Posts Tagged ‘design’

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.

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.

 

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.]

That’s not my name

January 30, 2013

(c) wired / architecture 00

Last week I was at LSE for a seminar on place and neighbourhood branding, ably organised by CityDiplo. Also on the panel were Suzi Hall (LSE Cities) and Ian Stephens (Saffron). It was a great evening, with a sharp and highly engaged audience.

I ran through some new work on the politics of naming in East London’s digital economy, and how the competing brands of Silicon Roundabout and Tech City are playing out on the ground (which I’m writing with Emma Vandore and Georgina Voss).

Suzi gave a great run-down of her work on ordinary streets and vernacular spaces in South London, and Ian delivered a nice overview of official branding strategies for Nine Elms.

The CityDiplo team have now put up a podcast of the session. Presentations should follow shortly.

Manufacturing hipsters

June 19, 2012

I’ve just finished Enrico Moretti’s terrific new book, The New Geography of Jobs. Moretti is an annoyingly young and brilliant economist at UC Berkeley who made his name with seminal papers on agglomeration, knowledge spillovers and multiplier effects. He’s now following Ed Glaeser and Paul Krugman out of the seminar room into the mainstream.

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Moretti’s argument is in three parts. First, globalisation has made the knowledge economy increasingly important as a source of productivity and wealth in countries like the US (and the UK). Each ‘innovation economy’ job supports five others, two in other professions and three in local services.

Second, these big shifts have very uneven impacts. Cities concentrate economic activity. Places’ initial advantages matter. People’s ability and willingness to move is limited. So social and spatial disparities tend to grow – even though higher living costs in richer cities partly cancel out higher wages.

Third, our policy responses need to change. Unlike Glaeser, Moretti likes some area-based initiatives. But he also pushes strongly for public science, better public education and raising high-skill immigration.

So far, so familiar – see Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, or Richard Florida’s The Great Reset. But Moretti arguing that it’s precisely these long term trends and their implications that need to be deeply understood. (Meanwhile, Glaeser gets one mention in the index – the same as Marlene Dietrich – and Florida gets a discreet knife in the ribs in Chapter 5.)

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The book also has great range. Moretti combines serious urban economics and economic geography with a number of excursions – on the historical origins of Hollywood, Berlin and culture-led regeneration, the dynamics of shared workspaces, cleantech investment, gentrification and ethnic inventors.  In many pop academic books these passages feel bolted on – a break from the high-level narrative. In this case they’re actually doing some intellectual work.

One of the richest passages comes early on. In the most successful cities, Moretti suggests, the innovation economy is supporting the return of urban manufacturing. He visits the site of the old Levi’s factory in San Francisco to find ‘dozens of workshops offering hand-crafted products’ – such as bespoke clothing line Cut Loose and the DODOCase iPad case factory.

Across town on Pier 17, Tcho has taken over an old warehouse and converted it into a craft chocolate factory, importing vintage German machinery and high-tech computerised gear. (The chocolate is absolutely amazing.) In London, S.E.H. Kelly (limited-run menswear), The Kernel (craft beer) and Berg’s Little Printer are riding the same wave.

The growth of high-end manufacturing in cities seems rich with possibilities. But Moretti convincingly shows that it’s fundamentally a niche phenomenon. First, this kind of manufacturing is essentially the result of wealth created elsewhere in the city. Although these firms can trade globally, their key market remains local – in that sense, they’re a form of high-end local service.

Second, an important part of these products’ appeal is that they’re unusual, or unique. Both the thing – and the experience of buying it – are positional goods. That business model then allows firms to cover high manufacturing costs. Scaling up would involve either jacking up prices even higher, or moving production to lower-cost locations – precisely what such firms are reacting against.

The most extreme example of this is also the best known. American Apparel gear sells precisely because it’s made in LA (and because of its softcore ads, of course). If Moretti is right, it literally couldn’t be made anywhere else.

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A more profound transformation, which the book doesn’t touch on, is the emergence of small-scale digital manufacturing. With 3D printers,economies of scale matter much less: there’s no need to retool a production line, and almost infinite customisation should be possible. The technology is already good enough to make specialised car parts, and some nice art objects.

Micro-manufacturing is deeply disruptive – especially when combined with zero-cost marketing and sales online.  Craft manufacturers will adopt it. But it’ll be the technology, as much as the brand positioning, that’s doing the hard work.

The economics of skyscrapers

August 22, 2011

Why do firms pay more for space in skyscrapers? I’ve posted some answers on LSE’s Spatial Economics Research Centre blog. Drawing on new research by the SERC community, I look at the balance between agglomeration effects (people working in tall buildings are more productive) and reputation effects (managers like prestigious addresses).

The research findings suggest both effects are in play – particularly for very tall buildings like The Shard. That has important implications for planning the skyscape of London and other UK cities.

Now read on

The secret life of Shepperton

September 29, 2010

Some new art stuff.

First up, Mat and I have finally completed our photo essay on Shepperton, where JG Ballard spent most of his adult life. We’ve combined our pictures with text from Ballard’s own novels, autobiography, interviews and other text about the town and its history. In the process we’ve shamelessly taken inspiration from Patrick Keiller, Chris Marker, Iain Sinclair and many others. We hope they, and you, like it.

A shorter version of the essay appeared in Shadows Have Shadows, a limited-run newspaper published earlier this year by the mysterious SFHAA. It’s a nice collection of pieces on street-level urbanism – spanning London, San Francisco, Caracas, fictional cities and cities of the future. The paper itself is an A4 object of beauty, produced with the help of Newspaper Club. Sadly there’s only 100 copies, but you can also read it online here.

Finally, here are my pictures of the astonishing Red Sand sea forts, which I visited with Reuben a few weeks back. More about the forts and how to reach them at the Project RedSand website.

Now, back to the PhD …

On yer Boris Bike

August 25, 2010

Who actually uses Boris Bikes? Commuters, civil servants and city types. Who doesn’t? Shoppers and posh people. That’s the story so far, as suggested by data from the London Cycle Hire Explorerflagged in Londonist, and recycled in Wednesday’s Evening Standard.

The Explorer app is simple but powerful: it shows the 10 most and least popular docking stations across the capital. Obviously it’s early days, and usage will change (see below). And I’m just eyeballing the data – no fancy analysis here. First impressions:

1) Commuters are the main users – the most popular spots are mainly around the major stations – Waterloo (354 bikes yesterday), King’s Cross (305), London Bridge (256) and Liverpool Street (226). This is why TfL already wants to spend another £81m on new bikes and docking stations.

2) Biking to meetings and running errands also seem popular – viz heavy daytime (and lunchtime) use during the week in Covent Garden, (196) Strand (189) and Fitzrovia (187).

3) Weekend biking is on – judging by the past week at least, there’s no obvious drop-off on Saturdays or Sundays in the most popular spots. That suggests some tourists might be venturing out too.

4) There’s a bit of an East/West divide – six of the least popular docking stations are in West London, mainly Kensington (28 bikes) and Chelsea (25-29). I would have expected some use around Paddington and White City, but perhaps the Westway is putting people off. Support for scary road theory comes from other cold spots around Elephant and New Kent Road (26 each).

5) Alternatively, bike use is low in well-off neighbourhoods where residents prefer to drive, such as Kensington and Chelsea, Bayswater (27) and St John’s Wood (20). Or where serious shopping is going on (all of the above).  Obviously that’s just postcode stereotyping, but still – I bet there’s something in it.

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The open data is incredibly helpful, and not just for urbanists. At one level the bike scheme is a gigantic social experiment – give people new tools for getting around the city, step back and see what happens.

There are useful parallels here with new technologies, especially portable gear like mobile phones. The lesson from these is that technology changes us, but we change it too, and unpredictably. In the jargon, use is endogenous to the user.  Texting is the classic example of user-driven innovation for mobiles: open platforms like Android are doing something similar for smartphones.

A lot of this happens through experimenting and messing about, and this is already happening with blue bikes – via mashups like the Explorer, or Barley-ish attempts at stunt riding. More interesting stuff is bubbling up at this user forum.

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In turn, that suggests Boris Bike dynamics might look very different in a year’s time. So far, riders are currently making 19,000 journeys per day, not put off by bikes variously described as ‘like flying Ryanair’ (Jon Snow) and ‘like driving a tractor’ (anonymous friend).

That number could rocket up when Pay as You Go rates are introduced, and the early adopters are joined by loads of tourists and casual users. We could see new hotspots around St James’ Park, Baker Street and Tower Hill. And even bike snobs like me might get round to trying the thing …

So, farewell then …

July 9, 2010

… eco-towns, by the look of it. This is a good thing. Eco-towns are largely unloved, often in the middle of nowhere, and would have little impact on overall CO2 emissions.

Dermot (and Adam Marshall) have rightly criticised eco-towns for distracting from the much bigger task of greening Britain’s cities. As I’ve explored elsewhere, that’s a job which should have both a significant impact on the UK’s carbon footprint, but also much greater economic development potential.

Eco-towns have also failed dismally at being the kind of demonstration project the Government originally envisaged. There are much better examples abroad, both self-standing cities like Masdar in Abu Dhabi, and (more realistically) urban extensions like those in Vauban, Freiburg, or Hammarby Sjostan, Stockholm.

The latter also have the benefit of localist in design and delivery. In the coming months, let’s hope the Coalition can give British cities the financial flexibilities to try something similar.

City in a box, unboxed

June 10, 2010

Excitement online and in the twittersphere about the Cisco ‘city in a box’ being built in Songdo, South Korea. There seems to be a bit of a utopian city meme at the moment – instant cities,  floating cities and Paul Romer’s Charter Cities (which I discussed a while back). Last week’s Economist even showcased a whole series of prototype ‘cities for 2030’.

As the Economist piece points out, there’s something slightly odd about these kind of exercises. Cities tend to emerge and evolve organically, even chaotically, rather than being built from scratch: and their residents and users tend to be resistant to masterplanning.

A closer look at Cisco’s instant city actually confirms all this quite neatly. First, it’s not a city, it’s a business district – albeit one that could house up to 1m people. Second, it’s neither new or self-contained. Instead, it’s a bolt-on to an existing city, Incheon, the 3rd biggest in S Korea.

This kind of CBD megaproject has been done before – in Canary Wharf, for example, which works pretty well as a financial service cluster, if not as a functioning community. (With a working population of around 90,000 people, it’s over ten times smaller than Songdo.)

I can see the potential for this kind of plug-in planning in China in particular, given the pace of urbanisation there. The developer at Songdo reckons there’s a market for at least 20 more in China and across South East Asia. That’s plausible if the demographics and national economies hold up. But ‘build it and they will come’ is an inherently risky strategy – just look at Dubai.

I’d also love to see Cisco try this in a small, highly urbanised Global North country like the UK. Our biggest urban planning challenges in years to come is going to be greening the cities and buildings we’ve got. The eco-towns initiative doesn’t tackle this, and the programme is basically marginal.

But in growing places, there’s potentially an important role for high-tech, resource-efficient urban extensions – around Greater London, Manchester, York, Cambridge or Brighton, say. The problem will be the total lack of public funds to help actual building. Perhaps Cisco can step up to the Big Society plate and donate one?

ps. I’m now finally on Twitter – find me here.

pps. We’re now on holiday for a bit. Blogging returns in July.

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