Monday, 1 January 2018

on planning

Once upon a time, towns and cities used to be for something. 

So Dundee, was the city of jam jute and journalism, and Kirkcaldy was synonymous with linoleum. Nowadays Dundee and Kirkcaldy are still there but the jam, jute, journalism and linoleum are long gone. That is not to say that there nothing happening in these places now. But the former easy functional geographical determinism is gone. 

What happens in towns and cities now is more amorphous and generic. There is retail, but that is in transition from high street to online, with seemingly only coffee shops, charity shops and betting shops remaining. There is industry, which used to be smelly tanneries and fish gutting, but now seems to be easy come, easy go call centres. The public sector buildings, like town halls and post offices that used to be a hub for towns and cities are vanishing. Housing remains, but people mostly want to live in the the suburbs with their own front door. Leaving  the centres to be taken up with AirBnB and the inevitable late night economy. 

I don't really know much about development planning. I imagine that councils are packed with planners with dreams of la ville radieuse who all spend their time endlessly reviewing dormers and sundry other extensions. 

Do these planners dream of nudging their towns and cities towards rational functional utopias? Or more pressingly, dream of applying the magic ointment that regenerates tired unloved places into vibrant creative hubs?

But if our urban spaces are losing their top down functionality, then that must surely have knock on implications for how you can plan them. 

I would suggest that where planning seeks to impose upon an area then it is likely to be unsuccessful. Clearly there are examples where it is possible to create a narrative that this, or that, planning type intervention made a lot of difference. The oft quoted Frank Gehry Bilbao Guggenheim that single handedly turned a dismal port into an must see artistic hub. The New York High Line that gentrified and prettified an ugly disused railway line. 

However such examples are irrelevant and mendacious. Either they are true but exceptional, so they can hardly be readily copied by other cities, or they are only partially true, in that what they did, was already happening anyway. 

In the West we all live in a postindustrial world now. Most towns and cities have seen heavy industry vanish, have seen light industry vanish, have been left with a gossamer service sector that offers low wage McJobs or better paid jobs that can very easily flit elsewhere should harsh economic winds blow. 

This means that most towns and cities are now bigger than they need to be, and frankly have been so for a long time. The Luftwaffe may have cleared great swathes of our cities, but those rubble car parks and gap sites persisted for so long because there was little need for all that space. Most cities have a problematic centre,  a problematic non centre, and a problematic relationship between the two.

We don't want our urban spaces to be too car friendly, but then again we don't want them to be too car unfriendly. We don't want things to be regimented into identical terraces, nor do we want an insane variety. Unhelpfully people still have no idea what they actually want until they see it, and even then we tend to want what works. And what works tends to be what other people have already demonstrated that they like. 

In practice this can be about as helpful as telling a TV channel to make more popular programmes that folk like and less unpopular ones that they don't. 

I suppose that if planning is grappling with the dynamics of a single industry then it can add some value. The fishing boats will need a harbour, served by ice factories, fish processers etc. But nowadays there is no chicken and egg flow of causation. Some business and retail activity will inevitably pop up even in the most dismal of areas, but a vibrant economy can make for a more vibrant and successful area. 

But the successful businesses can afford to be choosy and are likely to look for pleasant areas. So, within the limitations of an area, planners ought to just focussing on making it as good as it can be. 

But, at the end of the day, what makes an area as good as it can be, is the people. So the small Italian villages that Robert Puttnam wrote about in Bowling Alone, or the vibrant Greenwich Village that Jane Jacobs wrote about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were not successful because they were well planned. Brasilia was immaculately planned, but turned out to be nearly completely unliveable. 

Planners can ensure that there is enough there to allow people to thrive, but they cannot supply the magic sauce that makes them thrive. 

The planning process should be a defensive one, avoiding the worst of disasters, ensuring the neighbourhoods are coherent, walkable, liveable, congenial places. Those that are successful should be allowed to thrive, and those that are in trouble should be nudged and encouraged. And perhaps, at the end of the day, the neighbourhoods that are failing should be allowed to fail gracefully. The industrial revolution was the story of people coming to the cities, but it was also the story of people leaving the countryside. 

