Monthly Archives: March 2014

It all comes together in … Hebden Bridge?

In this second blog post about Evan Davis’s recent BBC series, Mind the Gap: London v the Rest, Iain Deas, Graham Haughton and Stephen Hincks from Planning and Environmental Management in the School of Environment, Educaton and Development at the University of Manchester look at the intriguing suggestion that policy support might in future concentrate on promoting growth in a trans-Pennine super-city radiating outwards from Manchester. In doing so, they draw on a wider critique of ‘agglomeration boosterism’ they began to develop in an open access paper published last month in Environment and Planning A.

The case for a trans-Pennine super-city drew on the now familiar argument that bigger is better in respect of urban economic development: that large cities are associated with higher levels of prosperity and productivity. Citing Word Bank research linking increased city size to raised productivity, the programme frustratingly left unexplored the direction of any causal linkage between population growth and economic development. Instead, it asserted that “if you could make Manchester the size of London (by doubling it and doubling it again) you would expect it to be about 6% to 16% richer”. Thus, what is needed is “the creation of a far bigger second city – one of several million people, which could serve as a counterweight to the mighty force that is the capital” (Davis, 2014).

Manchester and Birmingham, on the grounds of their size and international standing, were presented as the most realistic candidates to assume this status as Britain’s second global city. A survey commissioned for the programme showed Manchester as the preferred second city, if nothing else illustrating the effectiveness of the city’s efforts to transform its external perception as the quintessential ‘dirty old town’. But the programme also offered another way forward: creating a polycentric super-city by encouraging stronger linkages between existing urban areas along the M62 motorway corridor. Suggesting in partly jocular fashion that the commuter town of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire possesses the London-style sense of cultural tolerance and liberal mindedness to act as symbolic link between the great Victorian industrial cities on either side of the Pennines, Mind the Gap argued that investment in infrastructure and complementary economic specialism could create a super-city straddling the functional economies of Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

Figure 1: The Manchester-Hebden Bridge super-city

Sources: Manchester and the Hulme Arch (Graham Haughton); Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge (ManAlive!,, Creative Commons license).

Sources: Manchester and the Hulme Arch (Graham Haughton); Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge (ManAlive!,, Creative Commons license).

The idea of enhanced inter-city cooperation, or of a trans-Pennine super-city, is by no means new. In the mid-late-1990s, some of our colleagues in Planning and Environmental Management at Manchester produced a series of studies articulating the ways in which a trans-Pennine regional growth corridor, from Liverpool to Hull, could be developed. This in turn prompted interest from the European Commission, and armed with Interreg funding the trans-Pennine corridor eventually extended beyond its northern roots to form a North European Trade Axis stretching from Dublin to Donetsk. This, and other ideas like the starchitect Will Alsop’s proposal in 2005 for a super-city along the M62 motorway, helped for a short time to generate political interest. John Prescott’s Northern Way, again linking the M62 cities but with an additional branch to Newcastle, was proposed as a new growth corridor, helping to bridge the ‘£29 billion gap’ in economic output between the northern regions and London.

The notion of increased inter-city collaboration – or even a pan-regional super-city – has been persistent, but fulfilling it has proved frustratingly elusive. Much of the initial political momentum underlying the Northern Way rapidly dissipated as the constituent cities reverted to more insular policy-making and produced a series of separate (and only nominally linked) city-region development plans, rather than a coherent pan-regional collaborative strategy. This is just one illustration of the difficulty involved in persuading cities with distinct political, economic and cultural histories to work together in any meaningful way. The potency of longstanding parochial rivalries in limiting the scope for meaningful inter-city cooperation is compounded by government efforts over more than thirty years to foster competitive localism and encourage cities to compete with domestic and international rivals for policy resources, skilled labour, inward investment, prestige events and so on.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that many inter-city collaborative initiatives should founder. The Liverpool-Manchester Vision – an attempt from 2001 by the North West Development Agency to promote greater collaboration around external marketing to visitors and inward investors – unravelled amid inter-city acrimony about the location for its launch event. More recently, efforts to agree a name for the new Merseyside combined authority have come unstuck over resistance amongst the city-region’s satellite districts to the use of ‘Liverpool’ in the title of the new institution (‘Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral Combined Authority’ is the less than catchy interim compromise).

Securing agreement amongst reluctant constituent areas is just one of the obstacles confronting efforts to construct the kind of super-city mooted by Evan Davis and others. Infrastructure investment in the North, especially in the rail network, was rightly highlighted by Mind the Gap as an important way of cultivating links between cities. Evidence to date suggests that existing links are inadequate and the necessary investment unlikely to be forthcoming. The programme correctly noted that while HS2 and Crossrail involve billions of pounds of expenditure on improving transport to and within London, resources allocated to trans-Pennine linkages are slender by comparison. Indeed, at the time of writing Parliament is debating the announcement that some 13% of the rolling stock on the overcrowded trans-Pennine rail route is from 2015 to be diverted to meet capacity shortages in the South East (Parliamentary Business, 2014). And even when investment has proved forthcoming, as with the electrification of the Manchester-Liverpool rail line to form a high(ish) speed connection along the route of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway, this has been dependent in part on new infrastructure development in London generating surplus rolling stock to be refurbished and redeployed in the provinces.

