Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sustainable City Betrayed?: Calgary’s Neoliberal Sustainability Politics and Its Consequences

Byron Miller  from the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary and currently Guest Professor, Institut für Umweltsozialwissenschaften und Geographie, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, writes about how Calgary continues to wrestle with the issue of “sustainability” …

Over the past decade Calgary, Alberta, like many cities around the world, has promoted a wide range of sustainability initiatives as part of what While, Jonas and Gibbs have termed a “sustainability fix.”  There are certainly good reasons why Calgary might turn toward a sustainability agenda.  Long considered the poster city for urban sprawl in Canada, Calgary ranks as the Canadian City with the largest “ecological footprint,” the highest degree of socio-spatial income polarization, and one of the largest infrastructure deficits. Its politics, moreover, are dominated by fierce anti-tax sentiment, despite low tax rates.  Whatever the merits or demerits of the concept of “sustainability,” the need for Calgary to address its ecological, social, and fiscal issues has been clear for some time.   

To grapple with the perceived deterioration of quality of life in Calgary, the City began an extensive two-year “city visioning” process in 2004, called imagineCalgary.  Over 18,000 Calgarians participated in the process, which produced a surprisingly progressive and detailed document focusing on needed improvements in five systems: the built environment and infrastructure, the economic system, governance, the natural environment, and the social system.  imagineCalgary was adopted by City Council as an advisory document and laid the foundation for a new municipal development and transportation plan, dubbed “Plan-It,” which was prepared between 2006 to 2009.  

Plan-It was envisioned as a means to enhance the environmental, fiscal and social sustainability of the city and, indeed, it called for substantial changes in growth and development patterns to enhance transit service and walkability and to reduce the fiscal costs of growth.  The social aspects of early versions of the plan were dramatically weakened, largely due to restrictions contained in the provincial government’s Municipal Governance Act, and to avoid an anticipated backlash from the development industry.  Planners pressed ahead on the environmental and fiscal agendas with reports detailing the cost savings associated with Plan-It.  Public relations stressed not only cost efficiency of the plan but also consumer choice, particularly the provision of more mobility options, more neighbourhood facilities and services, and stronger local businesses.   

That city officials and politicians would anchor their arguments in the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, cost efficiency, and consumer choice was not particularly surprising.  What was surprising was  the extent to which these neoliberal political tropes were adopted by many citizens and citizen organizations, including many that had been involved in the imagineCalgary process.  Indeed, many citizens’ organizations adopted the same neoliberal tropes, often for purely strategic reasons, to make their case for the sustainability agenda of Plan-It. Perhaps most  surprising of all, Plan-It was passed unanimously by City Council after early indications it would be defeated by a wide margin. The strategic adoption of neoliberal tropes to counter the anti-planning arguments of the development industry ultimately proved successful, but at what cost?  Quality of life, environmental, social justice and use-value arguments were largely abandoned, as were critiques of the federal and provincial governments’ underfunding of basic city functions such as public transit and social housing. Today, a concerted development-industry counter-attack that seeks to weaken the implementation of Plan-It relies on the same tropes and appears to be gaining traction, at the same time the provincial government further cuts funding to cities. The dynamics of Calgary’s planning politics raises questions about the merits of short term strategic adoption of neoliberal discursive tropes.  It also points to the role citizens play, unwittingly or not, in the reproduction and perpetuation of neoliberal hegemony.   To twist the words of Peck, Theodore and Brenner just a bit, “[citizens]… are not merely at the ‘receiving end’ of neoliberalization processes, imposed unilaterally from above.”

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On Manchester Chinatown

Elena Barabantseva, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, write about Manchester’s chinatown …

Yet again this year Manchester’s city centre was a stage for Chinese New Year Celebrations, making it a perfect occasion for a family day out to experience a different culture. Manchester Chinatown is one of the major tourist attractions in the city and is considered to be the most vibrant Chinese quarter in the country, but how did it become part of the city’s architectural and cultural fabrics?

With the seedcorn funding from cities@manchester I was able to conduct an archival study on the origins of Chinatown and a series of interviews with the members of Manchester’s Chinese community organisations. What emerged from this pilot research is that the origins of Manchester Chinatown are somewhat paradoxical. From the first wave of migration in the early twentieth century, the Chinese have been the most geographically dispersed migrant group in the UK due to the nature of their occupations, first in laundries and then in take-away restaurants. Yet, the dominant social perception of the Chinese as a closely-knit and inward-looking community has persisted until the present day.

The early Chinese residents in Manchester were far from an insular community. They actively integrated into the city. An article in the Manchester Guardian in February 1912 estimates the total number of Chinese immigrants in Manchester to be around one hundred and comments on their life in the following way:  ‘They are mainly Cantonese, and when they land at Liverpool they can speak little or no English. The Manchester Wesleyan Mission (8 Cable street), under the direction of the Rev. S. F. Collier, has carried on work amongst them. A New Year’s party was held last evening at the Albert Hall’ (Manchester Guardian, ‘Chinese in Manchester’, 20 Feb 1912). In the pre-Second World War period, the local community efforts to interact with the newly arrived immigrants were paralleled by the furnishing links between Manchester and China at the national level. The pre-war textile boom in Manchester prompted strengthening links with China, and for the first time in 1933 the Chinese Kuomintang government appointed a consular representative to Manchester to oversee the day-to-day trade links with China with an office in Spring Gardens in Central Manchester (Manchester Guardian, ‘China comes North’, 11 February 1933). In 1942 The Universities China Committee in London, with the funds from the Boxer rebellion (1898-1901) indemnity, established Manchester China Institute on George street to ‘provide a place where British people could meet Chinese people and learn from them in various ways’ (Manchester Guardian, ‘China Institutes: A new one for Manchester, 11 May 1942). These facts testify to the vibrant official and community-based links which existed between China and Manchester in the early twentieth century.

