07 December, 2018

The post-politics of offering free transit




In a blog entry posted earlier this year, we provided some background information on, and context to, the mobility quandaries that are associated with Luxembourg’s new Science City and Belval Campus. Since then, nothing has actually improved. In fact, things have gotten even worse, given the various road blockings, construction projects, and general transit chaos organised by the set of transit infrastructure providers in the area. All of this renders the seamless journey into and out of Belval even more difficult than before.

On that note, and more as a joke, we also referred to some of the fantasies that were circulating during the summer election campaigns, where some political parties were promising free public transit across the entire country should they win the national election in mid-October. Now, after the new coalition government comprising the blue (right liberals), red (apparent socialist) and (light) green governing parties has agreed upon a new agenda for the coming five years, and the ministers have been sworn in, it’s all there: Free transit will be introduced across the whole country by some time in 2020. The news on this decision then spread across the planet, with massive media coverage in outlets such as the Guardian’s international edition, the New York Times, the BBC, Forbes, Time Magazine, other broadcasts across Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia, and in different languages. The news even reached Bernie Sanders who congratulated the Grand Duchy on its (apparent) accomplishment, which has already received 13,000 likes on facebook.

Yet, the perception of free transit is as divided as the view on our shiny new Belval Campus: While visitors from abroad are struck by the architecture and the urban design, those who have to commute to Belval and inhabit the offices for work every day have a different view. In the light of the cold and windy setting of the urban fabric that lacks green space, offers overpriced commercial outlets, and leaves little to nothing for people to self-organise (Gaart Belval remains one of the few examples), the pre-fab character of the site is only topped by the building, property, and infrastructure management that usually appears rigid, random, and not particularly devoted to users needs.

Likewise, that Luxembourg should receive such vast international (not domestic) praise as the second country (not the first!) worldwide after Estonia to implement free public transit nationwide is rather irritating to those who are actually using the system on a daily basis. A small reminder here as well: Luxembourg is, indeed, a country, but it is also a de facto city-state, whose urban agglomeration spans three borders. Admiration of its nation-wide free transit as if this were any kind of beacon to other countries around the world is thus blown entirely out of proportion. But more to the point, fees are clearly not the problem – not in an admittedly small (and wealthy) country where you can travel from the Belgian to the German border for just 2 Euros, buy a daily ticket for 4 Euros, or invest in a subsidised annual pass for less than 200 Euros (which many of us are using). The problem lies in the recent socio-economic evolution of Luxembourg, in its structural framework conditions, and in the state of transit provision which an evaluation of 'poor' would actually be rather generous.

These issues were already outlined in an earlier blog-post last June, so there is no need to be overly repetitive. However, in a nutshell there are three factors that come into play here. Firstly, there is the rapid growth of the country that has recently added 100,000 people to its population every eight years, while annual GDP growth has steadied at 2-4% for some time now. Secondly, many infrastructures (including roads, rail tracks, stations and rolling materials) are already in a critical state, meaning that catching up with these growth rates is almost impossible to achieve. Thirdly, it is the path dependant, old-school organisation of transit provision and the really poor customer dedication that make the daily commute definitely not fun (which might be too high an expectation). Effectively, it is a mess, very slow, and completely unreliable.

In the light of these deficiencies, should we really care about fees? No, of course not. What will happen when transit will be offered for zero? Here, the public transit system will quite likely become even more crowded and dysfunctional. And, as soon as the free riders notice that it doesn’t work, they will be lost for change. Many will decide instead to get into their cars, because they are simply faster and more reliable. Those who can't afford, are unable, or are simply not a fan of driving, will be punished further. Free transit also tells a delicate political story, in two parts. Firstly, the 40-60 million Euros per annum that will need to be compensated by tax-payers will also be collected from cross-border commuters, who, by the same token, won’t benefit significantly from the last penny-free mile into or out of Luxembourg. More crowded trains and buses will make their journey even more difficult. Thus, the society’s divide between foreign and autochthon might only be further reinforced.

Secondly, it is no coincidence that the idea was not born of the (green) transport minister – who is against it, as his party is as well. Suspiciously enough, the proposal came from the Prime Minister, whose political party has the least affiliation to public services, rail and transit across the political spectrum: The right-wing liberals. And, they probably just weren’t aware what they were doing. One can assume that they have little experience with the local trains and busses, because one might otherwise expect a more convincing set of proposals to improve the system as a whole. However, this would necessarily mean going against the vested interests of automobilists, a risk that liberals are never prone to take. (Also, on a more non-scientific note, it is curious that the announcement of free transit came alongside the legalization of cannabis, which was proposed by the same government accord: Is there a reason that the two are brought together?).

