19 November 2009

J'accuse: what use iPhone cities?

As far as the urbanist blogosphere is concerned, the 'networked city' made possible by the iPhone and its applications is the only thing worth talking about. The street as platform... The kind of program a city is... This is where the urban buzz is right now.

And this is a plea for moderation. Look, I know futurology is shiny and exciting, but let's put this in context. Research from Nielsen shows that 10.4 million Britons access mobile internet, which is to say over 80% of the population do not. 6.2 million people use smartphones, but this market is dominated by Nokia (44%) and Blackberry (19%), with the iPhone taking 3rd place with 17%, or about 1.05 million users. As Edward Kershaw, Nielsen's VP of Mobile Media says,

Whilst smartphones get all the media attention it’s important not to overlook what the vast majority of Britons are actually using. It’s easy to be blinded by the hype but this results in a distorted picture of the mobile market.

At a generous estimate, 1 in 10 Londoners use iPhones. This app-tastic networked interactive post-architectural futuropolis? Demographically it's white, it's rich and it's male. Now, that also happens to describe the architectural profession rather well, so it's perhaps not surprising that such a privileged perspective has come to dominate the discourse. But here's a comparison for you: the number of iPhone users in London is broadly similar to the 700,000 Londoners living in housing association properties, and the 750,000 Londoners living in overcrowded conditions.

Political bloggers may be doing a great job analysing affordable housing issues, but urbanists? Architecture bloggers? Hardly a peep. I find this deeply disheartening. Architecture school teaches the most extraordinary imaginative skills yet in such a socio-political vacuum, where the closest anyone gets to political analysis is debating whether Le Corbusier was a fascist. I know y'all want your pretty renderings featured in Wired magazine, but why not use that creativity to "augment reality" in a more progressive way than showing where's the nearest Tube station?

I live in a city of massive inequality, where millions of people are stressed and unhealthy and we struggle to imagine a way to exercise without spending £60/month at Fitness First. I live in a city where house prices are greatly determined by parents' fears of educational inequalities, and where my generation will be at the mercy of landlords for life; I live in a city where too many earn below the London living wage of £7.60 an hour. I live in a city that's fucking political, yet I read the leading blogs in this field and you'd never guess.

Now I too fail to blog about this a fraction as much as I should - do not get me wrong, j'accuse myself; I am the kid who wrote a thesis on the existential nature of dust and I got a bit excited about iPhones too. This is a polemic intended to energise myself as much as anyone else...

Anna Minton writes of the city as political and the urbanist blogo/Tweetosphere listens; plenty of academics are working on these topics although often it's crashingly dull. If technofixes are widely critiqued as a means of addressing climate change, why so much technofetishism in urbanist thinking? If you think an iPhone app can double voter engagement and make big developments more accountable, for god's sake shout about it. But hyperlocal advertising and information about the coolest coffee shop in the neighbourhood is just so much capitalist fluff, so much extra encouragement to consume; so not progressive.

Anthropologically, too, who's actually assessing the extent of the impact of this technocity on people's lives? Where's the empiricism in these blog posts? They all seem to be hypothetical or imaginative rather than ethnographic research of this technology in lived experience. Who's questioning the hype about how revolutionary these technologies are? And, among all this shiny, don't we risk losing sight of the actual, tangible, real spaces people are living in? Shitty bike lanes, muggings, litter and traffic congestion? That's why I liked the Bratton piece I linked to: at least it brought some materiality, some tactility back into this discussion.

In summary: where's the political, the empirical and the embodied in these 'networked cities' essays? One sentence mentioning a need to ensure that the wrong people (who?) don't control (how?) all that data does not incisive analysis make. Architectural theory loves its future cities, its fictional cities, its Ballard and Gibson and CAD and conceptualism. Imagination is great, don't get me wrong.

But imagination alone doesn't make the world a better place.

13 November 2009

The Empty Post Office

West Central District Office of the Post Office, New Oxford Street / High Holborn, London WC1. Empty 10 to 15 years.

With eight floors each apparently 4,400 sq m, that makes for about 350,000 sq ft of vacant space. It's surely one of the largest abandoned sites in London and you would think it ripe for redevelopment - many other offices in 'Midtown' (commercial property-ese for Holborn) have been rebuilt recently. But no. This former stop on the Post Office Underground Railway line (which ran from Paddington to Whitechapel) is now used for occasional art events, fashion shows and product launches. The rest of the time it sits empty.

