Thursday, 26 August 2010

Book Review: The Naked City (Sharon Zukin)

I first came across Sharon Zukin during my Masters studies when I read Loft Living, an excellent account of the origins and trends which led towards gentrification in 1980s New York. Later during my studies I also read Point of Purchase, a study of the role of shopping and consumption in cities. I was therefore interested to hear that Zukin had revisited the theme of gentrification in a new book.

The book's sub-title, the death and life of authentic urban places, provides a not so subtle connection to the famous Jane Jacobs tome of the 1960s entitled The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs' book is rightfully revered to this day for the way it captures how cities function best and the destructive nature of modernist urban planning. Zukin therefore sets herself an ambitious goal for Naked City to be thought of alongside Jacobs.

Early on in the book, Zukin revisits Jacobs' book and identifies how it fails to capture the social production of urban spaces. She believes that Jacobs, as a journalist by trade, is excellent at describing the patterns and rhythms of the city, but is less good at understanding how people use money and culture to shape neighbourhoods and cities. This is the main strength of Zukin's work and stems from her background as a Professor of Sociology. She is able to explain the physical patterns of cities through the lens of cultural trends, the role of the media and the impact of consumption.

I find Zukin's use of the term authenticity an apt one to describe the onward march of gentrification in western cities. Whether it be Hoxton in London or Brooklyn in New York there is a strong urge among city dwellers to be in authentic urban environments. The problem is the term authentic is highly subjective and can mean different things to different people. In this context though it means boutique shops, farmers markets and red-brick town houses. We all know the neighbourhoods that Zukin means, some of us probably live in them. The interesting question that Zukin poses is, how did these neighbourhoods go from being edgy and gritty to suddenly trendy and chic?

She describes in excellent detail how the spaces of Harlem, Brooklyn and Union Square have evolved from sites of dereliction to sites of mass cultural consumption. Here she identifies the key tension. How can a neighbourhood that achieved 'authenticity' through small shops and cheap artist studios retain this character when the prices rise and there is an influx of BoBo's and chain stores? This is a tension that is being experienced across all major cities and it raises questions of how long authenticity can survive for. My favourite part of the book is Zukin's dissection of the trend towards the 'sameness of consumer culture'. Every city now wants a Guggenheim Museum or a Design Festival and can be explained by the travelling ideas of city branding. This is a major concern and could seriously impact the principle of authenticity which it originally sort to celebrate.

The book also digests what authenticity is and how the authenticity of urban space is not just shaped by the physical fabric of buildings but by the people too. Although the lengthy descriptions of farmers markets and latin american food stalls gets a little tiresome, it points to a wider trend and how food (restaurants, cafes, bistros, markets etc.) is a key tool in gentrification and the creation of authenticity. Zukin makes the point that authenticity arises not just because of the built form but also because of the way in which the media present and re-present spaces. The lifestyle magazines in weekend newspapers are rich fodder for defining what is hip and what is not. This goes as much for neighbourhoods and cities as it does for shoes and handbags. Therefore authenticity is also a media creation that directs investment into certain parts of the city.

My only major criticism would be the short shrift given to Government intervention and the role of state planning in trying to avoid the tensions described above. Zukin only touches on this in the last two pages and, speaking selfishly as a planner, I would have hoped this subject could have formed a more substantial part of the text. What are the specific policies and plans that need to put into place to avoid the homogenization of cities and the destruction of authentic environments? She talks about the change in rhetoric needed within planning and the development industry and I tend to agree. Communities and the wider public know the issues involved but feel detached from the planning process and how themes of authenticity, character and distinctiveness can be articulated by the Government. Despite this weakness, overall it is an excellent read, both for its descriptions of New York but also for the elevation of the concept of authenticity into public policy and urban planning.

The Musing Urbanist score: 8/10

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Planning - the defining issue of the coalition?

Despite my obvious biases, I've always thought urban planning could benefit from greater attention in the UK - both in the media and at a political level. The fact that planning is dealt with at the national level within the depths of the Department of Communities and Local Government says it all. Where is the Department for Planning? dreams may be coming true.

It seems that the coalition's dominant themes of localism and the 'Big Society' are being clearly expressed in the realms of housebuilding, planning and environmental protection. Slowly but surely the media are picking up on this and I've noticed an increasing amount of commentary on areas which were previously seen as dry and boring. Only last Friday did the Guardian run an Editorial on the problems associated with the abolition of the regional planning system.

Planning has become one public policy area where the coalition have been quick to tear up Labour policy and hastily enact new ideas linked to the themes of localism and the 'Big Society'. Since the coalition was formed in May the following changes have either directly or indirectly significantly influenced planning, in particular housebuilding:
  • the abolition of regional strategies, including the scrapping of housing targets for local authorities;
  • the redefining of 'brownfield' land to exclude gardens with the intention of avoiding building homes on back gardens;
  • the removal of a minimum density at which homes must be built;
  • the encouragement of 'free schools' which can be set up anywhere and therefore require a relaxation of planning controls; and
  • greater freedoms to build homes in the rural area if agreed by the community.
These are just a few policy decisions and I'm sure there are plenty more.

Whilst I'm pleased that debate is taking place on matters such as 'where and what should we build', it is frustrating that a raft of coalition policy has come out which is fragmented and ultimately will decrease housebuilding. Last year the number of homes built was the lowest since 1923 and the new coalition policies will do nothing to increase this level.

All incoming Governments start with the ambition of simplifying the planning system and making it easier to gain permission for sensible and sensitive development. Most would agree. I felt that between 1997 and 2010 Labour did over-complicate the planning system with too much being asked of poorly resourced Local Authorities. Despite this I believe they had the correct intention of setting a spatial strategy for a local area from which all other decisions would follow. The recent abolition of the regional tier of planning removes this spatial strategy. We no longer have a guide of how to match homes with jobs and where regionally significant infrastructure should be located. Comparisons with abroad is always dangerous but the Dutch planning system is rightfully lauded for providing a national framework that clearly guides the broad locations for development. Frustratingly it looks like we have taken one step forwards and two back!