Archive for the 'infrastructure' Category

Doing broadband better

June 30, 2017

 

A What Works Centre post I thought would be good here too.

 

Our new broadband toolkit takes a look at how policymakers (nationally and locally) can increase broadband takeup.

Why do we care about this? From a social point of view, it’s increasingly clear that decent internet access is a citizen right (especially as many public services are being shifted online). From an economic angle, evidence from our broadband review shows that household broadband takeup can have positive effects on house prices, female labour market participation, employment, firm growth, and economic growth. (Household adoption is also strongly linked to firm adoption.)

With that in mind, the toolkit looks at three different areas where public policy can step into the market.

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The first toolkit looks at direct public and public-private provision. EU State Aid rules limit what member governments can do here, but even so there is room to provide networks in rural areas. And if Brexit means these rules no longer apply, the UK can (potentially) make big investments.

We find that direct public provision raises broadband takeup, even in countries like the US where the private sector is already active. We also found a study of an Italian programme that successfully raises takeup in rural areas. Crucially, though, the US evidence suggests that provision on its own is only half as effective as provision combined with info/education on broadband’s benefits.

Frustratingly, it’s hard for us to say much on cost-effectiveness on the basis of the available evidence; although it’s clear that there are huge variations in programme costs across countries. Some of this reflects physical ruggedness (Norway is tougher to pipe than the Netherlands), but there may also be potential to deliver schemes more smartly than the UK currently does.

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The second toolkit looks at ‘local loop unbundling’ – essentially, opening up the last mile of broadband networks to all-comers. Currently only BT is obliged to do this in the UK, but in theory, national government could bring cable providers into the scope of the legislation. There’s also the question of access fees and other arrangements.

The argument against LLU is a simple one: firm X has invested in a very expensive network, so why should others get the benefit, and why should X invest more in future if they are forced to open up access? (In BT’s case this is complicated by the company’s history as a state monopoly.) The counter-argument is also simple: the wider benefits to society (via higher broadband takeup) outweigh losses to a single firm, which can in any case be compensated through charging for access.

The available evidence shows a pretty clear impact of LLU on household broadband takeup (it’s less clear for firms). Across the EU, between 2000 and 2010, LLU raised household broadband adoption by 15%. Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of studies also find no evidence that LLU crowds out future investment by the network owner, and in one case, may even lead to upgrading. This seems partly explained by relatively high access charges in most countries.

We’d urge some caution here though. For the UK, the positive effects of LLU have decreased over time, as broadband rollout covers more and more of the population. That might change if future technology gets a lot better, but this seems unlikely any time soon. Setting lower access charges would also bump up the adoption effect, but also risks discouraging future investment.

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The third toolkit looks across other tools that Governments have used to nudge providers and users: incentives (loans, subsidies, tax breaks), information campaigns, and demand-side measures such as buying clubs and bulk purchasing.

Sometimes policy works directly with providers (ISPs); at other times the nudges are applied to users (firms and households). Does it matter which? Not from the point of view of take-up: we find evidence that both kinds of measure can be effective. Specifically, we find that loans to ISPs and demand aggregation measures like buying clubs have the effect of raising downstream takeup. For direct-to-user policies, subsidies, training and providing computers are all effective.

For providers, a cross-OECD study finds that a bundle of producer incentives have the effect of raising fibre uptake by 10% (from slower copper networks). On the user side, a US study shows that a partial loans scheme for farms raised broadband takeup by 13-14% points.

Again, it’s not easy to figure out cost-effectiveness, but we estimate that typical household programmes cost £1.1-1.3k per extra connection, with the farms scheme above costing around £3-4k per farm connected.

The UK has strongly pushed programmes like this, notably the last government’s SME broadband voucher scheme. Sadly, this has had no proper evaluation done (something we’d like to see change for future schemes) – although a user survey was published which (perhaps not surprisingly) found that voucher recipients were very happy with £3k off the cost of a fast broadband line …

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Originally posted here on 23 June 2017.

Citizen Jane

May 8, 2017

Like a boss.

We went to see the new Jane Jacobs documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. It’s pretty good, with plenty both for Jacobs fans and those who don’t know her work. It pulls in some big-name contributors, including Saskia Sassen, Michael Sorkin, Mindy Fullilove, Mike Davis (!) and Geoffrey West (*). But it also – perhaps unintentionally – shows up some of the limits of Jacobs’ thinking as it applies to today’s cities. Here’s a review of sorts.

