Wednesday, 11 February 2009

What do you mean, 'local'? Over on the Local democracy blog Dave Briggs asks, how close is local? I'd say most people regard 'local' as geographically within reach, and obviously that differs individually, which is fine. If terminology is fuzzy it doesn't necessarily mean it's invalid. We need definitions for administrative areas (wards, cantons, parishes) but not to explain individually-variable experiences of the socially-charged space nearest to the home. And maybe it helps to think about what local is not. For instance, it's not the same as nearness, and that's reinforced in this image (courtesy of Indy Johar, 00 architects), which reminds us how transport efficiencies influence our sense of distance. So why after generations and centuries of people gathering together in villages, towns and cities, are we suddenly struggling with the fact that terms like neighbourhood and locality aren't rigidly defined? What has happened for instance that causes Dave quite reasonably to suggest that 'it will be increasingly important to research how people’s notions of their own ‘local’ will determine levels of interest'? Well here's a wild guess: our behaviours within societies have become just a bit too fluid and mobile to make our identification with place readily apparent to each other. It's not that people were not mobile in the past - the middle ages for instance saw significant levels of complex mobility - but that when we are settled in a given place, we're still not always 'there' or always associated with it. We occupy our neighbourhoods less than ever and interact less with those around us, partly because we no longer have to of course. Hold the grimey lens of hyper-diversity in front of all that and the character of 'localness' becomes even less clear. This stuff crops up everywhere now. Last night I took part in a discussion at a Talk the Walk networking meeting where participants explored some of the reasons why people find some public spaces offputting or threatening. And immediately, voices were rehearsing technical solutions - urban design, essentially. I've no wish to denigrate the role of design to help address such needs, but somehow discussion of social and cultural issues always seems to get squeezed out. How come we find it so hard to accept that problems in the use of public space are (at least in part) social problems? Some places can appear 'anti-social' (in the broadest sense) not just because of design problems but also because of the way people behave when they have few and/or inadequate connections with those around them. How does it happen that a loan male walking in the park in broad daylight is perceived as threatening? Design solutions alone will not make much difference in helping the woman who sees things that way begin to reclaim the space - for which she'll need a range of local social connections. How does it happen that the group of kids rippling their muscles on the street corner are seen as intimidating? (Partly because they are, I know). Design solutions alone will...
Sustainable development includes local facilities Yesterday to Newcastle, for a seminar on the SOLUTIONS project a significant five-year research programe on 'sustainable land use and transport in outer neighbourhoods'. Findings are starting to come together and I'll try and summarise them here by the time of the final conference in May. Meanwhile, just wanted to reflect a small part of the discussion which was about how new residential developments happen and what policy can do about them. It seems that problems often arise when, for public funding reasons, transport systems get withdrawn from developments which have been designed and approved around these very systems. And the problems get compounded when developments are approved without attention being paid to local amenities. Yes, it's still going on, leading Nick Falk of Urbed to remark on the critical importance of appropriate facilities. Nick suggested that 'we will come to regret the massive schools we've built.' Cue a reading of the Guardian's housing supplement the other day, and an article by Annie Kelly about the East Road development in Hackney, north east London: When East Road opened in 2008 with rents of around £100 a week, the waiting list was 1,000-strong, proving it is the sort of design-led affordable housing project London needs more of. Along with their keys, tenants picked up automatic rights to enjoy the onsite gym, internet cafe, sauna, launderette and roof terrace. We need more thinking like that, to redefine the meaning of having a home you don't own in a neighbourhood where you have a sense of ownership.

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