11: Real challenges

One route into urban research is to reflect on the well known and very real challenges that cities face. The most obvious ones can be classified as ‘wicked problems’ in that they have been known for a long time, usually decades, and governments of all colours have made honourable attempts to ‘solve’ them. Given the limited resources of most academic researchers it could be seen as wishful thinking to take these issues on to a research agenda, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. And we need to bear in mind the PDA framework (cf.’systems thinking’): policy, design, analysis. Good analysis will demonstrate the nature of the challenge; policy is usually to make progress with meeting it; the hard part is the ‘design – inventing possible solutions. The analysis comes into play again to evaluate the options. If we focus on the UK context, what is a sample of the issues? Let’s structure the argument in terms of half a dozen headings, and then take examples under each.

  • living in cities – people issues
  • the economy of cities
  • urban metabolism: energy and materials flows
  • urban form
  • infrastructure
  • governance

Then, a sample of issues within each:

  • living in cities – people issues
    • housing, there is a current shortage and this situation will be exacerbated by population growth
    • education – a critical service – upskilling for future proofing and yet a significant percentage leave school inadequate in literacy, numeracy and work skills
    • health – a postcode lottery in the delivery of services?
    • the future of work – what will happen if the much predicted ‘hollowing out’ occurs as middle-range jobs are automated? How will the redundant pay their bills?
  • the economy of cities
    • the ‘economy’ embraces private and public and so has to deliver products, services and jobs (and therefore incomes)
  • urban metabolism: energy and materials flows
    • issues of sustainability and the feasibility – indeed the necessity – of achieving low carbon targets
  • urban form
    • where will the necessary new housing go – 200,000+ p.a. for the foreseeable future?
  • infrastructure
    • accessibilities are crucial for both people and organisations so transport infrastructure and an effective system are correspondingly critical
    • investment in utilities will be necessary to match population growth but also to respond to the sustainability agenda
    • in particular, counting communications and broadband as utilities, how do we secure our future in a competitive world?
  • governance
    • at what levels are planning and policy decisions best made?
    • the security of food, communications and utilities?

This brief analysis throws out one immediate important conclusion: these issues are highly interdependent and one important area of research is to chart these interdependencies and to build policies and plans that take them into account. One obvious research priority, argued by me over and over again, is the need for comprehensive urban models. There are some distinguished examples, but they are not a core part of planning practice. Ideally, therefore, in relation to the issues sketched above, the comprehensive model should have enough detail in it to represent all the problems and any specific piece of research should be tested by the runs of such a model. Neither of these ambitions is fulfilled in practice and so this offers a challenge to modellers as well as to the specifics of real-world issues.

A second conclusion is that any specification of research into any of these issues will be interdisciplinarity (qv). Bearing this in mind, let us now work down to another level and pose questions about research.

  • living in cities – people issues
    • housing, there is a current shortage and this situation will be exacerbated by population growth
      • the demography is itself very much worth exploring: populations in many places are, relatively, ageing; and others are being restructured by immigration – both in and out. These shifts in many cases relate to work opportunities and there has been relatively little research on these linkages.
      • we need an account of, that is a model, of where people choose to live in relation to their incomes, housing availability, affordability and prices, local environments and accessibilities to work and services – a pretty tall order for the initial analysis
      • there is then a planning issue which links closely to urban form: where should the new housing go? At present it is mainly on the edges of cities, towns and villages with no obvious functional relationship to other aspects of people’s lives; there is related research to be done on developers and house builders and their business models
    • education – a critical service – upskilling for future proofing and yet a significant percentage leave school inadequate in literacy, numeracy and work skills
      • some progress has been made in developing federations of schools to bring ‘failing’ schools into a more successful fold; however, there is hard analysis to be done on other factors – particularly the impact of the social background of children and whether schools’ initiatives need to be extended into a wider community. Again, there are examples but it should be possible to explore the relative successes of initiatives in a wide range of areas.
      • a particular category of concern is looked-after children – children in care. The system is obviously failing as measured by the tiny percentage who progress into higher education and by the high percentage of offenders who have ever been in care.
    • health – a postcode lottery in the delivery of services?
      • this is a sector that is data rich but under-analysed. There are a good number of research projects in the field but it remains relatively fragmented. Does anyone explore an obvious question for example: what is the optimum size of GP surgeries in different kinds of locations?
    • the future of work – what will happen if the much predicted ‘hollowing out’ occurs as middle-range jobs are automated? How will the redundant pay their bills – picked up in the next section?
  • the economy of cities
    • the ‘economy’ embraces private and public and so has to deliver products, services and jobs (and therefore incomes)
      • interesting research has been done on e.g. growing and declining sectors in the economy which can then be translated down to the city level and this can be combined with the ‘replicator’-‘reinventor’ concepts introduced in the Centre for Cities’ Century of Cities
      • this would enable at least short term predictions of employment change which could also be related to the immigration issues
    • urban metabolism: energy and materials flows
      • issues of sustainability and the feasibility – indeed the necessity – of achieving low carbon targets
        • an obvious research issue here is the monitoring – and analysis of past – trends in relation to sustainability targets. There is some evidence that trends are in the ‘wrong’ direction: trips getting longer, densities increasing. If this is the case, can we invent and test alternative futures? Longer trips, but all by new forms of public transport? Some high density development aimed at groups who might appreciate it?
      • urban form
        • where will the necessary new housing go – 200,000+ p.a. for the foreseeable future?
          • Explore possible ‘green belt’ futures – for example analysing the URBED Wolfson Prize model?
        • infrastructure
          • accessibilities are crucial for both people and organisations so transport infrastructure and an effective system are correspondingly critical
            • transport efficient city regions; counties as distributed cities?
            • some systematic research on accessibilities and the ways in which they can be related to utility functions?
          • investment in utilities will be necessary to match population growth but also to respond to the sustainability agenda
          • in particular, counting communications and broadband as utilities, how do we secure our future in a competitive world?
        • governance
          • at what levels are planning and policy decisions best made?
            • charting subsidiarity principles?
          • the security of food, communications and utilities?

This is a very partial and briefly-argued list but I think it exposes the paucity of both particular and integrated research on some of the big challenges. Ready to engage?!

Alan Wilson, May 2015

2 thoughts on “11: Real challenges

  1. Hi Alan – unless we find room for policy choice and political exigency, isn’t there a danger of Platonism? George Osborne says he wants a new chapter in (English) urban policy; there’s talk of MancDevo and city regions (provided they adhere to a predefined version of conurbation governance, for the efficacy of which incidentally there’s little evidence).
    Doesn’t our thinking have to start with political opportunity; we can’t bolt it on later. The themes you address – housing, health, education, infrastructure – are freighted with value. Much depends on belief in collective agency, which is a dividing line in party politics. Where, you ask, will the necessary housing go? One answer will be that the markets decide. Another might be that it depends on positive planning of land use, ie interventions in the distribution of ownership.
    Your list is, as it were, fiscally light. Collective provision (of land, infrastructure) will depend on taxation, whether staggered or collected through development gain. But taxation is the cynosure of ideological conflict. How do right wing ministers deal with (the reasonable proposition that) cities are collectivism in action?

    all best

  2. David, Many thanks. Point taken on ‘fiscal light’ but the intention was to begin to set out an agenda of challenges – especially for the long-term – before the politics kick in! Alan

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