Resilient Cities

The Royal Town Planning Institute are running a series of seminars to celebrate their 100 year anniversary. Resilient Cities sounded an attractive one to attend. The location at Arup’s head office in Fitzroy Street was an added attraction.

What would be the expected topics? – Global warming, flooding, energy system resilience, sustainable transport, food, air quality? Actually no, none of these really figured as the main subject matter. It focused on three areas. LOcal, regional and UK wide.

The local, Kings Cross redevelopment by Argent, interesting in its detail of the role of the community, the processes and emphasis on robust master planning and consultation, but actually little on the application to redevelopment in general and the challenges and perseverance required by the more creative developer in achieving better outcomes. There is much to learn from Argent’s experience and Anna Strongman gave a good account of the main areas of her involvement from Section 106 negotiations with Camden through to the extensive programmes and strategies in place, many as a result of those negotiations. It was interesting to detect her criticism of CIL as an alternative to S106 particularly when it comes to more complex development. It is dangerous to pick on one comment to exemplify her experiences but the statement that resilience is built through conversations struck a cord. It will be interesting to see if these continuing conversations can grow into the richness that city living can bring.

At a city/regional level, Tom Bridges outlined the experience of Leeds, where he is Chief Economic Development Officer. The clue is in the job title, economic and development. The focus was therefore more about the future for business resilience in Leeds.

Dividing his presentation into four sections: knowledge/innovation and economic development: poverty and low pay: Connectivity: Devolution Tom addressed key issues in a logical manner but the lessons of the last 100 years were largely lost. His view that Leeds should build on its strengths and avoid the danger of putting all its eggs in one basket is to say the least disappointing. There is poverty in Leeds and Leeds have worked with the Joseph Rowntree Trust to address this, but nothing really apart from the need to upskill and raise wages was mentioned, hardly novel but probably the subject of a much longer presentation. In terms of connectivity, There was an uncritical acceptance that HS2 would be a great thing without questioning whether it would be a drain from Leeds, and in spite of showing a plan, no mention of the remoteness of the HS2 station from the main one which is now apparently the largest/most important North of England. Whether investment in HS2 would sort out the poor connectivity between Northern cities was not addressed. The wider Leeds region with its population of over 3 million and an economy of £53bn deserves more control over its budget, but there was no sense of what the City would actually do with that extra spending power. Maybe it doesn’t know? In the whole talk there was no mention of Bradford, rivalries die hard?

Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities gave a presentation on the development , rise and fall of UK towns and cities to show how the last 100+ years demonstrates that resilience is a dynamic process in which luck plays a part along with, the ability to rebound from shock, adapt to global and local changes in politics, policies, the economy.

Mapping the effects of changes over that 100 years is fascinating. Comparing the effects on New York and Pittsberg of the decline and fall of the garment trade and the entrepreneurial spirit of NY is interesting. The decline of one industry towns and cities repeats the lesson that Leeds is applying – not putting all your eggs in one basket. Citing the effect of the growth of cheap flights and foreign holidays on Blackpool and Margate is nothing new, populations move to where there are jobs. High skilled jobs cluster and boom, but lower skilled jobs are also expanding.

Providing a balanced economy is not helped by restricting housebuilding through constraint on development, but we should accept that Cities constrained from developing by green belts will inevitably become more expensive. The lessons of Cambridge releasing green belt land is important. At the moment the biggest drop in opportunity is in the mid scale and pay area for which read administration, secretarial and middle management – areas most threatened by automation and the ability to type this blog without calling on a secretary to do the technical bits. Everything changes but much remains the same? – is that really true? Picking winners doesn’t work but are struggling cities beyond salvation.

I conversations later I wondered whether a comparison of Bristol and Liverpool as two cities built on trade and specifically the slave trade can now be seen as polar opposites among the second tier 8 major cities in the UK. There is no doubt that Bristol is succeeding in a number of areas, had the foresight to elect a mayor, develop as a tech hub to rival London and achieve European Green Capital 2015, whilst Liverpool, notwithstanding its cultural excellence music, drama, football teams struggles to compete. Is there a lesson there?

So little mention of climate change and resilience, questions from the floor on energy solutions for cities and cycling met with blank stares. A complete refusal to debate the question of whether growth was necessarily a good thing was dismissed as total rubbish by Andrew Carter. Centre for Cities, a non partisan policy research unit, should have a more considered view on the challenges as well as the opportunities of growth.