In the post-World War Two period Chinese migrants keenly settled in the city and its suburban areas to satisfy British tastes for Chinese culinary.  In a parallel development, an increasing number of Chinese businesses started opening in Central Manchester, with the first Chinese restaurant Ping Hong opening its doors on Mosley Street in 1948. Recalling the origins of Manchester Chinatown, senior Chinese residents unequivocally assert that ‘there was no Chinatown in Manchester in the 1970s’. Yet, 8y the mid-1970s the local newspapers were announcing that a Chinatown was emerging in central Manchester bounded by George, Nicholas, Faulkner, and Princess Streets. By the early 1980s, the geographical and socio-cultural place of Chinatown in Manchester was secured when in 1983 Manchester City Library added the entry “Chinatown” to its catalogue of newspaper clippings.

In the 1980s Manchester Chinatown boomed, when in the span of less than ten years key community organisations and societies were set up in the quarter: Chinese Cultural and Education Centre in 1979, the Chinese Arts Centre in 1986, Tong Sing Chinese Housing Association in 1984, Wai Yin Chinese Women’s Society in 1988, and Chinese Health Information Centre in 1987. The symbolic birth of Chinatown culminated in 1987, when the Chinese Imperial Arch, physically marking the area’s association with the Chinese community, was erected on Faulkner street.

The early 1980s also witnessed an active lobbying by Chinese community leaders of the City authorities to clearly mark the boundaries of the Chinatown by translating the names of the streets into Chinese and displaying street signs in Chinese characters: ‘It may not be long now before you can walk up the Street of Capturing Blessings, turn left into the Street of Fairy Happiness and end up in the heart of Manchester’s Chinatown…. Faulkner Street would become Fuk-Ngar Gai (street of capturing Blessing) and Charlotte street Sar-Lok Gai (Street of Fairy Happiness)’ (Manchester Evening News, Comment ‘Turning into the Street of Happiness’, 21 February 1983). The attempts to translate the names of the streets into Chinese were stalled in June 1985, when the City Council designated this area as a ‘George street conservation area’ where ‘signs should be designed and located so as not to compete with the architectural details of buildings’ (Manchester City Council, no date). The value attached to the history of the area took an upper hand over contemporary social trends.

A quick browse through the historical maps of Manchester city centre from the collection of Manchester Museum of Science and Industry confirms that the area of Manchester’s Chinatown developed in the Georgian times, and the layout and names of the streets haven’t changed since the 18th century. Until the early 19th century, this district was a well-to-do residential area, centred on St James’ church built at 7 Charlotte street in 1786 and demolished in 1928. The pattern of streets and street names are the only surviving witnesses to the layers of time which shaped and transformed this area of the city. A cluster of important societies and institutions also operated in the area, including Literary and Philosophical Society at 36 George street. Portico Library was opened in the area at 57 Moseley street in 1806 and still occupies its original site. Royal Manchester Institute was built on Moseley Street between 1824 and 1835 in the Greek neo-classical style and now hosts the City Art Gallery, and the Athenaeum, a club for a society for ‘advancement and diffusions of knowledge’ was founded on Princess street in 1835 and is now linked to the Art Gallery.

By the end of the 1990s, Chinese organisations and initiatives which were founded and started their activities in Manchester Chinatown in the 1980s started relocating to other parts of the city.  Most notably, The Chinese Arts Centre moved to the Northern Quarter and was recently renamed into the The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Fo Guang Shan Temple moved to Trafford, Manchester Chinese Centre re-established in Ardwick, and the Wai Yin Chinese Women’s Society moved to Ancoats. Chinese supermarkets are not limited to the Chinatown anymore and can be found in many different locations around Manchester. These processes point to the moving and changing character of Chinatown, what Doreen Massey coins as a continuous process of ‘multiple becoming’. The dominant perspective on Chinatowns around the world refers to them as ‘ethnic enclaves’, yet the dynamic history and ongoing transformations of Manchester’s Chinatown show that it embraces multiple histories, contested present, and an open future.  The physical demarcations of Chinatown are less important than social processes and experiences which both define and escape the attempts to pin down Chinatown’s spatial and cultural demarcations.

Universities and city-region development in crisis? – Cases of Manchester and Newcastle

Professor David Charles (University of Strathclyde), Dr. Fumi Kitagawa and Dr. Elvira Uyarra (Manchester Business School) have worked on the issues related to HEIs and local economic development over the decade. Here is their reflection on recent changes in two English  city-regions – Greater Manchester and Newcastle …

Universities have long been recognised for their important contributions to the long-term economic prosperity and wellbeing of cities and regions. In a recent special issue “Universities in Crisis” in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, [http://cjres.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/01/09/cjres.rst029.abstract] we examine the post-financial crisis challenges for the city-regions and higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK by looking at the city-regions of Greater Manchester and Newcastle. The paper illustrates the recent changes in regional governance, higher education policies and changing expectations and pressures for universities to engage and work with local and regional agendas, before and throughout the financial crisis and the following economic downturn.