So, free transit in Luxembourg is not a recipe that others ought to copy and follow. It can run a system to its death that is already beyond its limits, thus revealing that the priorities set in the political realm are more or less going wrong. And, the verve with which Luxembourgers now appreciate the global media attention that their small country has received triggered by the free transit ticket, provides a further indication that this idea was, from the very beginning, not conceived of in order to solve real-world problems. It was a political stunt whose purpose was purely about media coverage and PR – a sort of, “mobilities of nation branding,” if you want. From this perspective, it was a brilliant stroke.

This impression coincides perfectly with a recent reading of Crystel Legacy’s (University of Melbourne) nice paper on ‘The post-politics of transport: Establishing a new meeting ground for transport politics,’ published in 2017, in the Australian Geographical Research. By referring to the earlier works of scholars who observed a drying out of the political caused by managerial policy-making, she addresses post-political governance environments described as ‘a situation in which the political– understood as a space of contestation and agonistic engagement– is increasingly colonised by politics– understood as technocratic mechanisms and consensual procedures that operate within an unquestioned framework of representative democracy, free market economics, and cosmopolitan liberalism’ (Wilson & Swyngedouw, 2015, p.6).

In such contexts, free transit is nothing more than a post-political pill that pretends to do good and is easily sold to the rest of the globe, while all the wicked, real world problems of getting from point A to B and back again remain unsolved. Reacting to the international media that has praised and fawned over Luxembourg in the past couple of days: i) the framework conditions in the Grand Duchy and the Greater Region urban agglomeration are really challenging; ii) the current state of the public transit system is the backlash of three decades of ignorance and non-action in the transport and infrastructure domains; and last but not least iii) the addiction to the motor car that makes small but powerful Luxembourg look increasingly like SUV-country is far from overcome. Free transit will not lead to improvements in terms of functionality or sustainability. And, if the price is not the problem, then the rest must be tackled first. But this less appealing bitter pill, would neither make the headlines nor place the country spotlight of the global media.

And now for a couple of factual corrections to the errors that were circulating in the international press (see statistiques.public.lu):
- There are no 400k commuters swarming into the City of Luxembourg; rather, there are approximately 422k work places, total, across the Grand Duchy;
- The population of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is 602k as of 2018;
- The population of the City of Luxembourg is 116k as of 2018 - By day, the influx of workers employed in the City roughly doubles this population;
- The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg receives a daily influx of 192k cross-border commuters from the border regions of Germany, France, and Belgium.

Markus Hesse and Constance Carr

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22 November, 2018

Paper Presented at the Affordable Housing Forum: Towards new Cultures of Affordable Housing?

Big thank you to the ETH-Wohnforum and the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) for organising the 3rd Affordable Housing Forum: Towards new Cultures of Affordable Housing? last week, November, 12-13, in Luxembourg. A complete programme overview is available at LISER's website, here.  I had the pleasure of being one of the speakers. My paper,The socio-spatial production of non-market housing in urban regions under growth pressure: Thinking comparatively and relationally, is available in this entry of Urbanization Unbound. A pdf version of this is downloadable here.



Introduction
This paper explores non-market housing in urban regions under growth pressure, and aims to open up a conversation about how modes of housing and related policies might be conceptualized in urban geographical scholarship, in order to broaden the possible range of housing policy measures beyond the rather narrow imperative of market solutions, that prevail here and elsewhere. The project is extension of a larger project that I have been working on for many years together with Markus Hesse examining spatial planning problems in urban regions under growth pressure. We began with exploring sustainable spatial development in Luxembourg, then we studied of regional governance in Switzerland for comparison, and now we are moving on towards one component that is central to the topic: housing and housing in non-market contexts. But how might one effectively conceptualize housing, given what we know about recent scholarship in urban studies? I'd like to argue that (1) there is much to be learned with urban comparison; (2) following the policy mobility literature, simply importing ready-made templates would be, at best (!), risky; (3) Storper's (2014) application of bricolageis useful inspiration for understanding urban transformation processes that are forever changing and in flux.

