With an “urban diary,” everyone’s a city planner

Mmmm, planning. Image: Getty.

We may inhabit the same city, but we live in different worlds.

Each of us sees our city from a slightly different angle, the view filtered through lenses of race, class, and circumstance. Even when we encounter the same scene, we experience it differently. Consider this: for a young professional in a gentrifying neighborhood, a new gastropub looks like an inviting place to knock back a few pints. But to a long-term resident facing skyrocketing rents, that same pub looks like the beachhead of an invading army. Or, imagine the imposing view of an iconic cathedral’s stone steps – to someone in a wheelchair.

These all-important individual perceptions are valuable data points; together they form a trove of information that could be used to create better cities for all. But, that information does not often inform urban planning and policy. Instead, our cities are usually shaped by a rather homogenous group of designers and planners, who typically speak the bloodless language of blueprints and building codes.

Old, largely top-down habits can change. Fortunately, we all have within us the capacity to perceive what we like and dislike about our surroundings; to respond with delight, sadness, fear, or anger, and to discover how best to improve the world around us. When crafting urban policy, plans, and related urban design, we must do a better job of finding a role for these perceptions.

To that end, in my book, Seeing the Better City, I offer a tool – the “urban diary” – that can harness the power of perception to transform how our cities evolve. An urban diary is more than either abstract idealism or the “citizen participation” of old.  It takes advantage of what many of us are already doing with our cameras and smartphones: recording what we see, and what we like or dislike, about the cities we inhabit. Indeed, many of us are regularly creating urban diaries, of a sort, on our Facebook and Instagram feeds.


We can take it a step further, by intentionally observing and documenting our experience with photographs, sketches, or notes – and utilising what I call the LENS method (Look, Explore, Narrate, and Summarise.)

It’s easy to start. For example, visit your five favorite neighborhoods and record the sights and sounds you encounter. Or write a couple of paragraphs about your morning commute.

The information collected in an urban diary can be used in multiple ways – as a scalable tool to become more mindful of our surroundings, for example, and hence better advocates for thoughtful urban planning. Or it can be used to enhance traditional land-use or design-review processes, which now typically rely on conventional oral comment or written input from affected neighbors.

The urban diary can provide an inclusive alternative to abstract, top-down prescriptions by engaging a diverse range of city residents in civic dialogue. It can be used, in the words of planner Yuri Artibise, “to reintroduce the human experience into urban planning.”

The trick, of course, is to implement the all-too-frequent lip service to equity and inclusion, and apply the information from our urban diaries to the real world of decision makers and developers. Some pioneering cities are using similar approaches to do just that. In my hometown, Seattle, the Yesler Terrace Youth Media Project used the Photovoice platform to catalogue students’ concerns about a then-pending large-scale redevelopment of their public-housing community. Otherwise-overlooked voices provided Seattle Housing Authority project managers and city officials with invaluable image-laden insights about younger residents’ perceptions about change.

In Adelaide, Australia, personal storytelling through photography became a critical element of planning the city’s future. Stage 1 of “Picture Adelaide 2040” centered on gathering 1,000 stories and photos from citizens on how they use their favorite places. The project’s summary report explains how these perceptions were integrated into planning goals and objectives.

And in Austin, Texas, “Community Character in a Box” was a city-initiated do-it-yourself toolkit that suggested ways for community members to capture images of the assets, constraints and opportunities for improvement in their neighborhoods. Significantly, the process not only taught citizens how to document their perceptions through photography but also allowed project professionals a greater understanding of neighborhood qualities and character.

Other photo- and observation-based examples show the importance of preserving culturally important everyday activities, such as fishing from urban piers or congregating in streets for regular social events. And some architects and developers – who increasingly understand the critical roles for our innate visual sense and storytelling tradition – have incorporated community input into interactive design processes that foster a sense of community empowerment in site-development efforts.

The urban diary and similar approaches can set aside the buzzwords, identity politics, and academic jargon that saturates our discussions of cities, providing a universal language for all. By capturing the perceptions of city dwellers, decision makers will be better equipped to plan cities and respond to urban change.

Everyone – regardless of background, disposition, or profession – can use their senses to explore and observe urban space. We can record what is inspirational and evocative, what seems to work in fostering an equitable, livable, inclusive city, and what does not. In this way, we can envision the better city from every angle.

Charles R. Wolfe is a long time writer on urbanism and founder and principal advisor at the Seeing Better Cities Group. He is the author of the new book Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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