One of the nice things about being an academic is the diversity of the job. One day you can be crawling around the floor barking and trying to get into the mindset of a dog, the next you’re having a serious meeting with the city council about cultural policy.
On Thursday I was in London for a ‘townhall’ meeting run by the Economic and Social Research Council. They’re the big funder of social science research in the UK and are in the midst of drawing up a new agenda for research on cities. So a bunch of bigwigs connected to research on cities got an invitation in their inbox to come down to a hotel in London to spend a day talking about what the priorities for research should be. I felt a little bit out of place in this august company (which featured a great many grey heads) but the presence of a key player from the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme suggested that I was there because of the large grant I hold out of that call.
Regardless, nice to be invited, makes me feel almost like a grown up (now that I’m 38). The ESRC are at a preliminary stage with their thinking on this new research agenda and we were there to look at a document that their expert panel had drawn up – in particular the six themes that animated it. I’m paraphrasing slightly but these were:
If this sounds bitchy or pessimistic, it’s not meant to be. It’s very interesting to have reached the career stage where you start to see how agendas are formulated rather than just responding to whatever 'they' have set up. It was something I certainly noticed at Connected Communities meetings, where an idea discussed at one forum would suddenly find itself becoming a major theme of the next round of funding. So it’s great to get a chance to take some of the ideas that ESRC are playing with and have a chance to feed in to shape the final call. Aside from resilience (which received an almighty kicking) there was general enthusiasm for the broad topic areas, although a lot of calls for more practical, grounded things to be included (i.e. housing, property, retail, liveability) that practitioners and policymakers (as well as urban communities) could really get their teeth into.
I was pretty pleased that a couple of the things I was pushing ended up in the end-of-day summary, in particular the importance of looking at urban planning and the need to consider interdisciplinary datasets that already existed (e.g. pollution data from NERC, transport data from EPSRC, material on communities from AHRC) to do some kind of meta-analysis (to be pretentious).
Otherwise, these events are quite nice in that you get to catch up with people you haven’t seen for a while and meet people who work in similar areas to you – even occasionally people who are fans of your work (yes Jonas, it was really nice to meet you too!). So it was grand to have a gab/debate with Phil Hubbard, who I’ve not seen for ages and is now doing some really interesting work looking at displacement/outmigration caused by gentrification in central London. I was also very impressed with Adam Greenfield’s work on Networked Urbanism. He gave a very compelling critique of the Smart City discourse which neatly undercut a lot of the technofetishism tangled up with debates in this area. It was also very nice to meet Katharine Willis, an architect working out of University of Plymouth, who has being doing some really intriguing things with geocaching as a tool for engaging communities in imagining their neighbourhoods differently – an intriguing parallel to the MapLocal project, which she was already aware of (yes, it’s all terribly incestuous). Likewise it was great to finally meet Mike Batty out of UCL, whose work has impressed me for many years. He led the technology & urban living subtheme of the main report, humanising what can otherwise be a somewhat heroic story of technological progress.
Quite what will happen in terms of a definitive call for funding emerging from this we’ve yet to see, but it’s going to the ESRC’s decision making panel in April, so it’s a case of watch this space. Nonetheless, the fact that urban issues are being taken so seriously is excellent news for Geography at the University of Birmingham as we’ve real strengths in urban research so, wearing my very natty ‘research group leader’ hat, there’s some really exciting opportunities on the horizon.
Sir Frank Price, Lord Mayor of Birmingham 1964-5 and former Chair of the Public Works Committee during the period of the post-war reconstruction, has been demolished. Or, rather the building on the University of Birmingham’s Selly Oak campus that was named after him has been. It was a nondescript design, pulled down earlier this year as part of campus redevelopment. There is a fitting irony that one of the people who saw fit to pull down much of Victorian Birmingham to build its Modernist future has now been a victim of the same fashion that seeks to erase a ‘failed’ past.
Ever since I moved to Birmingham back in 2000 I’ve noticed its deep seated habit of trying to erase its history. You saw the same with the Victorian buildings removed in the 1960s and 1970s – beautiful structures being removed with the same carefree abandon as terrible slums of the same era simply because that period was tainted with the brush of being failed. Many years ago I wrote my PhD on a particular form of 20th century architecture, the high-rise social housing block. Birmingham originally built 464 of these and today a very large proportion of these have been demolished, mostly without tears. But the discourse of mid 20th century buildings being ‘failures’ is very strong, so when nice examples go you do worry slightly for the collective memory of the city. Although, to be fair, in some cases, the experimental building materials pioneered in the mid twentieth century can make it impossible or prohibitively expensive to save them. Still, some can be saved and it’s strange to tear them down without reflection.
