Friday, 30 September 2011

the e-City

It's been a week of e-participation for me. Earlier this week, the majority of local authorities in Scotland took part in the #whatwedo experiment, including my own the City of Edinburgh Council. Their corporate Twitter account is outwards facing mainly - they'll interact with you if you badger them enough (like me). But the neighbourhood team twitter feeds (my local one here) are a really good experiment and I've had some good conversations with them (looking forward to the Calder Road being resurfaced anytime soon *ahem*).

I also discovered twitter widgets, so here's one which includes the #whatwedo feed:

Although, just looking at this, clearly the hashtag has been hijacked by people are bit more disgruntled with local government than me!

I also had a really interested meeting yesterday with Ella Taylor-Smith at Napier University (@EllaTasm). We chatted about eparticipation, which I'm interested in, particularly if it opens up new avenues for inclusion and/or exclusion.

This got me thinking. Essentially now, we have two cities. We have the city of the built environment and the digital city that mirrors it. Like the built city, the digital city has fixed points - telephone exchanges, grey boxes, wifi hubs, server farms, mobile cell transmitters - and mobile traffic, like me with my smart phone. Like the real city, the digital city gets congested, when you're thrown out of your mobile cell because it's over capacity, or your internet connection slows to a snails pace at 8pm when everyone's using the iPlayer. Like the built city, it also has inequalities. People like me at work have a ridiculously fast internet connection, whereas others will struggle to ever afford an internet connection, or will be too geographically remote to get a decent connection. 

This makes me think what is the planners role in the digital city? Is it just to get involved in the built bit? Give planning permission for phone masts and telephone exchanges? I'd hope not. Planners could be much more active in promoting the digital city and visioning new, exciting possibilities and offering the capacity to achieve these. 

To switch the question around slightly - does the internet need planners? The original ethos of the internet - basically an equitable free-for-all - suggests that it should not have planners. Surely we're the mercenaries of capitalism that control everything? But given the internet is now so dominated by commerce, and issues such as bandwidth strangling, are coming to the fore, I really think that there might be scope for positive planning in the internet. Using the planners skills to protect the equitable free-for-all from the encroachments of capitalism and not just leave it to IT guys building server farms.

I'm thinking off adding a vague, vision-y, class on "planning digital infrastructure" to a course I teach in 2013. What do you reckon? Am I onto something?

Edit: speaking of

Friday, 23 September 2011

What I see in pretty pictures

I "pimped" my blog recently to make it look slightly less like I'd set up it one hour, one afternoon in January. I've added a sidebar which includes some of the blogs I follow, just over there>>

One I really like, and one of the reason's I started this is Under The Raedar the hilariously titled blog of the very nice, very intelligent Alasdair Rae, down at Sheffield. Not long after I started, his blog got picked up by the Guardian data for some mapping he did of the English Index of Multiple Deprivation. This impressed me, so I thought I'd have my own go. Alasdair does amazing things with data and images I could only image doing. His recent post about relative Chinese, US, and European population densities will definitely make an appearance in one of my lectures.
I can't say I'm as good with data, but I did find the recent Scottish Government housing and regeneration statistics interesting, especially demolitions since 1991. Here's two graphs what I did copy and pasted out from Excel (clickify to embiggen):

The first includes Glasgow (largest authority, largest landlord, largest number of demolitions) and the other top 10 demolishers. The next one takes Glasgow out to show some more of the noise at the bottom. If you read the notes with the data, you'll see this is mainly demolitions of local authority housing or social housing as it's very difficult to record demolitions of private dwellings, even though you're supposed to apply for planning permission.