Figure 2: Percentage change in public sector employment, 2008-2013

Source: (accessed 24th January 2013)

Source: (accessed 24th January 2013)

The ability of northern cities themselves to invest in developing new infrastructure or improved links – or to develop their economies more generally – is also constrained. Government’s localist rhetoric implies that cities have been ‘liberated’ and are free to develop whatever policy innovations they deem appropriate. However, the reality, given that austerity measures have impacted on local government more than any other part of the public sector, is that the ability of cities to effect economic change is highly restricted. The prospect of local agencies promoting meaningful economic development is perhaps especially limited in the cities of the north, given that it is provincial regions that have borne the brunt of public sector employment losses. Indeed, as Figure 2 shows, the only English region not to experience a net loss of public sector jobs since 2008 has been London.

The history of London-centric decision-making, and its recent parallel logic that what’s good for London is good for the rest, continues to blight the prospects for development for the country as a whole. Two things are left unanswered by recent calls to focus more resources on just a small number of large cities because of their supposed contribution to national productivity. First, why should the ‘The Rest’ – people outside London and other potential growth areas – accept their taxes funding disproportionate investment in apparently already buoyant urban economies? And second, do we really want to live in a country where decisions about the geography of public spending pander to a highly questionable economistic logic that attaches undue importance to inducing gains in a dubious concept like productivity? Better to think in broader terms, to the benefit of London, Manchester… and Hebden Bridge.





Size matters? London – the subsidy junky

Iain Deas, Graham Haughton and Stephen Hincks from Planning and Environmental Management in the School of Environment, Educaton and Development at the University of Manchester reflect on Evan Davis’s arguments about London’s relationship with the rest of the UK economy …

In a recent BBC series, Mind the Gap: London v the Rest and an accompanying BBC blog (, Evan Davis put forward an argument that government should do more to help large and successful cities prosper – even though this means spending less elsewhere. Central to the case was the notion that cities are best able to prosper when they have dense networks of highly skilled and creative workers intermingling in close proximity, driving innovation and promoting high-value economic activity.  Both local and national economic development policy, the programme argued, ought to concentrate support much more exclusively on the small number of cities that can fulfil this role as epicentres of knowledge-driven economic vitality.

The programme singled out London as an exemplar of this form of urban economic development.  The dramatic transformation of the city’s economic fortunes over nearly thirty years, it was argued, was attributable to its ability to attract and retain skilled mobile labour from around the world, lured by a seductive mix of vibrant cultural environments, attractive neighbourhoods and the prospect of rapid economic enrichment.  Amid predictable images of self-congratulatory, coffee quaffing metropolitan hipsters, the programme argued that London’s growth should be celebrated and promoted.  Although there was acknowledgment of some of the problems associated with rapid growth and overheating – strains on infrastructure, acute housing shortages and the social and spatial marginalisation of residents left behind – these were presented simply as impediments to further growth that policy intervention should and could circumvent.  London’s prosperity, ran this argument, ought to be facilitated by accommodating growth pressures: providing developable land, ensuring a supply of affordable housing, investing further in infrastructure and continuing to meet demand for labour by stressing the city’s openness to newcomers.

Mind the Gap was in some ways an entertaining and deliberately provocative piece of television. What is interesting, though, is that it echoed much of the orthodoxy that many would argue infuses contemporary urban economic development policy – not least in Manchester.  In an open access paper published last month in Environment and Planning A ( we began to question the sorts of academic idea that underpinned Mind the Gap. Building on this, we want in this two-part blog to critique two of the ideas central to Evan Davis’s thesis. In this first post, we assess Davis’s contention that London’s ascendancy ought not only to be tolerated, but should be actively promoted by government as the best way of driving national prosperity.  In the subsequent blog, we review the second episode of Mind the Gap, which argued that by concentrating resources in a network of linked urban areas as part of a northern super-city, England’s provincial cities might begin to develop new agglomerative economic growth and follow London’s path to success.

London: state aid addict

Evan Davis’s treatise said relatively little about the role of policy in underpinning London’s transformation from merely another declining British city in the 1970s to the thrusting global city of today.  Indeed, implicit to the programme was an argument that spatial policy had been trained to too great a degree on the declining cities of the north and midlands, to very limited effect. At the same time, earlier policy efforts to manage the growth of London itself – via green belt policy or the new towns programme – were said to have undermined the city’s economy by restricting in situ development and diverting development elsewhere.

This ignores the instrumental role played by government in enabling London’s growth. The emphasis of national policy, at least until the onset of the crises of 2007-08, on promoting the financial and producer service sectors has been a major part of this.  So too has been associated spending, aimed at accommodating London’s growth via multi-billion investment in infrastructure. What is less frequently acknowledged, however, is that public expenditure in general has also been skewed towards London.  Treasury data on per capita identifiable public expenditure on services for standard regions give some sense of the capital’s favourable treatment (Figure 1).  London, the graph shows, is consistently the best funded of the English regions, and exceeded only by the special cases of Northern Ireland and (to a lesser extent) Scotland and Wales.  The unavoidable additional cost of maintaining capital city functions for the four UK capitals, and other complications such as the variable physical size of the regions and their differing social profiles, makes comparison across regions difficult.  But the extent of interregional disparity is striking nonetheless – and even greater in terms of specific types of spending, like science and technology and transport, where London and the South East again receive disproportionately larger shares than other English regions.