Growing out of SUSTAINLUX and SUSTAINGOV
The idea to dive deeper into the study of non-market housing arose out of two previous research projects (SUSTAINLUX and SUSTAINGOV). The aim of the first was to understand the governance processes behind spatial planning for sustainable development in Luxembourg. The second added a comparative dimension by examining the similar processes in a second urban region, the Glatt Valley located in the Canton of Zurich. Bolstered by conceptual approaches in urban studies, such as policy mobility, scale theory, enclave urbanity, integrative planning, and discourse theory, and armed with constructivist methodologies, these projects revealed the hidden dimensions of policy-making and challenges associated with urban growth pressure (see Affolderbach & Carr 2016; Carr 2014,2018; Carr et al. 2015; Carr & McDonough 2016; Hesse 2014; Krueger et al. 2018).It was found that the pursuit of sustainable urban development was wrought with contradictions, in respect to planning styles and/or patterns of governance, and there were a number of discrepancies between the objectives of planning policies and the complexity of problems. Intense strains on land, infrastructural and human resources, the dominance of market actors, and the dilemmas these issues raised, left policy-makers in both the Grand Duchy and in Switzerland ineffective in steering urban development in sustainable ways. A number of problems have been generated while some worsened. Some of these – the mobility issue – for example, many of you probably experienced just getting to this conference. But immediate social necessities, such as the generation of liveable neighbourhoods, cohesive communities, or other typologies of housing that might provide healthy means of living to wider portions of the population, certainly fell by the wayside (Hesse & Becker 2010) or were limited in their capacity to provoke change beyond the micro-local scale (Carr & Affolderbach 2014; Carr & McDonough 2016; Doerr & Carr 2014).

So, our research so far contributed to the loudening chorus of scholars who recognize that sustainable urban development is wrought with problems, contradictions and paradoxes (Krueger & Gibbs 2007; Elgert & Krueger 2012; Curran & Hamilton 2018; Temenos & McCann 2014; Bunce 2018; Anguelovski 2014), and from this the goal is to drill down on problems of housing in urban spaces under growth pressure, where development is market-led.Clearly in Luxembourg today, while the economic successes are repeatedly acknowledged, the negative consequences – especially with respect to housing – remain well known. Take these two examples:

“Luxembourg has become the victim of its own economic success affecting urban design, the development of housing and the programming of the built environment. It has led to the imbalanced ratio between work places and available dwellings, as well as to a dysfunctional housing market driven by speculation and unable to satisfy the needs of many people. […] It is no longer given that people who live and work in Luxembourg are able to find affordable housing there. In reaction, people are increasingly moving to the adjacent regions of neighbouring countries in order to fulfil their needs and dreams of housing there,” (LUCA 2016: 8).

Or, from the Prime Minister himself:

“The major challenges faced not only by Luxembourg, but by most European countries [is] to detect and decry the shortage of living space, […] to show new concepts […] paving the way to both socially and economically sustainable solutions,” (LUCA 2016, 4).

In fact, housing is clearly a major challenge in many urban regions across Europe and North America where local policy-makers and inhabitants are confronted with growth pressure (Porter & Shaw 2009; Hulchanski 2010; Hesse & Becker 2010; Christmann 2018; August & Walks 2018, Moos 2016; Krueger et al. 2018;).For decades in the post-war years, non-market forms of housing – that is, housing kept off the market and controlled by the state (Walks & August 2008) – was understood as a key protection against displacement and other negative effects of market-led land use, and indeed were largely successful in making housing available to lower income households. However, the onset of new socio political economic values (i.e. neoliberalization) across Anglo-American cities and many European cities changed all this. In some instances, central or federal governments downloaded responsibilities of finance, provision, management and maintenance of housing to finance-strapped municipalities. In other instances, the state simply sold publicly owned properties or demolished them (Bernt 2017). Recent work also exposes how housing has morphed into a major investment asset in globalized financial markets (Rolnik 2013; Walks & Clifford 2015). The net effect of these changes has been the formation of a market-oriented, commercialized, and competitive form of housing provision.Where welfare states have abdicated responsibility of housing provision to private property markets, they are today either no longer willing or able to intervene (Czischke 2009; Porter & Shaw 2009, Rolnik 2013). Housing shortages and limited options outside of the private ownership or landlord-tenant models are nowadays the norm. Alternatives to the for-profit approach to housing and structures of provision that meet current needs and are in short supply to say the least.

