How Hull went from crap town to City of Culture

City of contrasts: Hull in September 2017. Image: Getty.

All over the city of Hull, sculptures of moths and toads commemorate two of the town’s greatest exports: the aviator Amy Johnson and her Gipsy Moth aircraft, and the poet Philip Larkin and his symbol for the world of work, the toad. These emblems of paralysis and flight represent the city’s conflicted nature and, at once insular and cosmopolitan, Hull mirrors the cultural rift at the heart of Brexit Britain.

Hull has historically been a cosmopolitan port, promoting international investment, industry and trade. It also produces influential art and culture. The Hull Truck Theatre, the eclectic Ferens Gallery and the Skelton Hooper dance school have nurtured a bevy of talented actors, artists and dancers. It is a city of poets: Stevie Smith was born in Hull, and Larkin, Andrew Motion and Douglas Dunn all worked at its university.

Hull has also been at the epicentre of major historical events. The English Civil War was triggered in 1642, when Hull’s dignitaries refused King Charles I entry to the town. The abolitionist William Wilberforce was born in Hull, and represented the city in parliament. And during World War II, Hull’s industrial and strategic importance meant it was targeted by the German Luftwaffe; more than 90 per cent of its homes were damaged in air raids.

Clearing the rubble. Image: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

Yet the city is also economically deprived, reactionary, xenophobic and emphatically anti-European. It is a city on the edge of nowhere, an hour by train to Doncaster or Leeds – which makes it, like all island communities, both inclusive and exclusive. It is a bleak, windswept place, isolated by vast tracts of flat land and the wastes of the North Sea, hemmed in by towering wind turbines. In 2003, Hull was awarded the dubious accolade of being the worst town in Britain; it has often been considered something of a joke by the outside world.


A place of paradoxes

In my time as Head of the School of Arts at the University of Hull, I have been enthralled and exasperated by these paradoxes. For all its contradictions, Hull – now in its final months as Britain’s 2017 City of Culture – has emphatically shown that it can be a forward-thinking, outward-facing place. During the first three months of the year, 90 per cent of Hull’s residents attended at least one City of Culture event. Yet it holds an uneasy truce with its neighbours in Europe.

A few miles downstream from the mighty Humber Bridge – once the longest suspension bridge in the world – stands a sculpture by Icelandic artist Steinunn Thorarinsdottir, erected to commemorate the city’s historic ties with her homeland. The statue is a replica; the original was stolen in 2011. Hull’s Lord Mayor at the time, Colin Inglis, condemned the theft as “an assault upon the traditions and culture of this city” – but perhaps it also exemplified them.

Inglis recalled how Hull trawlermen had once toiled in a spirit of mutual support with the people of Iceland. But he neglected to mention the Cod Wars – the confrontations between Icelandic and British fishing fleets which raged from the 1950s to the 1970s. A ceremony earlier this year sought to draw a line under that conflict, marking a reconciliation between the two nations with the symbolic exchange of ships’ bells. But the jury remains out on Hull’s commitment to internationalism.

Life after Brexit

This city of contraries has lately turned its back on the continent which once nourished it. In the 2016 EU referendum, 68 per cent of Hull’s electorate voted to leave Europe – despite pledges by the German industrial giant Siemens to invest £160m in a new plant to manufacture wind turbine blades and to create 1,000 new jobs in a city where more than a third of children live in poverty.

This Brexit-voting city may not be best served by its choice. In 2014, Hull had the highest rate of unemployment benefit claims in the country. Though the optimism during the run-up to Hull’s year as City of Culture boosted investment and jobs, it remains a place of economic and social precarity. During 2016, house prices in Hull rose nearly 17 per cent, but the average house price remained at only 44 per cent of the national mean. In late 2017, you could still buy a three bedroom property in Hull, including its very own fish-and-chip shop, for under £20K.

Cheap as chips. Image: spicygreenginger/Flickr/creative commons.

Hull’s 2017 cultural programme has offered a snapshot of the riches which the city has bred and attracted – from retrospectives on the works of poet Philip Larkin and director Anthony Minghella, to the BBC’s Night at the Proms. Yet in October 2017, the Humberside region reported a 62 per cent year-on-year rise in hate crimes, the majority of which were related to race. As was the case nationally, this increase saw a particular spike immediately after the EU referendum. It is difficult to reconcile this reality with the City of Culture’s admirable ideals.

