LGiU Ireland Briefing: Cities on the Rise – Actions for Local Government

Read this specially commissioned briefing for LGiU Ireland covering the Academy’s Congress in Cork. LGiU Ireland is a policy information service dedicated to local government across Ireland


At the end of June, The Academy of Urbanism hosted their annual congress, this year titled “Cities on the Rise”, in the city of Cork. On kind invitation from Cork City Council and the Academy, LGiU attended the intensive 4-day event in an observational capacity – to absorb information from the broad collective urban genius of the Academy members and their guests, to focus in on key points that local authorities might find useful, and to feed back the relevant learning to LGiU members.

And there was a lot of relevant learning. The Academy imported some of the best thinkers on urban-related issues from around the world. We heard from planners who were involved in the regeneration of Bilbao, Copenhagen and Hamburg; we heard from transport innovators, democratic placemakers, urban theorists; and we heard from numerous people from Cork City Council about the city’s past, present, and future – who showcased Cork City as an urban centre on the cusp and explored how Cork, and other rising cities, can take advantage of such a window of opportunity.

Part 1 here will look at building democratic cities, public transport in an automated future, and the new urban crisis. Part 2 will explore rising cities from an urban planning perspective looking at case studies from Bilbao, Copenhagen, Hamburg and, of course, Cork.

Briefing in full
Imandeep Kaur from Impact Hub Birmingham on building democratic cities

One of a global network of Impact Hubs, Impact Hub Birmingham is on a mission to create a sustainable model for building “a fairer, more equal and just city through people, place and open movements”. Immy Kaur, Co-founder and Director, opens by telling us that she doesn’t want to set fire to buildings, but she’s all about disrupting the status quo.

She warns against calling communities “hard to reach” when, rather, they are systematically marginalised and erased. Communities are not hard to reach. Structures have been created and maintained that don’t allow them to get involved or to exercise power. How do we change this (without setting fire to buildings)?

Well, in seven words: “democratise the means to get sh*t done”.

First, understand that it is humans that are the sources of creative value, and when things are designed and made by people they have buy in, they have ownership, they are empowered, they stick around, they thrive. Then, apply the fact that this is 2018 – where we have open source designs, distributed innovation, accessible data, automation, and the opening up of digital manufacturing such as 3D printing and CNC machines.

Kaur gave many examples of programmes that have democratised placebuilding. Here are three of them:

Knowle West Media Centre [KWMC]
In Bristol’s Knowle West, one of the most deprived areas of the UK, KWMC provides ways for people to get involved in community activism, education, employment, and local decision-making. One of their projects, the Eagle House Pop-Up Furniture Factory provided training and employment to residents of Knowle West, and they were commissioned to produce high-quality office furniture to kit out the Filwood Green Business Park in the area. They trained local residents in digital manufacturing techniques, and on how to use tools such as the CNC router/laser cutter – and over six months Knowle West residents designed, made and installed around 500 pieces of wooden furniture for the business park.

The council would otherwise have paid a large amount of money in commissioning an interior design/furnishing company to kit out the offices in the business park, and for around the same price they got offices fully kitted out with high quality furnishings, plus they forged real relationships between the business park and the local community – leaving behind up-skilled local young people and a sustainable business that continues to make furniture for customers all over Bristol.

DemoDev & WikiHouse
Building on John Maynard Keynes’ principle that “it’s easier to ship recipes than cakes”, bolstered by the aforementioned fact that we’re in 2018, the digital age, where sharing ideas and designs has never been more open and we have automation and remote manufacturing to the extent that you can design a chair from your front room in Drumnadrochit, and it can be 3D printed simultaneously in a workshop in Johannesburg and somebody’s garage in Brooklyn with just a few clicks. WikiHouse applies this to housebuilding.

DemoDev are working in collaboration with Birmingham City Council and are using the power of data (eg. from the Land Registry and Ordnance Survey) in a transparent, efficient way to unlock underused land and turn it into open-designed, sustainable and adaptable homes – using the WikiHouse system. DemoDev aims to:

  • Bring the people who live in the houses into the building of those houses and turn them into homes
  • Introduce a movement towards enabling a new sector of house builders and realise the potential of citizen building
  • Create homes which are in areas people want to live in, which can be self-built and can grow and change as their owner’s lives evolve
  • link the built environment directly to neighbourhood outcomes whilst hosting a strong voice on the need for inclusive, democratic and citizen-centred development

Co-founder of WikiHouse, Alastair Parvin, encourages people to think of democracy as a design principle – as “the one design idea you really need”.

Incidentally, the Dutch city of Eindhoven is about to become the first city in the world to 3D print habitable houses, with the construction firm stating that such homes are to be mainstream within around 5 years.

Barking & Dagenham as a Participatory City
The largest participatory project of its kind in the UK, Every One Every Day, launched in July 2017 out of a partnership between Participatory City and Barking and Dagenham Council. Over five years, the project will work with 25,000 Barking and Dagenham residents to create over 250 neighbourhood-led projects and form over a hundred new businesses.

