Every city should have a dream!

“Every city should have a dream” according to Jaime Lerner, the three-times Mayor of Curitiba, but it has to be a dream that is desirable and brings people along with it and involves them. That was one of the key messages I took from a discussion I went to on the future of cities, organised by the Festival of Ideas in Bristol. The panel of speakers included Jaime Lerner (Mayor of Curitiba), Wulf Daseking (ex City Planner of Freiburg) and Saskia Sassen (Prof of Sociology, Columbia University), all there to share their experience and knowledge of city leadership and change.

future of cities

The discussion was quite wide ranging, but the things that stuck in my mind and where I think there are lessons we could learn from here in Bristol are based around three themes: collaboration & involvement; housing and development; and getting started.

Firstly, collaboration and involvement was discussed as essential to achieving the right kind of change. Wulf Daseking focused on involving young people and reminded us of the energy and ideas that young people bring to a city and why universities are so important to city life, whilst at the same time being critical of the American style campus style development that many universities in the UK now seem to favour, which disconnects young people from the city. He talked about Bristol University and its role in bringing young people into the city and how we should celebrate that, as well as emphasising the need for connections between universities and civic society. All this rings true for Bristol, too often we complain about students and how they have taken over parts of our city, and we package them off to live and study in separate areas on the edges of our cities (like UWE), when what we should be doing is celebrating and involving them in city life, they are after all the future of the city, the next generation of leaders, politicians, city planners etc. On a similar theme, Saskia Sassen talked about open sourcing neighbourhoods, mobilising people and bringing local knowledge to people at the centre of the city where decisions are made. A good point and an important lesson for us all – the role of local knowledge and experience is often ignored in decisions that are taken and in plans that are made, leaving communities and neighbourhoods feeling disenfranchised and disaffected. Mobilisation of all communities and neighbourhoods in the creation of the plan or vision for a city is critical, otherwise the plan is unlikely to be ‘desirable’ or accepted.

The second key message I came away with was about housing and development, about how the centralisation of power/resources/decisions in the UK makes it difficult for cities to get this right. The main lesson came from Wulf Daseking and how he managed to create a vision for Freiburg that involved a very different approach to housing that is difficult to imagine here in Bristol. There are few if any volume house builders involved in housing development in Freiburg, land is parcelled differently, in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self/custom build and cooperative housing schemes, creating a much better housing mix across new developments than we are ever likely to see in the UK. They also have a system of price fixing or land price freeze, whereby the value of the land pre and post planning permission is set at a sensible rate, so there is still profit to be made but not to the point where speculative development takes place – if only we had a set of politicians brave enough to do that in the UK, how much better could our housing developments be? New housing in Freiburg is also controlled to ensure the housing mix is right, with 1/3 for owner occupation, 1/3 private rented and 1/3 social housing – as Wulf said, the housing mix here in Bristol is all wrong and getting it wrong leads to social destabilisation.

The final point was about getting started, how do you start out on a process of change? The key message seemed to be about starting small, without a finished plan but with vision, with an idea that is desirable, that will achieve buy-in from residents and then don’t accept no for an answer. Too often we are told ‘this is not possible’ and we waste our time on people who do not want to help, we need instead to start with the attitude of ‘I’ll find a way’ and forget about waiting for central government, just get on and do it. Jaime Lerner talked about the need to challenge what isn’t right about a city and how it is developing, using the example of a previous Mayor of Curitiba developing the city around cars, and how this encouraged him to get involved – the best quote of the talk:

“traffic and highways engineers, they know how to kill a city”

So true and you can see how that has worked in Bristol and just how difficult it is to undo.

According to Jaime Lerner “the world is full of complexity sellers, we should beat them off with slippers” or put another way, “we should never be afraid of a simple solution”. Everyone is always telling us cities are complex and their solutions are complex, but there are many simple solutions out there that we could be putting in place now.

So for me the lessons are there about involvement and collaboration, a strong leader encourages challenge and involves people with different ideas, and above all else listens to people with different knowledge and experience to their own – that means not just the powerful elites and the business leaders, but the community leaders, the homeless, the young people and the activists, all of whom have as much to offer the future of our city as anyone else does. Strong leadership means having a vision and taking difficult decisions but it also means working with people who also want to make a difference.

Who really governs our cities?

DSCN1063A few weeks ago we had a really interesting class discussion about “who governs cities”, all kinds of issues cropped up and were debated, with examples from Bristol, Hong Kong and Ankara. It was a fascinating class conversation that got me thinking about how decisions are really made in our cities and who is in control, and how this plays out in Bristol.

It’s interesting because it may not be as simple and obvious as you first think! Anyway, it’s also the subject of one of this terms essays which I decided against doing, so I thought I’d write a blog about it instead – that way I don’t have to couch everything in academic evidence and argument but can just explore the issues in a simplistic and opinionated manner (as with most of my blogs).

So, have you ever thought about who runs Bristol and how decisions are really made in our city? You might well give a different answer now compared to a few years ago – with a directly elected mayor isn’t it kind of obvious who is in charge and who makes the key decisions that affect what happens locally, who it is that controls policy and exercises political control over the city? Maybe, to a point, and it is certainly clearer now than under previous systems. Our city mayor is a high profile individual, who many in the city have now heard of (compared to previous council leaders) and who does seem to get the blame for most things that people don’t like in the city! However, it is never quite that simple is it? There are of course 70 councillors democratically elected to the city council to represent residents – what’s their role in decision making under this new mayoral system? It’s certainly very different to the old days of committees. To me this seems like an interesting area for research, how has democratic decision making in cities changed as a result of cabinet and scrutiny systems and how is it different under an elected mayor? I covered some of these points in a previous post about the role of local councillors and how it has changed over time.