I got inside in 2005 when it hosted the exhibition Küba by Kutlug Ataman. 40 old teevees in front of 40 old chairs, each showing video of a resident of the Küba gecekondu in Istanbul. 'Gecekondu' translates as 'arrived in the night'; these are shanty towns built on squatted land, and six million Istanbul residents live in one, a full half of the population. And do Küba residents have stories to tell. It's a neighbourhood of dissenters, of Kurds, of fierce loyalties and crime and community and the longing to be able to escape.

Source: Artangel

Still present, fenced off, were the postal chutes and sorting racks of the old post office.

Source: Michael Bujkowski on Flikr

I'm in two minds about what should be done with this building. In such a crowded, overpriced town as London such an enormous space shouldn't be wasted – and it is a waste for it to be empty or only hosting Smirnoff launch parties; it's not often that it gets an exhibition like Kutlug Ataman's. But redeveloping it into an enormous office complex, no doubt with a privatised 'public' square and chain brand cafes and bars, so big that only faceless finance or bureaucracy occupies it? Can't get excited about that, either. (Quite puzzled why the Post Office hasn't sold it off already though, given that organisation's perilous financial situation and looming pensions deficit... If the building's as big as I think it is, it must be worth £100 million plus.)

Social housing would be better than boxy 'luxury' flats; what about an arts space, a new Barbican for the West End? But I am troubled too by this urge to fill it – what if there is a case to be made for its imaginative value as an empty vessel, a void, pure space? It would make no financial sense, but perhaps that gaping absence of capitalist real estate logic could be the point.

People should be allowed in, though. One or two at a time. Able to run around, and scream, and climb on things and slide down the mail chutes and explore. Space to think, to breathe, to play. No question that that's what the city needs.

12 November 2009

Still life with uncollected post & the lights left on

Last night's walk provided an apt case study for recent ideas about empty properties (see here and here) - albeit in a commercial rather than residential building. This shop, once Shoe Studio, sits - of all places - on Covent Garden itself, on the corner with James Street heading up to the tube. In terms of raw footfall, this site is surely as busy as Oxford Street. Yet, like much of Oxford Street, its landlord seems to have been struggling to attract quality retailers; the no-brand Shoe Studio went into administration in March 2009, and the shop has sat empty for eight months.

They left but failed to turn off the lights - with such irresponsibility is it any wonder the store failed? But, oh, what an aesthetic abandonment. The surfaces are so white and smooth yet the glass in the windows is dirtying slightly under the carbonate trails of the rain. Stripped of any saleable merchandise there is only the rectilinear calm of the shelving and its backlit glow into the night.

Are there ghosts here? Covent Garden has quite the history but this space is too antiseptic; without occupants you might call the shop disembodied but yet it never had a soul to lose. There's a sign on the windows promising 'new collection' but the doors are chained shut.

Related comment from Retail Week: Covent Garden's landlord has plans for rejuvenation (June 2009):

Many of the problems with the market stem from Covent Garden’s mass of smaller streets surrounding the main piazza and the dozens of landlords that have claimed a stake in the area since 1913 when the main estate was first sold off by the Duke of Bedford. Because there have been so many parties involved the retail offer has grown up relatively untamed, with a wide range of shops now occupying the streets.

Three years ago, Capco bought the Covent Garden Estate from Scottish Widows for £421m. Since then it has expanded its reach in the area to the point that the landlord now controls 750,000 sq ft of land around the market – which is most of Covent Garden. It is this huge dominance of the area, lacking since 1913, that gives Capco the opportunity to finally improve the offer. It has the luxury of being able to take a unified approach to planning the retail.

Minimum or Maximum Cities? A conference

Keen to go to the Minimum or Maximum Cities conference, held by the Min-Max-Cities group in the University of Cambridge's Architecture department. It's on Thursday 26th November 2009 in Cambridge and looks to be well worth the £20 registration fee and a day off work. They are asking:

What is the future for cities? Are they expanding at an ever-increasing rate or are they being abandoned and shrinking into oblivion? Are cities polluted, overcrowded and anonymous, or are they dynamic centres of innovation and culture? Are they sociable or anti-social?

