Posts Tagged ‘place’

Fortresses of Insanity

November 14, 2010

Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s biggest papers, has published some of my sea forts pictures, and run a fascinating backstory (in German) about life on board. Enough said. See it here.

You can also find out more about the forts, including how to visit, at the Project Redsand website.

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 …

The magic roundabout

February 12, 2010

Ah, the perils of place branding. Wired have re-upped their ‘Silicon Roundabout’ story, highlighting the cluster of tech and new media firms around the Old Street / City Road junction in East London (thanks to Eric and Mat for pointing me to it).

The magazine reckons there are now about 85 firms in the neighbourhood, including Dopplr, last.fm and moo.com (who make my lovely business cards). That’s exponential growth since Matt Bidduplh’s original 2008 map. Along the way it’s picked up a Wikipedia entry, props in the FT and a (slightly self-conscious) support group.

 There’s only one problem here. Almost none of the firms are *actually on the roundabout*, or even near it. Look at Wired’s picture again. These companies are almost all down the road in, er, Shoreditch – or in one case, way out in Bethnal Green.

Obviously ‘Silicon Roundabout’ is a good meme (here I am writing about it, after all). And it means people don’t have to say they work in Barley-esque Shoreditch. But it fails completely as a descriptor for a real cluster, or even a spot on the map. It’s also nothing like Silicon Valley, which is a continuous sprawl stretching halfway across the Bay Area, including several cities along the way. Silicon Roundabout is  Trumpton to the South Bay’s Sim City. But that’s another story.

New stuff

December 20, 2009

A couple of new things from me. First, UCL Urban Lab and Figaropravda have just published ‘The Architecture of Financial Crisis’, papers from a recent workshop on cities, urban economics, design and the crash. Chapters from me, Peter Hall, Matthew Gandy Davida Hamilton et al.  It’s all masterminded by Louis Moreno. PDFs should be here.

Second, a new paper on cultural diversity and innovation by me and Neil Lee. We do some number-crunching on firms in London, and find a small but significant ‘diversity advantage’: firms with a richer mix of owners / staff seem to innovate more.

This paper will be coming out in January in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Knowledge-Based Development, but you can download it here for a while.

The research is part a bigger piece of work I’ve been doing here at Berkeley. I’ll be presenting the new findings in April at the AAG 2010 conference in Washington DC, if any of you are around for that.

A hidden geography

December 3, 2009

Eleven weeks in, five more to go, and I’m still finding my way around this place. It’s got me thinking about the different ways we can get to know a city. How to get under the skin?

The job of geography is to explain the production of space, place and the everyday life of those places. Jane Jacobs tells us to think about cities as ‘problems in organised complexity’. We should pick an angle and work around it, pick another and connect to the first, and so on.

Why and where

This works for me. My way in is via urban economics and economic geography. The first task is to draw a line. In practice, it’s many overlapping boundaries – from satellite images, terrain maps, political units, transport networks.

We identify hubs and start linking them up. Then we can begin to fill in what happens where and why. At base, economic geography is about understanding the push and pull forces that help explain location. At the heart of successful places are increasing returns – from matching, sharing and learning. Feedback loops amplify these returns; bad luck or bad choices can run them down. Each local recipe is always slightly different.

So we start with people’s ‘demand for urbanness’. Then by looking at who gains and how, we can factor in the institutional, class and political forces shaping production.

The best geography of this kind – Jacobs, Michael Storper, Ian Gordon, David Harvey – succeeds in connecting macro to micro, megatrends to real places.  But a lot of everyday life falls between the lines – the ‘Bay Area-ness’ of the Bay Area is gone. What can bring it back?

The city as conversation

The local mediascape is more powerful than you’d think. As Jane Jacobs says, we should look less at the front pages and more at the small ads to understand what’s truly valued – or what isn’t. Dave Eggers’ San Francisco Panorama is a fantastic piece of street-level writing, if nothing else.

The city as story

Fiction helps us intuit urban experience. Each of the eight million stories in the Naked City reveals a little more of New York. The Wire does the same for Baltimore, to the point that it’s hardly a crime show at all. David Simon says it aims to be “…a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.”