Doing these, and linking this with Alasdair's work, I was wondering how you'd "read" this data. You might be shocked that so many homes have been demolished over the past 20 years in Scotland. For me, it's a story of regeneration strategies. If you look, Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, peak in demolitions in the early and then late 1990s. These local authorities were the site of the four New Life for Urban Scotland partnerships between 1989-1999, which prioritised housing renewal. So this represents this activity. Across the board there's a pick-up in most local authorities from the mid-1990s as the Conservative Scottish Office started Programme for Partnership, with Priority Partnership Areas (a bit like the New Life Partnerships). Just after devolution, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, activity picks up again as capital spending is prioritised to social housing by the new Scottish Executive and its Social Inclusion Partnerships. Finally, after 2003 Glasgow's demolition rate shoots back up every now and then as the Glasgow Housing Association starts its housing renewal work. I also see quite how big some multi-storey blocks of flats are, as I imagine some of those massive peaks in the major cities are just two or three blocks coming down.

What do you see?

Monday, 19 September 2011

I'm a planner and I want to see development

I just want to quickly bash this post out as it's been on my mind over the weekend, after I got a negative comment about planning.

As my research has been on regeneration, focused at deprived peripheral housing estates, I've worked very closely with researchers in housing. The recent debate about the planning system in England seems to be pitting housing against planning, so I wanted to clarify where I stand.

I commented in the middle of last week to someone via a tweet that I was pleased that the debate about the proposed National Planning Policy Framework in England had produced a refreshed political debate about planning in England. This was a pleasant change to the utterly tedious technocratic discussion that surrounded Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks. However, it's fair to say, the debate about the NPPF has not been the most positive.

Both good ol' Eric Pickles and the likes of the CPRE and National Trust have made stupid, unhelpful assumptions about what planners do and what the NPPF proposes. As a result, I've seen planners caricatured by some people with a housing focus as full signed-up members of the CPRE who want to stop everything being built. The RTPI have (unlike them usually) bothered to start the "Five Planning Myths" campaign to add some planning perspective to the debate.

So, here's my planner's perspective. As I urban and regional planner I do not want to stop development. In fact I want to encourage development in the right place. I fully recognise the shortage of housing in the UK. I also recognise that releasing more land for housing is only one solution to the problem. As a regional planner I also recognise that this cannot all be in the centre of London. We need more effective regional rebalancing in the UK if economic development is not to put too many pressures on the south east. I want a plan-led system. To put it bluntly, as a planner I don't want to see five million people continue to be homeless. I want them to be housed in decent housing, in economically and ecologically sustainable communities. Maybe even a bit like Ebenezer Howard's garden cities.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Banging the devolution drum...

I’m trying to revise a paper I completed the first draft of in April 2010 in response to the referees comments. I am failing. I’ve got as far as putting in some stuff about problem definition and a light sprinkling of references from the wonderful Deborah Stone and my very influential (for me) supervisor Annette Hastings.

So, I thought I’d bash out this blog entry while it was on my mind. I'm not going to comment on Politics with a big P much, but just now I will. Yesterday two important things happened in the world of politics in the UK. Alex Salmond, our First Minister up ‘ere (affectionately known in The Herald as “oor ‘eck”) outlined the Scottish Government’s programme of for the next year (summary here)and set the scene for their four years in Holyrood. Darn sarf, the UK Government voted through the NHS Bill in the House of Lobbyfodder Commons. From what I gather this got a lot of LibDem support, and when I heard a LibDem MP on the news last night saying they would never allow the 50% income tax band to be got rid of, I commented that I’d look forward to seeing him vote for its abolition.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not followed the NHS debate, or the debate about free schools that closely because it just doesn’t matter to me up here. These are devolved areas. England can ruin the NHS down there as much as it wants. Up here, we can keep it free at the point of delivery and even get our lovely free prescriptions. To beat the devolution drum, it's the English NHS and the English education system.

