Category Archives: News & Updates

Wage theft!

Nik Theodore from the Department of Urban Planning and Policy of the University of Illinois at Chicago writes about the problem of wage theft in the United States.

Ana worked for five years for a cleaning company in Chicago, where she was paid $8 an hour, even for overtime hours. “One time I worked for 22 hours in a row and was paid only $120, Ana explained. “My boss told me that was all he could give me.” She is owed about $1,800 from bounced checks, plus wages she should have received if her employer had abided by overtime laws. She was fired from her cleaning job after she developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Ana says the debilitating injury was caused by the strenuous work she had been doing: “I got carpal tunnel in my hands from the repetitive motion. I went to Cook County Hospital and I covered my medical expenses. But I couldn’t afford to go to therapy. I fell behind on my school payments, and now I even owe the [Internal Revenue Service] because my employer was not deducting money from my check.”

Ana is not alone in experiencing these types of workplace violations. Increasingly, it is clear that there has been a breakdown in the enforcement of core employment and labor laws in Chicago and other major US cities. Employers must pay workers at least the minimum wage, and time and a half for overtime. They must follow regulations to protect workers’ health and safety, and carry workers’ compensation insurance to cover on-the-job injuries. They may not discriminate against workers on the basis of age, race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability. And they must respect workers’ right to organize and bring complaints about working conditions. Yet there is growing evidence that employers are evading these bedrock labor standards.

A study of workplace violations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City (http://www.unprotectedworkers.org/index.php/broken_laws/index) found evidence of widespread violations among workers employed in low-wage industries. In the Chicago area, the nonpayment and underpayment of wages take a heavy monetary toll on workers and their families (http://www.ndlon.org/en/resources/item/412-unregulated-work). For those workers who experienced a pay‐based violation in the previous week, the average amount of lost wages was $50, out of average weekly earnings of $322. This amounts to wage theft of 16 percent. Assuming a full‐year work schedule, it is estimated that these workers lost an average of $2,595 annually due to workplace violations, out of total annual earnings of just $16,753.

Furthermore, it is estimated that in a given week, approximately 146,300 workers in Chicago and suburban Cook County experience at least one pay‐based violation. Extrapolating from this figure, front‐line workers in low‐wage industries lose more than $7.3 million per week as a result of employment and labor law violations.

Wage theft not only depresses the already meager earnings of low‐wage workers, it also adversely impacts their communities and local economies. Low‐income families spend the large majority of their earnings on basic necessities, such as food, clothing and housing. Their expenditures circulate through local economies, supporting businesses and jobs. Wage theft robs local communities of a significant portion of this spending, and it ultimately limits economic growth.

Kim Bobo has correctly referred to wage theft as the “crime wave no one talks about.” It is high time that policymakers confront labor standards violations and their detrimental impacts on families and local communities. The policy agenda must include updating employment laws so that they apply to 21st Century workplaces and employment arrangements, redoubling enforcement efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of laws that are on the books, and ultimately devising strategies to hold employers responsible for the workplace conditions under their control.

 

 

 

 

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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/

The Political Ecology of Health: Concerns over urban ‘swiftlet farming’ and communicable diseases in Georgetown, Malaysia

Creighton  Connolly, an Entitle Fellow, and second year geog PhD student in Geography, School of Environment, Education and Development, University, reflects on his on-going fieldwork …

On December 10th, news agencies in Malaysia reported the first death in the country from Influenza A (bird flu).1 Previously, Malaysia has claimed to be ‘immune’ from the bird flu epidemic which has hit neighboring countries, particularly Indonesia over the past decade. Even when the SARS outbreak hit in 2002, Malaysia did not have any recorded records of the disease (despite a higher than average number of deaths from flu-like cases). However, some suspicion was raised when the media later announced that the death was actually caused by a thyroid complication, rather than Influenza A, or bird flu. More alarming, was the fact that reports came out that three of the victim’s colleagues had been quarantined in the hospital as they had tested positive for H1N1 – of which bird’s flu is a strain.2 The question can then be asked, that if the victim who died had thyroid complications, then why did her colleagues test positive for H1N1?

