Archive for the ‘Urban’ Category

So How Grim is it Up North?

11 November, 2008

In yesterday’s post on ‘Parks for the Poor’ we cited the impact of proximity to greenery – parks, woodland – on life expectancy in the UK. Seems that you are less likely to suffer stress-related illness, irrespective of your income class if you can chill in some nice green space.

Now comes the news that Manchester is near the bottom of the league in environmental sustainability in the index constructed by Forum for the Future – and green space is part of the index. Manchester is down there at No.15 out of 20 – top place goes to Bristol and bottom goes to unloved Hull.

(Here is the list in descending order: Bristol; Brighton and Hove; Plymouth; Newcastle; Cardiff; Edinburgh; Sheffield; Leicester; Nottingham; London; Bradford; Coventry; Sunderland; Leeds; Manchester; Wolverhampton; Glasgow; Birmingham; Liverpool; Hull).

So while Manchester is aiming to achieve low-carbon city status by 2020, according to Forum for the Future,  it seems to have a long way to go. Ditto Liverpool, which starts from behind Manchester. Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph announced that “it’s still really grim up north”, with a north-south divide in the index. Yet that isn’t so evident: Newcastle and Sheffield are ahead of London (although the bottom of the index is decidedly northern). Daily Telegraph journalists might have difficulty finding Newcastle on a map.

However, Britain is far, far behind Europe – as a travel any Scandinavian city will demonstrate. Bristol is Britain’s lone entrant (in a field of 35) for the EU’s latest initiative – an annual European Green Capital. The green money is on Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Freiburg and Münster.

So a suggestion to the leaders of Manchester, Liverpool (and Hull): set a target to become European Green Capital in the next decade. Now that the British government is intent on reflating the economy by expanding infrastructure investment, put together an ambitious plan to redevelop your cities with – sustainability at the core.

Check out the research of Simon Guy and others in the School of Environment and Development at Manchester, in particular the Building Sustainable Cities Initiative. Greening cities is the BIG urban agenda. And it’s a poverty issue too – for greenery improves life expectancy, regenerates blighted urban areas, and encourages inward investment (and hence jobs). Win-Win.

And to cheer yourself up go to KLF (Jams) ‘its grim up north’ on YouTube – for some northern merriment in the ceaseless rain.

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Parks for the Poor

11 November, 2008

Yes, having some greenery around you can improve your chances in life. A new study in the Lancet finds that living near parks or woodland improves life expectancy and health, regardless of income class. People living in poorer areas are more likely to die earlier and to suffer more ill-health than the UK average. This income-related inequality in health is less pronounced in populations with greater exposure to green space, according to the study by Richard Mitchell and Frank Popham from the universities of Glasgow and St Andrews (see this BBC report).

Victorian Britain saw great efforts to bring green space to the poor. The first children’s playground was created in a Manchester park in 1859. Many of Britain’s inner city parks went into decline from the mid-twentieth century, and their regeneration began in earnest in the late 1980s. Manchester’s St Michael’s Flags and Angel Meadow Park is an example. The area became notorious in the 19th century for the mass burial of the poor whose families could not afford a proper funeral.

The charity GreenSpace is now working to improve parks and green access in the UK. We also need more efforts in the mega cities of the developing world. On a recent trip to Dhaka I was struck by the lack of accessible greenery. Much appears to have been illegally built over – including one green space now occupied by a truly hideous ‘pleasure park’ which charges for admission.

Green space is also exceptionally important to managing the impact of climate change on urban areas, a theme in Manchester University’s research on sustainable cities (check out John Handley in the School of Environment and Development). So get planting.

Bottled Water. To Buy or Not to Buy?

9 November, 2008

Too few people across the developing world have access to safe water. Too often they end up walking miles to unsafe water sources or, if they live in urban areas, purchasing water from expensive private sources. Safe water and sanitation are one of the main mechanisms to cut infant mortality from water borne diseases. Big donor and government investments are now underway (see the Asian Development Bank for instance).

