CiteisoftomorrowWhether it be through media discourse, policy orientation, or academic engagement, to name but a few, the question of the urban future is currently receiving a significant amount of attention. On the 17th and 18th of February, the European Commission hosted a conference entitled ‘Cities of Tomorrow: Investing In Europe’.

The aim of the conference was to widen discussion and debate around the development of a European ‘urban agenda’ (albeit, accepting that a form of ‘urban agenda’ has existed for a long period; e.g: Leipzig Charter or earlier documents from the Commission). The program covered a wide variety of topics and sub-topics related to the urban challenges facing Europe, including smart cities, green growth, the role of business, and social inclusion.

Somewhat predictably, perhaps, the context was set through the mantra of the importance of cities for the future of humanity, both at a European and Global scale. During the plenary discussions, the need to conceptualize cities in a manner that goes beyond their official boundaries was made. This was outlined both in terms of the relationship between cities and their regions by the Mayor of Venice, Georgio Orsoni and the European and global context by Benjamen Barber. On one level, throughout the conference, there was a recognition that as well as being sites of prosperity cities were also sites of a myriad of social problems. However, there was little discussion about the potential contradictions and tensions between a competitive city approach and challenges of achieving social inclusion.

The main sessions of the conference seemed to uphold the notion that social inclusion and prosperity will be offered through new fixes, whether they be business-oriented or through the implementation of a smart city agenda. That ‘cities and business’ was deemed worthy of its own session with little scope for interaction from the floor and little by way of critical discussion, is perhaps itself reflective of these wider issues. Instead delegates heard from a number of figures, such as Martin Powell from Siemens on technology and Chris Vein from the World Bank on how the business world can influence the running of cities. Topics that might need some urgent discussion, such as impact of speculative investment in real estate, remained absent from the debate.

It wasn’t until one of the later parallel workshop sessions that we heard any significant form of critical engagement. Jan Vranken’s presentation on the ‘urban dimension of inclusive growth’ gave a timely reminder of the shortcomings of the notion that growth reduces poverty. More detailed case-studies also illustrated the stark challenges facing cities. The discussion within The New Urban Development Network session by Yaron Pesztat of how the unemployment rate in Brussels of 20% had been brought about by a mismatch between job creation and the available skill-base is a case in point.

The desire to promote ‘best practice’ became a dominant feature of discussion in the conference. This call for agreement on certain guiding principles was referred to by Commissioner Johannes Hahn as a ‘consensus of the willing’. While on one level there was a discussion of the role of democratic engagement, there was little by way of discussion of how we define ‘best practice’ or what the transfer of policies from one place to another might actually mean for democracy, both at the urban regional and neighbourhood level. Although the need to combat low-density settlement patterns was emphasised by Juan Clos, there is a danger that a form of density=sustainability mantra becomes the end-goal of European urban policy. Such perspectives highlight the need for an understanding of how different political and economic structures influence such ideals and how these differ between different places.

Cities often reveal the particular social and political struggles of society, yet there is a tendency to perceive particular representations of the city as being somehow apolitical. In reality, the manner in which particular ideals of urban transformation are selected is strongly influenced by the motivations of those with greater levels of influence within society. The current trend for the regeneration of former industrial parts of cities into high density living and consumption spaces might be deemed as representative of best practice. Yet, there also needs to be a recognition of how, depending on the political and social context, such developments might just as easily be a perceived as symbols of exclusion for many. Seeking to select ‘best practice’ to be emulated in different places needs to be conscious of such factors.