But to maintain the fantastic achievements of devolution we do need to be bold* to deliver services in this period of Westminster enforced cuts. We need to cut expenditure in many places and make difficult choices; our "free" things mean cutbacks elsewhere in Scottish public service provision. And that’s what really impressed me about yesterday’s announcement from oor ‘eck. He used his amazing skills as a politician (like many, I don’t agree with much he says, but I recognise his talents) to set out a different course for Scotland. I’m not sure I agree with the single Police force and single Fire and Rescue Service. If this was going to make a difference it probably should have been done in 2001 when the Scottish Executive (as was) could afford the costs of restructuring. But it will make a difference and produce efficiency savings. Similarly, I have serious issues about the early-intervention, preventative-spend agenda, but they are going about it seriously and in a committed way.

In my former job as a civil servant in the Scottish Government many people commented how they were really surprised, and quite pleased, when the 2007 minority administration came into government with a strong programme of what it wanted to do, including the overarching National Performance Framework. It made a change from the car-crash of bringing together manifesto commitments into coalition agreements that had been the experience in 1999 and 2003. I’m just left wondering what my former colleagues are thinking now as the new Government can be so decisive and is slowly moving Scotland towards greater autonomy and a confident future.
* writing that, I’m just imagining Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne commenting that he’s “so bold”

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Tram Lines: The Love of Solutions

Scottish Television got in touch with me yesterday asking me to comment on the trams. I did so, with reference to Aramis and Aalborg. Original article here.

It was with a wry sense of irony that I read the other day that the company that runs the Paris Metro, RATP, had offered to run the Edinburgh Tram.

Back in the 1970s, the company along with French multinational Matra, spent billions of Francs on a project called Aramis.

This was to be a wonderful modern transport solution for Paris. A cross between a tram and a taxi. You’d hop into a car at your local stop, press a button for your destination, and Aramis would whizz off with no stopping in between. Funnily enough, Paris is now still renowned for the Art Nouveau Metro signs, not super-modern Aramis. Something similar has just opened at Heathrow Airport. It will deliver you to your car park.

In a study of the “death” of Aramis (subtitled, Or the Love of Technology), the French sociologist Bruno Latour described how the engineers, managers and politicians around Aramis almost literally fell in love with the idea. This blinded them to the massive technical challenges of the project and a basic social challenge – when asked, Parisians were rather worried about being sat in a driverless car with strangers. If you’re wondering what did happen to Aramis, if you’ve ever been in a Renault Espace you’ve driven in it. And if you’ve ever been on the TGV you’ve been powered by its motors and stopped by its control system.

Similarly, when the Edinburgh Trams were first getting stuck in late 2008, I was reading a book about a very modest transport project in the city of Aalborg in Denmark by the planning academic Bent Flyvbjerg. Rationality and Power describes how a project to close and pedestrianise some streets and build a bus station ended up taking well over a decade and was wracked with controversy.

Everyone agreed that Aalborg needed a transport solution and the plan was Very Good. Supporters and detractors of the project could marshal all the rational arguments they wanted to but what mattered was the messy business of politics and power. The traders blocked it because they feared the loss of business and had the ear of the politicians. The project stalled as municipal politics swung in one direction and then the next. At one point work stopped due to an economic crisis and reductions in government spending.

All sounding very familiar. Many commentators have caterwauled about Edinburgh’s inability to complete the project compared to European cities. I wonder how many of them were residents in these towns and cities during construction and listened to taxi drivers stuck in congestion. Or read decades of local press cuttings in French or Spanish to understand what the local conflicts and arguments were. I have not, which is why I’m using these two texts that have been published in English. And from these, it seems Edinburgh’s problems are almost universal – we “love” the tram, but are having a lot of difficulty giving birth to it.

I don’t want this to read as “I told you so”. But back in the early 2000s when the grand transport strategy of three tram lines, congestion charging and underground car parks was being dreamt up, I wonder if people would have been quite as ambitious if they had delved into this literature. Or even looked back at the difficulties Edinburgh had with Colin Buchanan’s 1971 Transport Study for the city. Big projects are difficult, complex and expensive.

I’m just enjoying sitting back and watching rather than saying what the “right” solution is.