The metrics for what is thriving are perhaps more visible than measurable. Does a place feel safe. Do people engage with each other, and look out for their neighbours. Are people happy? 

By putting making people happy at the heart of planning, you might fail to create the next economic powerhouse, but if you have happy people then you have hardly wasted your time and efforts.

Friday, 27 October 2017

the search for authentic

This is a posting about the search for distinctiveness and the commercial propensity to commercialise this.

There has always been a taste among some people to seek to distinguish themselves from the common herd. All those austere early portraits of people with lace collars and featureless black attire, were not an exercise in minimalist taste, but drawing attention to the expensive handmade lace ruffs that they were wearing. Lace ruffs that as soon as they could be cheaply made, became utterly pointless and went out of fashion.

The upper classes have traditionally been adept in this art of subtle (or not so subtle) differentiation. Nowadays, when they move among us more routinely, they distinguish themselves more discretely, with their private schools, circuits of exclusive holidaying destinations, and a myriad of other subtle signals that they belong to an elite, that merely popping on a Barbour jacket or pair of Church shoes, will not grant you access to.

However this is not just about a wealthy elite, it is also about setting yourself apart in terms of taste, creativity, ‘genuineness’, whatever any of those indeed mean. This can be done via self conscious juxtapositions in your attire, a hipster-ish taste for certain brands, the Brompton bicycle, a ‘save the whale’ badge or an obviously well worn (loved) pair of jeans.

Most people will tend to copy the taste of other people they like or admire, so there are elements of tribalism here, and for others just unconsciously sorting yourself into informal types. Ranging from the full on steam-punk aficionado, to the folk that tend to pair a Barbour with wellies for walking the dog.

We now live in a world (at least around here) where a lot of people have easy access to serviceable and functional necessities from Ikea and Primark, which are actually perfectly fit for purpose and (when new) hard to distinguish from vastly more expensive items. And frankly are good enough. This means that you no longer distinguish yourself by having a perfectly finished item, that might as well have come from Ikea, you distinguish yourself by having a tastefully worn item or ostentatiously hand made item.

This is where Ikea and Primark cannot readily compete, as their products are not designed to age gracefully or show manufacturing flaws.

We now see ageing gracefully in terms of the stuff you see at an old stately home (above or below stairs), the worn knees of the jean, the leather boots worn from a lifetime of toil, the table inlaid with signs of generations of usage.

So the country house condition is to be aspired to, this old wing chair, that has been in the family for generations.

Which brings me onto my second theme, the ability of business to commercialise our peculiar tastes.

While there might have been a cachet to a well worn pair of jeans, it is easy enough to stick a good pair of jeans into a washing machine with some gravel, and then sell at a premium jeans that are pretty much fit for the bin.

While there might have been a cachet to carefully selecting fresh and exclusive products from a delicatessen, it is now easy enough to visit any big retailer and smell the fresh bread (actually just heated up in store) select Salmon from a particular loch (actually just a brand created to fool you).

While it might have been a cachet to buy furniture at a french market and take it home in your authentic 2CV, now you can just order shabby chic online and have it arrive at your door tastefully aged.

At one time anthropology was something that you applied to other cultures, so Evans-Pritchard would observe the Dinka and Nuer, but probably not the foibles of those he went to school with. But really any study of others, is in part a mediation on one’s reaction to them, how like them are you, how genuinely different are you actually. While we might be able to point to behaviour in others that we can label as ridiculous, in all honesty are we actually any different ourselves, do we not just have similarly irrational foibles.

At the end of the day, we all just exhibit our own personal blend of foible and folly, none are immune to it.