Figure 1:  Total identifiable expenditure on services by country and region per head in real terms,2007-08 to 2011-12

Source: HM Treasury (2013) Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2013, Cm 8663, London: The Stationery Office. Available: (accessed 20th March 2014).

Source: HM Treasury (2013) Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses 2013, Cm 8663, London: The Stationery Office. Available: (accessed 20th March 2014).

A dispassionate observer might well conclude that London’s growth has been highly dependent on state subsidy.  Moreover, data on disaggregated public service expenditure suggest a pattern for the English regions that runs counter to regional policy. And the sums involved in the latter are, of course, much smaller by comparison with spending on mainstream services. This is important because implicit to the argument of Mind the Gap was a view that past spatial policy has been ineffective in reenergising declining economies, and that public money ought to focus on stimulating agglomerative growth in a few large urban areas instead of trying to narrow interregional inequality.  Past policy for cities and regions, runs this line of argument, is wasteful because it is propping-up areas that are less ‘productive’ than London.

Yet there is an argument that previous regional policy should not to be so readily dismissed, and that it is unrealistic to expect regional economic transformation given the degree to which regional imbalance has been ingrained over a century and more.  Even at its peak in 2005/06, the national budget of £2.2b for Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) represented only 0.2% of national output.  And even in the most generously funded of the RDAs – One North East – peak spending amounted to £240m: a mere £95 per person or 0.75% of regional economic output.  These are miniscule sums, dwarfed by public expenditure directed towards London.  And the contrast becomes even more striking given the abolition of the RDAs and their replacement by Local Enterprise Partnerships, nominally private sector bodies responsible for raising their own resources and benefitting from only modest levels of financial support from government. Viewed in the context of the meagre resources allocated to spatial economic development policy and the hidden subsidy to London and its region, therefore, it is unsurprising that regional economic disparity should prove so intractable.

Mind the Gap echoed the view that past policy for cities and regions has detracted from rather than added to national productivity , and that resources could be better used to enable London’s growth to be maintained and to create mini-Londons elsewhere.  What was missing, however, was any kind of lateral thinking on how to offset the growth pressures accumulating in the London region. Yet the solution to some of London’s problems of overheating, it could be argued, rests not in the capital, but elsewhere in urban Britain.  The sensible response London’s  to spiralling house prices, one could contend, lies not in liberalising planning and releasing more land for development, but in focusing economic development policy on struggling cities and regions in order to bolster their demand for labour and displace some of the pressures from the  existing hotspots of the South East.  Supply-side policies on land and labour in London and the South East over thirty years have failed to resolve growth pressures, hence acute localised wage and house price inflation. Instead of maintaining urban containment and resisting green belt encroachment, concerned residents of the Home Counties might be better advised to lobby for more investment in the north in order to ensure that housing is affordable in the South East.

Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, likes to argue that concentrating investment in already prosperous London is justifiable not only because the city is a net contributor to the exchequer, but also because the benefits ultimately trickle-down to the rest of the country. “I’m making the argument to the Treasury that a pound spent in Croydon is far more of value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde. You will generate jobs in Strathclyde far more effectively if you invest in parts of London”, he told the Huffington Post in 2012 (  A rather better argument would be to invest more in Britain’s provincial cities, linked to a genuinely integrative national spatial policy, as the best way of maintaining London’s prosperity.




Expanding the web of flood risk management

Jeremy Carter is a research fellow working within the University of Manchester’s School of Environment, Education and Development. He is co-director of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy.

Flood risk across England and Wales in February 2014. Red indicates a severe risk of flooding. (Image from

Flood risk across England and Wales in February 2014. Red indicates a severe risk of flooding. (Image from

The floods that hit England and Wales over the winter of 2013-14 have pushed a series of issues to the forefront of people’s minds; not least the real risk of flooding that hangs over many communities across the country. It remains to be seen whether a progressive response can be driven forward to address the interconnected web of issues linking the causes, consequences and responses to flood events. These issues encompass diverse themes from agricultural practices and climate change to land use change and public funding priorities.  These themes are all connected. They represent different elements of the natural and human systems that combine to generate floods and associated environmental, social and economic impacts. Although there will always be calls for short term fixes from some groups, with demands for dredging rivers standing out in this particular case, the uncomfortable fact is that there are no immediate solutions to many of the issues raised by the floods. Searching questions need to be asked about the connection between flooding and way that urban and rural landscapes have been developed and managed, and about how they might evolve in the future. A concerted emergency response and recovery effort to the impacts raised by this particular series of floods, although necessary, will simply not be enough.