The city as you find it

Benjamin and his disciples in psychogeography show how powerful wandering, image and imagination can be for understanding urbanity. Essentially you are wiring the city into yourself, from your own impressions and resonant memories. These are Lefebvre’s ‘representational spaces’, or lived space. Yours is only one of eight million stories, but if intuition is a kind of hyperlogic, others will share it. This excellent post by Owen Hatherley on seeing Sheffield via Red Riding, brutalist architecture and Warp is a great example.

The city as game

The mobile and social web is – finally – starting to help us multiply urban possibilities. Matt Jones talks about a better kairos – more opportunity, richer knowledge – as technology tells us more about where we are, what’s happened, or who’ll be around. And one level up, we’re using the data itself. Here’s Dan Hill mapping a building from the wifi cloud. Or MIT’s Senseable City Lab using mobile phone data in real-time urban heat maps; or Mapumental linking access, price and quality of neighbourhood life. Urban Tick has masses of interesting real-time stuff.

For me, this is exciting but risky: the danger in this perspective is that urban life reduces to codeable routines or design solutions. A city can’t always be hacked.

Being there

As Benjamin says,  ‘the power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane … Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands.’

The most knowledgeable people I’ve met here have simply spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. They’ve walked the roads; they know it inside out. So I leave you with A Hidden Geography, an awesome piece of spatial synthesis by UC Berkeley’s Richard Walker. As a layering of image and text, framework and dot-joining, it’s hard to beat. Enjoy it.

Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk

September 8, 2009

images by suki chan, www.sukichan.co.uk

My friend Suki has made a new film / installation about life in the city, using footage from around London and interviews with various urbanites (including me – fame at last!). Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk is part of Free To Air, a four-year programme of commissions and events loosely organised around the idea of urban freedom.

The installation is showing at 198 Contemporary Arts in SW9 from 14 September to 19 October. There’s a private view on Monday night – email me if you’d like an invite.

The gallery says:

A London of fast-blinking lights and speeding commuters, where cars and trains leave luminous comet-trails marking their passage through the night, and where individuals reflect on freedom in the urban metropolis, or seek escape from the repetitive habits and conditions it enforces.

Inspired by ideas of freedom of expression in contemporary society, Suki Chan’s new video installation is an impressionistic study of London’s diverse population … Chan’s work weaves together a series of evocative video portraits highlighting people’s different responses to the hubbub of London life. Groups of skaters, unimpeded by traffic, move freely through the twilight city, tracing an intuitive map of the metropolis. Nigerian security guards gatekeeping a deserted high-rise office block compare the ‘freedom’ of London with their rhythms and aspirations of their former life. While city commuters embody the regularity of everyday urban existence.

I’d recommend going even if I wasn’t in it – Suki’s film work is always very beautiful to look at. In the meantime, or if you’re not in town, you can watch some excerpts here.

Ground control

August 11, 2009

market forces yeah?

I’ve finally got around to reading Anna Minton’s excellent new book on space, fear and happiness in British cities.

For a self-proclaimed polemic on the urban renaissance that puts the boot into just about everybody, it’s generated an amazing amount of agreement. At the ICA recently Anna, Liz Peace (Head of the British Property Federation), Nigel Coates (RCA) and Daniel Moylan (Deputy Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council) barely exchanged a cross word.

This is testament to the book itself. Minton takes aim at the privatisation of the urban public realm. She attacke the ‘pseudo-public space’ of big shopping centres like Liverpool One and the ‘pseudo-private space’ of Business Improvement Districts. Landlords increasingly run the public realm for profit, she claims. Instead of functioning spaces we have sterile deserts: Minton quotes one city centre manager who actually talks about ‘importing vitality’. Worse, pervasive CCTV and an obsession with safety actually make us feel less safe and more unhappy. Privatising public space ends up damaging everyday life.

What is to be done? Councils should open up ‘shared space’ at street level (as Kensington and Chelsea have done successfully), should allow flexible uses of abandoned buildings and urban places, and need to play a stronger ledership role. Meanwhile Whitehall should re-engineer our risk and litigation systems (in Sweden, if you cross the road and a car hits you it’s the driver’s fault) and review compulsory purchase rules.

Most of this is dead on target. The clue’s in the name, I think – public space can be managed like a commodity, but ultimately it belongs to us. We should have rights to it as citizens, not selective access as consumers. Private sector management of public spaces has to reflect this. Equally, shopping centres that look like streets will inevitably get treated as public property. Trying to police this out is clearly counterproductive.