Cycling into town last week, I noticed that the Central Synagogue on Pershore Road was being pulled down. This was a source of great sadness for me, as it was one of my favourite buildings in Birmingham for its understated elegance, as well as being a good example of design from the period.
Built in the early 1960s, it had echoes of post office architecture from the time, restrained and simple, with lovely thin banded columns. With new facilities having been built, the site has been handed over to a developer erecting a new care home and the building torn down. While one can’t shed a tear over every building lost (and doubtless the new facilities will be more amenable to the community) it’s always a shame to lose nice examples from the period.
A less clear cut example would be the Holliday Street car park which finally came down this summer A very simple, stark structure, with echoes of Le Corbusier’s Domino House – not a line out of place. But the guard rails between the second and third floors, jutting out like the top of a medieval castle and the wonderful period signage hint at something more playful. No great loss to the city, in many ways, and doubtless expensive to save structurally. Nonetheless, the proposed 18 storey Holliday Inn Express on the site won’t really add anything in its place – another piece of forgettable corporate building.
The Victorian era Central Library was demolished in 1974 shortly after John Madin’s brutalist-style replacement was built over the city’s modernist ring road. Now that Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham has opened, Madin’s building is on borrowed time. The city is determined to demolish this architecturally significant period piece because it’s ‘ugly’, ‘old fashioned’ and ‘in the way’ of new development. Will LoB suffer the same indignity in the face of the whims of fashion in thirty or forty years time? Well, trying to erase the past is very much the Birmingham way...
When the media write about academic work, one of the most common themes is “look at the crazy things these academics are doing” like examining correlations between biscuit eating and political affiliation, or the economic and social geography of strip clubs. These kinds of articles generally contain an implicit critique of people who are too clever by half wasting taxpayers money with frivolous indulgences. Of course, there’s often highly serious work behind these stories, or – like the biscuits and political affiliation notion – they’re just a whimsical afterthought in a much larger project. Of course, you can always find some examples of academic work that is a frightening waste of public money, but no one in the university sector has yet spent £10bn on a failed computer system, so it’s not as if we’re the worst offenders.
The point of this rambling introduction is by way of a slight nervousness about a project I’m a co-investigator on. I sometimes ask myself how the right wing media would write it up. Last week I was in the Forest of Dean for one of four workshops we’re running as part of the ‘More than Human Participatory Research’ project. Michelle Bastian, the project lead, explains the project aims much more lucidly than I ever could here. Essentially we're trying to find ways of asking things that can't talk back to us what their priorities for new scholarly research are. Back in the summer I organised a workshop on bees and last week it was time to talk to the trees.
In trying to engage trees in ‘conversations’ to find out what they ‘want’ from a research project we were experimenting with a particular kind of performance based methods. So in addition to reading about trees and talking to experts, we also had a group of us out in the forest engaging physically with trees. If this sounds odd, it was. But my view with this sort of thing is just dive in, it might confirm all your prejudices about, in this case, tree hugging, but at least if you’ve had a go you can critique from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. Hence I found myself sitting on a log carving a spoon (and cutting myself on various sharp implements) and later lying underneath a tree with my feet in the bare earth feeling the rain gently drip onto my face.
Did this performance-type engagement do much for me? No, not really. But it was only two days out of my other projects and, frankly, I work enough time at the weekend to justify this kind of thing to myself now and again. And the workshop itself (time to sit and think and read and chat to a bunch of very smart, thoughtful people) was very productive.