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The film has two particular strong points. The first is the precis of Jacobs’ most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Director Matt Tyrnauer nicely summarise the key ideas: cities as organised complexity; street life as a ‘dance’ of uses and users; the rebellion against modernist city planning, cities for the car, and high rise living; the importance of ‘eyes on the street’, mixed uses, old and new buildings, and short blocks – concepts now hard coded into masterplans and design standards in cities across the world. Crucially, these ideas developed over many years’ close observation of New York streets and neighbourhoods, and through test runs in Jacobs’ journalism: her first book arrived in the world fully formed and ready for use.

 

 

The film’s other big plus is its retelling of the epic struggle between Jacobs and city planner Robert Moses in 1950s and 60s New York. With minimal resources, Jacobs somehow turned around Moses’ big money plans to bulldoze and run roads through Washington Square Park, the West Village and ultimately Lower Manhattan itself. These are perhaps the most gripping parts of the picture. Moses is a monstrous figure – see also Robert Caro’s 900-page biography, summarised here by Jackson Lears – while Jacobs is revealed to be a total badass.

Machine politics, corruption and the abuse of power run up against agile and well-networked social activism: we see Jacobs wearing a ‘Mailer for Mayor’ badge, organising a series of brilliant publicity stunts and photo opportunities, and roping in Susan Sontag, Margaret Mead and Eleanor Roosevelt to help out.

 

 

The gender dynamics are striking. Moses summons an army of besuited male planners, and notoriously dismisses Jacobs’ female-led network as ‘just a bunch of mothers’: fatally underestimating his opponents, but also, as a talking head points out, ’you’d only say that if you thought people didn’t matter at all’. Jacobs’ publisher sends Moses a copy of Death and Life: he returns it in a terse note (‘Sell this junk to someone else’); Lewis Mumford dismisses the book as ‘Mother Jacobs’ Home Recipes’.

The filmmakers link Jacobs’ tactics and successes to other 1960s social struggles: feminism, the environmental movement, civil rights. There’s an important point here about shared repertoires of protest tactics. It’s also true that Jacobs was both a feminist and an environmentalist. But I needed a bit more convincing that the bigger links really held together.

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The racism in US post-war urban planning is still shocking to see. James Baldwin appears in the film to point out that ‘urban renewal means negro removal’, with housing projects and highways used as tools of segregation. The minority urban poor were pushed into badly designed blocks at the city’s edge, just as in France the following decade – with similarly grim results for the victims.

The film starts to connect these practices to Moses’ development model, which raised land values in redeveloped zones, and leveraged huge federal budgets. I was left wanting to know more about the political economy: was this racial redlining? Patronage politics? Or some toxic mixture of the two?

The Cross-Bronx Expressway (1948-72) is perhaps one of the most notorious Moses schemes, literally cutting the neighbourhood in half and blighting lifechances for years afterwards. As Mike Davis points out, it’s ‘perhaps the single most damaging urban development in US history’. Jacobs was active in New York at the time, and the film is curiously silent about this. Was she involved in opposing this? If not, why not? Did she try and fail? (Was her model of protest anchored in the neighbourhoods she knew? Did construction help spur her into action elsewhere in the city?)

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If the film is sometimes in danger of reifying Jacobs’ older ideas, it also misses out some of her newer thinking. That’s a shame: The Economy of Cities (1969) is a foundational text in urban economics, with important ideas about how cities help innovation to happen, long term growth and urban resilience. Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985), which posits cities over nation-states as the key unit of development, feels ahead of its time. And her environmental work – which I know less well – also looks increasingly prescient.

The film also skips some chances to reassess that legacy. Jacobs was a progressive and a futurist – but not a fan of big government. Her anti-planning stance has made her popular with the libertarian right: it’s the antithesis not just of the government cynicism that produced Pruitt-Igoe and Ronan Point, but also the state-funded optimism that gave us the LCC and Park Hill.

Sure, the Lower Manhattan Expressway would have been a concrete stake through the city’s heart. But I dare you not to look at the renderings and at least wonder what a Brutalist icon it would have made.