This recent announcement thus caused considerable alarm amongst Malaysia’s NGOs and civil society groups, such as the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and Friends of the Earth Malaysia (SAM), who have been concerned for a number of years with the high population of swiftlets in the city of Georgetown, Penang (as well as many other Malaysian cities), which are reared in an intensive manner for their valuable edible-nests.3 The NGOs’ concerns have been justified due to a recent outbreak of H5N1 bird flu in Vietnam in May 2013, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of swiftlets and one child in the Phan Rang area of south-central Vietnam.4 This case provided the first indication that swiftlets are susceptible to the bird-flu virus, as many swiftlet farmers and biologists alike indicated that swiftlets were unlikely carriers of such vectors due to their unique characteristics.

A cluster of swiftlet farms in Sitiawan, Perak, located adjacent to a school playing field. Sitiawan is a town some 200 hundred kilometers from Georgetown, where the industry started in Malaysia. The town’s central area has been almost entirely converted to swiftlet farming over the past 15 years.

A cluster of swiftlet farms in Sitiawan, Perak, located adjacent to a school playing field. Sitiawan is a town some 200 hundred kilometers from Georgetown, where the industry started in Malaysia. The town’s central area has been almost entirely converted to swiftlet farming over the past 15 years.

Baby swiftlets occupying their nests. During the day, the adult swifts will go out and scavenge for food to bring back for their young. Wooden planks are attached to the cement walls of swiftlet farms for the birds to perch on while constructing their nests.

Baby swiftlets occupying their nests. During the day, the adult swifts will go out and scavenge for food to bring back for their young. Wooden planks are attached to the cement walls of swiftlet farms for the birds to perch on while constructing their nests.

The PHT has been lobbying for a ban on swiftlet farming in the Georgetown urban area, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 2007 when the first government guidelines on swiftlet farming (known as 1GP) first appeared. These guidelines explicitly stated that swiftlet farming should not take place in residential areas. December 31st of 2013 marked the end of the Penang state’s three-year grace-period for the removal of all Swiftlet farms in the city of Georgetown. In a recent interview that I had with YB Chow Kwon Yeow of the Penang state government, he prepared a large document outlining for me the history of the government’s involvement in regulating the issues related to swiftlet farms in the central city area. The policies date back to 2008, when the town received UNESCO world heritage designation, and coincidently, when the current state government came into power. Since then, Chow’s government has been under a lot of pressure to clear the city of swiftlet farms, as the buildings themselves and the birds they attract have been been widely identified as a social nuisance in the town, as well as the possible source of health hazards from diseases like dengue fever and bird flu. However, Mr. Chow candidly told me that, despite having some problems early on, the number of swiftlet farming premises in Georgetown has been greatly reduced and should be down to less than a dozen in 2014.

Despite Mr. Chow’s optimistic outlook on the number of swiftlet farms in the Georgetown World Heritage Site, there are still several concerns, as addressed in a recent open letter issued by the PHT to the State Government in Penang on December 30th, 2013. The letter wanted clarification on the state’s definition of ‘shutting down a swiftlet house’, because the PHT has not been convinced that the premises have actually been ‘shut down’ in a permanent manner. For instance, it is one thing to remove the tweeters and sound systems used by swiftlet farmers to lure in potential birds (as documented in several high profile press releases), 5 but another to completely seal up the windows and entry ways until the birds no longer return. Another concern raised is the ‘true’ status of bird flu in the state of Penang, in view of the recent bird flu/H1N1 scares  discussed above; as well as rising incidence of dengue fever in Penang state.6 Finally, there are the general concerns by the PHT and members of the public alike regarding issues of transparency and responsiveness on behalf of the government – particularly in regards to public health threats and public nuissances, such as bird flu.

Hopefully now that we have emerged into 2014, the state of Penang will fulfill its promises of clearing Georgetown of most of the existing swiftlet premises. Municipalities in Malaysian Borneo, such as Kuching, which I also visited briefly during my ongoing field research on this topic, have been largely successful in minimizing the numbers of swiftlet farms within the urban area, while others like Kota Kinabalu are now following suit.7 Granted the legislative context in Borneo is different from that in Peninsular Malaysia, but hopefully cities like Georgetown can learn from these successes in the near future.

On a final note, it should be clear that the point of this piece is not to demonize the lucrative swiftlet farming industry, nor to call for an outright ban on this business in Malaysia – far from it. Rather, it is to bring the struggles over urban swiftlet farming in Malaysia, which are at once cultural, economic, ecological, and political, to a wider international audience. It is also to help push forward the calls within Malaysia for the swiftlet farming industry to be reconfigured in a manner that is more socially (and ecologically) just, and does not put Malaysia’s urban residents at risk from disease, or other socio-economic impacts.    