...So one year on from the economic crash, how should we seek to reinvigorate our urban centres? Some welcome the current mood of caution as appropriate for hazardous times. Others argue a lack of belief in the benefits of an urbanised future is a cause for concern. So should the priority be to dampen expectations and settle for minimising potential problems? Or should we be more ambitious and experiment with new ideas and technologies that could maximise future gains? Are our creative talents best employed in seeking a 'minimum' city as a means to retrench, rethink and rebuild? Or is a 'maximum' urbanism the answer, based on expansive cities for a dynamic and globalised planet?

And the programme goes like this:

9.00 - Registration and coffee
9.30 - Welcome and Introductions

9.35 – 11.05 The Anxious City: The Dilemmas of Growth
"For the first time in history half the world's population live in cities, yet the celebrations have been distinctly muted. Rather than advancing civilisation, cities are said to be on "the edge of chaos", and bring out our "lurking paranoia". Some have claimed the roots of recession are spatial, and that sprawling cities point to a "whole system of economic organization and growth that has reached its limit". Just-in-time contemporary urban lifestyles are said to threaten the frail systems of a brittle society.
So how should we account the sense of exhaustion and limits that have become central features of western discourse on cities? Are cities today too dynamic and spiralling out of control? Or do they suffer from a surfeit of controls?" Is resilience a dynamic, positive message, or one that implies cities are vulnerable?

11.30 – 13.00 The Agile City: Local Ties versus Global Reach
"The ambition to travel further and faster has often been held up as a virtue. Not so long ago, there was enthusiasm for the idea that Jet Packs and Flying Cars could represent the future of urban transport. These days the outlook on travel is less clear cut. We seem less likely to dream about flying cars, than to express concerns about flying and cars. At a time when local accessibility rather than metropolitan mobility excites policymakers, fast citywide, regional or global connections seem less of a priority than measures to promote cycling and walking.
Expanding one's geographical range has often been associated with the positive ambition to broaden one's horizons. So is the new maxim of living more simply and more locally likely to prove inspirational enough to city dwellers?"

13.00 – 14.00 Lunch & Exhibition
Exihibition Space - Paper City: Urban Utopias

14.00 – 15.30 Powering the City: Innovations in Energy
"From the impact of increasing oil prices to the benefits of investing in renewables and smart grids, energy has become central to the discussion on recovering from recession. And whether through 'passive houses', 'transition towns' or 'low carbon cities', the question of sustainable energy now figures prominently at all scales of architectural and urban thinking.
So how should designers view the elevation of energy efficiency as one of, or perhaps even the defining criterion of design quality? Does the current emphasis on localising supply and 'off grid' solutions mean that universal supply and scale efficiencies have had their day? Does the recent focus on altering individual behaviour represent a welcome broadening out of the concept of innovation? Or does it indicate that controls and regulations are taking precedence over discovery and experimentation?"

16.00 – 17.30 The Future City: Rewriting the Rule Book
"What might represent a way forward? From ‘slow cities’ to ‘creative cities’, and ‘liveable cities’ to ‘hungry cities’; from ‘aerotropolis’ to ‘postopolis’, and the ‘compact city’ to the ‘città diffusa’; there are any number of ideas out there that purport to represent a basis for the future city. But is what is on offer today ambitious, challenging and bold enough? Do the visionaries of today respect current rules and accept contemporary limits? Or are they the ideas of risk takers who are attempting to move beyond?
In this final session we invite three teams of aspiring urban visionaries to present and defend their min/max solutions for the future city. This is your chance to crit their ideas… and through doing so, to flesh out your own."

17.30 – 19.00 Wine Reception

11 November 2009

Urban Decline: Empty Homes

Following my previous post Urban Abandonment: Not Just Detroit which looked at urban decline in terms of depopulation, I now want to think in terms of abandoned housing. There is a lot more data for this metric, which helps!

Just last month Barbara Follet, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, was asked how many empty dwellings there were in England:

Ownership 2006 2007 2008
Local authority 42,870 40,960 36,940
Registered social landlords 30,170 30,770 29,240
Privately owned 675,120 691,590 717,840

David Ireland of the Empty Homes Agency notes that this overall rise of 3% suggests that 970,000 homes are empty across the UK as of March 2008, suggesting the million mark has probably been crossed by now if this trend has continued. Given total housing stock of about 24 million properties in the England and Wales, and 1 in 12 people this is a substantial problem.

