Moving stories: how poetry is carrying the message about mobility challenges facing older people

All too often, valuable results from research reports receive an initial burst of publicity before being shelved and then largely forgotten.  But one project has been keeping its research in the public eye by taking its findings onto the streets.

A three-year study led by researchers at the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy has been investigating the links between mobility and well-being among older people. The “Co-motion” project has been working with older people in York, Leeds and Hexham to explore how changes in their lives, such as losing sight, becoming a carer and starting to use a mobility scooter, have affected their mobility.

Poetry in Motion

One innovative strand of the project involved a six-month collaboration between the researchers and the award-winning poet, Anna Woodford. Anna has written a series of poems that reflect on the travel challenges of older and disabled people. In keeping with the spirit of the Co-Motion project, the poems have themselves become mobile. Earlier this year, buses serving passengers in and around the city of York began displaying Anna’s poems.

The Co-Motion project leader, Dr Mark Bevan, from the Centre for Housing Policy, explained that one of the key messages emerging from the research was the need to raise awareness among service providers and the wider public about the diverse travel needs of people later in life.

“The aim of Poetry in Motion is to encourage people to think differently about how they travel and the needs of others.”

The research findings provided inspiration for Anna Woodford: “Many of the things that older and disabled people find difficult are often very simple daily travel actions that most of us don’t even think twice about. Parking your car on the pavement instead of fully on the road or using priority seating on public transport, are just some of the things study participants cited as being a challenge.”

Future plans, future poems

First York, which provides public transport services in York, was happy to showcase Anna’s poetry as part of the project. Rachel Benn, Business Delivery Manager at First York, said: “We are proud to support our local communities, and when we heard about this project, we were keen to help raise awareness of this important research.”

The Co-Motion project is one of seven Design for Well-being projects looking at ageing and mobility in the built environment, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

There are now plans for an exhibition of the Co-Motion poems at York Explore library and at Newcastle City library in autumn 2017, and it’s also hoped that the project will expand to look at people living with mental health issues.

Transport and art collaborations

Poetry in Motion is in keeping with a strong tradition of the arts and public transport working hand-in-hand.  For over thirty years, passengers on the London Underground have been able to enjoy a range of poems showcased in Tube train carriages across London. The success of the programme has inspired similar initiatives across the world.

Meanwhile, in China, a London-based artist has taken the art and transport theme even further. Mira Calix created a moving museum on a bus, enabling passengers to take in sonic and visual art installations as part of their journey.

And in New York City, photographs by the American artist Andres Serrano have appeared in subway stations to highlight the existence of homeless people on the streets. Although Andres doesn’t see himself as a crusader, he hopes that his images will make people stop and think.

I feel like it’s enough for me to just bring it to your attention, and then after that it’s up to you to decide what to do with it.”

Final thoughts

Public art can be appreciated on different levels – for its own sake, and to provoke reflections about its deeper meanings.  The work of Anna Woodford, Andres Serrano and many other artists enables the travelling public to look with new eyes on the challenges facing vulnerable people, such as the elderly, the disabled and the homeless.

A poem or a photograph, a painting or a story might not change the world, or even an individual. But if it causes people to pay attention, and to reflect on how it makes them feel, the artwork will have done its job.


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Local authority housing companies: getting back into building

Last December, research by Inside Housing magazine found that more than a third of English local authorities have already – or are planning to – set up their own housing companies.

The research showed that 98 out of 252 councils were considering the establishment of a private housing development company, or had already established one.  That’s a significant increase on the seven housing companies that existed in 2014.

The factors driving council housing companies

The 2011 Localism Act gave local councils the powers to establish their own private companies, enabling them to borrow money more cheaply and avoid government-imposed restrictions. A mixture of motives is now prompting local authorities to enter the housebuilding business. Some see the new companies as sources of additional revenue. In addition, homes built by these private companies are not liable to right-to-buy. The Inside Housing research also found that a number of councils want to target income generated on tackling homelessness in their area.

At the same time, councils are facing funding pressures. “Local authority budgets are biting more and more,” Croydon Council’s director of development Colm Lacey explained to The Architects’ Journal in February.

“For example, in Croydon we’ve lost more than half of our central government budget since 2010. That’s a slow drip-drip of a loss of resource. Quite quickly, you come to realise that you need to throw something else in to meet the gap.”

Most companies are being established as wholly owned subsidiaries of councils, while some are solely management companies, letting stock built by their parent local authority. Many are funded by councils borrowing money from the Public Works Loan Board at low rates and then lending it to the company at a market rate.

Early adopters

The types of councils establishing housing companies are very varied, from rural to urban, and across the political spectrum. There is also a wide geographical spread, with a growing number located in London.

Among the councils pioneering their own housing companies is Newham Council in east London, which established its Red Door Ventures company in 2014 to provide homes at market rents, with a third of profits to be invested in social or affordable housing. The company’s properties are built on land bought from the council by the company using a local authority loan. Already, three developments have been built, and planning permission has been given for two more.

Another council-established private development company is Brick by Brick, set up by the London Borough of Croydon Council in 2016. The borough owns a significant amount of land, but has found that procuring agreements with developers has rarely generated benefits to the council in terms of increased land values or development returns. In an interview with Local Government Chronicle, Croydon’s Colm Lacey explained the reasoning behind Brick by Brick:

“The model allows the council as land-owner, sometime finance provider and sole shareholder to extract value from the core components of development activity – funding, building and selling. It maximises both affordable housing supply and return from development activity to Croydon residents, and allows the council to reinvest in core services.”

 Learning from the pioneers: the upside and the downside

As more local authorities move towards establishing their own housing companies, they can learn from the experiences of early adopters, who can advise them on what to watch out for. This includes analysing council powers in relation to the establishment of a company, provision of funding, transfer of land, decision-making arrangements and potential conflicts of interest (for example in relation to planning).

At a time of acute housing shortages, the creation of house building companies takes on increased significance. Chartered Institute of Housing deputy chief executive Gavin Smart agrees that housing companies can help council deliver more homes, but warns:

“The downside is that the need to cross-subsidise might mean that their ability to produce new homes at genuinely affordable, social rents can be limited. It’s vital that they continue to prioritise building new homes at social rents.”

A rising tide or a drop in the ocean?

The trend towards council housing companies shows no sign of waning.

  • Cambridge City Council set up its housing company in January 2016, and the following May the company handed over its first rental property to new tenants.
  • The first of 128 new homes built by Gloriana – Thurrock Council’s housing company – will be completed this year in Tilbury. The development has been created to keep up with demand for homes from increasing numbers of people coming to work in the area, mainly in freight and retail.
  • Meridian Homestart is a company set up by the Royal Borough of Greenwich to offer high-quality homes for local working families to rent. These homes are let at 20% below local market rent levels in order to help working families who would otherwise find it hard to buy or rent on the open market.
  • A shortage of private accommodation has prompted Bracknell Forest Council to use its housing company to provide better and cheaper housing for homeless people.

At the moment, the contribution of council housing companies towards tackling the housing crisis is relatively small. Barking and Dagenham’s housing company, Reside, has so far delivered around 600 homes; while Blueprint, a joint venture between Nottingham Council and Igloo Regeneration, has completed 245 homes. That’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee recommendation of 300,000 new-build homes each year.

Even so, housing companies have come a long way in a short time, and their rapid growth signals a much bigger long-term vision. As Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham explains:

“We’re trying to correct 30 to 40 years of failure in the housing market, but it will take time.”


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other housing blog posts:

Idox sponsors RTPI Research Excellence Awards

Idox is pleased once again to be supporting the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence for 2017.

The awards are intended to recognise the best spatial planning research from the Royal Town Planning Institute’s accredited planning schools, and to highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice. In addition, the awards recognise the valuable contribution of planning consultancies to planning research and promote planning research generally.

Submitted research and its potential implications for planning policy and practice can relate to anywhere in the world (not just the UK and Ireland).  The five award categories are:

  • Academic Award
  • Early Career Researcher Award
  • Student Award
  • Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement
  • Planning Consultancy Award

Idox: supporting the planning profession

As the UK’s leading provider of planning and building control solutions to local authorities, Idox actively engages with issues affecting the planning profession. Here at the Idox Information Service, we see our core mission as improving decision making in public policy by improving access to research and evidence, and we are proud to be playing a part in these awards to promote academic, researcher and student excellence in this area.

This is the third time that Idox has given its support to the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. In 2015, and we sponsored the Student Award, won by Emma Thorpe, a student in the School of Planning and Geography at Cardiff University. Idox also sponsored the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement Award, won by Dr Paul Cowie from Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Paul went on to write a guest blog post for us describing his innovative project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

Last year, Idox again sponsored the Student Award, which was won by Adam van Heerden, of the University of Cape Town, for his research engaging with a marginalised group – the ‘Skarrelers’ in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – who survive on the margins of prime urban spaces by either selling or re-using discarded waste material with value.