A noticeable theme within the media over recent weeks has been the political blame-game and mud-slinging that has accompanied the recent floods. Amongst these unwelcome distractions, one useful point was made by Owen Patterson, the current environment secretary, on the development of approaches to lessen future flood risk. He stated that,

“…we need to do more to hold the water back, way back in the hills.”[1]

The implications of this statement are far reaching. Effectively, Patterson recognised the need for catchment scale responses to reduce flood risk. This in turn calls for the management of land far removed from sites exposed to the threat of flooding for the benefit of those locations at risk of inundation. To take an example, until comparatively recently landowners in North West England were being subsidised to accelerate the drainage of upland blanket peat bogs by ‘gripping’ or cutting open drains along the peatland edge. Happily this practice has now been reversed, although there is still some way to go before the water storage capacity of these upland landscapes is re-established. Actions like this should be encouraged as part of a strategic catchment scale response to reducing flood risk. They are important because in the case of extreme rainfall events, which climate change projections suggest are likely to become more frequent, the capacity of existing defences to hold back flood waters may be insufficient. Measures such as this are also needed to help lessen the volume of water reaching sites exposed to flood risk.

There are major challenges associated with delivering catchment scale flood risk management responses. For example, certain sites may currently be providing important flood risk management functions to areas further downstream through the role they play in storing water and reducing the speed and volume of surface water runoff reaching water courses. However, in some cases, these locations will also be earmarked for future housing, retail or industrial development. This poses tricky questions concerning whether, and if so how, land can be managed at a catchment scale to reduce flood risk. Understandably, a local authority may be reluctant to forgo the potential gains associated with a new development to secure benefits offered by the land for residents and businesses located in an authority further downstream.

Catchment scale flood risk management responses of the type needed to reduce flood risk are hindered by the shape of existing political and administrative boundaries. These generally do not match the scale at which river systems operate. There are notable exceptions such as the European Water Framework Directive’s River Basin Management Plans, which are designed at the catchment scale to enhance the quality of water bodies and water courses. Largely, however, we are faced with a spatial mismatch. Issues such as flooding cannot be effectively addressed without the creation of new partnerships and networks, engaging agencies and organisations from different sectors, which recognise the cross-boundary nature of flood risk management.

Work ongoing within the Climate Proof Cities project, a Dutch government funded initiative on which the University of Manchester is collaborating, is bringing these themes together via a case study based on Greater Manchester and its surrounding hinterlands. Research led by the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy (CURE) is mapping the extent of green infrastructure cover that is providing flood risk management functions to an exposed site in the centre of the city. Much of the green infrastructure that has been identified is located beyond the district at risk of flooding, and a significant amount lies beyond the administrative boundaries of Greater Manchester itself. Options to address this spatial mismatch are being considered.

Further details are available here:


Can Manchester become a cycling city?

For cities such as Manchester to operate a fully sustainable transport system they must make cycling mainstream, say Dr James Evans and Gabriele Schliwa. Their study into how to make the vision a reality has policy implications for cities across the UK.

Manchester may be the home of British cycling, but does the city fully embrace two wheels?

A flat city home to Europe’s largest student population should, in theory, be a biking mecca. But the reality is some way off. Many would-be cyclists are simply put off getting on the saddle at all, even for the slightest journey, be it because of safety or security issues, practicalities, better alternatives or maybe just Mancunian weather!

However, as more people see both the economic and health benefits of cycling (and the nationwide boom shows little sign of letting up), so cities need to adapt and make cycling mainstream. If cities really want to fully embrace sustainability then cycling has to be a part of the mix.

For a city such as Manchester to see more cyclists on its streets it has to do a number of things – understand the needs of cyclists, experiment with solutions, and learn what works. This means bringing together partners already working on the ‘two-wheels good’ mantra.

It was precisely these elements which provided the framework for the Manchester Cycling Lab research project into the state of cycling in the city that we began a few months ago, thanks to funding from the Economic & Social Research Council.


Ranked against the likes of London – or even a comparable city on the continent – Manchester would probably admit it has been slow to fully embrace the potential of cycling, while also underestimating cycling usage. At the same time there has been remarkably little research into cycle usage in the city compared to other forms of transport. There is a sense in which Manchester has to catch up.

There are lots of exciting initiatives already underway in the city. For instance the Velocity 2025 programme ( aims to make cycling a mainstream, everyday form of transport via a network of newly-built or enhanced cycling routes within the next decade. And the Oxford Road Corridor development will ban all cars except taxis along a stretch of the road beside our own university, while at the same time improving pedestrian and cycle facilities.

So what exactly have we been doing? Our starting point was to identify the gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in order to facilitate the Velocity programme, working closely with Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and local businesses.

We then developed a suite of applied projects to address these needs using existing research capacity in the University – most notably in the form of our highly trained and motivated student body. The idea is to turn Manchester into a living laboratory for the study of cycling, harnessing the knowledge and capacity of the University to support a cycling transition.

Our portfolio contains about a dozen research projects, tailored to the knowledge needs of our key stakeholders, including a cost-benefit analysis for cycling investment in Manchester; an analysis of the potential to use bikes for delivery services; comparisons with cities such as New York and Berlin that have successfully invested in cycling; and smart planning for bicycle infrastructure.