The development of an urban agenda should not, therefore, seek to be an exercise in ‘getting everyone on board’ an already-defined set of ideals, but should instead seek to engage in the relationship between the multitude of factors which serve to shape contemporary urban society in Europe. There seems to be a dual challenge here. One the one hand, as discussed above and as already recognized by previous documents, such as the Cities of Tomorrow report from October 2011, there is a recognition of the social challenges facing European cities. Yet there also seems to be some form of expectation that these can be solved without fundamentally altering the structures that serve to produce and reproduce such problems in the first place (such as, for example, the stark differences in income within and between cities in Europe). If, as was argued during the Cities of Tomorrow conference, cities are to be given more power to retain the wealth they generate, there is also a need for debates about what is done with such wealth and how it is distributed amongst the wider urban population. The formulation of an urban agenda needs to get beneath the surface and seek to advocate structural solutions to the severe challenges now faced by European cities.

Philip Lawton

Recordings of the different sessions are available here

Both the Irish Independent and The Irish Times have, in recent months, discussed a supposed shortage of housing stock, and associated price-rise, in South County Dublin. While, when taken at face value, there may be some form of truth to the claims, there is a need for extreme caution in focusing the wider debate on one particular geographical location, particularly in light of such uncertain economic times. In line with recent posts on this blog, the role of the media is of significant importance in influencing these discussions. To take just one example, in the last number of days The Irish Times ran with the headline: House prices in south Dublin up 12.2%, survey shows’. Through reading this article, however, it became apparent that what was being referred to was asking prices as opposed to selling prices. This may seem relatively harmless, yet it has some important repercussions. In another piece later the same day, Michael Noonan, in response to the previous article, mentioned the need for 30,000 new dwellings per year and commented as follows: “Dublin as in many other areas is giving the lead and south Dublin is giving us a strong lead according to one survey prices are up 12%… These things can change very rapidly.”

Such rhetoric raises some important questions. Should there be a rush to build more housing in South County Dublin? Is it in the interests of good planning to maintain housing levels in this area and further pursue a completely disjointed approach towards the delivery of housing more generally. While it may also be argued that this shift is indicative of a more general turnaround in property prices throughout the country, there is a much wider debate to be had. When viewed another way, the rise of property values in one specific geographical area of Dublin could be looked as being indicative of a severely imbalanced social, economic and political system.

Eastern Docks, Amsterdam

As I have argued before, is now not the time to put in place measures that might actually promote more socially balanced cities? As highlighted by Michael Noonan in the above-mentioned article, there is an assumption that market forces will lead to families departing from apartments to houses. However, and not withstanding the importance of wider debates about one-off housing etc., within the larger urban areas, a key challenge lies in dealing with issues such as suburban sprawl, high levels of vacancy within central areas, and the promotion of more socially-balanced cities.

While we should be careful not to place those cities often cited as having a high quality of life, such as Amsterdam, Vienna or Copenhagen, on a pedestal, it is of note that, relatively speaking, they each have a history of strong centres and suburbs as well as more balanced social structures. The relationship between these various factors is, I would argue, a much more important debate to be had. The current obsession with house prices in one particular part of the country does little more than to replicate the same problems of the boom years. Mainstream media can play a key role in ensuring that such rhetoric is challenged and debated at every turn. I would go as far as to say that it has a duty of care to do so.

Philip Lawton

GraftonStreet1956I have commented on Grafton Street before (here and here), while also discussing Schemes of Special Planning Control (SSPC) and Architectural Conservation Areas (ACAs) (here). In light of the current draft for the renewal of the Grafton Street SSPC, there are, I feel, a number of elements that need to be discussed about the relationship between land-use, social space, and heritage in Grafton Street, which are, to a certain extent, reflective of wider dynamics in Dublin more generally. The revision of the Grafton Street SSPC provides the opportunity to redress the bias towards elite notions of heritage and instead celebrate the role of contemporary social life in the street.

The current draft of the Grafton Street SSPC opens with the following vision: “To reinvigorate Grafton Street as the South City’s most dynamic retail experience underpinned by a wide range of mainstream, independent and specialist retail and service outlets that attract both Dubliners and visitors to shop, sit and stroll, whilst re-establishing the area’s rich historic charm and urban character.” The language of such documents tells a very interesting story.  There is an explicit perspective within the Scheme of Special Planning Control that the area of Grafton Street has somehow lost some form of character that needs to be re-established or reinvigorated. How this is to be achieved is perceived to require a set of processes that promotes certain forms of land-use over and above others.