Actress Thandie Newton explains in today’s FT why she is an ambassador of Volvic and World Vision’s campaign, in which Volvic supplies 10 litres of water in Africa for every litre of water bought in the UK (go here and to World Vision).

Frankly, I try to avoid bottled water whenever I can – costly and environmentally unfriendly. But if I have to buy – and have you tried to get water in an airport recently? what happened to the water fountains? – then Thandie’s rationale might persuade me to choose Volvic. She says:

“I wanted to see if my cynical attitude could be changed and World Vision did change it. Bottled water isn’t going to go away and so I’d rather there was a brand that donates large sums of money to genuinely valuable causes, and which creates philanthropic competition between brands. I’m not a blinkered purist. I know that by infiltrating these large corporations, I’m in a much better position to suggest changes. Right now, for example, I’m encouraging Volvic to switch to biodegradable containers”.

Fair point. In the meantime, can I have a glass of (tap) water please?

Regenerating Kingston, Jamaica

13 October, 2008

You wouldn’t usually connect the Prince of Wales to Kingston’s ghettos. But the Prince’s Trust is now helping to regenerate one of Kingston’s worst areas (see this piece in the FT). The area of Rose Town has disintegrated over the last 30 years, steadily becoming more violent and more derelict. The youth gangs of north and south Rose Town are at war with each other. UNDP reckons that 16% per cent of Jamaica’s population is in poverty.

So no Roses there. But the Princes Trust is now building new low density housing, designed to bring a sense of community back to the area. There has already been a reduction in tension in the area, comments the FT:

“One positive sign is that members of the rival north and south gangs have already come together through the Rose Town Benevolent Society, the local group overseeing the work”.

This is all part of a broader move to sustainable urbanism. The Prince’s Trust is considering projects in Sierra Leone, a country now at peace after a long civil war, but one where there is desperate shortage of housing.

3.9 million British Children in Poverty

30 September, 2008

That’s one in three children, according to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, a coalition of more than 130 organisations including Barnardo’s, Unicef and the NSPCC. The BBC has reproduced their map of child poverty hot spots here.

They have data on every parliamentary constituency in the UK. Their new figures show that 174 constituencies have 50 per cent or more children living in (or on the brink) of poverty. Their report says:

“Birmingham Ladywood tops the list of the grim league table with 81 per cent – or 28,420 – of its children in struggling families. And within Ladywood one ward, Aston, has 87 per cent of its youngsters struggling to get by. But this is still not the most concentrated area of child poverty. An estimated 98 per cent of children living in two zones in Glasgow Baillieston – Central Easterhouse and North Barlarnark and Easterhouse South – are either in poverty or in working families that are struggling to get by”.

This might focus politicians minds, as we move towards a general election by, at the latest, mid 2010. But will there be any cash left in the treasury after bailing out Britain’s feckless banks, we wonder?

US Financial Crisis Hammers the Poor

18 September, 2008

Former IMF chief economist, Ken Rogoff worries that the dollar is headed for another dip in today’s FT (go here). He says:

“If the US were an emerging market country, its exchange rate would be plummeting and interest rates on government debt would be soaring”.

Instead the dollar has strengthened over the last month. But he doesn’t think this will continue. Rogoff is worth listening to: over the summer he said a major US financial institution would fail before the end of the year (reported here). And this has now come to pass (with more on the way?).

What does the financial crisis mean for the poor? Earlier in the year we commented on the big rise in the number of people using America’s food banks (see our February and US archives). The US government buys surplus food for distribution through organizations like America’s Second Harvest — and these are facing heavy demand in areas worst hit by the house-price collapse.

Given the US slowdown, unemployment will rise further. With few if any savings, plus the cost of health care (and the fact that many Americans are uninsured), unemployment can quickly push people into poverty. The US prides itself on social mobility (the rags-to-riches story that all those self-help books play upon). But only 6% of children born to parents with a family income at the very bottom move to the very top (see the Economic Mobility Project here). It’s actually a very static society, especially for African Americans.