I’d never actually been to the Forest of Dean before, a place just over an hour’s drive from my home. It’s a fascinating place, touristy yet quiet, open yet exclusionary. Before heading down, I’d read Christopher Stone’s ‘Should trees have standing’ an essay from the early 1970s about law and the environment. I’m going to apologise here for dumbing this down and, indeed, any misinterpretations of Stone’s words. Among some fascinatingly nuanced ideas, my non-legal mind fixed on his argument around giving legal status to abstract entities. An example of this would be a government or a corporation being an actor in law, with rights that need to be protected. Stone argues that there’s a case for giving these same rights to environmental assets – landscapes, watersheds and so on. This wouldn’t be a case of saying that a tree could never be cut down, or that attempts should be made to preserve the landscape in aspic, more that there should be some consideration of the intrinsic value of the landscape in and of itself, rather than just its economic value to a human actor. If a stream is being polluted, this might have a negative effect on someone’s tourism business located in a picturesque spot downstream, hence the owner of that business might sue the polluter for the economic harm caused to his business. Stone suggests that there should be some capacity to consider issues beyond the economic rights of humans or corporations in environmental destruction, to consider the right of the landscape to be a landscape, with intrinsic value beyond the economic.
Of course, the intrinsic value of landscape is somewhat abstract. Stone suggests, however, that we have already given concrete power in law to the abstract value of copyright. Why should a piece of text or music be given the kinds of protection guaranteed in copyright law? – we as humans have decided that these creative outputs should have agency within law. Why then can we not give the same agency to the environment?
Clearly a forest can’t come to court and sue a company that’s polluting a river running through it. So Stone suggested nominating some kind of guardian to speak for the forest, much as a lawyer might go to court to speak for a corporation or a government. This notion really chimed with me reflecting on our discussions at the bee workshop where we spoke to the human guardians of bees (i.e. bee keepers) to start our ‘conversation’ with bees, to help us understand their issues and think about ways of co-constructing research agendas with them.
Our two days among the trees brought these issues to mind for me. Are the Forestry Commission / other officially appointed ‘guardians’ of landscape in a position to speak for the trees or do we need some other kind of engagement? As I lay in the forest getting midge bites, I didn’t find an answer to this, but it was soothing and I had some time to think about things other than the next immediate admin crisis or email from a student upset about their module choices. The trees reminded me that I’m still a scholar, not just a mid-level manager...
[This is a longer version of a post that appears on the More-Than-Human Participatory Research blog]
‘Space... is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space’ – Douglas Adams
I’ve been reading quite a lot lately about the Localism Act, 2011. This is a hugely significant piece of legislation in the UK which represents a major refiguring of how local government works. There’s lots of really interesting stuff in the Act, much of which can be read through the lens of a broadly neo-liberal Conservative party talking a good game about handing power back to communities, while in practice making deep cuts to the resources available at local government level and below. Communities, in effect, are supposed to fill in the gaps of a state rollback. A more cynical mind could also see the Act as having the potential for a mass privatisation of local services – the Act gives ‘communities’ the right to bid to run services in their neighbourhood but, having expressed an interest in doing so, competition law kicks in and the private sector can bid to take over those services. There’s no guarantee, therefore, that a community that says it wants to take over a service will actually get to do it. Doubtless Serco are rubbing their hands in glee.
At the moment I’m trying to think through some of the issues that the Act throws up in terms of planning. The old regional spatial strategies, which set housebuilding and other planning targets at a regional level, were scrapped when the Coalition came to power in 2010. Planning power moved up to the national level and down to the local authority level and, in a new experiment, to the neighbourhood scale.
Groups of 21 or more people living or working in an area now have the right to apply to become a Neighbourhood Forum. Once you’ve created a Forum, you then have the right to access a whole series of powers through the Localism Act, including the right to draw up a Neighbourhood Plan. If you do this and it passes a simple majority referendum at neighbourhood level, then your Plan gains the force of law and you’ve determined the spatial destiny of your neighbourhood (for a somewhat fuzzily-defined period of time).
Except that it’s not quite so simple. Let’s say you draw up a plan and want to designate an area of brownfield land in your neighbourhood for housing. This will probably be okay. But what if you want to, for example, say that you don’t want any more chain coffee shops in your neighbourhood, or that you don’t want a windfarm built? Well, that’s the point where you run slap up against the general drift of national planning, codified in the National Planning Policy Framework 2012, which says that there should be a general presumption that development should go ahead wherever it is deemed ‘sustainable’. And sustainable here is defined by the UK Treasury, i.e. it’s a pro-growth agenda. So while it’s okay to say you want to build ‘x’ in your neighbourhood, it’s absolutely not okay to say that you want to prevent ‘y’ from being built there.
Your plan won’t even get your draft Neighbourhood Plan to the referendum stage if it is in conflict with either the plan for the wider local authority or national planning priorities. In effect, therefore, you get to fiddle with the details of what happens in your area, but you certainly can’t use the local scale to challenge the primary assumptions of national planning – i.e. growth at all costs (so long as it’s ‘sustainable’).
