How future planners’ views on Covid-19 provide grounds for optimism

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by Hannah Hickman….

The news can feel unremittingly challenging and I oscillate between trying to engage with the detail and wanting to ignore it all in the vague hope that next time I look, a future more Covid free reality might be closer on the horizon. Anecdotally, colleagues, friends and family feel similarly.

In a ‘seeking to engage phase’ last month, two headlines particularly struck me: the first, signalled that those aged 25-34 are at the highest risk of redundancy; the second, and more encouraging, suggested ‘amongst, all the doom and gloom there’s positives[1].

It drew me to contemplate the new cohort of planning students starting their studies this academic year. For undergraduates, the 25-34 age bracket may still seem a little way off, but for post-graduates, many of them in or near that age bracket, the desire for a swift move into employment – and employment that offers security – is likely to be a pressing concern. Of course, some students may already be in work, either in planning or in another sector to fund their studies and gain experience- recently increasing numbers taking a ‘degree apprenticeship’ route into their planning studies are an important subset of the former. Whatever a student’s personal circumstances, the derivative economic impacts of Covid are likely to seed worries.

There is contemporary commentary on the student experience in Covid-times and much of this is legitimately focussed on their learning experiences. There has been little commentary, however, on how Covid might be impacting student’s perceptions of their future careers: particularly if their course of study has a defined career path. This led me to reflect on the second headline: have students’ perspectives on planning as a career or course of study changed because of COVID, and in any positive ways?


Source: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/covid-19-what-does-local-lockdown-mean-uk-universities

In 2019, UWE, with the support of the Royal Town Planning Institute, instigated a new longitudinal study to seek to understand the motivations expectations of emergent planners, in response to what was felt to be an ‘empty vessel’[2] of work on young planners and their perspectives[3]. In the second year of the study, in addition to repeating the questions posed in 2019, we asked students new to planning in 2020: Do you feel that Covid has impacted upon your views on planning and your own career plans?”.

I wondered: did their responses provide grounds for optimism in the terms of the second headline, or reveal concerns about their future careers, more aligned with the first headline? With a response from over 220 undergraduate and postgraduate students from planning schools across the UK and Ireland, their views are worth listening to.

Despite some inevitable denigration of individual detail, their responses can be grouped into the following three themes: the first about perceptions of planning; the second about ideas of place; and the third about work.

For several students their experiences of and perspectives on Covid had emboldened their ideas about the value of planning: seeing planning as more not less relevant in a post-covid world:

“it has made me view planning as a resilient tool for making better places”

“it has shown me if the will is there planners/designers could make an immediate difference to streetscapes”

“I have always believed that reasonable planning is the basic aspiration for the development of a city or even a country. This epidemic made me realize the importance of planning and strengthened my views”.

For these young planners, Covid has provided motivation to think about the role of planning, fuelling a desire to build on the experiences of early lock-down to achieve positive change, particularly the environmental benefits of a quietened city. As one student observed: “early lockdown showed us that we can make a difference to pollution and climate change”.

They also alluded to the need to think differently about the ways in which ‘we do planning’, “I think we will need to re-evaluate the places we design and create”, “we should consider the unexpected when we make plans”, and “Planners’ role in the coming decade will be to reimagine these cities once again in the new [Post Covid] context”.

Many students’ ideas of space and place had shifted as a result of Covid. In particular, the value and importance of home has been heightened, along with a desire for more private outdoor space. One student wrote passionately about the disparities in experience between rich and poor: “lockdown has been detrimental to mental health due to a lack of parks, no gardens and extremely small houses”, andanother that “the density of cities in the future will need to be considered, will we all want to live so closely together?”. One student simply stated: it’s made me realise the importance of green space and planning for health”.These students were also quickly attuned to some of the perversities of policy in lockdown and questioned the potential future impacts of, for example, such a major reduction in public transport usage.


Source: https://www.theplanner.co.uk/news/covid-19-green-space-should-be-a-priority-in-local-plans

Perhaps unsurprisingly a significant number responded by focussing on employment opportunities. One student lamented, Covid has complicated an already complicated world while also making career planning more difficult” and the words “concern”, “unsure”, “impossibility”, “uncertainty”, “difficulty”, and “confusing”, were frequently used to express worries about future work. Others, however, suggested that Covid “may open up more job opportunities through more flexible working”, and that the flexible working resulting from Covid “enabled a career move”, and “caused me to re-evaluate my career and choose to go into planning”.