Unemployment is, in turn, pushing up the default rate in the already hard-pressed mortgage market. This adds to pressure on mortgage-bonds and the balance sheet of the financial sector.

Putting in place effective safety nets for those on low-incomes could help establish a floor under house prices (and thereby indirectly help the dollar, which is Ken Rogoff’s concern). Since many low-income families were lured into mortgages they cannot now afford through so-called ‘teaser rates’ (low interest rates to suck them into debt) they deserve as much help as the banks — if not more.

But we fear that any help will be squeezed out by the fiscal costs of the financial crisis itself (not to mention the continued cost of Iraq: see Joe Stiglitz here on the ‘three trillion dollar war’). And it is very likely that the US will exercise even less voice in international development, since its bilateral and multilateral aid commitments will come under budgetary pressure as any new administration (be it democratic or republican) will focus on domestic priorities first. The bottom line: it’s not just America’s poor who are hammered, but the world’s poor as well.

Average cop has more integrity than the average professor

29 August, 2008

At least that’s what Harvard-trained sociologist Peter Moskos reckons. And he might know. He joined the Baltimore police force in the high crime Eastern district, after basing himself there for his PhD research into the methods and culture of an American Police department (go here for an interview). It has certainly given him a new view of academic research:

“I think in the Ivory Tower there’s a problem with researching a group without ever talking to them. In academia, it’s all about measuring in quantitative stats. Culture matters. Cops live and work there, so they can see it. It cannot all be explained by money. [Academics] think it’s all about racism and economics”.

His book Cop In the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District is out now. One to read before watching the next episode of the The Wire.

Property Refuses to Dance

29 August, 2008

Talking of politics trying to cope with capitalism’s erratic moves (see our last post), UK Chancellor Alistair Darling has come up with another wheeze to try and save Britain’s collapsing property market — now on the floor after a speculative frenzy to the tune of easy credit. Repossessions are dramatically up, not least in Manchester, a city often labeled as the ‘UK’s debt capital’.

First, the Chancellor tried to encourage the banks to clear up their own mess — with a bit of public money. Interesting isn’t it how (private) banking crises always try and turn themselves into (public) fiscal crises? And in both rich and poor countries, too (see Jay Rosengard on East Asia hereWillem Buiter’s blog, and Managing a Bank-Specific crisis: A UK perspective from the Bank of England, no less).

Now, the Chancellor is going to help local authorities and housing associations buy up unsold properties and help people facing repossession with mortgage rescue schemes. We leave it to our readers to figure out whether this is good or bad social policy (it’s good for the banks since the schemes reduce their bad debts: that fiscal connection again). It certainly reflects the political battering the government is taking. Today’s Times — with a nice photo of the ‘Chimney Pot’ regeneration in Salford — sums it all up:

“This latest strategy highlights the increasing influence of Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ Treasury spokesman, a man as deft at articulating the concerns of Middle Britain as he is at the paso doble in the ballroom”.

Meanwhile, the UK property market seems unable to get to its feet. Dance on.

Pack yer bags luv wer off down t’South: A right wing solution to poverty in the North

13 August, 2008

Had i really been asleep for that long? Was it April 1st 2009 already? As i woke up this morning bleary eyed and switched on the news i could have been forgiven for thinking it was April Fool’s Day. The BBC had me momentarily fooled on April 1st 2008 with their footage of flying penguins (‘Wow flying penguins thats amazing…wait surely that can’t be right…ah yes its April fools day, good one BBC!’) and this morning i had exactly the same feeling when i heard the Policy Exchange’s proposals for regeneration in the UK. The only difference was this was no joke and it turned out that the only fools were the authors of their report released today entitled ‘Cities Unlimited: Making urban regeneration work’. Let me explain.