In part this train of thought was inspired by what I saw as a lack of authenticity. On visiting a shoe shop recently the assistant admitted that they sold more boots than shoes now. Traditionally a boot was a tougher more workaday item. Worn by the few, for a day of heavy labour. But now boots have been neutered and rendered more feeble, they are lightweight fashion items. I bought what looked like a perfectly good pair of boots, in actuality they are already nearly through at the heel, which is hollow and easily worn. The leather uppers are paper thin, lined with fake sheepskin to provide some heft. Even cutting across some long grass in heavy dew and I can feel the damp coming through them. Although styled to look like hiking boots, they are simply fashion boots.

However that is exactly what the vast majority of people do want. They want something that is of the moment, and that can easily enough be discarded when that moment passes. It is now immensely expensive to repair shoes and boots, frankly cheaper to buy new, and immensely difficult to find boots of real heft and quality.

If you are looking for a Commando or Vibram sole, then even a quality manufacturer like Loakes has hardly anything available. They will helpfully resole your shoes/boots, but that is an expensive undertaking (currently £80).

I probably walk three or four miles every day, and expect footwear to last for years, but then I am unusual in that. Struggling to find boots that would last as long as I wanted, I eventually discovered William Lennon, and now have a perfectly formed collection of boots from them.

Is this an ‘authentic’ choice, choosing to wear boots that have been handmade in the UK by a small manufacturer, in the style of honest working men that worked in foundries, or as shepherds, or showmen? I don’t work in a foundry, I don’t routinely scrabble up scree slopes and wade through swollen Highland streams.

We have created a world where we generally walk on carpeted floors, enjoy air conditioning, where adventure can be bought as a holiday option. For most of us, our choices are no more authentic than Marie Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid with her friends. We are in danger of forgetting what authentic actually is.

There does need to be some grit in the oyster to make the pearl, there does need to be some genuine struggle in life, to toughen the soul. Some hardship or struggle is no bad thing, and perhaps we should all push a bit harder and expect a bit more from ourselves.

Sunday, 23 July 2017


As long term readers of this blog, or my Amazon Reviews, under the impenetrable nom de plume of tallmanbaby, may be aware, I have some interest in regeneration. By this I mean the actions by government (UK in my case) to seek to intervene through aid, or other measures, to address persistent relative (or in some cases absolute) poverty in a discrete geographically determined area.

I have read
Urban Regeneration in the UK by Andrew Tallon, and I am currently reading
After Urban Regeneration edited by David O’Brien and Peter Matthews

There are many interesting features to regeneration policy, for one thing it is explicitly treated as a policy with some sort of implicit goals and some sort of academic underpinning and assessment. Having said that, another interesting thing about regeneration is that despite the good intentions, and the academic input, there is not really much evidence that it has ever worked. Anyone outside London (and perhaps) a few other very rare areas, will be well aware that the areas of town that were run down and rough when they were children, will tend to still be run down and rough half a lifetime later. Persistent poverty and relative deprivation are things that tend to persist.

Having said that, just because it is difficult to firmly demonstrate that compassion yields tangible results, does not mean that we need be opposed to it.

An obvious dichotomy for thinking about regeneration is whether you are seeking to regenerate the physical structure, in which case you demolish old ugly buildings, and replace them with more modern and attractive ones. In which case you run the risk of gentrification, whereby the original inhabitants end up being displaced and replaced by adventurous middle class new entrants (I will leave off whether I agree with the term middle class for another day). Or are you seeking to ‘regenerate’ the actual inhabitants, in which case you could provide them with a community centre to increase social capital, community education to build skills and confidence, targeted support in accessing benefits, etc, in which case the more successful recipients of this targeted aid may simply up sticks and leave for a nicer area if they are successful in starting, or restarting a career.

Surely no one would disagree with the thought that the goals of regeneration are worthy, pockets of deprivation are clearly wrong, and it is clearly the role of government to tackle them. But there really seems little agreement, and little evidential basis for anything beyond that. Having said that in the UK active regeneration attempts seem to have been largely curtailed and funding has largely dried up.

I am concerned, hence my reason for writing this piece, that despite the money and academic effort that has gone into regeneration, the thinking has been unduly limited and constrained. Ideally you do not approach a policy problem with only one tool in your toolbox. If you only have a hammer then every problem will look like a nail.