References 

1.    Damodaran S., 2013. ‘Police civilian personnel dies of influenza A’. NTV7. [accessed 2013 Dec 15]. Available from: http://www.ntv7.com.my/7edition/local-en/Police_civilian_personnel_dies_of_influenza_A.html

2.         Due to a host of intersecting factors, the price of edible bird’s nest, which is made almost entirely out of the swift’s saliva, skyrocketed in the 1990s, which led urban residents across Malaysia to begin converting low-rise shop houses into ‘swiftlet farms’: cave-like bunkers used to attract swiftlets (see photos 1 and 2, above), and harvest their nests in a more efficient manner than was possible previously. Swiftlets traditionally make their nests in caves throughout Southeast Asia, where harvesters would carry out the high-risk work of collecting their nests from the cave walls.

3.    Malaysiakini, 2013. ‘Woman died of thyroid complications, not H1N1’. Malaysiakini, 11 December [accessed 2013 Dec 21]. Available from: http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/249096

4.    The Nation, 2013. ‘H5N1 virus hits birds-nest farm in Vietnam’. The Nation. April 12, 2013 [accessed 2014 Jan 6]. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/breakingnews/H5N1-virus-hits-birds-nest-farm-in-Vietnam-30203958.html

5.   Kaur, M and Yeoh, W., 2011. ‘Swift action on swiftlet breeding: Next enforcement on 94 operators to begin next month, says chow’. Star Metro, M4. 25 February 2011.

6.    Straits Times, 2013. ‘Malaysia sounds warning on rising deaths from dengue’. Straits Times, Dec 21. [accessed 2013 Dec 21]. Available from: http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/se-asia/story/malaysia-sounds-warning-rising-deaths-dengue-20131221

7.    Salma, K, 2010. ‘Penang may follow Sabah in disallowing farming in urban areas’. blog [accessed 2013 Oct 15]. Available from: https://sites.google.com/site/khoosalma/the-star-news-archive/disallowing-swiftlet-farming

Where is Amsterdam?

Professor Erik Swyngedouw at the University of Manchester reflects on how the current city of Amsterdam is different from the one he used to visit in the late 1970s and early 1980s and what that might say about the new geographical co-ordinates of political possibilities.

Amsterdam takes a very special and privileged position in my intellectual trajectory. As a young and radical planning student in Belgium in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stale, dogmatic, antiquated and plainly stifling intellectual and cultural environment that characterized much of academic and urban life in my native Belgium at the time contrasted sharply with the exuberantly liberating, exhilarating and radical thought and associated urban practices that came in as a whirlwind from the Netherlands and, in particular, from Amsterdam.

street-jordaan

Je kan er boeken kopen You can buy books there
Die je hier heel zelden vindt that you rarely find here
Je kan er langs de grachten lopen You can stroll along the canals
Je haar los in de wind Hair loose in the wind
…. ….
Je bent er vogelvrij You are free as a bird there
Omdat er alles kan Because everything is possible there
Zo dichtbij en toch zo ver is Amsterdam So near and yet so far is Amsterdam

(Amsterdam by Kris De Bruyne – 1975)

As Kris De Bruyne sung in his ode to Amsterdam, it is a place where you can buy books you rarely find here (in Belgium at the time), where one could set thought free. And he was absolutely right. Amsterdam in those exiting times was for me a place worthy of an odyssey. Many a times, I ventured onto the Brussels-Amsterdam train to scout out the new ideas, to browse the censored thoughts freely available on Amsterdam’s bookshelves, to feel the winds of change, to touch the freewheeling and radical air in which Amsterdam bathed. Provo had staged its early situationist urban performances in Amsterdam, later the ‘Kabouters’ marched into the city-government, white bikes roamed the street, new lifestyles were experimented with, squatters questioned capitalist housing politics and budding neoliberal forms of urban renovation. A truly emancipatory and progressive political movement was engulfing the urban world, and Amsterdam was its cradle. Many of the thoughts and perspectives that would mature in my later academic work found their early hesitant and embryonic formulations in the cafes, bookstores and intellectual engagement with Amsterdam’s young left intellectuals and activists.