A central warehouse, designed as an “open access makerspace” for developing businesses and promoting growth and that is free to use for the residents of Barking and Dagenham, contains: an industrial kitchen; an everyday kitchen; workshops for fabric, wood, metal and digital projects; a computer lab; a garden; and coworking and meeting spaces. From this warehouse they also run business incubator programmes be based on specialist themes around the interests expressed by people in the borough.

The project also involves

  • Growing spaces for local food production
  • A chicken cooperative
  • Public bees
  • Batch cooking in community kitchens where ingredients are bought in bulk and everybody takes home a share. Baby foods are also made.
  • Equipment sharing
  • Sharing open-sourced templates for making children’s clothes and other things
  • Local renewable energy generation
  • A “play street” for children

The project’s underlying goal is to create social, economic and environmental resistance while increasing neighbourliness, health and wellbeing, and employment – and it is doing it.

Projects like these three should not just be “nice little side things”, but the go-to way for building communities, designing places, and really getting anything done that involves making things. Immy Kaur’s advice for policymakers and those in political control: “just start implementing it, we know it works”

Jeffrey Tumlin from Nelson\Nygaard on Anticipating the Driverless Future

One of the things that kept cropping up in conversations with the delegates, based on their experiences of walking from venue to venue at the conference, was how car-dominated the City of Cork is and that part of any strategy to take Cork from a city on the cusp of greatness over the threshold needs to seriously re-think the role of the automobile in the urban environment.

Fortuitously, the Academy had arranged for Jeffrey Tumlin, Principal at Nelson\Nygaard, an organisation specialising in holistic planning for all modes of transportation, to present to us on how we can prepare cities for a future without cars, and without drivers.

Some of the points he made address issues that are of huge importance for local authorities and transport departments in cities everywhere – and something they should be thinking about as driverless vehicles become a reality.

Tumlin opened with a statement that will underpin much of what is said next:

Congestion is an economic problem.

Time spent in congestion is money down the drain – for people, for businesses, for cities. If cities don’t have the capacity to move people or goods in more efficiently and in increasing numbers then they can’t grow.

Expanding roadway capacity to address congestion is cyclical. You add extra lanes to roads, congestion decreases, travel time decreases, so more people decide to drive, they move to the suburbs and commute, so congestion increases, travel time increases… you add extra lanes to roads. And so on. You still have congested motorways but now you have urban sprawl issues too.

In cities, streets generally can’t be widened. The public right of way – in terms of square footage that can carry people – is fixed, so cities will need to prioritise space-efficient modes of transportation: high capacity transit, walking and cycling. So where do autonomous vehicles (AVs) come in?

AVs take our existing models of moving people and things and make them cheaper and faster. They have the potential to either make cities radically better or to entrench and accelerate mobility and equality issues currently faced by societies.

Tumlin proposed that there are two scenarios that can unfold in cities as AVs become mainstream:

  1. Large scale individual ownership where everybody who can afford one has their own or uses automated rideshares like Uber, public transportation ridership collapses, roads hit capacity and congestion increases, the poor are pushed to the suburbs, urban sprawl and economic/spatial inequality increases
  2. Automated mass transit

What a choice. AVs are real, they’re coming quickly and they are not going away. City councils and transportation authorities need to take the lead now in shaping the role that they will play in cities – most crucially to help high-capacity public transport make the transition to automation before the system loses passengers to autonomous cars. Because if this happens the capacity of city streets to move people will decline, and cities won’t be able to grow. This is fairly stark.

To compete with the convenience of autonomous rideshares or privately owned autonomous vehicles, cities going to need a mass transit system where anybody can walk 5 minutes to a bus stop and always see the next bus coming.

How does this get done?

  • Move to a system where that prioritises moving passengers, not vehicles
  • Identify the bus lines that carry the most people and give them priority – make sure that they never stop.
  • Dedicate the public right of way to high capacity public transit operating every 2 minutes 24/7 (automation will reduce the marginal cost of increased frequency)
  • Implement a taxation strategy that prioritises the movement of people
    • price public transport not only according to miles of road they use, but have that price vary according to congestion levels
    • Tax empty seats in all vehicles to ensure that roads are used for the highest public good

Once high-efficiency public transport has won out over private transport, parking infrastructure can be converted into things that people actually like: on-street parking spaces into protected cycle lanes on every single street; car parks into actual parks, or housing, or employment opportunities. Cities can be turned into pleasant, liveable places that people want to be in, and that are thriving and growing sustainably because all people can move around efficiently and effectively.

In a nutshell, Tumlin’s point was that autonomous vehicles are about to transform our cities for better or for worse, and if it’s going to be for the better, local authorities need to start planning for it now.

And one side point he made:

Who’s investing the most in self-driving vehicles? Google. What does google sell? Well 96% of its revenue comes from selling ads. The fact that what is essentially an advertising company is the primary global investor in autonomous vehicles probably tells us a lot about what the future AV landscape will look like and what its monetisation model will be.

