A Letter to our Councillors on Urbanism

I've recently become rather incensed by the idea that we are building towns and cities just completely wrong in the UK, and my hometown of Livingston is no exception. My letter to our Councillors below outlines some of my concerns.

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The Letter

Dear Lawrence Fitzpatrick, Maria MacAulay, Moira Shemilt and Peter Heggie,

I grew up in Livingston. I was born in St Johns Hospital, just a short car drive away from Murieston where I spent most of my youth.

When a new housing development was being considered next to my childhood home, everyone in the neighborhood made a fuss about it. Annoyance at the idea of more traffic, more people in the area, and so on. I knew too little about urban planning to know just what felt so weird about another sprawling suburb being built next to my own sprawling suburb.

Recently, the root of these problems was made clear to me by a creator on YouTube know as "Not Just Bikes". Through their many videos, they detail the enormous economic, physical and mental benefits of not living in a "car-dependent sprawl" like Livingston. Please do forgive their focus on America/Canada, as the principles of what they discuss are still mostly relevant to Livingston.

1. Moving around in Livingston

"Car-Dependent" is the phrase used that makes me viscerally feel something, and maybe you're feeling the same thing when you read it too. Dependent? We aren't dependent on cars.. are we? This made me think. Why didn't I cycle to school? I went to James Young High School and owned a bike. I loved going to Glentress to attempt relatively dangerous mountain biking trails with my Dad, so I wasn't foreign to the idea of getting on two wheels. What stopped me was my parents, and basically every other parent with sense, telling us that it is "too dangerous" to cycle on the roads. They're right. The only way for me to legally cycle to school was to share the road for 10 minutes with 40MPH traffic that has constant merging, overtaking, pollution fumes and aggression from drivers who want you to "get off of the road".

I'm not some sort of communist, but I don't think that children growing up in Livingston should be told they aren't important enough to be allowed to cycle to school because cars deserve 4x more space than a two-way bicycle lane.

Two-way bicycle lanes are cheap to maintain, do not form potholes, reduce traffic, and make it safe for people to ride bikes. Just like adding more lanes to a motorway often encourages more cars to drive on it, adding protected two-way bicycle lanes means more people will choose to cycle, rather than drive.

2. Suburbs are fundamentally poor choices for housing people

Certainly the most interesting of all the videos was this one:

which I implore you to watch.

It explains that whilst the arguments for adding two-way bicycle lanes, supporting mixed-use denser development, etc. are almost always proposed by those with "green" political beliefs, the overwhelming economic evidence would suggest that our current approach of building additional single-family homes in Livingston with two car parking spaces, large front lawns and a private backyard are burdening our council (and others around the world) with large additional infrastructure debts that are unlikely to be fully recouped.

To support the fact that the above is also relevant in the UK, I reference this research paper by the London School of Economics which describes the serious issues with councils encouraging suburban developments which are a net loss for the community over a thirty-year period. (Goodman, 2019,


) The article is summarised in this post



3. Summing Up

If you've taken the time to substantively explore the above, and read what I've written, then I thank you greatly for your service to the town and a desire to make it a better place for people.

To recap what I think would make a considerable improvement to the town;

i) A focus on profitable mixed-use neighborhoods instead of continually developing cashflow-negative suburbs.

ii) The introduction of safe, two-way bicycle lanes accompanying most 40 MPH streets in Livingston.

I do hope that the information in the videos and this letter will convince you that continued suburban-only development, with zero bike infrastructure, poor walkability and a car-dependent mindset, will inevitably drain Livingston's coffers, reduce the quality of life of those resident in those homes, and encourage obesity in our community.

I hate the experience of talking to people in Scotland and hearing Livingston referred to as 'the shopping centre'. A bunch of suburban development, car-centric design, focused around a shopping centre, which has become its sole notable feature.

This is how most American "cities" ended up desolate, culturally bankrupt and unpleasant places to live. You, our most respected Councillors, have the chance to make the town better. Please, learn from the mistakes of the Americans, and make Livingston better.

Yours sincerely & with a great deal of love for my town,

Stewart McGown

Response from Dr Shemilt (SNP)

I received a response from Dr Shemilt of the SNP. I won't include the response verbatim until I have recieved permission to do so.

Have a read of my new post,

Livingston is Broken

, which is an adapted version of my response to her email.

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