In drawing on an imaginary of some unspecified ideal time, the document naturalises the connection between elements such as prestigious forms of consumption and architectural conservation: “A number of uses on Grafton Street are of special significance through their long association with the street. Businesses such as Brown Thomas, Weir and Sons and Bewley’s Cafe are now an essential part of the street’s character and continue in the tradition of providing prestigious products and fine service in high quality surroundings.” When taken at face-value, such language might seem innocuous, and it is difficult to dispute the relative importance of such establishments to the commercial core of Dublin. However, when looked at in more detail, I would argue that in privileging the connection between what are deemed as prestigious land-uses with notions of ‘character’, the SSPC presents an elitist ideal of what the street should be, and, by connection, whether it is intended or not, who Grafton Street is for.

This is not a desire to argue for the retention or promotion of poor signage and shop fronts (however they may be defined), but to seek to expand the remit of what is valued beyond the supposed virtues of exclusive high-end retail and a loosely defined notion of what the street is imagined to once have been. From a broader perspective, it can be argued that in light of the evolution of Dublin over the last number of decades, Grafton Street – and Dublin city centre more generally – has to distinguish itself to compete with the out-of-town centres. Yet, there is also a need to at least try to imagine or think through what the social life of the street might actually look like if the vision of the SSPC, as it currently stands, is achieved. Would it still be a container of a rich variety of social life that it is today? Would it be the street of buskers and flower sellers? Would it still be the street on which younger age-groups gather outside McDonald’s?

The street has and will evolve in response to the dynamics of wider social and market changes. Yet, there also seems to be a need to actually think through what the social dynamics of such streets are beyond the conception of notions of urban character and heritage-value as being directly connected to upmarket land-uses alone. Celebrating those social dynamics of the present and recent past which serve to define the everyday life of Grafton Street rather than decrying some loosely defined imaginary of what has supposedly been lost would be a start to such.

Philip Lawton

Watching from afar, I have been interested in a number of the debates taking place about Dublin over the last number of years. The most recent example of such is the Reinventing Dublin series currently running in The Irish Times. The focus of this series, as with discussion taking place through other forums (e.g., the city intersections talks), is about making Dublin a better city. The series puts forward a number of interesting suggestions such as the library on College Green (Something discussed previously on this blog), and touches on some pressing social issues, such as is illustrated by Fr. Peter McVerry’s comments on homelessness and Fintan O’Toole’s analysis of the social structure of the city.

In as much as it is lacking, the series also points to the need for a greater level of engagement with the wider structural issues that influence the city. That so little attention within each sub-topic is oriented towards solutions that go beyond the accepted largely market-driven norms of urban development seems somewhat of a short-coming. The affording of less attention to alternative approaches to the delivery of housing than the possibility of Elm Park being used as a film-set is a case in point. Can this really be the best solution for an under-occupied development? Indeed, the only mention of housing in the top ten ways to make Dublin Better put forward by The Irish Times is the possible role of Georgian Dublin being returned to residential use. Another piece in the series briefly touches on how this might occur, but it is largely focused on the impact that shifting market forces may have. The desire to see improvement to the physical fabric of the city is understandable, but this also requires some reflection as to what processes might actually bring this about in a more socially equitable and viable manner. Pointedly, it is through the mention of a seemingly mundane example – that of the need for public toilets – that some of the core structural issues become highlighted, if only implicitly. The mention of ‘anti-social behaviour’ here is noteworthy and points to a need to examine the broader factors which serve to influence everyday life in the city. Overall, however, there is little focus upon the societal structures which serve to produce the daily reality of the city or, indeed, how the city itself serves to reproduce or reinforce that same reality.

