What lessons can Citizen Jane share for today’s battle for the city?

Citizen Jane

Image via Dogwoof.com

A few months ago, I saw the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City at the ICA with fellow members of Urbanistas London.

The film was well produced and the use of archival footage and audio was a fun and enlightening way to revisit Jane Jacobs’ work. But, it didn’t dig very deep into the hows, whys and ‘what nows’ of how we think about planning and urban form today in light of the lessons from Jacobs. If you’re new to urbanism, it’s a good crash course on two of history’s most famous planning adversaries, but for those who know the philosophies, it didn’t offer much extra.

The film depicts a battle specific to an era. The 1960s were not only a time in which planners held a lot of power, but government did in general. Much as the political landscape has changed since the 1960s in both the US and UK, so has the role of government and planners within it. Planners no longer have as large of a role in shaping cities. In fact, major infrastructure decisions tend to be done not by planners, but by politicians, special bodies, or worse yet, lobbyists and investors.

As the end of this review from Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian points out, there are many problems with painting Jacobs and Moses as black and white, good versus evil. What ultimately is the film’s message? Central planners no longer exist in the US or UK, and many of Jacobs’ philosophies are codified in planning, design and landscape architecture best practice (e.g. eyes on the street/passive surveillance, people scale and mixed-use design) today. The ills of urban renewal still happen, but rarely triggered by planners, rather by cash-strapped local governments fighting for economic investment.

What is the Moses equivalent we should be looking out for today? The final images of sterile, cheap, closely-spaced tower blocks in China suggest we’re meant to ensure that the lessons are passed on to more recently urbanising cities. That’s important, but nothing about the film suggests planners and designers in China are the intended audience.

Could the ‘smart city’ and ‘big data’ movements be today’s version of urban renewal–where society’s ills and the ‘problems’ of modern life can be solved by sensors, data and algorithms? Rather than leaving control of the city to the technocrats of old, we are meant to leave control to the technology itself. As with central planning, there can be good done with these types of strategies, but as soon as we act like they are a cure-all and stop considering the human side of cities, there are (perhaps unintended) negative consequences.

By focussing on the battles of the 60s without a clear translation for today, the film missed an opportunity to call out the mistakes we may be repeating. It was comforting storytelling and a good refresher, but it failed to note that today’s Citizen Janes are up against a system more complex than just one Moses.

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The Sustainability Narrative in Post-Brexit UK

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

A month and a half after the historic EU referendum, you still can’t get through too many conversations without discussion of the implications of Brexit. The discussion, both hopeful and cynical, ranges from everyday life to national policy to the built environment industry. Staying in the EU or not, the UK government still has responsibilities to address climate change, the environment and sustainable development. The question remains how seriously we take that responsibility, particularly without the oversight (or constraint) of the EU. The answer, unfortunately, is not clear.

With all the changes in government, delays in triggering Article 50 and lack of strategic vision for a post-EU UK, certainty and commitment are two of the key things needed from the government to reassure the sustainable built environment sector. As expected, the construction industry is feeling a slowdown and anticipating “continued hiatus in private project starts” across sectors. Cities are particularly impacted by the funding and trade implications of Brexit.

The post-Brexit changes to government, particularly the dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and embedding of those activities into the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) remind me of a similar shift in the City of Chicago a few years ago. At the time, the city had a Department of Environment (DOE), but in 2011 it was shut down in favour of a cross-department Chief Sustainability Officer. The stated intent was to integrate environment and sustainability issues into all departments, rather than in a silo. The result was mixed. Some departments, particularly those that received the most staff from the DOE diaspora did quite well—the Department of Transportation’s sustainable strategy became an exemplar program. But many other environmental initiatives that didn’t easily fall into the existing remit of other departments, such as waste and recycling, became weaker or fell through the cracks.

The shuffling of DECC into BEIS will be similar. Those initiatives that overlap well with existing business narratives and Greg Clark’s priorities, such as energy efficiency initiatives and decarbonising heavy industry, may continue as usual or even get a boost. Other topics potentially seen as conflicting with business growth may not.

With DECC out and Andrea Leadsom in to lead Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, climate change and environmental policies may end up at the “bottom of the government’s in tray.” There are many specific questions about the UK’s role on climate change, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement, that remain unanswered.

Evidence from the previous conservative government doesn’t provide a clear signal of their priorities. Recent policies like the Modern Slavery Act and the release of the fifth carbon budget are positive signs of the UK’s commitment to global sustainability. However, the withdrawal of Code for Sustainable Homes and the Zero Carbon standard, the dismantling of the Green Deal and UK poor performance against EU air and water quality targets indicate lack of commitment locally.

Out of the EU, there is even more at risk. Access to the EU skilled architecture and construction labour force and sustainable materials such as glulam timber could be more difficult. Long-term funding for research and for major infrastructure projects could slow to a trickle. Policies and projects within the UK already in the pipeline could be halted.

Whatever the approach, clear declarations need to be made about the driving forces behind policy change. An elected government comes with a plan and a mandate, but where does the accountability come from for this government? What is their strategy for addressing sustainability and the built environment? With the systematic defunding of Whitehall and local governments, who will be left to do the tedious, but crucial work of filling in the gaps left by removing EU legislation?

No strategy is a bad strategy

Indecision on whether to keep or change policy can lead to more risk and cost, stifling forward movement, shifting resources and creating confusion. The built environment, inherently risk-averse, ends up planning in parallel for stricter policy when direction is unclear. Withdrawal of policy without suitable replacement leaves outdated standards and conflicting requirements.

The industry needs a firm commitment as to the direction the EU disentanglement will go. Good or bad, it will allow the industry to focus our attention. In the meantime, the government should commit to hold all existing legislation and EU policies until suitable replacements have been evidenced, as they’ve started by guaranteeing EU funding that extends beyond the UK’s exit.

There is the potential for the UK to be a global leader in climate change and sustainability. Within the industry, though, we can’t be naïve and wait for it all to fall into place or remain the same. We have the opportunity to retain the best of EU policies and to improve on the rest. It could be an opportunity to radically change the way the UK does business and create a more progressive, sustainable, resilient, smart, economically viable and equitable place.

Until there is more leadership, we will have to fight battles on multiple fronts. We can’t only envision our dream scenarios, we simultaneously need to identify and lobby for what needs protecting. Frustratingly, this could mean less money, time and attention for innovation, new research and collaboration.

We need to be nimble enough to frame sustainability and the built environment within the narrative that dismissed experts. We need to pick our heads up out of our projects and engage with politicians, civil servants and perhaps most importantly local communities. Without the EU to oversee, we all have a responsibility to keep the UK on the right track.