Richard Florida on the Creative Class and the New Urban Crisis

Richard Florida, social and economic urban theorist and professor at the University of Toronto, is known for his concept of the “creative class” and its implications for urban regeneration. Some of his work has been called controversial and criticised by many, but he certainly has some interesting things to say about the development of cities and how we’ve got to where we are in terms of inequality and fragmentation in urban centres.

The Rise of the Creative Class
While working as a lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Florida was part of a taskforce set up to inform the economic generation of the city, which lost 150,000 jobs during deindustrialisation.

Digging into the mechanisms by which Pittsburgh might be able to revitalise itself, they found that, despite losing its manufacturing base, the city still had clusters of knowledge workers from firms who kept their R&D operations going. It also still had good universities.

Their plan was to bring these together – to connect the industry research with university research, and reposition Pittsburgh as a tech-based economy. They built tech councils, entrepreneurial incubators, developed mechanisms to spin graduates off into high tech companies within the city.

But high tech start-ups, even ones that grew out of the infrastructure that this taskforce created, were still relocating to cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Why, when Pittsburgh had cheaper rents and cheaper labour costs (and these cities were offering no tax incentives)?

Florida found that they were moving to gain access to a pool of talented, knowledgeable and creative people who were already living in in these cities – bringing them to Pittsburgh was taking too much time.

He then asked a group of masters students at Carnegie Mellon where they wanted to go when they graduated and not a single one wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. When asked why, their responses were dominated by non-economic factors. It wasn’t about jobs, or affordable housing – there were other things that were just as important to their lives, like, culture, diversity, tolerance and energy.

Trying to capture a measure of productivity that didn’t necessarily involve education, he identified a group of people who seemed to be the driving force of the new knowledge-based economy. He called them the creative class.

He came up with three Ts of what attracts these people to locations. The first two are more traditional:

  1. Technology
  2. Talent

But those aren’t enough for economic growth in this new economy. You need the third T:

  1. Tolerance – to be a place where the creative class feel like there can be a place for them – all races, sexualities, nationalities etc.

So according to Florida’s research, this is what attracted a certain type of people to certain cities in the world – and which in turn attracted inward investment of key companies in the knowledge economy.

The New Urban Crisis
Florida labels the intensive clustering of creative knowledge in cities the greatest economic transformation the word has ever seen. And he is not surprised at the backlash. These metropolitan areas have attracted so much in the way of investment, technology, creatives, that they have become unequal, gentrified and unaffordable. This is the New Urban Crisis – winner take all urbanism.

The paradox of the new urban crisis is that it besets the most successful places most severely. There is a new inequality in cities throughout the OECD – spatial inequality. The rich move back to the cities, the middle class is eroded, the poor are pushed to the suburbs.

And it’s the backlash against this, the concentration of economic development in the central parts of a small number of cities and the falling behind of people outside, that likely led to Brexit, to Trump, to the rise of populism and the breakdown of the centre left in many European countries.

It’s clear that we need to move towards a new kind of urbanism that is inclusive. But how can this be achieved?

Florida is seeing a current opportunity for smaller and medium sized cities, like Cork where we currently are, that have not yet experienced the full “onslaught of the creative class” to harnesses their individual assets to create inclusive development and thrive without some of the externalities of the urban crisis.

There is often a focus on national agendas for urbanism, but in reality, cities are better doing it their own way. Local city builders, local anchor institutions, local universities, local civic organisations, neighbourhood groups working together to create an urbanism that is place-based, and harnesses the creative energy of everyone – from software developers to musicians to window cleaners. This is the way out.


Immediately after coming out of Richard Florida’s presentation, it was hard to be optimistic about the future of urbanism. He identified reasoning behind why our cities are becoming increasingly unequal but, while he appeared optimistic about the ability of smaller cities to thrive, didn’t offer much in the way of actual practical solutions. But, thinking back to the previous presentations:

Immy Kaur said to democratise the means to get sh*t done. To upskill people, utilise open source technologies and get everyone involved in literally making their cities. This is harnessing the creative energy of everyone, which was also Florida’s final point and his proposed solution to mitigating the new urban crisis.

Jeffrey Tumlin said that by thinking about the future of public transport, and acting now, we can use the inevitable driverless future to transform cities into places that work for everybody and that are able to move people, ALL people, around efficiently and effectively -developing cities without creating massive economic and spatial inequality.

These are solutions to inequality, to our urban areas becoming fragmented and to people getting left behind – practical solutions, that Irish local authorities can get on board with, to what Florida described as the new urban crisis. So big props to the Academy of Urbanism for putting together an afternoon of presentations that connect together so seamlessly and showcase some real cutting-edge, technology-based, very 2018 solutions for today’s urban problems.

This briefing originally appeared on LGiU Ireland at lgiuireland.ie/briefing/cities-on-the-rise-1/

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