Of course one also shouldn’t forget the role council officers play in decision making locally, they are after all the paid civil servants advising our mayor and councillors. One only has to look at the recent fiasco over by-laws in parks to see just how powerful and influential officers can be in relation to what gets on the agenda – they nearly got away with that one! Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue the way in which this happened illustrates how things can and do work in local government.

But back to the issue of central/local control. One of the clear messages to come from the council budget process this year is just how much control central government has over our city. It is national government that is largely imposing the scale and extent of the cuts needed to produce a local balanced budget, the city council and mayor are merely responding to national policy and rules. The room for manoeuvre or flexibility is limited, although I accept there were some options to do things slightly differently. But the main point remains the same, national government has a high degree of control over what happens in Bristol, not just through budgetary control but also national policy, rules, regulations and legislation. As we are frequently reminded, we have one of the most centralised systems in the Western world, with high levels of power residing at national government level rather than devolved and delegated to local democratic structures.

So there are high levels of central control over our city. One of the ways this has manifested itself in the past is through the creation by government of local quangos. Mrs Thatcher was particularly keen on this kind of approach as a means by which she could bypass local government, largely in Labour control, and impose central Tory policy locally without worrying about irritating things like local democracy. The most obvious example of this was the Bristol Urban Development Corporation. This was set up in 1989 to take control of the development process of land around St Philips Marsh and Temple Meads. Much of the current Temple Quay development is still premised on old permissions granted under the UDC, that’s one of the reasons there is such a high level of car parking with each office block and why there is, in my view, no coherence, quality or sense of place to much of what has been developed. The key land use planning and design decisions were taken out of the hands of the local council and given instead to an unelected, appointed body who were more focused on delivery at any cost.

Perhaps the UDCs most significant intervention, and the one that caused the most controversy locally, was the “Spine Road” now called the St Philips Causeway, there was much local opposition to this but with little impact, the road was built, despite the fact that council, local people and environmental groups were opposed to it. The legacy of central control over cities like Bristol is clear to see and it’s not necessarily a positive one, sadly our government don’t seem to be very good at learning the lessons from past mistakes. There is undoubtedly a role for quangos and partnerships in helping to deliver on the aspirations of the city but not at the expense of local input, accountability and engagement, and certainly not where they are merely the ‘puppets’ of central government. We no longer have a UDC in Bristol but we do have a Local Enterprise Partnership – another creation of central government, imposed locally to take decisions out of the control of the Mayor and our local councils. Yes I accept these are ‘partnerships’ and local councils are of course involved, but where does the balance of power really rest and more importantly is it stopping things happening that otherwise our directly elected City Mayor would be delivering on? I’m not suggesting I know the answer to this, merely raising it as an interesting question!

So, we have an elected mayor whose hands are tied by central control over our city even now, but who else might also be influential in what goes on and how decisions are made? The next obvious group to mention is the business community. We have a strong and influential business community in Bristol, which is to be welcomed in many respects, with organisations like the Society of Merchant Venturers and the Chamber of Commerce & Initiative representing many of the big business interests. You only have to look at who chairs the key public bodies in the city, who is on the LEP board and who chairs it, who chairs our Hospital Trusts and who is on the board of our Universities to see that the Merchant Venturers still hold many positions of influence and power in this city – they really are everywhere. I leave it to you to decide and consider whether or not this is a good thing and whether the intentions and interests of these Merchants are likely to reflect the broader interests of Bristol, it’s an interesting point and one that generates many different responses. Whatever your views though, the business community in this city undoubtedly has an influence over how the city is run, decisions taken and possibly more importantly, over decisions that are not taken! Have you ever wondered just why some things don’t get onto the agenda in Bristol or are stopped before they get anywhere?

Our class conversation also skirted around the issue of civic society and the role communities and voluntary organisations have to play in decisions. In Bristol much of this sector has been brought together over the years through VOSCUR, an effective coordinating body for many voluntary and community organisations in the city. Indeed, Bristol has quite a tradition of community “activism”, both spatially and topic based, playing a key role in helping to create the diverse and vibrant city we live in. Again, the extent to which these groups, organisations and communities really help to shape decision making in our city is debatable and people will undoubtedly have different views. But they exist in large numbers and engage in city decision making, so to some extent have an influence.

So the answer to “who governs Bristol” is complex, there are many different actors involved in decision making both formally and informally with different constraints and opportunities and with different degrees of transparency and openness. So how do we really know who is most influential? Can we tell by simply looking at outcomes and identifying who benefits from them most, who gets what they want from decisions in Bristol? Again, not a simple question to answer, and it will undoubtedly depend on what decisions you are referring to and how easy it is to identify who does actually benefit.

Perhaps the biggest and most significant question to ask is – does it matter? Do we need to know? If we did, then at least we would know who to blame or who we should seek to influence. Or do we need to know so we can understand why things are the way they are? To my mind, we need to understand as best we can so we can seek to change things for the better. However, this understanding is clouded by lack of transparency, lack of clarity, secrecy about how things are done, undemocratic structures, central control and lack of equity in engagement. A complex area with clear and obvious implications for how our cities work and how decisions are taken – I’m sure each of us can think of many examples where a decision has been made, that impacts on us, but where we can’t quite see how the decision makers ever got to that decision or why! Or we can think of examples of things that just haven’t happened or haven’t been discussed openly, but can’t quite work out why not.

That’s the power of influence wherever it comes from and that’s why we need to understand it!