In London an estimated 80,000 homes stand empty, with councils employing a wide range of grants and housing association take-overs to reduce this figure.

But so far these are only abandoned houses, not abandoned cities as we are seeing in the US. Without concentrations of vacancies in specific towns and districts, we cannot call this the same problem at all. The Empty Homes Agency, however, report that 937,000 homes or a city twice the size of Birmingham is located in areas of low demand for housing. They report that:

The Sustainable Communities Plan, published on 5th February 2003, provides the Government framework for a major programme of action that will, over the next 15-20 years, tackle the pressing problems of communities across England. One of the key areas forming the basis for the action programme is the tackling of low housing demand and housing abandonment: sustained action to turn round areas where housing markets have failed. Over the next three years, £500 million is being made available for some of the worst affected areas, known as Pathfinder market renewal areas, with the intention of reversing low demand by 2010.

There are nine Housing Market Renewal (HMR) Pathfinder areas:

Birmingham and Sandwell
East Lancashire
Manchester and Salford
Newcastle and Gateshead
North Staffordshire
Oldham and Rochdale
South Yorkshire

Other non-Pathfinder low demand areas include the Tees Valley and West Yorkshire, both of which should be getting additional support from the ODPM.

Questions to follow up include:

- What does Pathfinder involvement mean?
- Is it working?
- Many councils have Empty Homes Strategies that look good on paper. What have they actually done and achieved?
- Demolitions: where? To what extent? Local reactions.
- Socio-economic impact of current vacancies (perhaps a gap in the current discourse, which is fixated by solutions).
- National pattern of low housing demand, especially North vs. South: are some areas unlikely to be able to gain more residents, leading to a need for managed decline?
- Lessons from (or for?) the US

Links to follow up:
- Ipsos MORI surveys (c.2006) on scale and reasons for unoccupied homes
- Self-Help-Housing.Org for community-driven solutions and uses for empty dwellings
- Empty homes statistics by region since 1999
- Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on housing estates' improvements making them more popular with residents
- LSE CASE research on 'Low demand and abandoned housing in the north', some published in conjunction with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

10 November 2009

Cities and Ambition: the case of London

A friend linked me to Paul Graham's 2008 essay, Cities and Ambition. Its thesis:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.
The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.
What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to.

What about The City of this blog - my city, London? What is the quintessential London ambition, what is this city’s message?

Graham is a little opaque. He calls London a city that cares about “hipness” or ‘knowing what’s what’. “So maybe,” he writes, “it has simply replaced the component of social class that consisted of being ‘au fait’. That could explain why hipness seems particularly admired in London: it’s version 2 of the traditional English delight in obscure codes that only insiders understand.” True enough - though it’s definitely not cool to call it ‘hip’, and ‘cool’ is pretty over too. Fashion? Being on trend? ‘Chic’ and ‘style’ are more Paris; London is about the ineffable it that is all the more it by remaining unspecified.

Graham also detects the ghost of a message that one should be more aristocratic, as too in Paris, New York and Boston. (Class itself is of course ‘version 1’ of the “obscure codes” Graham believes we Britishers love.) It would be easy to write off such a statement as a USian stereotype of this country, but there’s a certain truth to it - how many super-social creative venture-starting party kids are doing so funded by a nice little inheritance and a recognisable surname?

The modern London aristocratic is about being that multi-faceted word, ‘smart’. Smart as in well-presented, knowing the codes of double cuffs and just how much you can bend the rules with your haircut. Smart as in well-educated (always paid for, through fees or catchment area house prices), and appearing informed and intelligent in a manner with some autonomy from the question of whether or not you actually are. And smart in the Tatler sense: the politically acceptable word for posh.

Yet ‘being smart’ or ‘having it’ - these are good things to do in London, but could we say they’re this city’s message? I don’t think so - I don’t think London has one message, not in any soundbiteable sense.

It is of course very white to talk about a city having one message: newsflash, Graham’s (or my) middle class white sensibilities can hardly speak for the many and various dreams and desires of a hamlet in Surrey, let alone those of a metropolis. The process by which a city gains an ‘image’, however - that amalgam of representations of history and population and economy and cultural production - that sociocultural process is pretty white- and middle-class dominated. And we’re certainly talking about image here, rather than a genuine belief that the average person in LA really is more celeb-oriented than one in NY. A city’s ambition is instead the beliefs we don’t think we hold but believe those around us do.

So, problematic as the idea is, perhaps we can talk about New York and Los Angeles and Boston/Cambridge having images. Why? Because the US is big enough, with enough big and distinct cities, for like-minded people to cluster. You want a tech job you go to the tech city; you want a sunny eco lifestyle you go to the sunny right-on city. It is at least conceptually possible. Britain? If you want an interesting job, you probably have to move to London: it’s the only city big enough to offer a substantial choice of employers and industries.

I’m a social researcher. In London I could work for a think tank, or government departments or quangos or NGOs, or I could work in public sector market research or in a strategy-oriented consultancy. In Southampton I’d have to work for the Office of National Statistics, or leave. My friend’s a theatre reviewer. Here she can go to see comedy, or musicals, or big West End actors doing Shakespeare or serious Polish avant garde things they prefer to call ‘bodywork’. There’s a dozen gigs a night needing reviewing, and a hundred newspapers or magazines to review them for. Try starting that career in Manchester...

One probably could, of course. It’s not that the rest of the country is a cultural wasteland, it’s just that London believes it is - and that’s what the London-centric national media tells us all. In this culture London gains a monopoly on imaginative possibility - it’s the place you go if you want to make something happen in your life. Even if you’re not quite sure what that something is yet, you can probably do it there. Paul Graham says that New Yorkers want money, Washingtonites proximity to political power, and Berkleyites to live better. Does London have such a clear ambition? Probably not. Instead, the city is just an urban glamour, a dream, an illusion of possibility.

But that is why London is interesting: it could be anything.

7 November 2009

So Human: goodbye to the Waterloo footway poem

Posted 7 October 2009:

Update, 7 November 2009:

Apparently this poem - Eurydice by Sue Warren - is now gone, painted over by Network Rail last weekend. Read more at Time Out: they're calling it 'cultural vandalism'. As the artist says,

"This work was commissioned by the BFI and The Arts Council and, therefore, was installed using public money. Railtrack have defaced something they did not pay for without any consultation either with the BFI, the architect Bryan Avery or with me."

"...damp city streets, their sodium glare
of rush hour headlights pitted with pearls of rain;
for my eyes still reflect the half-remembered moon..."

5 November 2009

Urban abandonment - not just Detroit?

Inspired by Jo Guldi's post Bulldozing Your Neighbours: Development Plans in the Rust Belt, her longer piece at the Commonweal Institute and a general buzz around this topic in the US, I want to do some thinking about urban depopulation - in the UK.

The urban population is expanding. Cities now contain over 50% of the world's population, and 90% of UK residents live in urban areas. Nationally it's a story of growth, up from 79% in 1950 and forecast to increase another few percentage points by 2030. But is that growth evenly spread? I very much doubt it.

Post-industrial Detroit has seen its population halve (some nice representations of this at the Map Scroll blog). Zero demand leads to near-valueless housing, demolitions, and whole streets being abandoned. So what about Britain's post-industrial cities, the ones that really aren't my City, the ones the national media don't report on? I'm sure I've heard something about terraced streets in Manchester being demolished, of vacant housing in towns I couldn't even locate on a map (Burnley? Wolverhampton?). What's this story? I want to find out.

An ONS 'People and Migration' report on The UK's major urban areas provides the closest thing to hard data: population decreases between 1991 and 2001 in Liverpool and Glasgow (both -2.6%), Greater Manchester (-1.6%), Tyneside (0.7%), and West Midlands (-0.5%). It's based on Census data and has quite a lot of methodological detail, giving a suggsetion of how to dig down to census sub-division level to see trends at a neighbourhood rather than city scale.

The problem is that the ONS website isn't user-friendly, and I haven't so far come across any decent datasets on housing demolition or vacant housing (and I'm going to have to work to get the population change by district). So, to start with, a call for information - are any academics working on this for the UK? Where'd I find the statistics I need? Where should I be looking?

More to follow...