For the latter project masters student Benjamin Bell is investigating whether Strava, a popular app which enables users to track and record their cycle journeys, can be used to understand where people cycle in Manchester. Early estimates suggest more than 12,000 people use Strava in Manchester, which accounts for around 6% of all cyclists in the city, a not insignificant number. We are sending out mailshots to further encourage the use of Strava by regular commuter cyclists to build up more representative data.

We set out to learn who already cycles in the city, which roads they use, and how often. We particularly wanted to test the extent to which Strava provided a realistic picture of Manchester’s most popular cycling routes and cyclist demographics. Is it representative of actual cycle patterns? We will be comparing our results with previous TfGMstudies and against real-life counts of cyclists on the same road segments.

Although the results are still coming in, the findings are already striking. For instance the vast majority (on average more than 90%) of Strava users are men. But does this reflect the wider uptake of cycling in the city? And those women who do use Strava tend to use more side roads and off-road routes to complete their journey. Surely a demonstration of very real safety concerns among women?

The questions ultimately posed by our study are long term. They are as much cultural and behavioural as physical. Can we change the actual mindset of vast swathes of the population and bring them around to the benefits of cycling?

As the Manchester Cycling Lab research portfolio shows, we want to compare our work with comparable cities. But in this regard Manchester needs to benchmark itself not just with other UK cities, but with those on the continent or in other developed nations too. Here our aim is to very much to be part of that wider policy debate about what cities like Manchester can and need to do to fully embrace cycling.

Cities like Berlin have achieved major increases in cycling levels in a relatively short time-frame with similar levels of investment to that proposed in Manchester. Their investment in cycling infrastructure, promotion and education is now really paying off, as any recent visitor would tell you. Let’s make people say the same about Manchester in 10 years time.

 *We would urge you to join us for two special events next month. The University of Manchester Bicycle Users Group (UMBUG) is celebrating reaching 1000 members with a special event at 4.30pm on Thursday April 3 outside University Place Meanwhile Cities@Manchester is hosting an urban forum exploring the issues raised in this article on Tuesday, 8 April, 6-8pm at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

This blog is also available at policy@manchester



Of refugees and post-earthquake responses

Natalia Garcia Cervantes, Jessica Roccard and Cathy Wilcock (University of Manchester) write about an international conference that took place two weeks ago in Manchester …

The third part of the series ‘Ambivalence in the city’ at the HCRI/GURC sub-conferences for the 11th International Conference on Urban Health continued with the session ‘Urban humanitarianism III: Refugees, inequalities and humanitarianism’. Participating in the plenary was our colleague Cathy Wilcock, from IDPM at the University of Manchester, and Jorge Inzulza from the University of Chile.

Cathy Wilcock started the session with the presentation ‘Institutional Resistance to the transnational political activities of refugee groups: The anti-politics of refugee NGOS towards Sudanese activists in Manchester’. Cathy explores how the political activities of Sudanese refugees in urban centres in the UK are affected by the political environment of their new place of residence. She analyses the systems of power relations, both actors and processes, of the refugees’ political environment in relation to their transnational activities. She does this by exploring three key questions: What transnational activities are taking place? How do UK-NGO’s relate to those activities? And, what are the implications of this relation?

In this context, refugees NGO’s aim to support and empower communities to establish strong organizations; nonetheless, these NGOs appear to be extremely concerned with the possibility of lending support to political activists based in the UK, such as the anti-Bashir movement. As a result, political activism is seen by NGOs as a menace for the refugees’ community development and an ‘institutional resistance’ emerges whereby NGOs become reluctant to form relationships with transnational political activism groups. Additionally, an obvious support for cultural, as opposed to political refugee organisations, on one hand, and resistance to political activities on the other, sends the message that ‘There is an ideal type of refugee that we will support’, namely those who are victims of conflict, and not embroiled in the contentious politics which espoused conflict, those who bring over cultural memories of their place of origin and not political ones. In short, it results in the legitimisation of cultural activities and the delegitimisation of political activities. She asks whether, in reality, it is sensible or possible for those to be separated.

To continue with the session, Jorge Inzulza, from the University of Chile presented a very engaging topic; ‘Tremors and large waves: loss of memories and threat in the context of the Chilean reconstruction’. Dr Inzulza introduced the urban planning policies issues regarding post-earthquake reconstruction using the case of Talca and Constitucion. He argued that, natural disasters and gentrification are processes that commonly increase poverty and social inequality; they often displace residents and change the urban landscape in cities, particularly at intermediate size cities in Latin America. Dr Inzulza suggested that, the lack of appropriate post-reconstruction planning policies results in a gentrification of the city, where the loss of infrastructure and consequent sense of place amounts to the loss of citizens’ legitimacy and identity. He highlighted the dissonance between the existent normative and guideline documents that work at different levels and the pressing needs that surge from the earthquake; and there is an explicit disconnection between normative aspects and socio-economic, government management, territorial investments and a spatial-physical approach to planning for reconstruction.

This was indeed a very compelling and exciting session. Thanks to both participants!!

