How can cities support inclusive prosperity?

Urban planning and design for inclusive prosperity?

Several months ago I was invited to participate in a conference on Inclusive Prosperity, having previously attended an event at John McAslan and Partners on Social Entrepreneurship.  I was slightly hesitant that it was being organised not only by the Policy Network but also a political party, however my interest in the topic was sufficient to accept without first sighting the conference schedule.  When the schedule did arrive it looked at risk of being an all-star Labour Party publicity vehicle, but yesterday I was pleasantly surprised – the content was interesting, pragmatic, evidence based and inspiring.  So, what is meant by inclusive prosperity and how can we help create spaces that enable this aspiration?

 

Inclusive prosperity could be defined as trying to involve the broadest possible cross section of a community in productive, sufficiently rewarding employment.  Yet surely creating economic conditions whereby the majority of people live and work with dignity is common sense, after all how can we have productive, sustainable cities if a high proportion of their greatest asset – its people, are marginalised? (For an in-depth explanation of how cities, their people and economies have evolved over time I recommend The City: The Basics by Kevin Archer.  Archer talks about trends in global urbanisation and competitiveness, it is these themes along with rapid and fundamental advances in technology that set the backdrop to yesterday’s discussion on macro policy reform – I will be writing more on this in a future blog).

From an urban planning perspective there several ways we can work to improve the quality and competiveness of our cities in a way that supports the aspiration of inclusive prosperity:

 

Infrastructure

A lack of investment in infrastructure – be it transport, utilities, energy or social, reduces the amenity of a City; reduces efficiency; increases vulnerability and compounds the cost of any deferred investment.  The Armitt Report led by Sir John Armitt recommends a UK National Infrastructure Commission be established to help address the mismatch between political cycles and long-term infrastructure planning and investment.  For those of us in the industry, it is something that has been advocated for a long time, but it was pleased to see it finally getting political traction – this is something that the Labour Party seem to have now committed to as part of their manifesto for the 2015 General Election.

 

Employment

Our cities should be spaces of production as well as consumption.  Investing in cities could drive demand for skills in sectors such as:

  • Urban agriculture;
  • Building retrofitting;
  • House building, including through pre-fabricated manufacturing;
  • Renewable energy;
  • Green infrastructure (landscaping / plumbing); and
  • Electric vehicle design and manufacturing.

 

Making space for entrepreneurship

We are lucky to have the Urben studio in a beautiful old school building in East London.  Supported by a fantastic charity (www.bathtub2boardroom.com), we get to work in a collaborative and creative environment with other small businesses, our overheads are lean and we benefit from professional skills training.  Providing live /work or shared working spaces to communities can reduce some of the barriers to small business growth.

 

Public procurement

With smaller businesses generally more likely to have low overheads, and evidence suggesting they spend their profits locally, increasing procurement opportunities for small building and design firms could help cities find innovative, affordable solutions to boosting local prosperity. However, there is a concern that many public contracts are out of reach of these smaller businesses due to the complexities of bidding and procurement which has moved towards shifting risk to the consultant.  To counter this, the Peabody housing charity recently established a small projects panel as they felt the ‘lengthy and onerous bidding processes typical of many processes shut out emerging, innovative practices’. This is a promising start, and is a model which will hopefully be taken up more widely in the public sector.

 

Spontaneous spaces

People of all income brackets need spaces to meet and interact, be it libraries, public parks or publicly accessible but privately owned open spaces.  Cities can be alienating places for those on low incomes and ‘free to enjoy spaces’ can be great equalisers.  There is a concern that more and more spaces are becoming privatised, with people being required to spend money in cafes or shops to be able to access them, even if on the surface they seem to be public.  While evidence shows this is more about perception than reality, and the shift towards privately managed space has actually seen many previously inaccessible areas in our cities made available for use, there must be a focus on how we can find and manage spaces from public funds in a sustainable way.  This is particularly vital as we seek to increase density in our Cities, making unfettered access to communal public spaces essential.

Public procurement

With smaller businesses generally more likely to have low overheads, and evidence suggesting they spend their profits locally, increasing procurement opportunities for small building and design firms could help cities find innovative, affordable solutions to boosting local prosperity. However, there is a concern that many public contracts are out of reach of these smaller businesses due to the complexities of bidding and procurement which has moved towards shifting risk to the consultant.  To counter this, the Peabody housing charity recently established a small projects panel as they felt the ‘lengthy and onerous bidding processes typical of many processes shut out emerging, innovative practices’. This is a promising start, and is a model which will hopefully be taken up more widely in the public sector.

 

Spontaneous spaces

People of all income brackets need spaces to meet and interact, be it libraries, public parks or publicly accessible but privately owned open spaces.  Cities can be alienating places for those on low incomes and ‘free to enjoy spaces’ can be great equalisers.  There is a concern that more and more spaces are becoming privatised, with people being required to spend money in cafes or shops to be able to access them, even if on the surface they seem to be public.  While evidence shows this is more about perception than reality, and the shift towards privately managed space has actually seen many previously inaccessible areas in our cities made available for use, there must be a focus on how we can find and manage spaces from public funds in a sustainable way.  This is particularly vital as we seek to increase density in our Cities, making unfettered access to communal public spaces essential.