Manchester and Newcastle are two old industrial cities in the North of England, in the regions that have historically lagged behind the rest of England and the UK in economic terms. Both traditionally manufacturing regions (manufacturing still accounts for 20% of GDP in the North West), in the last 20 years they have diversified into higher value added activities such as biotechnology, aviation and energy. Economic growth has also been driven by a rapid expansion of the service sector, mainly professional and financial services, with public services still being an important component particularly in the North East. Both Newcastle and Manchester can be seen as having experienced something of an urban renaissance although significant pockets of deprivation remain. HEIs have been important actors embedded in such urban transformation.

Between the late 1990s throughout the 2000s, universities in Manchester and Newcastle took strong roles in the economic and social development of their respective regions, working collaboratively through their higher education regional associations, and the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). This collaboration emphasised the complementarities between different types of institutions and the formation of ‘regional systems of innovation’. The ‘new regionalist’ model supported by the New Labour government was gradually accompanied and then overtaken by a new ‘localism’ – institutional partnership and governance models embedded in city-regions. Both Newcastle and Greater Manchester received designation as Science Cities since the mid 2000s, with a focus on city-level partnerships, which for Greater Manchester reflected a longer experience of city-region partnership models.

Since 2010, the economic development landscape has substantially changed under the Coalition government, with the abolition of the nine RDAs in England, replaced by 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) at a city-region level.[i] The recent shift to LEPs signals a more focused and strategic alignment between universities and city regions, with the higher education sector represented in the LEP board member. Further, this ‘scalar shift’ of the local governance mechanisms has coincided with the financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures, cuts in public funding and changes in the higher education funding mechanisms, including the increase in the home/EU students’ tuition fees. The drastic reduction of funding and supporting structures devoted to HEIs regional engagement from the loss of RDA funding and additional pressures placed upon universities have further brought institutional differences into sharp focus.

Under the new governance structures emerging during the 2010s, whilst universities have been enrolled in the new city-region strategic alignment, it has become clear that different types of institutions are forming and implementing different strategies. Regional level collaboration, meeting regional needs and demand, seems to have declined in terms of universities’ institutional priority and strategies. Policy infrastructure, resources and funding incentives at the regional level are no longer there, replaced by city-region/local partnerships. Increasingly, universities in both the North East and North West regions are finding little incentive to collaborate with each other at the regional scale. Tensions between the regional and the city-regional levels have always been more prominent in the North West region, where the Greater Manchester city-region had always had strong political identity. However, even in the North East, where the regional HE collaborative mechanisms had existed over the last three decades, the new local partnership model with LEPs seems to be overtaking the regional collaboration model.

Our findings resonate with Sir Andrew Witty’s recent review of “universities and growth” (published on 15 October 2013)[ii], which highlighted the heterogeneity of both universities and LEP strategies. The case studies of the two city-regions show how universities are part of the new city-region alignment where new strategic leadership roles are expected – however, under a post-crisis environment characterised by austerity, changing funding mechanisms and more pressure to compete, universities are facing challenges to meet these new expectations.

The political and institutional vacuum left by the recent local governance changes has led to practical issues such as management of EU funds. The time of austerity also provides new opportunities to realise new city-region and university collaboration by linking and managing resources available at multiple levels – local, national, European and global. Universities are partners in local governance, but are not simply bound within their city-regions. Universities seek to join up and integrate across missions and across spatial scales – local, national, European, and global. Both in Greater Manchester and in Newcastle, the new alignment seems to be still in a state of flux. It is imperative to develop strategic visions and plans rooted in a sound understanding of the city-region’s comparative advantage, by asking: How can universities and LEPs better work together for the benefit of the city region?

Why Detroit matters? Taking lessons from the motor city.

This is the sixth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Jacob Morris-Davies chose to write about Detroit …

Consider this, in 1940 you show Henry Ford this picture of Michigan Central Station, you say, “This is 2013, what do you think caused such a thing to happen?” To be frank his response would probably be along the lines of “the bomb”, “the apocalypse” or “the collapse of civilization”. Back then Detroit seemed indestructible, a freight train with unlimited momentum, but a train can only keep moving with tracks laid in front of it.

The transformation of Detroit over the last half century has been, to say the least, radical. What was once an industrial giant, the great manifestation of the American Dream, is now but a shell of its former self. Murder rates at ten times the national average(1), an alarming population decrease (it has halved since the 1960s)(2) and to top this all off on the 18th of July 2013 the city filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy(3). Why has this happened? Well that’s a complicated question, but an important one none the less. However, the question that should be on every economist, political scientist, sociologist and geographer’s lips is this. What happens next? Why? Because, if you think what’s happening to Detroit is unique, you’re wrong. At present, it may be exactly what’s around the corner for cities all over. If that’s to change, well, we better start paying attention.

How on earth did this happen?!?!

There are multiple possible explanations for the decline of Detroit, none of which are sufficient in themselves, here are just three of the main contributing factors.

Globalisation

Just as we saw the shift from city based economies to a national economy in the United States in the 19th century, the 20th century saw the rise of the global economy. Lower wages in East Asia have led to the decline of American industries across the country. Detroit is no exception.

Corruption

In the past 80 years five Detroit mayors and four country executives have either been sent to prison, were subject to federal probes, or were removed from office.(4) Giving out contracts to family members and creaming off taxpayer dollars are just the tip of iceberg. The political class in Detroit have contributed to the debt the city now sees itself in through irresponsible governance and outright Al Capone style tactics, yes that has even included the occasional murder.

Urban planning

Detroit is too big to function in without a car and contains too few people to justify such a massive land area. This is a map from the early 2000s(5), Detroit’s population has fallen even more since then but the point still stands. It is too spread out to function as a city. You cannot function in Detroit on foot, it’s impossible. But doesn’t everybody have a car? No, not in the Motor City. This has reduced social mobility, fuelled racial segregation and divided the city’s population geographically and socially.

But, whats going to happen now?

Here are three possible futures for Detroit, although we may not see these changes for many years, it is the actions of today that will determine the path the city takes.

It will be saved

The optimist in me believes that with the right intervention Detroit can be saved. By this I mean the city revitalised and re-populated. For jobs to be created and its crime rates reduced. For its image to be restored, to become a city in which people want to live again.

The 2009 auto industry bailouts were just the beginning, getting Detroit back on its feet is not just a matter of economics. No matter how many jobs are created its image and structure will not fundamentally change. The way working, living and moving interact in Detroit would have to be flipped on its head completely. People need to live in the city, at present over half of Detroit’s police force live outside of the city limits!(6) If the police force don’t want to live in their city, why would small business owners, young professionals or entrepreneurs? It would be a massive project, but not out of the question, large-scale top-down lead redevelopment would be the answer, the city is too far gone for private revitalisation such as gentrification to work.

Ruralisation

This is happening as we speak. Locals are turning huge areas of abandoned and unused land into farms, to grow food for themselves and for selling on. It is conceivable in the near future the city limits could become a sort of rural/urban hybrid.

In fact this is nothing new, only to a large urban area. Regions such as County Durham in the UK have transformed in a similar fashion since the decline of the coal industry in the UK. Small villages centred around mines are slowly changing into rural commuter villages, who is to say this will not be the future of Detroit?

Collapse 

There is of course the third option, complete and utter collapse. This may seem extreme, something to far in the future to be taken seriously right now, but isn’t that the arrogance of all civilizations that have fallen? Not to sound overly dramatic but why do we think we are any different, maybe this is the death of the industrial city?

We are already seeing people tour the derelict areas of Detroit, calling themselves urban explorers and place hackers.(7) This too is also not new, think about Rome, Athens, Giza; human beings seem to have a fascination with exploring the ruins of past civilizations. That is not to say it has not made its mark in history through its industry, music and culture but the physical place of Detroit may in the 21st century cease to be.

Why does it matter?

You may ask why does this matter in the whole scheme of things, isn’t Detroit a one off case? Maybe, but probably not, it’s more likely the first of many. It’s not the only city out there with issues in planning, corruption, social division and industrial decline. Detroit should be taken as a lesson of what can and will happen unless city authorities, governments and businesses act now to ensure the long term prosperity of the urban areas they inhabit. Just as Urbanization and Suburbanization defined past generations it is conceivable that ruralization or the process of collapse will define the next. Detroit is the perfect case study for the future, whatever that may be.

What happens to Detroit is not just of consequence for Americans, urban decline such as this is a global problem and somewhat ironically one of the main regions that may be affected is East Asia. In recent years China for example has been organising its various provinces into specialised economic zones each centered around cities based on certain types of industry.(8) At the moment, it’s working well for them to say the least. However, in 20-50 or 100 years when Africa becomes a competitor, what then? Will they have the exact same problem on their hands as Detroit? Cities with one purpose in mind cannot last and adapt.

What is being urban anyway? What makes a great city? Why do we live in cities in the first place? Are cities not more than a group of people centered around one purpose? Detroit raises the questions, should cities be more holistic? Should they always serve multiple functions? Do they need a purpose other than just being?

Detroit was defined by its auto industry, why are we defining the places we call home, where we live and die in service of a single economic function? Should cities not be places we would live regardless of the work available? Many think so, many think cities can bring out the greatest and most beautiful elements of humanity. Because cities can have their own function which cannot be defined by any one factor, cities can have a purpose of there own, just by being.

Have a look at Richard Rodgers master plan for Shanghai(9), it approaches how cities are organised in an entirely different fashion. He suggests the overlapping pathways, connections and intersections of people, ideas and events make cities what they are. Not its icons, its industry or its history, but instead the way in which its inhabitants interact.

Why are these flows of interaction important? Well, because the cities of the future are being designed today. Cities must be economically and ecologically sustainable if they are to, but should they not also be socially sustainable? Detroit is at present none of these things, but why this is, where it’s going and what will works to fix it are questions that need answering to help plan our cities of the future.

What happens next? Collapse or re-birth, adaptation or abandonment, consolidation or ruralization, I do not know. But I do know this, understanding what is happening in Detroit now is essential to understanding how we should plan cities of the future. I will be watching; so should you.

References

(1)   – http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/mi/detroit/crime/

(2) – http://www.freep.com/interactive/article/20130723/NEWS01/130721003/detroit-city-population

(3) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23369573

(4) – http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/story/23652333/from-then-until-now-a-look-at-detroits-80-year-corruption

(5) – http://growingcities.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/detroit-reassembled.html

(6) – http://tcf.org/blog/detail/reinventing-detroit

(7) – http://detroiturbex.com

(8) –  Wei Ge, (1999) Special Economic Zones and the Opening of the Chinese Economy: Some Lessons for Economic Liberalization, World Development Vol. 27, No. 7, pp. 1267 – 1285,

 (9) http://www.richardrogers.co.uk/Asp/uploadedFiles/Image/1950_Shanghai%20Masterplan/RSHP_A_JS_1950_L_E_MP.pdf]

* http://zfein.com

** http://www.survivefrance.com/profiles/blogs/panic-in-detroit

Vancouver: Harbouring Their Drug Problem by Feeding the Addiction?

This is the fifth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Alice Kiernan chose to write about Vancouver …

In 2010, Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics. I remember seeing an article on the news about the social problems the city was facing running up to the games, but as a naïve and disinterested 16 year old whose preservation of ‘street cred’ was at the forefront of her mind, I turned a blind eye.

Street cred in mind, I am reluctant to admit that I am a self-confessed fan of American TV series, Glee. Last year, the world, and I, was baffled, shocked and sorrowed at the news of young Glee actor, Cory Monteith’s tragic death.

Monteith battled with a history of drug abuse and was visiting Vancouver at the time of his death. Not a wise choice for a man with such a background.

When I looked into this more, it soon became apparent that the problems I briefly heard about back in 2010 had not resolved themselves.

Vancouver, on the surface, seems like a clean-cut city, but beneath this exterior are a hidden myriad of social problems – drugs being the main one. Along with the drug problem comes its two ugly sisters – health problems and homelessness – but this is far from a fairy-tale.

Of course this trio of troubles isn’t unique to Vancouver, but they are more visible. The city has battled for years with a severe drug problem, mostly in the DTES (Downtown Eastside), where drug dealers line the streets in broad daylight, often in the presence of police.

There are an estimated 1,600 homeless in Vancouver – something the mayor pledged to eradicate by 2015 – with 46% revealing they suffer from mental health problems. Of course, this percentage may be unrepresentative of the actual number of people suffering with mental illness, since respondents self-identified as mentally ill – i.e. some may have not disclosed information accurately and/or based their diagnosis on personal beliefs/experiences rather than medical diagnosis.

Many believe these problems have stemmed from the closure of Vancouver’s only mental health institute and the explosion of the drug trade (for more on this, click here). Surely these three must be linked and tackling one would help to alleviate the others?

Given its close proximity to the border and harbours, Vancouver has a hard time regulating what’s coming in and out of the city. The drug trade thrives in Vancouver and it is often reported that cocaine is brought into Canada, finding its way to Vancouver’s DTES. In 2002, substance abuse cost Canada a staggering $39.8 billion.

However, although the regulation of drugs entering the city is difficult, Vancouver is pretty revolutionary in its approach to the problems they face surrounding drugs. They receive a lot of opposition on these unconventional methods.

But let’s face it; in a city where it’s quicker to have drugs delivered than it is a pizza and for around the same price or less (it’s around $10 for heroin – which is about £6), a radical approach is probably what’s needed.

The City of Vancouver has devised a ‘four pillars’ drug strategy which focuses on harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement. They have implemented this programme learning from other developed cities such as Zurich and Sydney who have managed to reduce the numbers of users consuming drugs on the streets, overdose-related deaths and HIV incidence in users.

Vancouver pumps the bulk of its budget surrounding this strategy into the harm prevention pillar. I’m talking about InSite; Vancouver’s revolutionary approach to drug users.

This is a centre (est. September 2003) open to all drug users to access as and when it suits them and provides them with free equipment such as needles and equipment for them to mix the chemicals to pump around their bodies. All of this takes place in a sterile and well-lit environment, overseen by two medically trained nurses.

It’s a place users can go in with their drugs (that’s the only bit that isn’t free), shoot up, and leave as high as a kite with no legal battles to fight. In essence, it’s a legal crack den.

It sounds, in theory, ridiculous; a free centre with operational costs of around $3 million for people to go and shoot up legally, funded by tax payers money? Absurd, you might be thinking. I jumped to that conclusion at first as well.

But when you delve a little deeper into the benefits of InSite, it’s actually not all that bad.

In a hefty report published by B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS it can be seen that the four pillar strategy has helped reduce cocaine use over a fifteen year span, from 38.1% in 1996 to just 6.9% in 2011 – a whopping 31.2% reduction. It also states that access to treatment has improved by 14.9% in the same time period.

They’re clearly doing something right with changes like that.

At one point in Vancouver’s past, they had the highest prevalence and incidence of HIV/AIDS outside of Sub-Saharan Africa. This is largely down to the sharing of needles amongst drug users. The average lifetime cost of treating a HIV infection per person is estimated by the B.C. Centre for Excellence as $250,000.

So when you sit and do the maths, it works out as quite cost-effective.

A centre which serves 12,000 drug users at a cost of $3 million is the equivalent cost of treating 12 drug users who have picked up HIV from unhygienic methods.

Alright, it’s still a lot of money we’re talking about here – but surely that’s more sensible than letting the percentage of the population affected by HIV creep up to an alarming level again?

That’s one of the main arguments against InSite. Many contest the notion that the taxpayer should have to foot the bill for a social problem that is (mostly) self-inflicted. It’s a tough call. But when you weigh up the cost-effectiveness of the programme, it’s hard to dispute that it’s working a lot better than having no system in place.

The Mayor in Vancouver supports InSite given its higher quit-rates than any other official programme and the reduction of HIV infection. Opposing arguments claim that InSite merely condones drug use.

The main opposition comes from the Conservative party/government in Canada. The federal government have introduced the ‘Respect for Communities Act’, making it near-impossible for new centres like InSite to be built. Many policing bodies agree with this.

Conversely, Vancouver Police Department support InSite and other similar initiatives. I guess to them, it makes their job easier. They’re not bogged down with as many cases of abusive and difficult people to deal with (after all, drug addicts can get pretty violent).

The Drug Treatments Courts take a similar stance. They don’t demonise non-violent offenders and instead encourage and support them to access healthcare programmes. Again, at first, I was a little bit puzzled about this. My stance on it was: a crime is a crime and you should do your time.

But then I considered addiction as a health problem, a mental problem, rather than a social problem, and then it made sense.

Some believe that the money spent on prisons and trying to cut drug supplies would be better spent invested in rehab and outreach – and that’s exactly what InSite is. Maybe increasing the awareness of what it is InSite does to the tax-payer is the way forward.

Many think InSite is merely a promotion of drug use. I would disagree.

Drugs are such an uncontrollable part of society and I believe Vancouver have done a pretty good job of making an otherwise invisible problem more accountable and thus, controlled. Others argue, as do I, that regardless of where the consumption of drugs is taking place, it will always take place. So why not make the drug use within the city more accountable, safer and more cost-effective?

InSite (see image below) offer services to help people get clean, but maybe working on a compulsory ‘get clean’ basis would make the service even more effective in terms of cost and social benefit. The problem is: that’d only work if people wanted to be helped to get clean, not just assisted to shoot up.

Source: Maclean's 1

Source: Maclean’s 1

The question of legalisation is a split one, too. Walter McKay (former Vancouver Police Department officer) believes that no matter how many dealers are taken off the streets; more will be ready and waiting to replace them – so legalisation may be the way forward.

Dave Hamm (president of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) believes the federal government have taken a far too militant approach to drugs, but doesn’t want to see the same mistakes made with the privatisation of tobacco and alcohol.

Legal or not, Vancouver’s drug problem is a real big one, with no simple solution. But one thing’s for sure – they’re having a good crack at solving it in a (albeit) controversial, yet effective way. We can only wait and see if it proves to be a success in the long run with their on-going plans.

Vacant Lots Cost Philadelphia $90 Million a Year!

This is the fourth of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Ceri-Ellis Kenyon chose Philadelphia …

If you’ve ever found yourself strolling through Lower North Philly (not that I’d recommend it!) you’ll have noticed that there’s not much to see – literally. The abundance of vacant land and boarded up property leaves you feeling thoroughly depressed. It’s a far cry from the booming 1950s when John McWhorter stumbled across and photographed this vacant lot, a rarity in those days but all too commonplace now.

Over the past 20 years, vacancy has spiralled out of control.  A recent study found that Philadelphia has the highest vacancy per capita of any US city.  Combatting the issue of vacant property has been at the forefront of government agendas for decades now. Why? Because these tracts of vacant land dispersed throughout the city cost Philadelphia an estimated $90 million a year in delinquent taxes and policing charges alone!

So, what have the politicians done to improve things? Well, they’ve thrown lots  of money at the problem but, as is often the case, they’ve mostly ignored the needs of the local people. No surprises then that, far from getting better, things have continued to decline.

‘Wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia…’

I’m sure Bruce (Springsteen, of course!) had something quite different  on his mind when he wrote this song back in the 1990s but his lyrics seem more relevant than ever in today’s downtown. The Philly streets are literally “wastin’ away” as the population plummets and vacancy and crime rates soar.

Vacant land reflects vacant soul

Philadelphians know which areas of town not to venture into at night, or even by day for that matter, but why? A bunch of empty houses? That surely seems crazy…

…But, empty houses and barren land lead to social issues; crime, poverty, gang warfare and drug use. A recent Forbes survey ranked Philadelphia as the 5th most miserable city in the USA. Any stats based on averages are going to paint a gloomy picture but Philly isn’t all bad. We’d love to argue with the ‘experts’ at Forbes but there is, in actual fact, overwhelming evidence that vacant land and crime go hand in hand. Ken Skinner’s “Clean and Seal” programme is the city’s latest attempt at tackling the social blight associated with vacancy. Skinner, Chief of The Department of Licences and Inspections, has joined forces with the City Redevelopment Authority to employ a 48 strong team to secure the entrances to empty property and deserted land, in an effort to keep out the thugs and keep the neighbourhoods clean.  This temporary measure is an uphill battle as 300+ properties and lots are added to the vacancy inventory each year!

Lower North Ghost town

Lower North is without doubt the most desolate area in Philly. In terms of land use (commercial, residential, recreational etc.)  “vacancy” is the third largest category in the district. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Lower North was home to a thriving community of Black African Americans, attracted to the area by an abundance of brick yards, coal yards, tobacco plants and textiles workshops along Glenwood Avenue. Economic crisis in the 1950s left many Lower Northerners permanently unemployed as manufacturing jobs became few and far between. This triggered an epidemic of vacant land, an increase in crime and a decrease in population, which has continued every year since. In the 1990s, Philadelphia experienced the 3rd largest population decline in the history of urban America.

Lower North is an urban graveyard; 47% of the Lower North population are living in poverty, 13% of property is vacant and the district has 45 so called ‘ghost parks’. The only remaining ‘assets’ in Lower North are Temple University, 19 bus routes, 2 regional rail stations and its proximity to the city centre. The fact that two of the four remaining assets are transport infrastructure says it all…

So far, the problem has only been exacerbated by those in high Philly society. Ex-mayor Ed Rendell promised to rejuvenate Lower North and was voted into office by a majority black vote, desperately hoping for change. But Lower Northerners suffered anguish and humiliation at the hands of Rendell, who focussed solely on the city centre, deeming Lower North a problem unworthy of  attention.

Double duped as Street turns his back too…

Hot on the heels of Rendell; came Street and his ambitious plan to commandeer The Neighbourhood Transformation Initiative. His ingenious idea, to simply demolish 1400 vacant properties in Lower North was supposed to attract private investment. Instead, as most of us  could have predicted, it transformed vacant property into nothing more than vacant land! His typically political heavy handed approach caused nothing but backlash among the surprisingly tight knit community of Strawberry Mansion (which is hardly surprising when you consider Street’s plan to demolish their entire century old neighbourhood!). His  approach meant he ‘succeeded’ in demolishing a mere 800 of the planned properties at a  cost of $81 million and more importantly, he demolished the trust and vote of an entire community.

The Master plan, change may be just around the corner!

A committee of Philadelphian planners, community leaders, business owners, non-profit organisations and elected officials are currently working to piece together a blueprint for the redevelopment of the neglected Lower North. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 scheme hopes to pull together the expertise needed bring about change and rescue Lower North once and for all. David Fecteau, the brains behind the idea, chaired community meetings throughout July and August to gauge public opinion. What did he want to know? “Who’s happy?”… Seems nice!

Fecteau claims that unused industrial land could create up to 200 jobs and that ex residential areas could be re-moulded into community gardens and green space. Maybe! Of course, as a development tycoon he would say that, wouldn’t he Could this be just another example of the all too familiar pattern of planning betrayal in Lower North? If so, it has not weakened the residents of Strawberry Mansion’s burning desire for something to be done…finally. Community leader Judith Robinson announced that ‘redevelopment which avoids gentrification and subsequent displacement is welcomed’. The agenda for PlanPhiladelphia2035 is definitely optimistic and so far so good. The community meetings have established hotspot areas of unhappiness and have fuelled ideas and debates about the future land use. Could this be the answer to Lower North’s prayers? Watch this space…

Sowing the seeds of change

Clearly these large-scale, top-down approaches to redevelopment in Philly have largely failed. The PlanPhiladelphia2035 project is the first integrated approach and therefore the most likely to succeed. Hallelujah!

In typical Philadelphian fashion, small scale initiatives to decrease vacancy abound in many neighbourhoods throughout the city. Urban farms have sprung up on ex industrial sites all over the place, the most popular of which, GreensGrow, is in Kensington. The area reaps the social and economic benefits of urban farming and GreensGrow puts the vacant land to good use. Could the land in Lower North be suitable for an urban farm? Could it reduce the levels of crime and antisocial behaviour experienced there?

We’re constantly bombarded by green action group lobbying about transformation of urban land into green community space, but is this what Lower North needs? Research from The University of Pennsylvania found that over a period of ten years, the area surrounding a fenced public garden experienced a significant reduction in crime. Apparently, fences and neatly mown lawns deter criminals in these areas. Could this work in Lower North?

Is it naïve to assume that the introduction of green space will solve all social and economic issues in Lower North? Green space alone is not enough. Redevelopment needs to take place and must happen now! The work of PlanPhiladelphia2035 is a step in the right direction, but to succeed we need real commitment from those in power and enthusiasm for the project from the communities themselves. Appearances can be deceiving and there is still a strong community spirit beneath the desolate face of the Lower North. The residents deserve better and we must learn from past failures and work together to rejuvenate Lower North and turn it back into the thriving community it once was.

Here are some useful links if you’d like to find out more…

PlanPhiladelphia2035 Lower North plans: http://phila2035.org/home-page/district/lower-north/

An Accessible news bog site for Philadelphia: http://philly.curbed.com/tags/top

An Academic article evaluating Street’s Neighbourhood Transformation Initative:

http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~sys502/arcview/Projects/Phil_Housing/Phil_Nbhd_Initiative.pdf

Lower North District’s Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Philadelphia#Neighborhoods

A news article expressing concern around Fecteau’s ulterior motives: http://philly.curbed.com/archives/2013/08/05/consultant-to-major-developers-advocates-clearcut-strategy-for-city-planning.php

Information about Ken Skinner’s clean and seal programme: http://articles.philly.com/1993-09-30/news/25985242_1_houses-seal-tin

A news article about the reduction of crime in ‘greened’ areas: http://grist.org/list/2011-11-23-turning-vacant-lots-into-parks-reduces-violent-crime/

We’re Number 1! We’re Number 1! Tampa Has the Highest Homelessness Rates in Mid-Sized Cities in the United States of America

This is the third of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Joshua Hall chose to write about Tampa …

Homelessness is a problem which affects cities on many different levels. It tugs at the heartstrings of those people fortunate enough to have a stable home and livelihood whilst it also costs the local government, and therefore the tax paying citizens, in attempts to rectify the problem.

However, shock horror; the local government in Tampa doesn’t always try to solve the problem through correct channels. Instead scandal has reared its ugly head as social services director Sam Walthour has been sacked for paying Port Authority Chairman William Brown around $600000 to fund his bug-infested, unfit for purpose trailer park for homeless people to squat in. If this wasn’t shady enough, the money came directly out of the Tampa homeless recovery project fund!

Now, with the pitiful pair of Walthour and Brown out of the picture, things are potentially looking brighter as Mayor Bob Buckhorn has pledged to set aside 2 million dollars for helping the homeless in 2014. The mayor also stated that he hoped to abandon the woeful homeless recovery project and focus instead on distributing the money to various NGOs, which aim to provide both food and shelter for the homeless people of Tampa.

This silver lining of course does not eradicate all problems for the poor souls in Tampa who are left homeless. In fact the pledge made by Mayor Buckhorn was made in September 2013 but only two months earlier  the city  passed an  ordinance  allowing police officers to arrest homeless people if they were seen sleeping in public. The ordinance further stated that ‘storing personal property in public’ was also worth criminalizing.

Police in New York have been seen to provide shoes for homeless people out of their own generosity whereas in Tampa they are instructed to arrest them.

Police in New York have been seen to provide shoes for homeless people out of their own generosity whereas in Tampa they are instructed to arrest them.

Luckily in every area of the world people will stand up for justice; this is the same in Tampa. When the key protests come from elementary school children, you begin to realise the severity of the situation. . These school children handed out flyers and paraded banners stating ‘homelessness is not a choice’ and ‘sleeping is not a crime’. I love the juxtaposition between those two statements. The first symbolises the harsh reality of the situation, telling the government that these people are already being punished enough by society.  Punishing  them further is just ludicrous; the second has a reinforcing impact. The children are, quite simply telling it how it is, which is why it is almost laughable to think that the homeless face being  imprisoned for something as basic as sleeping.

Standing up for justice; young children protest against the 4-3 vote passing the ordinance to imprison homeless people.

Standing up for justice; young children protest against the 4-3 vote passing the ordinance to imprison homeless people.

Just imagine for a moment you’ve decided to run 5km on a on a warm, sunny Sunday in the summer. You stop in the park, tired at the end of your run and decide to have a few moments of shuteye to recover. You then wake up in prison. Ridiculous but possible in Tampa!

There comes a time when human compassion is needed in tough decision making and I feel this should be the time. In mid-2012 a study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Tampa, of all mid-sized cities in the US, had the highest number of homeless individuals at 7419. Now picture all those people being put in prison. Some might enjoy prison – after all a warm bed, a roof and regular meals might be the answer to their dreams yet in the grand scheme of things it is not the answer. But what are the alternatives for the government?

It is all very well to criticise the laws but if there is not an obvious solution then what can be done? If we look at the facts regarding homeless shelters in Tampa, it makes the problem seem even bleaker. Although there are plenty of shelters available in Tampa across the various counties, the nightly stay averages between $10 and $42. This is too expensive for most homeless people. Think back to any time a homeless person has asked you for money when walking past. The vast majority of the time the only money in their cups will be loose change, a galaxy away from $42. I understand the need to charge those staying in the facilities in order to keep the shelters running, but it is likely that many of the previously mentioned 7419 people could not afford to access them. So where does the government turn if the NGOs can’t help.

Across the United States there are many initiatives in place to tackle homelessness. A lot of these efforts rely on the principles involved in rescue missions, which aim to get people off the street. For example, the rescue missions in Nashville have an 11 million dollar budget each year but ultimately this project tries to get people off the street only if they undertake rehabilitation programs lasting as long as a year. Even then, that doesn’t guarantee they will  stay  off the streets.

Similar models for lesser amounts of money, such as ‘Housing First’, remove people from the streets immediately, working on the belief that a person is best equipped to reintegrate themselves into society if they are housed first. This framework was first introduced in New York in the 1990s and studies revealed that most that completed ‘Housing First’ pathways programmes remained in housing  5 years after they were initially taken in. Therefore you can see how homelessness can begin to be eradicated and in areas with more homeless people than in Tampa, so it begs the question: why are these ideologies not being implemented here? To me it seems that investing in a project such as ‘Housing First’ would make a lot more sense, especially from an ethical point of view, than passing laws to put homeless people in jail. However what I see as right and wrong is not always logistically feasible.

A simple model of how Housing First aims to get people off the street through a series of progressive steps.

A simple model of how Housing First aims to get people off the street through a series of progressive steps.

The local government of Tampa are not ignoring these measures and the fact that Mayor Buckhorn has pledged to invest is a sign of wanting to change the fortunes of the homeless. Really, the problem is that Tampa does not have the necessary resources in place to undertake a large scale operation to get their citizens off the street. If Tampa had the funds for an 11 million dollar a year rescue mission they would surely implement it. No area wants to be renowned as being top of the negative impact charts for rates such as homelessness especially with the state pride that occurs in the United States.

It could be suggested that the 2 million dollars pledged to fight the problems of homelessness in Tampa in 2014 should be invested in a project model such as ‘Housing First’ but it is unlikely to make a huge difference, as the budget required for that sort of operation is far grander than is available. As a result, the problem with homelessness is likely to rage on in Tampa, with more harm than good done given current policies. It remains to be seen whether the 2 million dollar investment will be utilised effectively as no full template for its application has yet evolved. With the very penal laws putting homeless people in jail simply for sleeping in public and thus criminalising them, many homeless will find it hard ever to turn their lives around, particularly when applying for jobs or housing in the future. Until the policymakers change the laws, and try instead to help those in need rather than punish them, the homeless people of Tampa are set to keep suffering until promises made are delivered within a cohesive and sustainable plan.

Endnotes and sources in order of use:

http://tbo.com/news/politics/social-services-director-fired-20130919/

http://tbo.com/news/tampa-council-wants-city-to-spend-more-on-homeless-20130919/

http://moorbey.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/11881/

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/nypd-boots-homeless-man-photo-145219581.html

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/07/22/2335261/tampa-criminalize-homelessness/

http://abtassociates.com/AbtAssociates/files/77/77fdb6fa-6e6b-4524-8b5a-8e68c68caca9.pdf

http://www.examiner.com/article/tampa-passes-new-ordinances-on-homeless-despite-protests

http://thehomelessguy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/solutions-for-homelessness.html

http://www.homelesshub.ca/Resource/Frame.aspx?url=http%3a%2f%2fps.psychiatryonline.org%2farticle.aspx%3farticleID%3d84342&id=25399&title=Pathways+to+Housing%3a+Supported+Housing+for+Street-Dwelling+Homeless+Individuals+with+Psychiatric+Disabilities&owner=48