Privately owned public space isn’t all bad – and 6 other lessons from planning research

Granary Square: an example of London's privately owned public spaces. Image: Commons.

Academic researchers sometimes have a reputation for abstract thinking, obtuse conclusions and raising more questions than answers. This wasn’t the case with the projects that won the Royal Town Planning Institute research awards this week, however.

The awards recognise planning research, which has practical findings to improve our towns, cities and rural areas. Here are seven lessons about cities that the winning projects highlight.

1. The sceptics are wrong – privately-owned public space can work.

From an investigation of public spaces in London, University College London found that it isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to so-called “privately owned public spaces” (that is, areas like Canary Wharf that appear to be public, but aren’t).  

Far from causing the destruction of public spaces, private ownership can often be positive, promoting renewal in many parts of the capital. The study found that there was a great diversity across the public spaces in London which cater to the needs of the public in many different ways.

2. Click and collect hasn’t killed the high street – yet.

Another piece of UCL research looked at high streets, from Peckham and Ealing to Oxford Street and Marylebone. It shows that they are still vital to London’s economy – but urgent work is needed to halt their decline.

Most importantly, they need to be managed by a single body that brings together multiple agencies. The research sets out 10 steps to reviving London’s high streets which could be adopted by town and cities across the country.

3. Threats rather than benefits are stronger triggers for environmental protection.

Despite increasing public concern for the environment, it still isn’t being taken seriously enough by decision makers. The long advocated “ecosystem services” approach puts a price on the “services” provided by the environment – think bees pollinating crops, wetlands filtering water or plants converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. This approach is based on the theory that socio-economic benefits will help the environment to properly valued and incorporated into traditional economic assessments of the costs and benefits of decisions.

But it does not always convince enough to trigger action, according to research by University College Dublin and Cardiff University. Case studies suggest that the environment is only taken seriously where there is an existing desire to do so, like a perceived threat to the countryside.

4. Informal influence on decision makers can be as important as the formal planning system.

According to more University College Dublin research there’s a “shadow planning system” dominated big developers and others with money. These “powerful actors” use this shadow system to circumvent the planning systems’ formal structures and procedures to get more favourable results.

The 20 urban planners interviewed for the research commented on the “undue influence” these groups can have and the subtle pressures they can exert on decision making.

5. Sometimes “flexible planning” can be a bit too flexible.

It is generally acknowledged that a liberal, flexible planning system is beneficial to a city’s development, enabling its economic transformation by allowing swift change in land use.

But laissez faire policies such as those adopted in Hong Kong can have unforeseen consequences, as a study by the University of Hong Kong have found. It found that relaxed permitted land-use rights have shifted the burden and costs of gaining land-use change to the end user or owners of the property.

Hong Kong’s rise as an international financial centre has been mirrored by a flexible planning system that has allowed for swift change in land use, but has given rise to unforeseen problems. Image: ExploringLife/Wikimedia Commons.

6.Planners can learn from playwrights.

In the North East of England, a play centred around a fictional town in crisis as it deals with a major planning application has been used to engage communities in planning – so successfully that some audience members having to be reminded that the story is merely fictional.

The Town Meeting is an example of so called “performance ethnography”, an unusual way to conduct research on spatial planning.  Developed by Newcastle University and an innovative theatre company, audience reactions show that older people tend to be more cynical about the planning process, while people under 30 feel much more positive about the process.

The project demonstrates that theatre is a unique and powerful way to tap into and communicate the human responses and passions embedded within the planning process. It highlights the need for planners to be more than technical experts as they increasingly take on the role of facilitator/mediator in the planning process.

7. Cities need research.

Researchers are often criticised for producing abstract work without practical outcomes or solutions to the problems our towns, cities and countryside are facing. The research projects recognised by the RTPI’s awards show that there is plenty of research out there that policy- and decision-makers need to know about.

We need research so that we can make decisions using the best available evidence to deal with the major issues facing our towns and cities, such as demographic and climate change, a changing economy, and increasing urbanisation. If we want to improve people’s living standards and live more sustainably, then not only is planning more important than ever – so is the research that can tell us how to plan better.

Dr Michael Harris is deputy head of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.