How might housing be conceptualized differently?
Because such housing problems are not unique to the urban areas that were the focus of our previous research, (i) it is essential (and essentially instructive) to learn from cases abroad, while ii) avoiding the trap of the copy-and-paste belief that is so common in urban policy circles. More broadly, there are good reasons to view urban spaces in comparison (see Robinson 2011; Ward 2009). One of these reasons is that there is an interest in learning more about how challenges are addressed in different places, by different sets of actors, and different institutional constraints/possibilities. This is clearly possible with housing – and it has been done before (!). Because housing isunderstood to be a central component of sustainable urban development – or even the “secret life of cities” (Jarvis et al. 2001) and important spaces of, “sharing, environmental awareness, and citizen participation,” (Bresson & Denèfle 2015, 14) – a range of housing forms have been studied and documented that offer insights into new modes of housing, such as eco-urbanism, such as housing co-operatives, eco-villages, or cohousing. Holden (2018), for example, has compiled an impressive catalogue at Ecourbanism Worldwide. These offer insights into possible alternatives to home ownership or classical landlord-tenant arrangements, which might also ameliorate problems associated with existing patterns and structures of market-led land use. There is a lot to explore. However, as Schmid et al. (2018: 21) state, “the urban world has fundamentally changed in the last few decades [with] a wide range of urbanisation processes … generating a multitude of urban outcomes, resulting in differentiated, complex and often surprising urban landscapes.” This challenges conventional understandings of urban space, and so as the authors argue, comparative studies can facilitate further common understandings. In the same vein, it is a call to understand housing challenges in their urban context. The policy mobilities literature (Ward 2017) iterates a similar message: Urban comparison cannot simply be about finding solutions/recipes because policies cannot simply be transferred from one place to another. Context matters.

For the current investigation, the four cities of focus are Luxembourg, Zurich, Freiburg, and Toronto. All urban regions under growth pressure, experiencing both heightened economic activity, increased immigration of businesses and labour, and in each case market-led development is yet to provide any solutions to the housing challenges. At the same time, all have different shifting socio-political geographies of alternative non-market housing. I argue that it is necessary to seek out these different experiences, the different lessons learned, and aim to understand them contrasted dialectically with one another, while engaging with Schmid et al.'s (2018) ever-renewing urban imaginaries. So far, what we observe from preliminary tours of the areas and a couple of interviews is that it is still not clear if the alternative developments are in fact alternative. While many practices such as shared financing or living environments are a stark departure from the model of single-owner occupancy, many – especially recent ones – are in the form of posh urban renewal projects that serve upper and middle classes. Modes of non-market housing that can secure affordability for lower income or precarious groups are still relatively seldom. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to explore the relationship between these innovative housing projects and wider socio-political economic urban transformation processes. A conceptual approach is thus needed that will move beyond a straight forward compendium of innovative and sexy projects, and enables us to understand what is under the hood where clues to some of the unanswered critical questions might be found (Sørvoll & Bengtsson 2016; Scheller & Thörn 2018). For example, to what degree are existing so called alterative projects part and parcel of wider for-profit systems of land use? Or, how do alternative projects deepen social polarities more than they ameliorate?

I would like to argue that Storper's (2014) concepts of bricolagein urban governance are of use here.It is well known that bricolagerefers to the kinds of practices that unfold when notfollowing a recipe, or a prescribed routine. Rather, bricolageis, "the putting together of multiple cultural forms in order to innovate and create something new or more fit for purpose," Phillimore et al. (2016: 7).Storper extended this concept to consider how metropolitan urban spaces are managed, and argued that bricolageis a means of conceptualizing how actors mobilize resources, sometimes in spontaneous and unexpected ways to generate an end result. He argued that even if “tinkering is far from perfect, [if] there is little or no tinkering, it is probably a sign of a paralyzed political system.”Bricolage, he argued, is a very useful lens because urban regions are necessarily fragmented and forever in flux, polities and actor constellations are shifting, needs are continually changing, and the mysterious workings of the invisible hand is forever at work (ibid.).

