Migrants don’t undermine communities – and four other lessons from the best planning research

A man on an electric bike in Vienna, 2013. Image: Getty.

Academic researchers are often accused of not providing useful answers to real-world problems – but the projects that won the Royal Town Planning Institute research awards this week offer many interesting insights into topical issues. Here are five things we learnt.

Migrants don’t undermine communities – poor housing policy does

Immigration has become a thorny issue in many western nations and came to a fore in last year’s Brexit and Trump victories. Many reasons why communities do not welcome migrants have been put forward – xenophobia, pressure on local services, gradual loss of a share sense of community, to name but a few.

But a study by Dr Zheng Wang and colleagues from the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London on the impact of internal migration on neighbourhoods in Shanghai reveals something different.

Based on a survey of hundreds of households, the study finds that older and poorer neighbourhoods where migrants tend to settle can have low levels of social cohesion – but this is because these neighbourhoods are often targets for redevelopment. In other words, insecurity among residents about displacement predates the influx of migrants.

Indeed, neighbourhoods that have a longer history of welcoming migrants have higher levels of cohesion, and those neighbourhoods with the most migrants are also the most cohesive.

The researchers suggest that redevelopment needs to prioritise the attachment to place that existing residents have, and avoid rampant demolition. Perhaps that’s a useful lesson for the UK as well.

We can build more affordable homes – but we need to be realistic about just how long it takes

With planning permissions consistently on the up but number of houses still way too low to meet demand, many are asking: what is stopping the homes we need from getting built? Planning consultancy Lichfields has examined the data for 70 sites outside London across England and Wales to identify how quickly they can deliver, and what is stopping them.

Contrary to assumptions, the viability of affordable housing is not necessarily a barrier. Indeed, affordable housing supports higher rates of delivery – a 40 per cent increase in the annual build rate for large sites that deliver 30 per cent or more affordable housing, compared to those delivering much less.

One explanation is that affordable housing meets a different type of demand (it doesn’t undermine private market demand), and having an immediate purchaser of multiple properties (say a Registered Social Landlord) can provide cash flow and reduce risk for developers.

Large sites, while being able to deliver more homes per year over a longer time period and reduce pressure on undesirable piecemeal developments, also take longer to get going. Local authorities need to recognise this, for example, by allocating more sites with a good mix of types and sizes, and being realistic about how fast they will deliver so that consistent supply is maintained over time.

Physical space matters to the digital economy

This one comes from a study into Shoreditch’s ‘Tech City’ in East London by Juliana Martins from the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL. It reveals that, while their portfolios may be virtual, digital workers value the office, other workspaces and events (collectively, ‘extended workplaces’) for their critical role in fostering interaction and collaboration. These interactions are especially important for fluid, constantly evolving technology-based industries.

Martins’ work shows that planners and others need to go beyond the clichés if they are going to create the conditions for the creative economy. Rather than a superficial sense on how creatives like to consume (for example, coffee shops), planners need to focus on how the industries they are part of like to produce and behave as a social group, for example their tendency to seek ways to create exclusivity and build shared identity – think member-only workspaces, access to secret gigs and so on.

Cities trying to attract these industries need to ensure adequate supply of physical brick and mortar space, but also need to beware of the potential social divisions they can create.

Big data is resetting traditional geographical boundaries

Mega-regions have long been understood in geography as cities connected by their economies and infrastructure. But does this way conglomerating places really reflect what is happening on the ground?

Alasdair Rae from Sheffield University and Garrett Nelson from Dartmouth College have used five years’ worth of commuting data to create nothing less than a new economic geography of the United States.

Mmmm, maps. 

By exploiting very large datasets – in this case the daily work journeys of more than 130m Americans – for the first time the researchers have identified commuter-based mega-regions in a way that is much more useful for, say, deciding where to invest in regional transport connections.

One implication of the research is that familiar boundaries – such as cities and state lines – are less significant than we tend think, and new connections are identified more easily. For example, Florida is split into three areas: the (northern) panhandle is really part of the Alabama mega-region, central Florida is a separate region, while south Florida (centred on Miami) is effectively an entirely different economy.

The better that policymakers and planners can understand how places really work, the better they can plan for them of course, including infrastructure, transportation and even the geography of elections.

E-bikes could get more older people cycling

Nearly one in ten journeys taken by older people in Germany are by bike. In the UK, it’s only one in a hundred. Cycling could make an important contribution to active ageing, good health and prolonged independence for older people. So how can we get them cycle, and keep them cycling?

A project led by Tim Jones at Oxford Brookes University shows that alongside cycling training and better street design (which older people should be consulted on), electric bicycles can reduce the fear of difficult junctions and hills, and can have huge impact in increasing uptake of cycling among older people.

No solution was presented for dealing with unpredictable British weather.

Dr Mike Harris is head of research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.

Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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