I’m less convinced by some of the detail, though. Anna mainly relies on a few high-profile examples, and admits she can’t quantify the privatisation of public space. She then claims ‘a huge shift in land ownership has taken place’. But then we don’t know if this is true. And are design and space management really driving fear – rather than, say, media coverage of crime?

Does the recession allow us to rethink urban space, as Anna suggests? Perhaps. The HCA’s emerging regeneration strategy puts the public sector in the driving seat, masterplanning and – crucially – controlling land sales. But there’s almost no money: over 80 councils are competing for just 12 Accelerated Development Zone pilots and HCA budgets are tight. Fundamentally, authorities in deprived areas may have little leverage over developers – who can always walk away.

And the book is weak on the dynamics of urban change. Anna wants fluid cities which evolve and surprise. But sometimes she also wants to block change she doesn’t like. It’s hard to have it both ways.

When Liverpool One was built, the independent Quiggins Centre was demolished – sure, the building should have been saved, but the new L1 is clearly an improvement on what was there before. And is the creative core of Shoreditch really ‘under threat’ from rich incomers? Parts of the neighbourhood are changing. But the artists are simply moving up the road to Dalston and Hackney Wick. As a whole, London’s creative community is as active as ever. We do know that cheap workspace and social infrastructure – like restaurants, bars and clubs – can help support creative activity. But we can’t – and shouldn’t – be using these tools to freeze neighbourhoods in time. Cities are too rich and complex to be pinned down in this way.

Flat earth thinking

July 12, 2009

nyc skyline

It’s intuitive that the architecture and layout of a city make a difference to our everyday lives: how easy it is to get about, and whether it feels like a nice place to live. In 1961 Jane Jacobs laid out the template for mixed-use neighbourhoods. We now know that well-designed buildings and public spaces contribute to wellbeing and social capital.

But what are the economic impacts of ‘quality of place’? Last week CABE and the RDAs organised a seminar to try and find out. The morning session had excellent presentations from my colleague Ben Rogers at CLG, Jim Bennett at the Homes and Communities Agency and Paul Hildreth from SURF. More on these in a moment.

Does ‘quality of place’ have anything to do with urban economic performance? Many superstar cities are bad places to live – like Hong Kong, LA or much of Silicon Valley. Equally, when cities like Liverpool and Manchester lost up to half their manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s unlikely that poor design values were to blame.

But these cities’ recovery in the 1990s was clearly helped by the remodelling of their city centres. This has attracted investors and new residents – although it’s been no substitute for good fundamentals. The ‘place offer’ is part of the story here – but how much?

The evidence tells us that human capital, innovation by firms, urban critical mass and economic diversity have the single biggest impacts on cities’ economic performance. And they are linked: cities make innovation easier, and have bigger, more diverse labour markets. The physical environment helps all this along (and lack of decent housing raises the local cost of living). But the evidence does not suggest it’s an active driver of growth.

‘Quality of place’-based regeneration also has winners and losers. Investing in design can help raise local house prices. This is good news for land and property owners – but not if you’re renting and get priced out, or if your home is demolished and replaced by somewhere more expensive. These are real risks in some Housing Market Renewal areas. Pathfinders are needing to deal with the problem by offering guaranteed homes, or cheap finance to buy a new one.

Fundamentally, I think the jury is still out on quality of place. Its importance often comes down to definition. CLG define quality of place as ‘built environment environment factors affecting life chances’. This involves only a small set of policy levers – design, planning, construction, space management.

By contrast, Paul defined quality of place as ‘what makes places work’ – ideas flow, infrastructure, big markets, skills, business-to-business links and so on. At a stretch, we could label this ‘quality of place’. But we now have an official definition that is much tighter.

Paul also highlights a bigger challenge, which is to get Government as a whole to improve its spatial awareness. Thomas Friedman was wrong: the world is spiky, not flat. Now that the Nobel Prize in Economics has gone to Paul Krugman, for his work explaining why place matters, it’s increasingly hard to pretend that it doesn’t.

But many Whitehall departments still take a flat earth view. There is little understanding of what makes different places work. Too many services are still delivered in silos, with little joining up. There is good evidence that investing in city-regions could help achieve national goals.  And more urgently, it is already clear that the recession is having very different effects in different areas. That underlines the need to junk flat-earth perspectives.

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