The ConversationHull is perhaps better described as a city of its own culture; one which both welcomes and spurns the outside world. This little emblem of 2017’s riven Britain, in all its aspirations, openness and isolationism, remains an enthralling and exasperating place. Looking forward, Hull’s own socio-economic sustainability – such as it is – might offer a gauge for the fate of the nation, which this year chose Hull as its cultural capital.

Alec Charles is dean of the Faculty of Arts at The University of Winchester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Smart cities need to be more human, so we’re creating Sims-style virtual worlds

The Sims 2 on show in 2005. Image: Getty.

Huge quantities of networked sensors have appeared in cities across the world in recent years. These include cameras and sensors that count the number of passers by, devices to sense air quality, traffic flow detectors, and even bee hive monitors. There are also large amounts of information about how people use cities on social media services such as Twitter and foursquare.

Citizens are even making their own sensors – often using smart phones – to monitor their environment and share the information with others; for example, crowd-sourced noise pollution maps are becoming popular. All this information can be used by city leaders to create policies, with the aim of making cities “smarter” and more sustainable.

But these data only tell half the story. While sensors can provide a rich picture of the physical city, they don’t tell us much about the social city: how people move around and use the spaces, what they think about their cities, why they prefer some areas over others, and so on. For instance, while sensors can collect data from travel cards to measure how many people travel into a city every day, they cannot reveal the purpose of their trip, or their experience of the city.

With a better understanding of both social and physical data, researchers could begin to answer tough questions about why some communities end up segregated, how areas become deprived, and where traffic congestion is likely to occur.

Difficult questions

Determining how and why such patterns will emerge is extremely difficult. Traffic congestion happens as a result of personal decisions about how to get from A to B, based on factors such as your stage of life, your distance from the workplace, school or shops, your level of income, your knowledge of the roads and so on.

Congestion can build locally at pinch points, placing certain sections of the city’s transport networks under severe strain. This can lead to high levels of air pollution, which in turn has a severe impact on the health of the population. For city leaders, the big question is, which actions – imposing congestion charges, pedestrianising areas or improving local infrastructure – would lead to the biggest improvements in both congestion, and public health.

We know where – but why? Image: Worldoflard/Flickr/creative commons.

The irony is, although modern technology has the power to collect vast amounts of data, it doesn’t always provide the means to analyse it. This means that scientists don’t have the tools they need to understand how different factors influence the way cities function and grow. Here, the technique of agent-based modelling could come to the rescue.

The simulated city

Agent-based modelling is a type of computer simulation, which models the behaviour of individual people as they move around and interact inside a virtual world. An agent-based model of a city could include virtual commuters, pedestrians, taxi drivers, shoppers and so on. Each of these individuals has their own characteristics and “rules”, programmed by researchers, based on theories and data about how people behave.

After combining vast urban datasets with an agent-based model of people, scientists will have the capacity to tweak and re-run the model, until they detect the phenomena they’re wanting to study – whether it’s traffic jams or social segregation. When they eventually get the model right, they’ll be able to look back on the characteristics and rules of their virtual citizens, to better understand why some of these problems emerge, and hopefully begin to find ways to resolve them.

For example, scientists might use urban data in an agent-based model to better understand the characteristics of the people who contribute to traffic jams – where they have come from, why they are travelling, what other modes of transport they might be willing to take. From there, they might be able to identify some effective ways of encouraging people to take different routes or modes of transport.


Seeing the future

Also, if the model works well in the present time, then it might be able to produce short-term forecasts. This would allow scientists to develop ways of reacting to changes in cities, in real time. Using live urban data to simulate the city in real-time could help to inform the managers of key services during periods of major disruption, such as severe weather, infrastructure failure or evacuation.

Using real-time data adds another layer of complexity. But fortunately, other scientific disciplines have also been making advances in this area. Over decades, the field of meteorology has developed cutting-edge mathematical methods, which allow their weather and climate models to respond to new weather data, as they arise in real time.

The ConversationThere’s a lot more work to be done before these methods from meteorology can be adapted to work for agent-based models of cities. But if they’re successful, these advancements will allow scientists to build city simulations which are driven by people - and not just the data they produce.

Nick Malleson, Associate Professor of Geographical Information Systems, University of Leeds and Alison Heppenstall, Professor in Geocomputation, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.