Widening the discussion out a bit, one of the striking features of current debates and initiatives in Dublin is the focus on the city centre as a distinct and almost isolated entity. While this focus on the city centre is somewhat inevitable given it is the part of the city that citizens can readily identify with, it seems to point to some problematic tendencies about the form that debate is taking at present. From a broader perspective, it is difficult to attend to the needs of the city centre without thinking holistically about the wider city area, if not the city region. Furthermore, the focus on the city centre has, in recent years, become increasingly oriented towards the assumed cultural and social values of the middle classes. This perspective, which was made explicit by the Dublin City Architect, Ali Grehan at a recent TED talk, is a follow-on from the promotion of the supposed virtues of the middle classes that became a hallmark of urban development during the boom years. While on one level there has been a desire to attract ‘talent’ to the city centre so as, it is thought, to strengthen the economic base of the city, such rhetoric also draws upon the notion that that middle class residents will help to strengthen the social fabric of a particular area. That this is being promoted without any real engagement with what its role might be in the creation of a better city seems somewhat perplexing. One needs only to look at the example of Tower Hamlets in London to see that location of different social groups within one geographical area does not necessarily lead to any form of upward mobility or ‘trickle-down’ of wealth. Social-mix as a target in and of itself cannot be looked at as a solution for the problems of the city. This is not, it should be stated, an argument against change in the city centre or the promotion of good design in infill developments discussed in the afore-mentioned TED discussion, but more about the manner of delivery of such.

When viewed from a broader perspective, the focus on the city centre as opposed to the wider city is not all that surprising. Indeed, many of the initiatives currently taking place (such as Dublin City Beta Project and Pivot Dublin) are closely aligned to Dublin City Council, whose remit is, after all, focused almost exclusively upon the city centre. From a critical perspective, the structure of local government has very real implications for the context in which debates take place and the manner in which initiatives become implemented. Arguably, the current structures leave little alternative but for policy makers to think predominantly of their own location without significant consideration of what its impact might be elsewhere. Furthermore, it seems somewhat inevitable that if little action is taken to address wider structural issues on a national scale, urban policy makers will do their best to achieve what they perceive is best for their particular locality. Moreover, if local authorities can have little direct impact upon services such as transport and education, it perhaps follows that the focus will be placed on ‘soft’ factors as a means of achieving change. In short, planning (in the wider sense of the term) is being left to deal with consequences of wider structural issues, one of which is an imbalance in the planning system itself. While there are many initiatives out there which seem very positive in their approach (eg; the recent dublin tagged event), there is space for discussion of how exactly they will come together to improve Dublin in the long-term.

There seems to be urgent need for wider debate about what exactly it is we mean by making Dublin a better city, and, indeed, a broadening of the debate to include an analysis of the social, political, and economic factors that would be necessary to bring about positive change in the city. The approach of envisaging an ideal urban scenario – both in terms of urban form and social life – without confronting the forces which go to produce such seems somewhat insufficient. Ideas of making a better city necessitate an idea of the form of society that is desired. Lasting change in Dublin – at the scale of both the centre and the suburbs – can only be achieved through an active and critical engagement with the forces that shape it.

Philip Lawton

In a paper from 2010 entitled ‘Can Planning Affect the Economic Crisis? Barely, and not unless planning changes radically’, the esteemed Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, Peter Marcuse outlined potential for change within the planning profession. As is evident from the title, the paper deals with the potential role for urban planning in the context of the global financial crisis, with discussions of the role of cycles of investment in the built environment brought to the fore: “Planning is hardly an independent force in urban development; our long history shows how dependent, indeed, generally subservient, planning is to the market, barely influencing it at the margin. “The Market” is not considered an actor, and we avoid facing reality when we glibly speak of “the market” doing this or requiring that. There are specific actors in the market: developers, builders, bankers, Wall Street traders, investors, residents of various kinds, marketing firms, tenants and owners, and of varying economic positions, of various enthnicities, with various preferences. All significantly influence and are influenced by public portrayals of what is desirable (and what is not desirable) in cities.” When presented in such light, current debates about the future of planning in Ireland are worthwhile, but there is a danger that in seeking to redress the inadequacies of the last number of decades some key issues may be overlooked.