Drawing inspiration from this, the de facto bricolage of non-market housing can be examined – i.e. the assortment of actors and institutions and their disparate and unexpected sets of resources of non-market housing approaches – in order to understand their institutional contexts, their socio-spatial modes of production, and respective socioeconomic and political implications. Bricolagecan be harnessed to do this from a variety of angles. First, it allows for an investigation of socioeconomic systems that structure non-market housing, while also looking at the role of actors and institutions in the production of those systems. Second, the gap between different belief systems/traditions/intentions and processes/outcomes/consequences can be scrutinized. This has methodological ramifications as well, as it resembles Krueger et al.'s (2018) ‘interpretive institutionalist’ approach, where the beliefs and traditions of actors and associated institutional arrangements in regions under growth pressure were examined. Third, bricolageenables an examination of the pressure points in existing networks of bricoleurs, exposing moments of risk or frailty. This approach can thus offer insight into the grounded context – i.e. the specific processes that structure the political economy of, housing – that simultaneously expose inhibiting factors of successful policy implementation. As an example, Walks and Clifford (2015) invoked the concept of bricolage to demonstrate how neoliberalization and state-led financialization of the housing market went hand in hand, where "the federal state and key state institutions as core ‘bricoleurs’ in this system" (pg. 1625).

The need to investigate non-market modes of housing is more than obvious, given that the orthodoxy of market-driven development is demonstrably flawed: Supply is always lagging demand (which means that we need a politic about the building stock). It delivers to the highest bidder and thus cannot provide a social need to less competitive or precarious portions of the population, and its main beneficiaries are land owners and developers. One might also observe that the call for new housing guided by the rules of the market consistently fall short because new supply continually lags demand (which means that we need a politic about the existing stock, Bestandspolitik). These trends have been observed over and over again in many cities that are floundering under their own growth pressure. This alone is reason enough for comparative study, but so is a nuanced study of the bricolageof institutions and actors that structure the systems of non-market housing that require attention. As for the real-world search for ways to ameliorate the housing crisis, exposing a bricolage of practices may also elucidate some inspiration for local problems that are locally specific – solutions that might promise alternative options precisely because they are i) notthe big-bang that politics and the media are always waiting for but that never come to fruition, and ii) they are not ready-for-wear recipes transferred from elsewhere. Rather, they would be solutions that reflect actual local processes, dilemmas, and contradictions, involving the necessary set of local actors and institutions in the position to endorse relevant change.

Constance Carr

Acknowledgements – I am grateful to the members of the Urban Geography group at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning for continued feedback and support. These include Markus Hesse, Tom Becker, Michael Rafferty, and Catherine Wong. I also thank the many partners in this research: Claude Ballini, Susannah Bunce, Jennifer Gerend, Annika Mattissek, Rahel Nüssli, Christian Schmid, and Nory Schneider. Thank you, too, to the critical and constructive feedback from the audience of the Affordable Housing Forum, 2018.

References
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21 November, 2018

Planning 2020 - The Raynsford Review of Planning in England

Just yesterday, the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) of England released a review of the English planning system, called "Planning 2020". The review process was guided by the President of the TCPA, the former UK Minister of Housing Nick Raynsford, and was supported by a Review Task Force composed of professionals, representatives of related associations, and academics. The review gives an excellent overview of the current state of the English planning system, which was discussed against the background of its basic commitment to co-ordinate land use decisions in a way that provides better (sustainable) places for people. Over a total of 128 pages, the review demonstrates how this commitment has become difficult to achieve, for reasons that were situated both within the planning system and beyond, in framed in increasingly difficult conditions, and embedded in messy politics.
Even though the review assesses spatial planning in the rather specific English context, readers can nevertheless learn about the current state of planning in places characterised by deindustrialisation and rising services and tech economies, resulting in uneven development (pressure of growth here, and emptiness there), environmental degradation, a palate of mobility issues, and institutional inertia and blockades. In the light of such developments, planning is not only facing complexities of all sorts, but is also confronting massive lobbying and political pressure from processes of deregulation and neoliberalisation that has made planning officers appear as the "enemies of enterprises" (according to the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is quoted by the report).
So, while the report is rather specific as to the overly centralised (and massively contested) political and institutional system of England, the review brings together some striking assessments concerning how healthy (or unhealthy) planning ought to be considered in more general terms. It is thus an exciting read, and actually a "must read" for anybody interested in spatial planning. For this purpose, the eight different sections of the report can also be read separately, and the same applies to the background papers that are provided on TCPA's website as well. There is a lot to learn from this, and to reflect upon: the fundamentals of planning (what is planning, and why should we care about it?); the institutional background and its evolution (why do we have a planning system? what went wrong with planning?); and, the kinds of recommendations that might make the planning system more effective.
I have already recommended this piece to the students of my planning class, as I believe that it is definitely worth taking into account. One might wish such an informed, fair and independent review of planning systems and practices could also be undertaken in other countries, such as some of those on the European Continent. (Any idea which one comes to my mind first?).
Markus Hesse