 

 

Some of the limitations in Jacobs’ vision become clearer in the second half of the film, which lays up Jacobs’ neighbourhood prescriptions against urbanisation outside the West. As Saskia Sassen puts it, the pace and style of urbanisation in the urban cores of China and India are ‘Moses on steroids’ . ‘How can we apply Jane Jacobs’ thinking to these cities?’, asks another contributor.

Good question. The film drops some hints: successful urbanisation can’t shut out the public realm; cheaply-built towers are a terrible false economy; existing urban settlements, however visually shabby or informal, embody their own ‘dances’ and should be valued by planners, not bulldozed away (see Stewart Brand for more on this).

Nevertheless, the film can’t escape the conclusion that Death and Life … has plenty of say about preserving old neighbourhoods in old cities, but rather less about building new ones:  Jacobs’ New York was losing population, as their heavy industry began to be globalised away; the cities of the BRICS are growing at speed. Equally, today’s New York is struggling with an affordable housing crisis; other US cities are still feeling the aftershocks of de-industrialisation.

As Jacobs put it in 1958: ‘the best way to plan a downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them.’ Today’s urban crises need urgent solutions, and significantly, by her death in 2006, Jacobs didn’t seem so interested in these issues: as her last interviews show, she had moved on to other things.

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The film is a great appreciation of Jane Jacobs’ finest hour. Her elegant and radical thinking was inevitably a product of its time. But bettering our contemporary cities may require both a re-tooling of Jacobs’ ideas, and new thinking from other voices.

A modern industrial strategy

February 3, 2017

A What Works Centre post I thought would be good here. Written with Henry Overman.

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Much has already been written on the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper. This post isn’t intended to provide an overall assessment or spell out our individual views on the approach being set out (they differ, depending on which of us you ask). But there are areas where the proposed strategy will shape the work that we’ll do at the Centre and where we also hope that our work will influence the implementation of the eventual strategy.

[Full disclosure – the Centre is cited in the document as one of the institutions the Government hopes will help improve local economic growth.]

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The first area relates to what we do and don’t know about policy effectiveness, particularly when it comes to some of the Strategy’s 10 pillars – which are a mix of tech (science, research and innovation) cross-cutting (skills, infrastructure, supporting business growth, procurement, trade and inward investment) and sector (new sector deals, clean energy). Academics would call this a ‘matrix’ approach.

Take, for example, policy to support business to start and grow. We know that there are market failures here – entrepreneurs often make avoidable mistakes, which better information could help fix; many young firms need better access to early stage finance (the Green Paper talks about ‘patient capital’).

The crucial question is: what’s the right policy mix to help address these challenges? Our evidence reviews on business support and on access to finance suggest that around half of schemes have measurable impact against policy objectives but around half don’t. Our reviews and associated toolkits start to identify the elements that might go in to the design of a more effective set of interventions. And we’ll soon be publishing more toolkits on incubators, accelerators and science parks. All this material provides guidance on how we might improve support to businesses but major challenges remain – both in terms of gaps in our understanding and embedding the evidence in policy development.

We are in a similar position when it comes to policy to develop skills. We know quite a lot – see, for example our evidence reviews on employment support and apprenticeships and our toolkit on training (soon to be supplemented by a toolkit on apprenticeships). Changes to policy design can improve effectiveness but, once again, there are gaps in our knowledge and challenges in implementation.

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Things are more complicated when it comes to investing in science and promoting innovation. We can say something about the specific policy tools – e.g. from our evidence reviews we know that both R&D grants and tax credits drive up innovative activity. But it’s not so clear whether increased innovation at the firm level feeds in to improved local economic performance and there are lots of unanswered questions about the appropriate policy mix. That ambiguity is one of the reasons why people advocate such different approaches to strategy.

In the interests of openness – we should note that one of the things our review did find was that grants and loans programmes that target particular production sectors appear to do slightly worse in terms of increasing R&D expenditure and innovation, compared to those that are ‘sector neutral’. So, while it makes sense for government to recognise that different sectors might need different policy responses (e.g. in terms of the institutional structure that supports those sectors) this might increase the challenge of effective policy implementation in some of the other policy areas.

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Questions of infrastructure are similarly challenging. The evidence that we do have on the link from transport to local economic growth raises some questions about the effectiveness of these policies for turning around areas that are struggling. But at the same time, we know that such investments can help drive growth in areas where travel times and congestion are a big issue (and not all of those areas are in London and the South East). Getting the right balance will be crucial.