None of these short threads are in and of themselves inherently surprising, and as with all surveys, one is left wanting to more about the individual circumstances to understand perspectives and experiences in greater depth. Nevertheless, briefly delving into this data has led to two brief conclusions that reflect back on the headlines that provided my initial motivation for this piece. Firstly, as a profession we need to be attuned to the concerns that future planners’ have about their career choices in a post-Covid world, and consider what can be done to best support them and alleviate their concerns against the backdrop of the pandemic. Secondly, the many articulate and thoughtful responses to the ‘Covid’ question in our survey signal a motivated cohort of young planners in the pipeline: this provides enormous grounds for optimism.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/health-55802623

[2] T Taşan-Kok and M Oranje: ‘Young practitioners’ reflections on contemporary ethical challenges’. In T Taşan-Kok and M Oranje: From Student to Urban Planner: Young Practitioners’ Reflections on Contemporary Ethical Challenges. Routledge, 2018, p.17

[3] More information is available via: https://www.uwe.ac.uk/research/centres-and-groups/spe/projects/young-planners-expectations-and-motivations


The key to post COVID-19 recovery: community leadership

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By Robin Hambleton….

As well as causing appalling suffering and misery, the COVID-19 pandemic is opening up new possibilities for the future.  An uplifting feature of the way that communities have responded to the COVID-19 calamity has been the spectacular expansion of self-organising community groups working at neighbourhood, or village, level to help the vulnerable and the needy.

While researching my new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better, I encountered many heart-warming stories of how local communities have responded with great imagination to the disruption of local food supply chains, taken steps to protect the most vulnerable in society, and engaged in all manner of creative, problem-solving activities at the local or hyper-local level.

My research suggests that cities and localities across the world now face four major challenges at once: 1) The COVID-19 health emergency, 2) A sharp, pandemic-induced economic downturn, 3) The climate change emergency, and 4) The disastrous growth of social, economic and racial inequality in many countries.

The good news is that many cities and localities are already developing and delivering progressive strategies that address these four challenges at one-and-the-same time.

An example of good civic leadership – Freiburg, Germany

The photographs in this piece are from one of the cities now leading the way in responding to current societal challenges.  Freiburg is, of course, very well known for pioneering high quality city planning and urban design. 

For example, the Academy of Urbanism joined with the City of Freiburg in publishing The Freiburg Charter for Sustainable Urbanism in 2011.The Academy wanted not just to recognise the achievements of civic leaders and city planners in Freiburg, but also to spread the word about their approach to an international audience.

What is not so well known is that Martin Horn, the young and energetic politician, who was elected as Mayor of Freiburg in 2018, is stepping up the progressive ambition of Freiburg’s policy making.  For example, he is insisting that, as well as meeting very high environmental standards, over 50% of new housing in the city must be affordable. Yes, that’s 50%. 

Detailed plans for Dietenbach, a new eco-friendly neighbourhood for 15,000 people, deliver on this objective.  Submitted to Freiburg City Council last month, these plans also provide open space, schools, sports facilities, day-care centres and local shopping opportunities.  

Meanwhile, the imaginative Freiburg holds together (Freiburg halt zusammen) digital network bundles together numerous citizen-oriented information services and activities for residents struggling with COVID-19 pressures.

Freiburg is just one of the progressive cities featured in my book.  Other cities discussed include Bristol, Copenhagen, Dunedin, Mexico City and Portland.

Children enjoying outdoor space in Vauban, Freiburg, Germany. (Source: the author).

Lessons for UK policy, practice and research

Three lessons for UK policy, practice and research emerge. 

First, the government’s 2020 White Paper, Planning for the Future, needs to be discarded as quickly as possible.  It contains proposals that will not just destroy effective approaches to local planning but also weaken councillor and citizen involvement in local decision-making.[i]   

The evidence from Freiburg, and other enlightened cities, demonstrates that high quality urban development designed to address the climate emergency, provide housing opportunities for the less well off in society, and build liveable communities requires more planning, not less.[ii]

Second, councillors in Freiburg, like all those in Germany, have the constitutional protection to do what they think is right for the people living in their locality.  German local authorities have, then, the freedom to do things differently.  This is not the case in the UK and it is essential to rebalance power within our country via a constitutional convention.  Comparative research can help to make the case for giving local power a major boost.

Third, researchers studying how to create sustainable cities and localities need to give much more attention to power relations.  Advancing our understanding of what needs to be done to co-create liveable cities and towns is vital.  However, just as important, research needs to explore how to bring about progressive change in society. 