All change please: climate in urban areas

The third day of the conference ICUH 2014, started with a plenary session led by Prof Hancock, Prof Sir Gilmore, Prof Hickman and Prof Rao. First, Prof Hancock presented the impacts of climate change on urban areas. Pointing out the three parameters that have influence on urban areas and public health (environment, people and economy), he argued for the need for “healthy democracies”. Secondly, Prof Sir Gilmore introduced the disastrous effects of alcohol on urban population. Hence, he claimed that we are currently witnessing a shift of the behaviour of the population: from enjoying a glass of alcohol to binge drinking. This change poses a serious threat for public health as a significant increase in alcohol-related injuries and disease and death is observed. Then, the third speaker, Prof Hickman, talked about the issue of hepatitis C in urban areas among the injection users with a very cost/effective approach by addressing the effectiveness of the possible interventions depending on the prevalence of the disease among this population. The last speaker, Prof Rao, described the health problems of the urban poor in Indian and Bangladesh cities. She pointed out the link between health and urbanisation emphasising the importance of the urban areas. Indeed, cities are powerful drivers of economic growth, but they are also the witnesses of social inequity between low-income and higher-income communities, being a major issue to address.

Is climate change THE PRIMARY concern or is it a new characteristic of development issues?

The documentary presented by Dr Dodman entitled “Climate Bites: Disease”, of the hot cities series, was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation for the purpose of being broadcast by the BBC. It presented the exacerbation of public health issues related to climate change. The examples of Jakarta and the increasing epidemics of dengue, Paris and the heat wave which occurred in 2003, and Chicago and its solutions strategies such as green roofs and surveillance system were examined.

This interesting video raises numerous questions. First, the documentary emphasises that climate change is the cause of the public health issues. However, is climate change really the main cause of the disease epidemics, or does it simply exacerbate existent issues of urbanisation of the city? In this case, what is the degree of importance of its impacts on these inherent urbanisation issues? Is climate change a development issue?

Furthermore, the case of Jakarta addresses gender issues. Indeed, while fogging is undertaken by the authorities, prevention campaigns and insecticide distribution are also carried out by a women’s organisation. Hence, could measures to face climate change impacts be implemented along with women’s empowerment strategies? However, while focusing on this organisation, further questions are raised. Who provided the insecticide to the women’s organisation? How was their organisation set up? Would it be efficient in a low-income community, also often lacking of basic knowledge?

In this context, it can also be noted that the strategy implemented by the authorities is short term. It eradicates the vector but it does not address the underlying issue of water and sanitation. Hence, the sustainability of the strategy is questionable as the deeper causes of the epidemics are not addressed. On the contrary, long-term strategies such as the building of green infrastructures and designed of surveillance system of the most vulnerable people have been implemented in Chicago. However, could these long-term strategies of Northern cities be possible to be implemented in the cities of the Global South as these latest are already facing heavy and different urbanisation burdens?

Finally, regarding both the heat wave in Paris and dengue in Jakarta, it can be noticed that the authorities and sanitary actors were unprepared to face the hazards. Learning from these experiences, responses have been elaborated. However, do we need to witness deaths to prepare for the coming changes?

All’s well that ends well: Closing plenary

The closing session of the HCRI/GURC sub-conferences was chaired by Dr Tanja Muller, with the contributions of Professor Diana Mitlin, from GURC at the University of Manchester and Dr David Dodman from IIED.

Professor Mitlin started by offering her observations on ‘Urban Risk and Humanitarian Response: reflecting on urban realities and specificities’, where, in order to understand urban risks,  she scrutinized what the terms ‘urban’, ‘risks’ and ‘humanitarian’ mean. An ‘urban’ environment is among other things, characterised by high density areas, a dependence on labour markets influenced by public investment management and potential of urban space.

Dr Dodman explored the topic ‘Climate change and its health impacts on the urban poor’ and pointed at the pressing need for new urban systems for resilience, and to develop preventative measures for the implications of climate change in health.

The session ended as an invigorating exchange of ideas between the audience and the panellists. We discussed the significance of humanitarian response to the current and future challenges posed to urban health, by risks such as violence and climate change.

Overall, the HCRI/GURC sub-conference of the 11th International Conference on Urban Health delivered a thought-provoking and dynamic symposium. It brought together some fascinating research from both established and emerging academics with insights from some world-leading practitioners.

Asking the right questions: What kind of research will actively serve to improve urban health?

Natalia Garcia Cervantes, Jessica Roccard and Cathy Wilcock (University of Manchester) write about an international conference that took place two weeks ago in Manchester …

The second morning’s opening plenary (6 March) featured keynotes by Dr David Satterwaite (International Institute for the Environment and Development) and Professor Ana Diez Roux (Drexel University). Both focus on the role of research in improving health.

Professor Satterwaite was asking ‘Why is health so poor in the Global South after 60 years of humanitarian interventions?’ Despite over half a century of development assistance, in many countries in the Global South, 1 in 5 infants are still dying before the age of 5. In light of this lack of progress, Professor Satterwaite asks why most of the research into ‘causes of death’ is conducted with the aim of being able to make global comparisons, rather than generating localised, relevant knowledge. Without this specific local information, there is no way development practitioners, urban planners, or local governments, can target the right policies at the right areas of their locality. He proposes that the way forward is to garner the unique knowledge of the poor themselves to form the basis of local partnerships between community organisations/ social movements within poor urban areas and their local governments. We wonder can participatory research work in areas where the power relations between government actors and non-state actors are abusive/oppressive? Does participation, as a policy-relevant research method, focus too much on the agency of the poor themselves, therefore initiating policies which are blind to the structural inequalities actually keeping people in poverty?

Following on from this, Professor Roux’s keynotes called for innovations in research methodology in health research. She demonstrates that a lot of health research is ‘linear’ – it aims to reveal or demonstrate a causal relationship between one variable and another, often through data-gathering in experimental settings. In contrast to this so-called ‘reductionist’ method, she makes a compelling case for a ‘systems approach’ in health research. Less concerned with proving a causal relationship between two variables, a systems approach is sensitive to the multitude of factors which affect health and can present findings which are demonstrative of feedback (as opposed to causal) relations between the numerous components in the system. Especially within the context of a conference where the somewhat vague subtitle of ‘crossing boundaries’ has not really shone through so far, this refreshing keynotes provided a clear strategy for change rather than a business as usual approach.

Whose role is it anyway? Sharing responsibility for the urban poor’s health

The keynotes speeches had left me wondering about the question of responsibility – who is responsible for improving the health of the urban poor. Is it the poor themselves? Their local governments? National governments? International NGOs? Local NGOs? If it is a combination of any of the above, how can that shared responsibility be managed? The session on ‘Stress in the City’ provided some interesting approaches to this question.

Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) presented on their work with market traders, street vendors, home based workers and domestic workers in urban townships in South Africa. Following that Dr Selmin Jahan spoke about water and sanitation facilities for the urban poor in Dhaka. The session closed with Dr Helen Elsey speaking about a ‘Healthy Kitchens’, an initiative which identifies interventions to improve health in urban slum kitchens. All of these presentations were about projects seeking to improve the health and safety in informal, unregulated urban settings where people are exposed to a multitude of risks including lung disease, gastrointestinal disease, burns etc. All three projects are asking how do we extend health and safety policies to urban informal settings? How can they be included in urban planning? How can we minimise health and safety risks in informal settings? In WIEGO’s case, they have developed a piece of research in partnership with the market traders which outlines a zonal health and safety plan for their workplace. As well as providing education and training, they have overseen the installation of a risk management sub-committee among the traders. For the healthy cities initiative, the targeted intervention is to replace open fires and gas in kitchens with a safer alternative.

These projects placed a lot of the responsibility for improving health and safety on the urban poor themselves – the aim of these projects was to empower the urban poor to take the appropriate actions and establish the appropriate systems for improving health and safety using the resources available to them. However, they also recognised that these measures can only go so far without the local governments also taking responsibility to protect their citizens. In WIEGO’s project in particular, the difficulty of making this shared-responsibility work shone through. They recognised the need to negotiate the unequal power relations between governments and their poor citizens and interestingly, have themselves developed strategies to tread this contentious path towards partnership. These presentations about three fascinating projects demonstrated how small, inexpensive measures can be implemented by the urban poor themselves to improve their health and safety. However, unequal structures loom large: how can the poor empower themselves effectively in a broader context of disempowerment?

Climate Change: a universal threat?

During the session about climate change (CC) and urban insecurities chaired by Dr Dodman, three presenters, Mr Umamaheshwaran, Mrs Dang Thu and Dr Rais introduced their work. Their interesting speeches raised different issues caused by climate change impacts on urban areas. On the one hand, it can be understood that impacts such as flooding and/or the increase in temperatures (among many others), are faced by every city within every country. And within these cities, they severely affect particularly the health of the most vulnerable: the low-income communities. However, not every city has to face existing burdens that CC only exacerbates. For example, New-Delhi faces extreme problems of drinking water access, sanitation systems and air pollution caused by the dense traffic. Moreover, the health policies are not always being adequately implemented and the reaction time of the authorities when an epidemic occurs is too long.

Nevertheless, there are attempts underway to address these problems. Indeed, strategies to face climate change impact are implemented by NGOs such as ‘Challenge to Change’ (Mrs Dang Thu), by providing support to the most vulnerable groups in Vietnam to implement strategies to mitigate and adapt to these impacts. On the other hand, more technological solutions such as projects from Taru (Mr Umamaheshwaran) are also being implemented in Indore. By supporting a new management system and software for the health practitioners, this organisation helps to monitor the spreading of disease and allows following in real time the epidemics.

The second session about climate change, chaired by Dr Alfredo Stein, also introduced some very interesting topics. Starting with the presentation of Dr Jemery Carter from the University of Manchester, the session first focused on climate change impacts and adaptation responses in Greater Manchester. Dr Carter pointed out the existing connections of the previous concepts with people health and well-being. He emphasised the creation of green infrastructure as a solution to face impacts such as flooding and heat wave. However, the infrastructure promoted might be efficient in a context of Manchester, but would not benefit from the same efficiency in Indian cities, for example.

Mr Brown and Dr Dodman propose a different approach of climate change. They argued that climate change research has been often considering it as top-down approach and focusing on hazards themselves. Hence, challenging this view, the vulnerability of the urban poor is the focus of their research.

The last presentation, given by Vikai Desai, focused on her experience in Surat city, which experienced strong flooding. As an impact of flooding, the city witnessed the arising of a new disease: leptospirosis. Facing this new challenge, an innovative monitoring and control system had to be implemented. Not only people, but cities as a whole have also to adapt to the new challenges arising from climate change direct and indirect impacts!

Finally, these sessions allowed the understanding of the multi-disciplinarity of climate change and multi-faceted impacts. CC creates strong challenges for urban health and development actors, as well as for the inhabitants of those cities. Practitioners and academics must work together to build a brightest and healthiest future.

Aiding violence? Urban violence and humanitarian responses to it

One of the HCRI/GURC sub-conference sessions was ‘Urban violence and conflict: Exploring the response to urban violence’ with the participation of Elena Lucci (via skype), Verena Brähler, and Dr Melanie Lombard.

Elena Lucci opened the session with the intervention ‘Humanitarian Action in the context of urban violence’ drawing on the lessons emerging from case studies based on humanitarian aid in urban settings experiences. She started by asking the question ‘What is urban violence and why is it important for humanitarians?’ She defined urban violence and then asserted that the characteristics such as dynamism, density and diversity or urban centres, can create enabling environments for violence. There are important lessons from her experience in humanitarian aid. For example: ensuring clear aims from the beginning must a priority; also, acting strategically to develop capacity and linkages in the community that is being served; thirdly, taking a localised approach to violence and to developing the specialized skills that are needed to respond to urban crises.

Following this, was Verena Brähler from UCL, with ‘Inequality of Insecurity in Rio de Jainero, Brazil’. Verena presented the results of her PhD Research. She used a mixed methods approach and, on this occasion, she talked about the quantitative part. Her analytical framework is based on the concepts of inequality and security. Additionally, she measured social cohesion and perceptions of insecurity through a series of surveys in the ’favelas’ and compared the security provision between low and middle-income neighbourhoods. To end such an interesting discussion, the audience contributed to the dialogue with questions about the role of the state in security provision in Brazil. She argues that in the absence of the Brazilian state as a provider of security, poor people have to accept to live side by side to criminals, respecting a silence code in exchange for minimal security provision.

Last but not least, Dr Melanie Lombard explored urban land conflicts with a case study from provincial Mexico. Dr Lombard provided key concepts about land disputes, and conceptual differences between conflict and violence; in Santa Lucia –the case study– the situation of many urban settlements in Mexico is exposed: land is available but unaffordable. As a result, colonias populares or peri-urban settlements arise from the illegal subdivision of previously community-owned land (ejidos). Conflict appears when, under the absence of state presence and a normative dissonance (since the land was neither claimed to be rural nor urban), the interests of key actors, including the state, urban political leaders and local associations clash. She concluded asserting that ‘When violence is used as a tool by actors struggling for political or economic power, conflict over land is more likely to escalate and the urban poor communities are more likely to be adversely affected’.

This was indeed a very intense and stimulating session. Thanks to all the participants!!


Digital Place Atmospheres: Architecture, Digital Visualisation and the Experience Economy

Monica Degen, a Senior Lecturer at the Sociology & Communications Department, Brunel University writes about her research and a talk at the University of Manchester on Wednesday 12 March

Monica’ work broadly interrogates the ways in which the senses structure and are structured by urban life and material culture (see also Her latest work (an ESRC funded project with Gillian Rose, Open University and Clare Melhuish, UCL) has been focusing the visualisation technologies by architects and explores the central role of digital architectural visualisations in place-making and urban regeneration initiatives, as cities re-invent themselves on a global stage. Computer Generated Images (CGIs) produced by architects and visualisers are used both as design tools, to help designers and clients visualise proposed designs and make decisions; and as communication devices, which project images of future places and what it will feel like to be in them to clients, planners and public audiences – mobilising emotion, opinion, participation, and action around large-scale projects. Hence they have a significant influence on the globalised working practices of architects, visualisers and construction professionals which effects material transformation of urban landscapes and everyday lived experience. CGIs can therefore be seen as an aesthetic and affective dimension of the way in which ‘software is writing cities’ (Thrift, 2001), which invites closer and more critical attention than they have so far been accorded by either social scientists interested in built space and social life, or by architects and architectural theorists interested in the implications of digital technology for architectural and urban design practice.

CGIs are all around us in different forms, but we rarely look at them closely, beyond the glossy and eye-catching surface which they present in the public realm. The paper she will present:  Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy focuses on one particular project, Msheireb Downtown in Doha, Qatar, masterplanned and designed by a mix of British and American architectural practices for Msheireb Properties. In particular she will argue that while CGIs may be viewed simply as a continuation of older forms of architectural representation and rhetoric, the digitality of these images also sets them apart in certain ways from past traditions of image production in architecture. Drawing on a two year qualitative study of architects’ practices we examine how digital technology enables the virtual engineering of sensory experiences using a wide range of graphic effects. We show how these CGIs are laboriously materialised in order to depict and present specific sensory, embodied regimes and affective experiences to appeal to clients and consumers.

The project was supported by an ESRC grant RES-062-23-3305, for more information see: