s also had a deep impact on the way people work as well – the larger the distance between where people live and work the more time they spend commuting.

This is another long-term issue in the making of places and that has historically been ignored by planners who often do not consider the full impact of people moving long distances between where they live and where they work.

As a result of these negative effects of distributed placemaking we spend much less time walking than we used to, use large amounts of non-renewable energy in the form of fuel in our cars, and the roads which connect places together are becoming more and more congested.

The increased time spent commuting is a sustainability issue, but it’s also a deep social issue, because time spent commuting is unproductive. Not only is it economically unproductive, but it’s socially destructive because it means people are physically inert for long periods of time, which means the general health of society suffers. It disconnects people from their families, it disconnects people from their friends, it leaves them too weary at the end of the day to do other more fulfilling things than work.

Neighbourhood of the Future

Counteracting the increasing time and distance associated with commuting are new models of distributing work. These models involve much more dynamic places where a lot of work is done with computers, meaning you really don’t have to be tied to a specific place.

This doesn’t mean homeworking necessarily, which can be socially isolating as work is one of the great social activities we take part in, but it does mean you don’t need to have great big consolidated industrial estates that everybody drives to. We’re seeing a lot more workplaces reinserted into neighbourhoods, with things like workhubs which bring a social and collaborative aspect to working remotely.

There are some businesses, for example We Work which has just raised the best part of three-quarters of a million dollars, and that’s entirely about creating dynamic social places where people come to work. In Greater Exeter there are already several workhubs which are part of the Devon Work Hubs network.

Thanks to these new methods of working, enabled by the rise of the internet and new technologies, I believe the neighbourhood of the future will be one where people live and work within walking or cycling distance. It will be one where all of their basic services; their education, access to good food, nice places to eat, entertainment, sport, exercise and green space, will all be built into one single area.

The big challenge in placemaking is working out how to achieve that economically because our approach to land valuation, house-building, and the value of property at the moment creates a great deal of pressure on our ability to make those places. It’s one of the big challenges of making cities into sustainable places.

City of Villages

One way to solve this challenge is to create a city of villages. To an extent most cities have neighbourhoods with a defined feel to them, because often what happens is cities have grown up with spurts and surges, and there’s a history to it. There are several examples of this in Exeter such as the wards of Heavitree, St Leonard’s and St Thomas, but there are other wards which have a less well-defined character.

All of Exeter’s wards, it’s different unique areas, have the potential to be redeveloped into places where you can pretty much get everything you need – a set of villages around the hub of the city centre.

And then what does your city centre become? What’s it for? I think there are some really interesting questions to answer here, because the internet is having a pretty profound effect on the high street and it’s going to continue. This means that over time city centres are going to become different things.

This change is both a threat and an opportunity for cities if it’s taken seriously. If we embrace it I think the evolution of the surroundings of Exeter, and it’s city centre, can be a really interesting and exciting process. And I think the end point of this next phase of evolution should be making a beautiful and fulfilling place to live.

If we want to ensure that our future is a prosperous one, where our economy thrives and our physical and emotional well-being continues to improve, then we need to move away from distributed placemaking as a way of developing cities and the places around them. We need to move away from our reliance on cars.

In a nutshell it is becoming very important that we stop building places with lots of houses and nothing else for the people who live in them to do. The role of making a place, and making a place sustainable, is having everything you need on your doorstep, then you’re more likely to stay there to enjoy it rather than get in a car to have to go somewhere else. This is what we need to do for Great Exeter and what I hope to achieve with Exeter City Futures.