Thirty odd years later, and after many returns to my beloved Amsterdam, I feel increasingly alienated by the city, a whiff of nostalgia to a lost dream and a melancholic dread permeates my body and mind when drifting along Amsterdam’s streets and canals. Sure, it still is a great city, a global cosmopolitan urbanity that feels like a village. The quirky sites and unexpected corners are still there, but the city’s soul, its mojo seems to have decamped. Amsterdam today is boring, uninspiring. Creative and progressive intellectual thought – although still brewing in some of the remaining interstices –  stifled, xenophobia rising, neoliberal austerity visibly present, new forms of uninspiring urbanity – like Amsterdam Zuidas –  became stale ruins even before their completion. Urban life seems cosy (at least for most), insular, self-referential, inward-looking. The sense of exuberance, of endless possibilities, of nurturing egalitarian freedom sustained by a solidarity-enhancing mode of being-in-common seems to have been replaced by technocratic management, the bio-political dominance of accountancy spreadsheets, the tyranny of the commodity-form, and a sense of collective impotence. Nothing seems possible anymore other than, at best, the humanitarian management of the excesses of the neoliberal nightmare. It does not take great foresight to see that the tensions, conflicts and spiralling inequalities that brew beneath the cobbled surface will soon and possibly violently explode again. Rarely do I hear Amsterdam’s urban intellectuals prefigure such dystopian futures. The few who do signal the unsustainability of today’s neoliberal political-economic hegemony, like Ewald Engelen’s relentless and incisive insistence on the perverse politics of neoliberalism, are shouts in the wind as much as Paul Krugman’s continuous lament of the American variant of the elite’s pursuit of neoliberal recipes. Unfortunately, on both sides of the Atlantic, the elite’s ears remain deaf for the warnings of such eminent scholars whose alarm signals they do not wish to register.

gebouwengrachtenamsterdam2-hboogertfeb2008

I wonder where my Amsterdam is. I wonder whether the civic democratizing urbanity that has characterized Amsterdam’s urbanity throughout the centuries still slumbers underneath the elegant cobbled streets, in the after-rooms of the grand bourgeois houses and their neatly gentrified facades, in the immigrant neighbourhoods, or whether the spirit of Amsterdam has now forever decamped to the more exciting urbanities of Berlin, Barcelona, Istanbul, Madrid, Cairo, Sao Paulo, Sofia, Athens, or Thessaloniki, names that stand for me today for the cities that animate emancipatory desires, that ooze a spirit of possibility, where creative progressive thought and practice is actively experimented in. These are the names today of the places where citizens, city-dwellers, have become insurgent architects, where new forms of urban being-in-common are experimented with, where the powers-that-be shiver as the multitude takes to the streets and squares and stages performing new egalitarian modes of being-in-common. The city as a political polis, where insurgent citizens demand and stage the right to urbanity, the right to co-produce the city, seems to be alive and kicking in those places, but sadly moribund in Amsterdam.

Isn’t the most eloquent manifestation of this death of the urban the fact that the most radical recent guerrilla intervention in Amsterdam was the unauthorized placement of a copy of the Wall Street Bull by artist Arturo DiModica on Amsterdam’s Beursplein (Exchange Square), just a little while after the site was cleared off a small coterie of Occupy! activists, too small in numbers to even itch the powers that be or attract international attention. Is the Charging Bull’s presence – the triumphant symbol a victorious capital-financial order – not one of the most tell-tale signs of the symbolic re-appropriation of urban space by the 1%. While the square was cleared of its protesters, the unauthorized intrusion of the Bull was quickly legitimized and approved by the city administrators. Amsterdam’s elite made quite clear to all what the Beursplein and city politics stand for. Poor Amsterdam. I do long for the Amsterdam that helped me think and act as young and budding progressive intellectual, and which is undoubtedly still lurking somewhere. In the meantime, I think I shall keep going to Madrid, Istanbul, or Athens. See you there.

This blog was initially posed at the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam (http://urbanstudies.uva.nl/blog/urban-studies-blog-series/urban-studies-blog-series/content/folder/where-is-amsterdam.html)

 

 

 

Postpolitics, Parks and Protest

Graham Haughton, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Planning and Environmental Management, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

A protest camp sprang up overnight in Alexandra Park in January earlier this year, in one of the coldest spells of winter. The camp was set up in response to contractors moving in their equipment to begin felling trees around the park. Tents appeared, including some in the trees. Two rallies were held in protest attracting large numbers of people. Support came from local people passing through food and others supplies for the protestors. Quickly a strong security and media presence emerged too, with media coverage in the local press and regional TV[i]. Very quickly this became a major news story in South Manchester. The council defended its actions, claiming community consultations had been extensive and had led to a welcome scheme to regenerate and revive a park, attracting people back into it.

Whilst at one level this was a protest about tree removal, it very quickly emerged that the protestors had other concerns that underlay these. Consultation had been poor, in terms of gaining public awareness and engagement.  Some felt that the consultations had focused on the positives, underplaying the loss of trees. The science was disputed too, particularly the claim that felling involved only 200 or so ‘trees’, which protestors said was an underestimate as it failed to include the undergrowth areas. What constituted a tree was very much open to question – trees it seems are a sociocultural construct as much as a natural phenomenon. For some the restoration of flowerbeds was a problematic privileging of one type of ecology, the formal gardens preferred in the Victorian era when the park was created, whilst for others overgrowth trees were seen as ecologically inappropriate, with poor light resulting in limited opportunities for other ecological niches to develop. Other concerns included whether the renovations would permanently impact on Moss Side Carnival which had been a major event in the Park’s calendar since 1972, the climate change impacts of removing trees, and whether lack of consultation was because the city leaders felt immune to criticism due to its heavy domination by one party.

The contractors continued warily with their work of felling trees as protestors sought to disrupt them, with police and other security forces brought in to provide protection. Some concessions were made to the protestors to pull back on some of the planned felling. After about three weeks the tree felling programme was largely complete and the protest camp faded away, but leaving behind a continuing sense of grievance among some in the local community that they had largely been ignored.

Cities@manchester agreed to fund us (Anna Gilchrist, Graham Haughton and Erik Swyngedouw) to examine what was going on, quickly agreeing to fund some research whilst the camp was still in place. This allowed us to visit the protestors on site a couple of times, observe the contractors and security operations at work including talking police and contractors. After the camp had gone we continued our research, meeting a range of local policy makers, from the leader of the council to officials, professional ecologists and others. There was also a major public consultation event in the park soon after the protest camp which we attended. As if to confirm the protestors view, despite the fact that one of uses the park almost daily we only saw notices about this the day before .

We have made two videos about the protest camp, with the hope that we and others would be able to use them for teaching about postpolitics. That they helped in our emerging research was a bonus. The first video was self-filmed by Graham during a consultation meeting, on a day when he was noticeably starting to come down with a cold. It is proudly amateur and spontaneous, but hopefully it captures the spirit of the event. The second video is a companion piece, again self-filmed a few months later, covering our internal discussions as we sought to make sense of what the protests, with musings on urban political ecology and postpolitics to the fore. These can be viewed on the University’s you tube channel under the cities@manchester playlist. A key question that we address here is why the protest movement lost its momentum, that is how it failed to scale up to a more substantial challenge to the city authorities. Drawing on recent theoretical work on postpolitics, Erik in particular argues that this was in part a failure to move on from the initial focus on trees to the wider issues that protestors were also animated by. This was very different to another ‘trees in park’ protest this summer that reverberated around the world, Taksim Square in Istanbul.

 


 

[i] For the unfolding story, see for instance, this ITV clip, which contains links to videocasts from its broadcast coverage: http://www.itv.com/news/granada/topic/alexandra-park/ . For the BBC coverage see:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21289875  and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21321490 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21491870 . The story as seen by the protestors themselves is powerfully conveyed on their website: http://savealexandraparkstrees.wordpress.com/ 

A peak beyond the seamlessly integrated municipal energy networks in Europe

Ralitsa Hiteva, Research Fellow,SPRU, University of Sussex and PhD student, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

Urban spaces in the EU, especially within their municipal forms, where low-carbon transition agendas at multiple scales are abundant have become sought after and crowded policy spaces. Municipalities are perceived as having become stronger units of governance due to their increasing number of managerial roles and EU support, particularly in the shape of transnational municipal networks for climate change and energy policy. In fact, municipalities have seemingly become increasingly good in negotiating responses to various policy agendas, succeeding in integrating and reconciling approaches to energy efficiency improvements, decarbonisation and climate change adaptation and mitigation within the framework of concepts such as Smart Cities and programmes such as BioRegions. Such pioneer municipalities have been hailed as achieving so much, in areas where nation states have struggled (for example in integrating strategic low-carbon transition infrastructure and services such as transportation and energy). In doing so, they are seen as isolated ‘islands’ of low-carbon living, plugged into wider policy and stakeholder networks, whose “lights” are multiplying across the EU, flickering stronger and brighter in patterns spreading beyond and despite national borders.