I think we can all agree that urban regeneration in UK cities has been a double edged sword and that whilst some areas/communities/residents have benefited others have not which has led to increasing inequality and relative poverty. What we need is a more inclusive regeneration strategy as regeneration attempts over the last few decades have not resulted in the trickle down development contained in the rhetoric. We need to find ways of delivering regeneration strategies that produce good sustainable employment with living wages, provide deprived communities with much needed improvements in service infrastructure and which include local residents at each stage in the consultation process. We are getting there but slowly – these things take time, there is no simple solution or so we thought. Enter the Policy Exchange people.

The Policy Exhange is an independent right wing think tank which has close ties with the Conservative Party. So what is their solution to the complex issue of the regeneration of UK cities, particularly in the North: people in Northern cities which are ‘beyond revival’ like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford should move to ‘the hubs of the twenty-first century’, namely Cambridge, Oxford and London to stop them becoming trapped in poorer areas and because these places have a better prospect of offering them the standards of living to which they aspire. What?

The basic premise of the Policy Exchange’s report is that we need to think about alternative regeneration policies given that billions of pounds has been spent on regeneration in these (and other) places but they show little sign of improvement on a range of inequality and deprivation indicators. The solution, according to the Policy Exchange, is to relax planning laws in the South East and allow these cities to grow outwards to accomodate a migration of people from ‘failing’ Northern towns and cities. For those who are old enough this may sound vaguely familiar. Thats right it takes us back to the days of Norman Tebbit when he told people in the North to ‘get on their bikes’. This Policy Exchange report suggests a similar course of action for people living in Northern towns and cities who ‘have lost their raison d’etre’ because of decline in shipping and manufacturing in these places. 

There are however a couple of sticking points: (i) people are not economic units that can just move around at will; (ii) the South East is already overheated and overpopulated without hundreds of thousands of Northerners descending upon it; (iii) there have been successes on the ground in Northern cities such as Manchester and Liverpool which we can learn from; (iv) there has already been furore about green belt development in the South regarding developments on a much smaller scale than the one proposed; and (v) things are a lot more complex than suggesting that Northerners would be better off moving South and that Northern areas would benefit from a reduced population. In fact just saying it out loud sounds ridiculous or to quote Peter Kilfoyle the MP for Liverpool Walton its ‘bizarre’ and ‘unrealistic’. In sum this idea may work if it wasn’t for the sheer political, economic, social and environmental infeasibility of it all. 

Let’s be clear, moving to the South is no panacea to improving people’s lives – they have poor people in the South too don’t you know. But seriously this report goes to show how fixated those on the right still are with the South East at the expense of Northern towns and cities which this report implicitly suggests we should give up on. Presumably by this logic those that remain poor in the North are to blame for not having the foresight or ambition to move South. Once again this blame the victim approach sounds eerily familiar but maybe, just maybe, rather than it being a case of people, towns and cities in Northern cities having failed maybe politicians on both the political Left and Right have for too long failed the people, towns and cities of the North. Thatcherism is alive and well and for me it sounds a warning about whether the recent emergence of compassionate Conservatism is not simply a wolf in sheeps clothing. Yes Cameron has come out and branded the findings ‘insane’ but it shows that old Tory ideals are still influential to some on the Right and this from a think tank which has close ties to those in the Shadow Cabinet. It will be interesting to hear how other key Conservative figures respond to this report. In the meantime my suitcase is staying firmly in my Northern wardrobe!

The Places We Live

5 August, 2008

More people now live in towns than in the countryside. And up to one-third of the world’s urban population is poor. That’s more than one billion people — and growing. Lacking adequate services and with poor health standards, the slums are home to many of the world’s chronically poor people. Often close to the water line (as in Dhaka) or on hillsides (as in Caracas), slums are vulnerable to natural disasters of all kinds.

The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo is now running an exhibition by Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen.  “The Places We Live” presents 16 homes in four different slum areas: Kibera (Nairobi); Dharavi (Mumbai); Barrios (Caracas); and Kampongs (Jakarta). Nairobi’s Kibera is home to at least one million people, while Dharavi is close to Mumbai’s booming financial centre — a gross example of the rising inequality that takes the shine off India’s “economic miracle”.