The University of Birmingham Policy Commission on Future Urban Living launches its report in the House of Lords on Monday 7 July. The report is the culmination of a year’s evidence taken from a wide range of leading practitioners and thinkers on cities from the UK and elsewhere, drawing from it ideas to inform the way we live, work and play in the cities of the future.
The Commission advocates a number of key recommendations for change, which we believe will help Chancellor George Osborne to deliver the urban planning revolution and new housing initiatives he outlined in his annual Mansion House speech last month. Lord Shipley, Chair of the Policy Commission and a government adviser on cities, says: ‘Our report emphasises our concern that “in order to achieve liveable cities of the future, we need to make radical changes in our planning, governance and indeed our thinking of what city life should be”.’
The key findings from the report primarily revolve around changes in governance, funding and government policy.
Crucially, citizens need to be empowered by being drawn into the decision-making process and entrusted to deliver their city’s vision for the far future. This vision would be embodied in a City Narrative. To drive forward change, there needs to be inspirational local leadership, which could be achieved via either mayors or leadership groups elected on the basis of an ability to deliver the City Narrative.
Cities also need greater financial autonomy and new business models to allow them to experiment and invest for the long term, and to capture the returns on investment in terms of environmental and social as well as economic returns.
Decentralisation of power and local decision-making from central government to local leaders, linked with the ability to raise finances locally, would enable greater local involvement and more effective co-operation with stakeholders beyond the city boundaries. What we don’t have at the moment is citizens feeling that they have a strong enough say in the way their cities are run – or even that their views are being well-represented by the people who are charged with doing just that.
The Commission found that there needs to be a different process of democracy at work: turning the present situation around so that you have individuals and communities engaged in creating a vision for their city and then voting for leadership that will deliver that vision. In short, the Commission’s view is that cities (and citizens) can and should be empowered to move the UK towards a more equitable, sustainable and resource secure future.
Policy guidance needs to focus on a combination of what we collectively want from our cities and what needs to happen in our cities for them to deliver societal and environmental wellbeing – to make them ‘liveable’ both now and far into the future.
Exceptional leadership, either by an individual or by a group of individuals, is required to drive change within a city or urban area. Cities need to be allowed to retain more of the taxes they are instrumental in raising, so they are able to respond positively to projected demographic changes, while ensuring that equity among their citizens is made a priority.
The influence of a city extends beyond its immediate boundaries, and so a stronger role for strategic planning is necessary. Planners should increasingly be considered as part of the city management team, proactively seeking to improve the public realm and not just be engaged in a regulatory process. Planning that embraces experimentation and feedback from city users has proved successful. Nimble and responsive planning structures facilitate organic development, or development from the bottom-up. Over-regulation must be avoided.
Finally, there needs to be greater innovation in our cities. A strong theme emerging from the evidence gathered by the Commission was the need to allow ‘beta testing’ of new models and new ideas. There has to be trust and an acceptance that mistakes may be made, but equally lessons will be learnt and our future will be all the better for it.
Professor of Geotechnical Engineering, University of Birmingham, and academic lead on the University's Policy Commission on Future Urban Living