As is evidenced by a number of posts on this blog in recent weeks and days (see here and here), a strand of debate is currently emerging around the future need for housing, and where that housing should or should not be built. Moreover, while there remains a significant level of vacancy in most parts of the country, a form of rhetoric is emerging which upholds, if not furthers, a particular mythology around housing as being, above all else, a commodity, with quality of life either implicitly or explicitely related to market forces. One specific example of this is the manner in which The Irish Times Property Supplement every so often seems to deem the supposed shortage of ‘good quality family homes’ on the Dart line and elsewhere in Dublin as being a symbol of some impending crisis. It is perhaps somewhat inevitable that those areas that have historically been sought after in Dublin will be the first areas in which market demand will return, yet on a  fundamental level there is perhaps no better time in our recent history to challenge the dominance of the market within housing provision.

The current discussion points to a need for a broadening of the debate about the form that future planning policy will take in Ireland, and, more specifically, how it relates to the provision of housing. In short, where to build, what to build, and who to build for will become key factors within the evolution of planning in the coming years. There is no doubting the link between poor planning regulation and the current challenges facing Ireland, yet there is a need to ensure that we are not blinded by the search to get back to more ‘sustainable’ forms of settlement while ignoring a wide set of other issues. Returning to Marcuse; “… whether the “bubble” is centred in residential construction, high-rises or low-rises, in the central business district or the inner- or outer-ring suburbs, is only a question of where the bubble will appear or how it will look, not in whether there will be a bubble of some form somewhere”. Thus, there are a number of dangers attached in seeking out a solution by solely looking towards where we should or shouldn’t build housing in the future, whenever that future may be. In as much as it is important to support more sustainable forms of settlement patterns, there is also a danger of misplacing the image for reality, and ignoring the dangers of running for shelter in the rhetoric of high-density urban development in the ‘right places’ as the cure for all urban ills, or, indeed, simply accepting that market demand will return to some places prior to others. The social consequences of the boom years, and indeed a prolonged period of severely imbalanced approaches towards the built environment, as linked to negative equity and half populated and abandoned estates, are only really now beginning to become manifest, and are likely to dominate the social agenda for years to come.

Not withstanding the importance of debates about the availablity of housing and zoned land, it also seems important to ensure that such a debate is not dominated by market-oriented discussion of supply and demand. There is a clear need for policy attention to examine such issues from a social perspective without simply focusing on what the market does or doesn’t do. The entire connection between housing, planning, and market forces needs to be fundamentally addressed. This begins with a shift in perspective from one which upholds housing as yet another cog in the wheel of the market to one which views it first and foremost as a social good.

Philip Lawton

Peter Marcuse blog posts are available at:

In the last number of days, The Irish Times has launched a competition seeking to designate the best place to live in Ireland. I have to admit to having mixed views about this competition. On one hand I feel perplexed about the need to attempt to measure the attributes of place to the extent to which, ala the X Factor, one place can be deemed ‘the best’, yet on the other hand, it forms a useful example of how to enrich discussion and debate about the importance of place and place attachment in Ireland. Each of these perspectives are discussed in turn below. (more…)

Unused Traffic Lights, CamKo City, Phnom Penh, 2011

Following on from the recent post about ghost cities in China, this short piece seeks to illustrate the impact of cycles of investment on urban development in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The example of Phnom Penh is illustrative of the extent to which the image of the globalised city as representing the ideal future of society (high-end apartments, offices and shopping centres in a largely privatised ‘public domain’), that is more often than not created through highly speculative investment, has become all-pervasive within the current projections of city development. Furthermore, to all intensive purposes, the situation illustrates the complex tensions and contradictions between the current economic system and urban development. The sheer contrasts between ‘those who have’ and ‘those who have not’ is here clearly illustrated, with the desire to create a city of high-end apartments and offices standing in striking contrast to the eviction of the poor from central areas that have become highly valued pieces of real-estate. The imbalanced and dysfunctional nature of this approach to planning and housing provision is further emphasised by the reality of the current situation, with half-finished office-blocks, ‘ghost-estates’, and roads that literally lead to nowhere becoming a common feature of present-day Phnom Penh and its surroundings.

Gold Tower 42 (back left), Untouched since September 2010, and De Castle (Centre) Still under Construction, on Monivong Boulevard, Phnom Penh, 2011.

Partially developed apartments beside completed apartments, CamKo City, Phnom Penh, 2011

Such an image may paint a familiar picture to readers of this blog, yet there are, of course, some significant differences to the Irish situation. The relative strength of economic growth in Asia, combined with the multitude of sources of funding, have ensured that the current situation in Phnom Penh is marked by a stalling out of some projects (predominantly larger-scale projects) and the continuation of others (predominantly stand-alone apartment or other smaller-scale developments). The most high-profile example of the former is that of ‘Gold Tower 42’, which was being developed by the South Korean firm, Yon Woo. Originally billed to be Cambodia’s tallest building, it currently stands as a half-built shell, untouched since September 2010. While a number of large-scale developments continue, such as Rose Condominiums and De Castle, which are both high-end residential developments at the centre of Phnom Penh, presently, a number of high-profile large-scale ‘new city’ developments at the periphery remain only partially built. One example of such is CamKo City, on the northern periphery of the city, which is currently stalled due to liquidity problems and questions of fraud within the South Korean owned Busan Savings Bank (believed to be the main backer of the project). Further outside the city, Grand Phnom Penh, an exclusive ‘citidel’, which is to have commercial, residential, and leisure functions, remains only partially developed (some of the villas and the golf course are developed), due to lack of market demand. Furthermore, a number of more centrally located projects, such as Star River, have been only partially developed, with a significant amount of the land that has been cleared for development in the area beside the Tonle Bassac River remaining vacant.

Extent of Infill of Boeung Kak Lake from Google Maps, 2011 (The sand now extends further into the fromer lake).

Meanwhile, many of those who cannot even dream of the new forms of lifestyles being promoted are being removed from their homes, with Amnesty International recently stating that 10% of the residents of Phnom Penh have been evicted between 1990 and 2011. The example of Boeung Kak Lake at the centre of Phnom Penh, which is currently being filled in, has become symbolic of the tensions between everyday life in Phnom Penh and the sheer power of current investment in reshaping the city. In 2007, the Cambodian Shukaku Inc. (owned by Senator Leng Meng Khin of the ruling CPP Party), in partnership with the Chinese Erdos Hong Jun Investment Co. were granted a 99 year lease to redevelop the lake as a high-profile mixed-use development to be called ‘New East City’. The result has seen up to 4,000 families living in the area surrounding the lake  either  evicted or under threat of eviction.

Boeung Kak, has, to a large degree, become representative of the wider issues facing Phnom Penh, and indeed, Cambodia more generally, with those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by the pressures of development reduced to pawns in a game of extreme speculation. Despite the threats of the World Bank to withdraw funding from Cambodia, and the promise of land titling for some families, the sheer power of the forces at play continue to be evidenced, with the impacts upon everyday lives becoming more marked by each protest.

The current situation in Phnom Penh, and the form of urban and peri-urban landscapes being produced, serves as yet another illustration of the globalised nature of the recent, and, it should be said, on-going, form of urban development. It is a reminder of the manner in which the dominance of market forces as dictated by largely invisible globalised structures, which in this case have become partially visible in the built environment, are allowed to dominate and dictate everyday reality.

Philip Lawton