I am therefore seeking to ask some questions about regeneration and the areas in need of regeneration, in the hope that they might prompt some fresh thinking

- why should we seek to regenerate at all, as our intentions will inform our actions and our measures of success.
- do pockets of persistent deprivation actually exist, are they genuinely different from adjoining areas in terms of objective measures, or are they just a lazy construct based on existing administrative area definitions
- do pockets of deprivation exist because of some intrinsic property of the area and infrastructure,
or because of some intrinsic property of those that live there,
or is there some magic recipe whereby different factors multiply the ill effects such that x and y provide a far worse outcome than simply the total of x and y.

In fairness this could be an artefact of the way we look at things. Hypothetically assume that there are ten variables that are actually impactful, and we only measure two of these. When we look at these two variables and they are both present there can be disproportionately bad outcomes. This could be because we have not taken into account other variables which are also associated and relevant, but have simply not been measured. Deprivation is frequently associated with disproportionately bad life outcomes, but this could be because deprivation is easier to measure, other unmeasured factors might actually be the determining ones.

- are pockets of deprivation of a long term nature, or purely temporary phenomena
- how resistant to change are areas of persistent deprivation
- is there demonstrable evidence that the interventions used to tackle deprivation have ever worked in any context
- are areas of deprivation a feature of our society, there will always be someone who come last in a sprint, no matter how good the athletes are, suggesting that the humane policy is to ameliorate conditions, and remove barriers to exit, but not to expect much much more
- if we are looking to work with communities then do positive and benificial communities actually exist in that sense. Is a demonstrably strong community associated (in terms of real correlation and not occasional anecdotal correlation) with better outcomes. I know that Robert Putnam has written on this (Bowling Alone) but this could well be another sacred cow. By way of example, small villages can have a strong sense of community, but then they can often be pretty toxic places to live, with feuds and animosity playing out over generations and little genuine pressure on strong individuals to temper unacceptable conduct. Very prosperous suburbs can be economic powerhouses in the statistics, but with no sense of community at all. You do not join a gated community for the social life. Perhaps the relationship between economic performance and social capital runs the other way, economic performance is strong where social life is poor. Perhaps there are various possible models, and no straightforward relationship exists.
- by seeking to build social capital, is there any evidence that some people will give a hand up to those less fortunate than themselves. I suppose that an influx of middle class professionals might lead to some new members on the local committees, they might lead by example, encouraging aspiration, but could such modest changes be expected to have a measurable impact.
- what do those in deprived areas actually want ? Do they want to see the area gentrified so they cannot afford a house, probably not. Do they want to become more middle class and shop at Waitress, probably not. If they are not currently working, do they want to work, or is that simply not an option for some reason.
- are we seeking to regenerate because we are seeking to meet the needs of an area that we have arbitrarily determined, or are we seeking to regenerate because our eye is offended at the sight of a run down area.
- in policy terms would it be better to have extreme deprivation spread about so that it is less obvious, or should we ensure that it is all in the same place so it is more easily addressed.
- is there actually far more extreme deprivation out with areas targeted for regeneration and if so, why are we ignoring it.
- are areas of extreme deprivation actually bad for inhabitants,
- are areas of extreme deprivation actually bad for society
- are areas of extreme deprivation actually good for inhabitants, they offer cheap and accessible housing that is readily accessible to even the most disadvantaged
- are areas of extreme deprivation actually good for society, they provide a visible reminder that our current society does not readily deliver the needs and aspirations of all its members

I have written this piece as a piece of pure speculation, taking an idea for a bit of a walk. I probably do not agree with most of the speculations I have made, I am really just seeking to see whether regeneration is actually a useful idea based on useful ideas. For the time being, I do suspect that regeneration is a lazy idea, a motherhood and apple pie notion, that is too often used to justify pork barrel politics, funding one area, inevitably at the cost of something else, without any proper understanding of the underlying issues or any real thought through goal.

If I see a beggar in the street I can give them money, I cannot change society to ensure that no one needs to beg on the street. However with regeneration we are not talking about me as an individual. With regeneration we are talking about the options and aspirations of government and the entire society. If we believe that areas of persistent deprivation demonstrate that something is not working in society, then should government not have as their aspiration to seek to create a society in which such persistent and obvious deprivation can no longer exist, with the eventual evaporation (or at least ameliorisation) of obvious areas of persistent deprivation being a welcome side effect of their eventual success across the piece.

Postscript - a late thought to add to this, it is worth considering the political dimension. Traditionally housing tenure has been quite politicised. With a ready assumption that council housing housed labour voters and private housing housed tory voters. On that basis a Labour administration at local authority or central level would be tempted to building more council houses to gain more voters in their area. In contrast a Tory administration at local authority or central level would be inclined to stop building council housing, allow right to buy, and see people priced out of areas. Looking at recent history in London it seems clear that there were not likely to be votes for Tory politicians coming from those in affordable housing, so a Tory administration might be less inclined to prioritise and support those people to stay in the council area. Having housing tenure politicised in this way is destructive and encourages the politics of tribalism, and difference, rather than competence and a vision for all.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Emma Dent Coad MP - blog

Emma Dent Coad was a Labour councillor from 2006, one of a frustrated handful in the Conservative controlled Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. From time to time she writes academic articles about architecture, and she has been doing a PhD on Spanish architecture as well as giving the odd lecture at the Bartlett.

After numerous recounts, she was elected as Labour MP for Kensington by just twenty votes at the snap general election of 8 June 2017. She is now the MP responsible for the Notting Hill Carnival and Harrods.

From March 2010 she maintained a blog site

detailing her frustrations as a councillor seeking to represent and defend the ordinary people of her wards against the onslaught of indifferent, inept, and possibly even corrupt ruling council administration. Despite being the richest council in Britain, or perhaps even the world, purchasing Pre Raphaelite paintings and running a huge surplus, council housing was subject to cuts and neglect. Clearly it would have suited the Council to see poor residents leave, they were strongly encouraged to move out of the area.

On 14th June the Grenfell Tower fire broke out, as yet there is no final count for the number of fatalities.

Emma provided a sober maiden speech to Parliament

I recently made a text file out of her blog postings and I have been reading it on my Kindle. Over the years the blog grew to the size of a short novel, with comments on the arrogant ruling administration, Stella McCartney, the appalling condition of housing stock, creeping, or at times galloping gentrification (and not the nice kind), the Notting Hill Carnival, the normal ebb and flow of life as a councillor in a severely dysfunctional council.

Obviously this is a set of blog postings, written over a number of years, it lacks of polish of a top class political memoir like those of Barrack Obama, or a deep study of urbanism but it has an immediacy and tells a remarkable story. There was an appalling culture amongst the ruling council Cabinet of thinking that trickle down economics were a replacement for decent social housing and benefits.

All told the accumulated blog postings have been one of the most salutary and informative things that I have read in a long time. It is a highly recommended read and if there is an astute publisher out there, this could be the basis of a very powerful book of our time.

Monday, 1 May 2017


I once read a book about teaching yourself to draw, and it set out that there were three kinds of drawing an artist should practise. First of all copying from life, second of all copying from other artists, and third works of pure imagination. While all of these are no doubt invaluable in teaching yourself how to draw, I don’t think that they are all necessarily of equal wider interest. While an artist might teach themselves vital skills by copying the work of other masters, they need to move beyond being a mere copyist.

However we now seem to live in an era of copyists.

The advent of 3D printing, contributes to this notion of mere fabrication. That you can draft up, or copy the appropriate specifications, pop them into a 3D printer and hey presto out pops something, something that is not un-adjacent to something real and useful. But this is not something that has been crafted, honed, it is merely something that has popped out of a machine.

To what extent is a film like The Watchmen a genuine work of art, or is it merely a workmanlike rendering of the original comic strip. Or the recent Ghost in the Shell, was there really a need to plunder the original films to make an inferior live action version stripped of their strangeness, Japanese-ness or opaque seriousness.

There is a world of difference between making something with genuine feeling, something that you fervently believe needs to exist, and needs to be made to the very best of your abilities, and the mere technical fabrication of something to a specification.

We ought to value and cherish the original as it is becoming all too rare.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

tough as old boots

78TC Traditional Work Boot

107F Black Leather Field Boots

William Lennon Boots 

Further to my earlier blog posting, I was unable to resist and I am now the proud owner of two new sets of William Lennon Boots. 

The first pair were ordered online from their website and arrived within a week. They are the standard 78TC Traditional Work Boot for £143.95. 

The colour is what I would describe as a chocolate brown, the sort of colour that old leather satchels were. The leather also has that familiar thickness of a real quality item. These would never be mistaken for the finely tooled product of Italian leatherworkers, they are functional leather boots, and tough as the proverbial. Although with the thick leather these are clearly stiff and require some breaking in, they were comfortable from the start and are only going to get better with wear. 

My second pair were ordered from eBay, and don’t appear on the William Lennon /Rufflander website. A browse about Pinterest suggests that they might be Showman’s Boots, the box suggests they are 107F Black Leather Field Boots. These came with leather laces, which are a nice touch, so that as I walk there is a gentle sound of creaking leather. 

Both boots are firmly fitted with vibram soles, which are similar to the commando soles that Loakes shoes sometimes come with. 

Both are heavy boots, more than capable of a tough working environment. They are however well finished, and unlike most boots these days they will just shrug off harsh treatment, and are well worth the effort of a lick of polish so they can last and last and last. 

I am absolutely delighted with theses boots, and frankly I am just looking for some sort of excuse to buy more!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

of boots and shoes

Salvage Hunters visit William Lennon Boots 

I am actually quite particular about my shoes and boots, I do a lot of walking in all weathers and like to have dry feet. I prefer a traditional lace up shoe, brogues being a particular favourite. In addition with size six feet, it can be challenging to find footwear that I want. Many retailers simply don’t do men’s footwear under a size seven.

For a long time Loakes have been my go to, gold standard for footwear. I might not always be able to afford them, but my favourite shoes have consistently been made by Loakes. They are proper shoes, with good quality leather that are built to last. In the past I used to go for leather soles, and take them in for repair, but it does cost a lot and as I do walk a lot, I was constantly taking shoes in for repair. Nowadays I tend to stick to shoes with commando type soles where I can, or something as close to that where possible. I can wear out commando soles in a year or two, and lesser shoes can be worn out in less than a year. Fortunately Loakes will take back their shoes and replace the soles, but they do get a bit looser in their fit, so replacing the soles once might be enough.

I have tried a few Clarks shoes, buying them at a local outlet store, but generally find that the fit is not as good, and they just don’t last that long, either the soles or the uppers, so they are not worth repairing.

For some reason everyone seems to wear boots these, days, but not proper boots. Despite appearances, often these are just lightweight fashion footwear, they don’t last well, the leather is thin, they don’t keep out the water, and prices seem to start at around £150, and go up and up from there.

I have been looking for some decent boots for a while now, but the Clarks ones do seem terribly overpriced for what they are, and Loakes now hardly sells any shoes or boots with commando soles.

If I am paying that kind of money then I want boots that will last for years, keep my feet dry and have some heft to them.

I was tempted by Blundstone Boots, from Australia, but I have just found out about William Lennon Boots. They are based in the Peak District, established in 1899 and are still going. To say that some of their products are niche is putting it mildly, they do a couple of different types of tug of war boots, hob nailed First Worlds War army boots, and fell boots which have such a huge curve in the soles that they roll you from one step to the next.

If you do want to see the factory then it appears in series ten, episode nine of Salvage Hunters.

A nice pair of William Lennon boots is now very firmly on my wishlist.