Thursday, 30 December 2010

2010 Blog Statistics

I can't end 2010 without a few lists, so for those fans of statistics here are two generated from Google Analytics.

Top 5 Articles on Musings of an Urbanist by Number of Visitors:

Top 5 Cities where Musings of an Urbanist is read:

1. London

2. Houston

3. Cambridge

4. Manchester

5. Paris

Thanks to all those who have read, commented and supported Musings of an Urbanist this year. @MusingUrbanist really appreciates the support and looks forward to more of the same in 2011!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Pitfalls of Localism - an agenda for 2011

With the Localism Bill finally sneaking onto the parliamentary agenda before the Christmas break, we can now look forward to how localism will evolve in 2011. This has become the defining principle of the Coalition Government and Pickles, Shapps et al have been wheeled out to extol the shift in power from central Government to local communities. Up until the now the Tories have been able to talk in generalities and avoid the policy detail. This has to end. References to the ‘Big Society’ and ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ have been defined more by what they are not as opposed to what they truly are. This article in The Economist excellently sets out how the direction of travel is clear but the details of the journey are both lacking and potentially unworkable.

The benefits of local empowerment are easy to describe on the election campaign trail. Faceless bureaucrats can be painted as bogey-men wasting taxpayers money and communities can save the day by making more informed decisions. But I see two problems. Firstly, how powerful can localism be without true fiscal autonomy? Cities can only make independent decisions if they raise their own taxes and then choose how to spend the money. If regional cities are to have elected Mayors then they also need greater independence from the Treasury. Cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester require the power to make decisions on economic development, including control over business rates. With the removal of Regional Development Agencies and the cuts in public sector assistance to local businesses, Local Authorities must have the tools to be bold enough in their strategy for economic development. Localism without fiscal autonomy is a bugger’s muddle.

The second problem I see is the tendency of political parties to suddenly realise the benefits of central power once in Government. Giving away power to local people is easy to support when in opposition, but when in Government politicians quickly see the pitfalls of trusting local people over central departments. One reason is that unsuccessful local policies easily rebound up to the national level. To avoid this occurring local governments are therefore kept on a tighter leash, both through centrally controlled budgets and policy. For localism to work the Government must accept the risks in devolving power. It will involve unwelcome stories of local authorities who depart from what the Tories may naturally advocate. But, and more importantly, localism could include inspiring stories of where Local Authorities have grasped independence to involve the community on how public services should be operated.

Urban planning will be a key test area and I have no doubt some Local Authorities will resist any attempt to build more homes locally. This should be expected. It therefore leaves a clear opportunity for other towns and cities to welcome new development and reap the benefits. Until now architects, planners and politicians have been weak on selling the benefits of development, in particular housing. This must change, as outlined in a recent editorial in the Architects’ Journal. Again, this will be risky and it will take time for development levels to pick up to match demand. But hopefully it will encourage some cities to gain greater individual identity and avoid the ‘urban renaissance’ path which has characterised urban redevelopment since 1997 (and excellently critiqued in this book by Owen Hatherley).

Clearly there are risks, but politicians must overcome their safety-first instincts to avoid the centralising forces once again scuppering the potential of localism and local empowerment.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Downsizing Cities

Not all cities are growing and nowhere embodies this more in the Western world than Detroit. Whilst Chinese cities are planning for staggering levels of population growth over the next twenty years, Detroit must respond to depopulation and falling tax receipts. It was therefore interesting to see this report on how Detroit aims to downsize by cutting off services to parts of the city (also see here). With certain neighbourhoods suffering from vacant properties, high unemployment and failing infrastructure, the city will instead focus services on a core area.

This appears to be a sensible approach that can bring a number of benefits. Increased residential densities create the critical mass for public transport initiatives which can combat the dominance
of the car and bring health benefits. Higher densities also make more efficient use of land and can bring economies of scale to utilities, such as water and energy. This will save money for the city authorities and appears to be the driving force for the initiative. The reference to community farming is also positive and an excellent use of land that currently has little real estate value. Clearly the devil is in the detail and the city must be sympathetic to communities which, whilst looking desolate, do have strong social links that cannot be lost. It will be interesting to see how the city spatially develops and the role played by the planning authority in guiding the rationalisation of space.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Book Review: The Trouble with City Planning (Kristina Ford)

With the UK planning system going through another round of structural reforms, it makes sense to look abroad and see how other countries and cities are tackling contemporary issues. Kristina Ford draws on her experience as the Director of City Planning in New Orleans to provide a broad critique of current planning practice in 'The Trouble with City Planning'. Ford argues that 'the plan' has failed to act as a useful and relevant document for the city's many inhabitants. Taking a historical overview, she traces how US planning has changed little from the Plan of Chicago, written in 1909. The result is that planning continues to focus too much on visioning, to the expense of everyday issues that 'really matter'. With specific reference to the problems in New Orleans, Ford argues that planning has excluded the poorest sections of society who often fail to fit into the visioning exercise each city undertakes.

I would respond that this situation should not preclude the visioning exercise being undertaken, as Ford appears to argue. One of the strengths of the book is that it made me appreciate certain elements of the UK planning system which previously I may have undervalued. The 'spatial strategy', when carried out well, presents a clear picture on how an area should develop over the next twenty years. Visioning should not be discarded, though in the US it is much harder to square with the zoning system which requires finer site detail.

So what is the trouble with city planning. Through a few excellent examples, Ford identifies the problems as: politicians overruling planning officers; confusing plans and regulations; a lack of engagement from the public; and consultation fatigue. All this is summed up neatly when she describes a typical planning meeting to gather input for the future of New Orleans and only 12 people turn up. Yes, TWELVE. This should set alarm bells ringing for the profession (in the UK as well). How can a profession that deals with such substantive issues only appeal to 12 people? Solving this requires systematic changes and unfortunately Ford only tinkers around the edges, at one point suggesting bigger maps are brought to the meetings! Similarly, offering more development options during the consultation events will not increase engagement or alter the identity of the profession. Planning will only become more visible if it gains a bigger profile from national and local government taking it serious. In the UK, planning is all too often seen as small fry, whether in DCLG or within Local Authorities.

The most troubling aspect I found of Ford's book is her description of the political influence in the US. Again, this made me grateful for the quirks of Town and Country Planning at home. Ford provides a number of examples where developers would cut deals directly with the Mayor and Councillors. This just doesn't happen in the UK, at least to this extent. Developers may get strategic reassurances from elected members, but the fine detail of a development is still required to go through the arduous process of planning approval. Ford paints a picture of schemes being waved through without being tested against policy, a dangerous precedent indeed!

Whilst the book provides some insightful examples I would have preferred greater recognition of the benefits that a development can offer an area. All too often Ford gave the impression that new development only benefits a locality through increased tax receipts. Whilst this is clearly important, especially in US cities where tax is devolved and public sector budgets are under strain, the book would have benefited from a description of development schemes that have been successful and the lessons to learn from them. How about schemes that introduce excellently designed housing or improved public spaces? Surely something good must have happened under Ford's watch!

Overall, the book was accessible for non-planners - no mean feat in itself. Ford is able to crystallise the problems with city planning well, but falls down in her suggestions for addressing the concerns. I felt she could have gone much further and been bolder in her recommendations for how New Orleans could progress in the period since Katrina.

The Musing Urbanist score: 7/10