Why the Douglas Adams quote at the start of this post? Well, partly there’s the terrible cliché of academics trying to make their work seem cool by association with elements of popular culture (cf. Zizek’s analysis of The Matrix), although frankly a Douglas Adams quote simply shows my age. But it’s more about my trying to think through issues of scale here. There’s lots of interesting stuff written about how the local scale is constructed as being more authentic, more genuine, more reflective of everyday feelings (see Mark Purcell’s paper on the local trap). And, of course, this is hugely problematic. Doreen Massey has written some much cited stuff about how the global scale is just as constructed through the intimate relations of individuals as the local – the global is built somewhere, it doesn’t just float up there out of the reach of mere mortals. The thing that I’ve been musing on is that the global scale is just so damn big that it seems terrifyingly incomprehensible. When you start thinking about just how much stuff (ideas, objects) moves around the globe every day – the extent to which we are enmeshed in a deeply complex set of interconnections – you can start to get a touch of vertigo. Hence the old saw about ‘think global, act local’, attempting to break down the complexities of the global scale by taking control over your own life at a local level, which seems a lot less scary than confronting the sheer bigness of the global.
Of course, this is a fundamentally conservative strategy as it means that you’re not challenging the way that the global operates – i.e. a neoliberal privileging of the already rich at the expense of the already poor. Hence why the Occupy movements were so interesting, as they were attempting to make that challenge, rather than just trying to do things within local communities and ignoring the injustices that a neoliberal global system perpetuates.
It’s taken as somewhat of a truism in geography now that different scales – the home, the neighbourhood, the local, the regional, the national, the global – all intersect and overlap. You sit at home and video chat with someone in Australia, you buy locally grown veg from your nearby organic market but you also buy the latest smartphone made in China. Scales and territories overlap. Similarly planning isn’t arranged neatly into hierarchical units – not every neighbourhood needs a nuclear power station, but major pieces of strategic national infrastructure have to be placed somewhere and that’s going to be in someone’s back yard. So the boundaries between local, regional, national are very porous.
One reading of the Neighbourhood Planning powers embedded in the Localism Act is, therefore, that they’re a distraction, a smokescreen of participatory democracy. You can have some control over your neighbourhood so long as you don’t try to challenge the fundamentals of how planning is supposed to operate in UK Plc. – i.e. to generate a very particular kind of neoliberal infused ‘growth’.
As you can tell, my thoughts on this are at an early stage. I need to focus some of this down into something coherent using the material generated as part of the MapLocal project. And, with the start of term just five weeks away, time is running out to think this all through...
A thoroughly intresting meeting last week down in Southampton as part of the AHRC-funded HESTIA 2 project. Elton Barker of the OU is leading this one and I got involved through my former colleague Stefan Buzar, now at Manchester.
In HESTIA 1 they took the Histories of Herodotus and created an interactive website where you could look at the places mentioned in the text on a map of the region and start to think about the geographic relationships within the texts. A lot of this was based on linked data principles, using different kinds of online geocoders among other things, to build the spatial relationships with the text.
The purpose of HESTIA 2 is to take the ideas developed as part of the first project and refine them and last Thursday's workshop, run by Tom Brughens was the first event in the process of doing this. It was quite a mixed, interdisciplinary audience, with mapping specialists, coders, archaeologists, ancient historians, even the odd physicist. So there were some presentations that I found truly terrifying (Maximilian Schich on Topography and Topology in network analysis for example) and others that were really fascinating if somewhat outside my area (John Goodwin from the OS talking about linked data in contemporary mapping). For me some of the most interesting things came through listening to the archaeologists from local authorities/English Heritage, thinking about how linked data practices can help join up the different data sources used when creating, for example, a Historic Environment Record (HER - the modern replacement for the old Sites & Monuments Records).
The day got me thinking about some of the work I've been doing on crowdsourced community asset mapping and whether this needs a much clearer framework using linked data principles to allow the data to be pushed in and pulled out for different needs. Hmm. Well, there is money available from the AHRC at the moment for follow up projects and lots of people at the Edinburgh Showcase event (4 July) who seemed interested. Hmm. Maybe if there were 30 hours in a day I could do more with some of these ideas...
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer