The challenge and complexity of cities

The Bristol Festival of the Future City presented the opportunity to learn more about the complex and challenging issues facing our cities. It was a week long event with many talks, discussions and presentations about a whole range of topics, some familiar, others less so. It was a week where Bristol was bursting at the seams with eminent speakers from across the globe, including academics, journalists, politicians, novelists, poets and commentators, all with something different to contribute.

I attended a number of events during the week, all of which provided insight, interest and challenge. I deliberately chose a mix of events to go to, to broaden my own horizons. I also chose to go and listen to some speakers I hadn’t heard before as well as some I was far more familiar with. There was certainly a lot of choice and on many an occasion I found myself wishing I could be in more than one place at the same time.

Rather than writing about one specific talk, I thought I’d draw out some of the themes that seemed to crop up across discussions and debates around the social policy issues relevant to cities. There were many more talks, covering many other issues about future cities, smart cities and technology, environmental and health issues, which I won’t cover here, as I didn’t attend those events. The themes I draw out are consistent themes that will inevitably be raised when discussing the challenges we face in our cities – the need for vision, city governance, housing and homelessness, and social mobility. I’ll touch on each of these briefly to explore some of the issues that came up and some of the questions that remain unanswered.

When it comes to vision there appears to be an increasing need for policy makers and politicians to think short, medium and long term, in a coherent and coordinated manner. However, whilst we seem well able to think in the moment and make short-term decisions, this is all too frequently done without any reference to the future impact or consequences of those decisions. What is lacking is a process of forward planning and thinking, like the visionaries of the past, who often thought about our cities and urban areas in a more creative and innovative way. As Sir Mark Walport put it in his presentation at the Launch event for the Festival, “thinking about the future can shape the future”. Without that future thinking we risk leaving the growth and development of our cities to an ad hoc, messy process of short termism and disjointed thinking, which leaves us well short of the creativity and innovation that is both needed and possible. The question is, do we have the ability, desire and bravery to unleash the potential of our cities?

The discussion around city governance was perhaps inevitable, particularly given the recent introduction of the Mayoral model in Bristol and recent announcements in other cities of devolution deals with metro mayors and combined authorities being established as the norm. City governance is undoubtedly changing at quite a pace, pushed along by central government to a central agenda, which according to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is driven by the need to reverse a century of centralisation to ‘return power to every part of our nation’.

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He talked about the devolution deals as having ‘swept away required uniformity’, about a dynamic, competitive process to allow local strengths and local priorities to shine through. Despite this several commentators referred to the similarities and common ground found in many of the deals, with only small differences being identified around local projects amongst an overall uniformity of approach. This suggests, perhaps, that the vision, ambition and big ideas that need to be generated in our cities are not quite there yet. The reality of government processes and bureaucracy appears to be a long way short of some of the rhetoric? What did come across very clear was the notion that English local government structures are becoming very messy. Imagine a process of trying to explain to a group of foreign politicians or students how local government works, what the structure is and who takes decisions, and you might find it takes a very long time. We have unitary, country and district authorities; we have combined authorities with metro mayors to come; we have directly elected mayors running some councils, whilst others are run by leaders and cabinets, others still have reverted to the ‘old style’ committee system. It’s an ad hoc picture with seemingly no real coherence or commitment to a future uniformity.

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Whilst housing is becoming one of the most important issues for our cities to deal with, the changing government agenda is perhaps providing greater restrictions on the options and opportunities for local government to tackle local housing problems, as the emphasis is pushed further and further towards the ultimate goal of home ownership. Despite this, local authorities are left to pick up the pieces of dysfunctional housing markets, and the lack of affordability, lack of supply and lack of choice this creates. In Bristol, and elsewhere, much of the conversation about housing quickly focuses in on a small number of issues that perhaps local government can do something about. Indeed, the Mayor of Bristol, in his State of the City address delivered at the end of the Festival, made reference to Bristol’s housing problem, with solutions based around releasing public land for housing and the increasing problem of homelessness in the city. There are of course many more housing issues that need tackling and a range of solutions that are required to provide decent, affordable homes for those that need them. Solutions that provide real choices, rather than forcing people down a particular route they may not wish to travel. Much of this process of providing solutions and choices is however seemingly out of the hands of local government and instead rests with central government, where social housing for rent is fast becoming a thing of the past, and affordable housing means ‘affordable’ to buy. The question remains about what local government can do to address the very real problems faced in their areas and what scope they have to be creative and innovative about housing solutions.

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A final theme running through many of the debates, as well as the focus of some particular talks, is the issue of social mobility, or social immobility as one speaker termed it. Perhaps unusually, one of the discussions on this issue began with comments about redefining the issue, of the need to talk about social mobility alongside planning, design and transport with an understanding that how poverty is distributed around a city makes a real difference to the functioning of that city. All too often, the people with the least economic stability, living in the greatest poverty, are pushed to the edges of our cities, into peripheral estates, isolated from the wealth of the city. Our perceptions of cities and the way we feel about them are shaped by how we experience them. If our experience is one of isolation, exclusion and poverty, then our perception of the city is likely to be a negative one, where our desire is likely to be one of ‘escaping’ rather than staying. The focus soon shifted to the debate about barriers to social mobility not just being physical or economic, but also psychological, where ‘glass walls’ in people’s own heads stop them making progress. Marvin Rees made the point that to talk about social immobility means we have to talk about the people at the top as well as the people at the bottom, only then can we understand what the problem really is. Social mobility issues were discussed not as an accidental fallout of ‘the system’ but more as a manufactured, institutional part of a system that is needed to make it work, where there are the inevitable winners and losers, but where the starting position is anything but equal. The depressing conclusion to much this discussion was that the lack of social mobility in the UK is a problem that never goes away as the relationship between class and place hasn’t and won’t change, indeed if anything, it’s getting worse.

I thoroughly enjoyed the debates and discussions throughout the week that drew out the challenge and complexity of cities, which sought to provide linkages between and across issues and disciplines, looking to the future for solutions and ideas. The challenge is there to decision makers, policy makers and politicians to have the vision, creativity and bravery to grapple with the issues and develop big ideas and bold visions for the future of our cities.

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