Although a range of transnational municipal networks work in countries like Bulgaria, where the number of pioneer municipalities could be probably capped at less than 15, the lights might never come on. There are spaces where low-carbon policy tends to whirl around its intended target, without quite getting there. This is a quick peak in one such space in Europe. The interest of Bulgarian municipalities in energy efficiency can be traced to the mid 1990s when in the midst of fiscal and political instability responsibility for public lighting was transferred from the national electricity distribution company to municipalities. In the winter of 1997 fast growing inflation meant that municipalities struggled to keep the lights and heating on for public buildings like schools and hospitals. That’s when 23 municipalities set up a ‘self-help’ municipal network called EcoEnergy whose objective was to develop municipal capacity to increase energy efficiency in public buildings in order to reduce utility costs. Ever since, for the majority of Bulgarian municipalities, energy efficiency at municipal level has been equated with reducing the cost of energy. The membership in the municipal network quickly grew and in 2003 it represented 2/3 of the total population of the country.

Although the municipal network has actively worked for over 15 years at national, regional and international level, and is integrated within a thick web of key transnational networks and programmes such as EnergyCities, Intelligent Energy Europe, ManagEnergy and the Covenant of Mayors, it struggles to develop the energy efficiency agenda of Bulgarian municipalities beyond its utility reduction focus. Although many stakeholders maintain that Bulgarian municipalities are in fact reducing carbon emissions even with their rudimentary energy efficiency projects, the extent to which this is happening needs to be explored further.

In contrast to the Bulgarian agenda of energy efficiency as a means of cutting cost, in most EU countries the energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the interest in improving energy efficiency as a means of reducing energy consumption (i.e. energy conservation). Since then interest in energy efficiency and conservation has been maintained and elevated as the most cost-effective and fastest way to meet (substantial part of the) climate change mitigation targets. Energy saved – ‘negajoules’- compared to no improvements in energy efficiency is considered a key energy source in Europe. Thus, energy efficiency projects and programmes are often implemented under the headings ‘climate action’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘sustainable energy’ or ‘green’. However, if we look deeper than the glossy new facades of public buildings and the happy endings of the before and after comparisons, we can see that in many cases the energy saving and carbon reduction agendas continue to simply circle around these spaces.

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

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Not all energy efficiency improvements result in a decrease in associated carbon emissions. Calculations of possible carbon dioxide reductions often present a skewed picture of the actual energy savings because they are based on a standardised baseline. The majority of municipal buildings in Bulgaria, such as schools, have been chronically under-heated and under-cooled, with levels of thermal comfort significantly below the EU average of 20C (even below the recommended minimum of16C) since the early 1990s. It is still a common practice for badly insulated buildings to have low annual thermal levels.

When such public buildings are retrofitted the associated carbon reduction is calculated based on a normalised baseline of 20C, rather than the actual which could vary between 11C and 16C. The calculations do not take into account that once the building is retrofitted and heated at the normalised levels it will end up not only not making any actual energy savings, but often will result in more energy being consumed. This illustrates a rebound effect, where some of the energy savings from efficiency improvements are used up in the form of higher energy consumption. In this case energy efficiency improvements serve as a means of achieving higher thermal comfort. Considering that more than 60% of municipal buildings in Bulgaria are in such condition, the gap between projected carbon savings and actual savings will grow with the number of retrofitted buildings if unchecked.

For Bulgarian municipalities implementing energy efficiency measures makes sense only if there are financial gains to be made (i.e. cutting the cost of utilities), while carbon dioxide reduction measures can mean having to choose a more expensive option. In fact, in a string of 11 interviews conducted in Bulgarian in 2011 all interviewed municipalities ranked reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as least important in implementing energy projects. The question then is not only How such spaces could be engaged with the network of pioneer municipalities which exists across Europe, but also To what extent is their context of spatial variations truly understood at EU level?