As with innovation expenditure, people are willing to advocate for very different approaches – particularly when it comes to the overall pattern of expenditure. We’ll continue to make the case that focussing on the overall pattern of expenditure isn’t helpful when it comes to shaping effective policies. What we need is a better understanding of the economic impact of different schemes and improved ways of feeding this information back in to decisions about scheme prioritisation. This will be where our work will focus in the coming years.

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We could make similar points about the other pillars, but in the interest of space, let’s turn instead to a final cross cutting issue – whatever happens we think that to be successful, industrial policy will need to be inherently experimental. How we deliver and develop the policy will matter a lot.

Industrial strategy is always going to involve unknowns. Most fundamentally, because it involves funding basic science (or commercialising new ideas) – not all of which are going to work out, so wouldn’t be delivered by the market. In other cases, investments will trigger spillovers between parts of the economy that are hard to see upfront.

Finally, unknowns crop up because – for a lot of the things Governments want to do as part of industrial strategy – we still have a long way to go in understanding what is an effective policy mix. In addition to the policy areas covered above, at least three of the Pillars – strategic procurement, innovative place strategies, and institutions – are subject to big knowledge gaps in terms of what works. As a result, how we implement future industrial strategy will be crucial.

As you might expect, we will be arguing for an experimental approach. We need to test lots of different ideas, figure out what works, scale up the things that do and drop those that don’t. Many of those calling for a more interventionist policy – such as Harvard’s Dani Rodrik – have consistently emphasised this point. Many people have argued that the Green Paper’s approach isn’t such a fundamental break with the past. But a greater focus on flexibility, on experimentation, and on testing and improving, would help differentiate this from the past and increase the chances of success where so many other strategies have failed.

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Originally posted here on 27 January.

Physicists explain things to me

August 19, 2016

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I’ve written a long post on cities, superlinear scaling and universal laws over at Medium.

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I’ve been gradually building a presence there: it’s a platform that works particularly well for long-form pieces like this. Go take a look!

 

Jane Jacobs: City Limits

May 18, 2016

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

City Limits is a lovely 1971 film about Jane Jacobs. You can watch the whole thing here; it’s about 30 mins long. Directed by Laurence Hyde for the Canadian National Film Board, the documentary features Jacobs talking through her ideas, interspersed with some terrific footage of Toronto, New York, London and other cities around the world. I’m indebted to Martin Dittus for digging it out of the NFB archives.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The 30-minute film is worth watching for many reasons. For starters, Jacobs herself appears in much of it – sat in a park, shopping in a market, buying a newspaper, and at one point clambering into a helicopter to survey Toronto from above.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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At the same time, the film is a great summary of Jacobs’ big ideas about how urban neighbourhoods – and cities – work, when they succeed and when they fail. Jacobs is a superb writer, but she never spells it out for you. The film does, and in the author’s own words:

A city is an organism, and a very complex  one, and an ever changing one.  I would like us to see cities as ecologies – because that’s what they are. As surely as the ecologies of the natural world. The ecology of a city is of the same order of complexity as the ecology of a woodland. And this is what proper city planning ought to be directed to.  

This is the essence of a crucial chapter buried in the back of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: ‘The Kind of Problem a City Is’ (page 558 in my edition). It’s the research design for the book: it’s also Jacobs’ whole way of doing urbanism.

jacobs34 jacobs21 jacobs16(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Watching the film reminds me how prescient Jacobs was. There’s a surprising sequence on cultural diversity, which Jacobs presents both as an amenity, and as a channel of innovation:

Foreign districts introduce extra dimensions into a city. They often introduce new kinds of food, new customs, new music, even new kinds of clothing. And they’re a lot of fun for people who aren’t familiar with those customs, foods and so on. … that’s the way things spread in cities. And from cities to other places.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

This innovation argument is the big idea from The Economy of Cities. ‘Jacobian externalities’ are knowledge spillovers across sectors: these are self-reinforcing, and help cities become resilient to economic shocks. What I hadn’t previously spotted was that Jacobs sees *cultural* and *economic* diversity as so closely intertwined.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

Jacobs also makes some subtle points about mobility and technology. She came to prominence in New York opposing Robert Moses’ megaschemes for urban motorways and ‘sum clearance’:  not surprisingly, then, much of the film is concerned with congestion and pollution. But Jacobs has a much more profound argument:

People worry that there’s too much progress – in fact it’s just the opposite. … Automobiles don’t represent     progress any more – they’re pretty old …

There’s no solution in saying people should live close to their work and shouldn’t travel. People change their  jobs, goods have to move. So the problem is mobility – but the automobile isn’t providing much of an answer.

In other words: the car-based city is old thinking. The future is mass transit, bikes, and mobility as a service, enabled by technology. Scroll forward to 2016, and that future is taking shape all around us.

In 1971, however, this meant ‘Dial-a-Bus’ [link7] – a prehistoric Uber Pool, summoned to your house by landline and whisking you and fellow commuters to the local train station.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Jacobs was a thinker and an activist, not a consultant. It’s not as easy as it looks to derive practical guidance from her work – not least because she is the original full-field urbanist, drawing together history, built form, economics, social structure and culture into her analysis. Watching the film is a salutary reminder of this; it also emphasises how much Jacobs’ work draws on close observation of specific places she knows well.

Death and Life … tends to be distilled into four urban design tropes: high density, short city blocks, mixed use, old buildings. Result: every 1990s block of flats with space for a shop at the bottom (but VAT rules that incentivise developers to knock down old buildings). That’s clearly not enough to make a street or neighbourhood ‘work’, if it has no relation to the demographics and socio-economic life around it. The film is a neat reminder that we shouldn’t reduce Jacobs to design code box-ticking. But it also highlights just how tricky it is to roll her ideas into generalised practice. ‘What should a city be like?’ asked Reason in 2001. Jacobs’ answer: ‘it should be like itself’.

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(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The film also highlights how much Jacobs’ thinking about urbanism is a product of its time. All around her cities were losing people to the suburbs, and losing old urban grain to modernist, car-centric city form. Many neighbourhoods were emptying out. In London and New York today, all of that has flipped around: populations are growing, high-value activity is back, and we have an urgent crisis of housing and cheap space.

Ed Glaeser famously has a go at Jacobs in The Triumph of the City, arguing that preserving old buildings simply chokes off the supply of bigger, newer ones, and the subsequent gentrification pushes out the artists and mixed communities she sought to preserve. I’m not sure that’s completely fair: she was dealing with a different era’s problems. But it also seems that she had fairly little to say about today’s urban crises. That is the message from of this 2003 Brick interview, conducted three years before Jacobs’ death. She’s asked whether today’s cities are in better shape. She replies:

In some ways there’re worse and in some ways better. The things that are worse I don’t think are so much focused or anchored in cities as they are in our North American culture as a whole … I think that things are getting better for cities in that there’s not the great ruthless wiping away of their most interesting areas that took place in the past … however, I think the urban sprawl outside of cities has gotten much worse.

In the Reason interview she goes a little further, citing Portland, Seattle and San Francisco as ‘attractive places … where good things are being done.’ The interviewer asks about gentrification and rising prices. She bats away the question.

By this point her  writing had also moved on to other issues:  the nature of work, economic ecosystems. Clearly, she wasn’t much interested in going back to the street.

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It’s early morning, and the city is beginning to dance. The camera follows Jacobs as she crosses a busy street. A man walking beside her notices the camera and gazes in increasing curiousity at our heroine, trying to place her. Unable to do so, he wanders away. Lost in thought, she disappears into the crowd.

jacobs9 jacobs8 jacobs10 (c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Here’s the link to the film again.

 

First-Person Flaneur

November 1, 2015

 

(c) 2015 Laurence Lek

 

Bonus Levels is a series of beautifully realised recreations of London locations, re-imagined as Ballardian dreamscapes, elements of an impossible city. In After Us, creator Lawrence Lek describes his work as ‘architecture as site-specific simulation’, in which existing parts of the cityscape and its institutions are ‘reconfigured and subverted’ by some apocalyptic or economic shock. I think this can help us think about real-world urban change too. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

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In ‘Dalston, Mon Amour’, some familiar landmarks of the Kingsland Road – the Rio Cinema, Gillett Square and once on-trend Efes Bar are rendered empty and open to the elements after a biblical weather event. Terraformed by desert and water, Renais’ film plays in the background as the sky darkens.

 

(c) 2015 Laurence Lek

 

You can certainly treat this work as satirical – hipster touchstones crumbled into dust – and Lek is clear that this is part of the point. The use of video game aesthetics is also nice, although as Lek points out, ‘the player begins when the game is already over’: it’s first-person flaneur. The game framing also exacerbates the dreamlike quality of each episode – background sounds pan around, and there are sudden changes in perspective or time of day.

There’s also a deeper, uncanny power to it. Places we knew and hold dear, transformed into dreamspaces. As Adam points out, Vermilion Sands, The Sprawl or De Chirico are never far away. But also – for some viewers – their own memories are reconfigured. As Lek argues, the more time you spend in each episode, the more meaning your own mind layers over it.

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I experienced a real-world retelling of my own world a few months back, in farcical form, as a group of us were taken on a guided tour of ’Silicon Roundabout and Tech City’. The tour had felt like a good idea as part of a new paper we’ve been writing on the East London tech scene: in practice it involved much psychodrama.

As the tour went on, for example, I was alarmed to find that the guide’s spiel included numerous factoids taken from my own research, fed back in slightly distorted form. Even worse, as we left Old St roundabout we were taken to the Foundry, a now-deceased bar and venue my friends and I spent much time in during years gone by, and which was shut down amid much protest. The guide described it as an ‘important cultural institution throughout the 90s and some of the 00s’: opening up a chasm of lost time in the process. The site now houses the Hoxton Pastry Union, an almost comically resonant symbol of the changes the neighbourhood has since gone through.

Sharing this moment with friends afterwards, it became clear what a powerful charge it packed.

 

 

A more formal way to think about Lek’s project is a series of spatial imaginaries, Bob Jessop’s term for the mental maps we all use to get purchase on everyday life. More formally, Jessop means imaginaries to act as mapping systems or ‘fixes’ that allow agents to navigate otherwise impossibly complex late capitalism.

Imaginaries – like Silicon Roundabout / Tech City itself – are necessarily partial, pushing some elements to the fore and ignoring others. They are thus ripe for the kind of reconfiguring and questioning Lek engages in.

Part of the paper I’m working on looks at Here East, the vast Olympic Broadcast and Media Centre which is being rapidly transformed into a new, maker-focused neighbourhood. On a recent visit the site was still under construction, but we got a clear sense of the developers’ vision.

 

(c) 2015 Max Nathan

 

Notice how the rebrand involves both a new name, a new industrial niche, and a spatial repositioning of the site, away from Stratford and into Hackney, specifically the artist-centric milieu of Hackney Wick which sits just over the canal.

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I was happy to see that Bonus Levels has also engaged with this territory. ‘Delirious New Wick’ is a hysterical rebuild of E9 and the Olympic Park, in which the Games’ iconic structures float above the park and are accessed through teleporters. A gorgeous Burial soundtrack runs in the background as we float high above the city, before descending onto the ruins of the Westfield mall, now partially submerged in an Arthurian Lake. It is heady, brilliant stuff.

What Works

September 11, 2013

As some of you will know, LSE, the Centre for Cities and Arup will be running the new What Works Centre on local economic growth.

The Centre will conduct systematic reviews of UK and international research, ranking the most effective interventions, and will work closely with local government, local enterprise partnerships and other ‘users’ to help develop stronger economic policymaking across the UK. As NICE and the EEF already do, it may eventually commission research too.

The Centre has just begun work – we had a great workshop today with a number of our local partners – and we’ll formally launch later in the Autumn. We’ll be part of a network of six working on health, education, ageing, crime reduction and early intervention as well as local economies.

Henry Overman is stepping down from SERC to lead the Centre. I’m becoming one of the Deputy Directors, and will be working at LSE alongside my research-focused role at NIESR. I’ll be leading on the academic workstream, co-ordinating the systematic reviews and demonstrator projects, as well as advising Henry on the Centre’s direction.

We’ll be working with a strong team of academics across the country – in Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Bristol, as well as London. We’ll also team up with New Economy Manchester on capacity-building and demonstrator projects. And we’ll be using the UK-wide networks developed by Centre for Cities and Arup.

Developing a new organisation from scratch is exciting, challenging and a huge amount of work, as I can attest from my early days at the Centre for Cities. Unlike most start-ups, we are very lucky to have secure initial funding. And we have an emerging body of good practice to draw on. But we still have a great deal to do in the months ahead. I look forward to working with many of you as we build out.

This is not a Gateway

May 13, 2013

(c) Terry Farrell and Partners

I was in the Economist last week talking about the Thames Gateway. As New Labour’s flagship regeneration programme, the Gateway has not surprisingly been dropped by the Coalition. It hasn’t vanished completely though. Later this year, the Centre for London is publishing a collection of pieces on prospects for the area (for a flavour see this post and discussion). What we might call ‘Gateway Thinking’ also periodically reappears, for example in legacy planning for the Olympics, and in the proposed  Thames Estuary Airport.  And the place retains a strong hold over a certain kind of urbanist, especially in the dystopian excursioneering pioneered by Iain Sinclair and Laura Oldfield Ford.

I spent some time working on Gateway policy while in DCLG, and all of this got me looking back through old notes and papers. Some rough thoughts follow.

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First, the Gateway concept now feels madly ambitious – especially compared to today’s minimalist development environment. Remember that the 70km Gateway was one of four ‘growth areas’ set out in the 2003 Sustainable Communities Plan.  The Plan proposed around  550,000 new homes in these zones by 2016 (42,000 a year, when current annual housing starts for the whole country are now around 98,000), and envisaged ‘delivery’ of  430,000 additional jobs.

In practice, the other three growth areas – Milton Keynes, Ashford, and the ‘Peterborough-Stansted-Cambridge’ corridor – involve building in popular areas where developers are happy to operate. The Gateway was always going to be a much more challenging environment.

Second, there was (and is) a strong social argument for public investment along the Thames Estuary. Some communities along the river are deeply deprived , with residents held back by low incomes, low skills and thin local labour markets.  However, the economic case is rather weaker. It was never clear whether the Gateway programme was intended  as a response to economic pressures in the Greater South East (in particular, high house prices and low building), or a much bolder attempt to restructure the deeper regional economy. Neither was it clear why these communities merited public spending ahead of (say) those in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds.

The Greater South East economic ‘system’ is heavily weighted towards the North and West of London, where there is a polycentric system of smaller cities (Milton Keynes, Oxford, Cambridge, Reading) around the capital. East of London, towns and cities tend to be smaller and local economies are heavily commuter-powered.

As the Economist notes, parts of London’s economy have been moving Eastwards for years. But the Gateway attempts to shift the entire urban system  towards the East – and to shift activity away from commuting towards self-contained communities. The evidence tells us that urban economies are highly path-dependent (e.g. here, here and here), and  that this kind of rebalancing takes decades if it happens at all. By contrast, the Gateway strategy promised 160,000 net new homes and 180,000 net new jobs over 15 years.

Third, this terraforming aspect is integral to the Gateway’s staying power. As a classic grand projet, the programme was highly appealing to a certain kind of politician (Michael Heseltine, John Prescott, Gordon Brown) and urban planner (Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell). Brown actually raised the jobs target to 225,000 in 2007, just as the credit crunch was kicking in.

Such visioning also gets in the way of getting things done. An obvious but important example: the Gateway isn’t a single zone, but a collection of very disparate communities. This matters. Treating the Gateway as a kind of continuous policy space made for convenient shorthand in speeches, but obscures the huge differences between key economic sites like Canary Wharf and Shellhaven, versus smaller towns like Thurrock, and struggling former resorts like Southend.  Arguably, it also made it harder to think about economic development, since policy had to be retrofitted into a high-level planning concept rather than based on local circumstances.

Fourth, Gateway delivery systems were pretty badly designed. Governance somehow managed to be both too top-down, as explained above, and not dirigiste enough at a local level. Notably, detailed policy development was generally left to Urban Development Corporations, who lacked a democratic mandate, had no statutory powers and held no assets. By contrast, New Town Development Corporations could set long term planning goals, and leverage a substantial public land portfolio. The trade-off was the lack of accountability, but land holdings eventually transferred to local authorities.

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None of this is to call time on the policy or the area. As I said earlier, the kind of deep structure change envisaged by Heseltine and others take decades to take shape. Developments like the London Gateway Port are potentially transformational, and London’s eastern boroughs will continue to evolve. By starting with economic fundamentals rather than grand planning, and placing help for individuals alongside physical regeneration,  a simpler, more effective approach might begin to emerge.

[apologies to TINAG for stealing the title.]

High Speed Two, cities and the North-South divide

January 28, 2013

(c) The Guardian 2013

The Government has just unveiled the route map for the UK’s high speed rail network. So will HS2 help the cities on the line? Will it narrow the North-South divide, as some Ministers claim? And what about places left out?

Here’s what I wrote back in 2010, when the detailed modelling was done, and drawing on the international evidence. The punchlines are:

So what does HS2 mean for cities? Urban firms and travellers are the big winners, which is good news for cities if more productive businesses raise wages or employment. Some cities get the kudos of being on the line, and may get a regeneration boost from new stations – although that could turn into a windfall gain for developers. But fairly few firms will relocate, and agglomeration impacts will be pretty small.

On this basis, HS2 isn’t likely to fundamentally change the UK’s economic geography. Rather, it will speed up the economic geography we already have.

… Those who gain from HS2 (business, core cities, those in ‘the North’) are strongly in favour; those who lose (communities and homeowners along the line) are vehemently against. Local opponents of HS2 are hardly irrational – quite the opposite. So rather than handing a windfall gain to business by pegging HS2 fares to conventional fares, HS2 tickets should be pricier – at least in first class.  That provides another way for taxpayers to recoup some of the initial outlay. … The agglomeration benefits for Phase 2 (Manchester and Leeds) seem much larger than Phase 1 (London to Birmingham). Why? Rather than connecting two relatively distant cities, Phase 2 links a lot of nearby places (e.g. Sheffield/Meadowhall to Leeds in 20 mins), and provides indirect access to big cities not on the line (e.g. from Manchester to Liverpool). The fact of HS2 thus strengthens the case for complementary investments like the Northern Hub, which will bring Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds closer together.

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Two other points. First, as John Tomaney argued on radio 4 this morning, the evidence suggests HS2’s economic impacts are pretty complex, and the net effect isn’t clear. Like him and others, I’m basically an agnostic.

Second,  to repeat – it’s crucial to spend money on better links between Northern cities and more London-centric high speed lines. As Richard Leese suggested in the same piece, for policymakers this is not an either/or. Thankfully Ministers agree, and are feeding cash into boring but important investments like the Northern Hub, as well as the bigger and shinier HS2.

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Update, May 2013: The National Audit Office has published its own report, which echoes many of these points.

Planning reform

November 6, 2011

The past few months have seen furious public debate about planning reform in England. Here [pdf] and here [pdf] are two new papers on the economics of planning, written by me and SERC Director Henry Overman. Versions were also submitted to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation last month.

The papers pull together SERC research on planning, alongside wider evidence (paper 1) and assess the Government’s proposals for planning reform (paper 2). Henry and I don’t agree on all of this – I’m certainly more pro-brownfield than he is – but we both felt that important pieces were missing from the recent public conversation.

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The key messages are:

1) The job of planning is to balance environmental, social and economic welfare. This means tradeoffs, so all planning systems have costs and benefits.

2) Planning’s economic effects, especially the costs of the status quo, have been underplayed in recent debates. We summarise evidence strongly showing current rules increase house prices and volatility, increase office rents, probably lower retail productivity and lower employment in small independent shops.

3) Paradoxically, land restrictions in the most popular areas have led to some truly unsustainable development – such as selling off school playing fields for housing. Similarly, brownfield-first policies have delivered some positive benefits for cities like Manchester, but aren’t a panacea.

4) The draft NPPF needs to be much clearer about sustainable development, potential tradeoffs and how practical decisions might be made (for example, using the National Ecosystem Assessment).

5) We agree with the National Trust and others that there’s a basic tension between Government’s desire for localism and some important national objectives. Ministers need to be clearer about what trumps what, or (more in keeping with localism) provide stronger incentives to align interests.

6) The presumption in favour of sustainable development that is consistent with the plan should be retained. But local authorities need time to adjust to the new rules, and the Government should introduce the change gradually.

7) Current incentives to ramp up housebuilding, such as the New Homes Bonus, are probably too weak and need to be strengthened. And one-size land restriction policies (such as town centre and brownfield first) don’t work well in practice. Rather, we suggest Whitehall sets the appropriate framework to try to encourage particular patterns of development but then allows local authorities to develop their own land use restriction policies.

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