What is the power system that is leading to unsustainable urban development?  How can this power system be changed?  What lessons can we learn from cities that are already delivering sustainable development?  These are the kinds of questions that deserve more active consideration by researchers studying modern urban, rural and regional development.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Film of book launch

Robin Hambleton’s new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19, was published in October 2020.  The book launch, organised by the Bristol Festival of Ideas, includes contributions from Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, who has written a Foreword to the book, and Professor Sheila Foster, University of Georgetown, Washington DC.  This discussion, which was chaired by Andrew Kelly, Director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, is available here: https://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/cities-and-communities-beyond-covid-19/


References

[i] Hambleton R. (2020) ‘Strong place-based leadership is instrumental in the battle against COVID-19’ The Planner, 19 October.

[ii] The key suggestion here is that public policy needs to advance caring in modern society – meaning caring for others and caring for the natural environment on which we all depend.  See Hambleton R. (2020) ‘COVID-19 opens a new political window’, Town and Country Planning, November/December, 89, 11/12, 366-370.

‘Creativity sustains us, and so does community’: reflections on listening to art in the city.

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By Katie McClymont….

I was privileged to be invited by Rising Arts Agency[1] as a ‘keynote listener’ in their performance of a conversation on the question of ‘who is allowed space to create in Bristol?’ on 4th October 2020. This was part of the Centre of Gravity exhibition in Soapworks/the old Gardiner Haskins[2] building in Bristol. Sitting in a circle for part of a conversation which carried on all afternoon and featured inputs from various young artists, I was one of a selection of ‘listeners’ who were allowed to contribute only one sentence to this conversation.

I will here try to outline to some of the things I heard, and reflect on where this conversation may lead. I will not do justice to the depth or breadth of the conversation in this small space, nor do I claim that the voice written here is anything other than mine, but I am doing this because I want to express what I heard when I was listening because I feel being in a position which gives me an audience for my words, I have a responsibility to take this conversation forward.

I am going to focus on three themes which I heard weave throughout the conversation: change, ownership, and the nature of space. This does not represent the totality of what was said, or the totality of what I heard (and I don’t assume these to be the same thing), but these ideas resonated with me, thinking as a planner about more equitable and inspiring urban spaces for the future.

The conversation opened with a discussion about the (in)affordability of space, for living and for arts, and the need for the democratisation of space at all scales- the room, the building and the city. This rapidly linked to ideas of gentrification- including a reflection on whether this conversation itself was a form of gentrification- and the nature of change. Participants saw change as inevitable: but the emotional impact (as well as financial benefits) being unevenly distributed. Questions were raised about who has to let go of the things to which they are emotionally attached for change to come about in ‘the ecology of capitalism’. Change in the city is about the movement of people, and the acceptability of this is tied to money- who brings money in by making changes, who brings a cost by arriving somewhere? Who is let in, what is protected?

Participating in the the conversation as a ‘keynote listener’

These questions on belonging, and voice in change linked to the discussions of ideas of ownership. Ownership as paradoxical term- it implies ‘home’, safe space, and comfort but also unfairness, because not all have it- not everyone has somewhere they (feel they) own. Ownership was described as individual, financial, emotional- and questions raised of how can cities accommodate all of these sorts of ownership. More negatively, ownership was also seen as limiting, tying down, holding back, stuck in one place. This relates to the impact a space has on the product or performance of all artists and the implications of the difficult balance between stability and trappedness. Moreover, this is of particular concern to young artists, asking how old do we have to be to be taken seriously- when are we no longer emerging, and therefore have the legitimacy to claim space and to remake the city in their ways, rather than being invited into space: having space for guests and visitors, rather than being visitors and guests in spaces which are owned by someone else.

Debating change and ownership in this way questions static understandings of space and place. These are questions of scale (the city itself as a space) and of purpose (the role of arts as bring about social change).  Physical space is important for reflection and connections and for new ways of experiencing ourselves- beyond the space of the phone. A particular point here was the potential of abandoned buildings: emptiness may be seen as a problem in planning/property development but offers so much scope for artists, particularly young artists, who need for ‘test space’ for experimentation without gatekeepers. Emptiness or abandonment here are not just physical or economic states, but ones of meaning-the creation of a vessel waiting to be (re)filled with a different essence. In some ways, this comes back to the first point- about being priced out of the market and the fear of gentrification. Where can be left empty for temporary inhabitation, experimentation and expression when everything has a price tag?

At a time of such uncertainty brought about by Covid, and compounded by proposed reforms to the planning system, we have scope to rethinking priorities in society- and in the cities and neighbourhoods in which this society lives. Can we think more deeply about sustaining places- places which sustain us, and in which we manage change in more inclusive and just ways- so that who is allowed space to create, and allowed to create space, is a question of conversation not just of cost.


[1] See https://rising.org.uk/ and in particular https://rising.org.uk/who-is-allowed-space-to-create/

[2] https://www.centreofgravity.uk/about