The Wider Engagement award was won by Place Alliance – a national movement campaigning for high quality places. In addition, we sponsored the 2016 Planning Consultancy award, which was won by Ryden (lead consultants) along with WSP and Brodies, who delivered the Planning for Infrastructure Research Report for the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland.

In 2017, Idox is pleased once again to be sponsoring the Student, Wider Engagement and Planning Consultancy awards.

Further details on the five award categories, application guidance and entry forms, are available here. The closing date for applications to the awards is 19 May 2017. The finalists will be announced on 24 July, with the winners being named at an awards ceremony in Belfast City Hall on 12 September.


The Idox Information Service is the first port of call for information and knowledge on public and social policy and practice. For 40 years the service has been saving its members time and money, and helping them to make more informed decisions, improve frontline services and understand the policy environment.

For more information see: http://informationservice.idoxgroup.com

In partnership with RTPI, the Idox Information Service has introduced an individual membership offer, which provides a 30% discount on the normal price.

Inventive eco-solutions to the planet’s environmental challenges

Nappies made from jellyfish; drones that make electricity; a flame-free alternative to cremation. Unlikely as they may seem, these are just three of the ideas that are emerging to tackle some of the environmental challenges facing the modern world.

Those challenges are many and growing. Climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, rising levels of waste, and dwindling energy supplies all pose threats to health, wellbeing, quality of life, and even to the existence of humanity.

While national and local governments have responded to these challenges by passing legislation and investing in sustainable initiatives, entrepreneurs are coming up with some intriguing eco-friendly ideas.

Taking the sting out of waste management

An Israeli company has found an inventive way to simultaneously tackle a growing global menace in the world’s oceans and a pernicious waste issue. Increasing levels of ocean acidification – sometimes called climate change’s evil twin – have resulted in an explosion in jellyfish populations. Now, scientists working with Tel Aviv-based startup, Cine’al, have found a way to turn jellyfish into a super-absorbent material called “hydromash”. Within next year, the company plans to market nappies, tampons and bandages made from hydromash, which takes less than a month to biodegrade (compared to the hundreds of years for synthetic disposables to break down).

Will consumers take to products made from jellyfish?  Cine’al’s chairman thinks so.

“I’m not worried about this, and in many products it’s likely that the consumer won’t even know about it, similar to many other products with ingredients that are derived from animals and plants.”

 Lift-off for airborne energy

In March of this year, wind farms in Scotland set a new record for the amount of electricity sent to the national grid, generating the equivalent of 58% of Scotland’s entire electricity needs for the month. In recent years, Denmark has also reported impressive achievements from its investment in windfarms.  Such examples demonstrate the potential of wind power, which is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels.

But conventional wind power equipment is expensive to set up, with the foundations and towers for the turbines making up around 30% of the capital required. However, an alternative may soon be breezing onto the wind power scene.

In April, German energy giant E.ON announced plans to invest €3 million in developing the commercialisation of autonomous flying drones to produce electricity. The technology – which uses a kite-like sail to harvest the energy of high-altitude wind currents – is still in its infancy. But E.ON clearly believes in the potential of airborne power. Last year the company invested €5.9 million in a Scottish developer which plans to create a kite-driven power station.

 Ashes to ashes – without the global warming

Benjamin Franklin, famously observed that death and taxes are the only certainties in this world. As a prolific inventor with an interest in energy conservation, he might have been cheered to learn that 21st century entrepreneurs have discovered an eco-friendly way to deal with one of those certainties.

Resomation (also known as biocremation) is a process that uses water and potassium hydroxide to break down organic materials within a few hours, but without the environmentally harmful greenhouse gases generated by conventional cremation methods. The resulting water can be funnelled into municipal water treatment facilities, while the ashes are returned to the family of the deceased.

The idea has already been applied commercially in the United States, and is now set to be introduced to the UK. In March, the Rowley Regis crematorium in the West Midlands received approval from Sandwell Council to install resomation equipment. The council noted that:

“…resomation allows individuals and families to express their environmental concerns and values in a very positive manner with one of their final actions in life.”

Innovative remedies for a planet in need

While these examples may seem odd, and even unnerving, it’s worth remembering that ideas once considered implausible, dangerous or downright daft are now becoming more widely accepted.

Forty years ago, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. Today, it’s seen as imperative for households, businesses and local authorities. Similarly, vegetable oil has advanced from a purely experimental fuel to a cleaner alternative to diesel.

It seems that, when it comes to the environmental challenges facing the world, necessity really is the mother of invention.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in environment and sustainable development are interesting our research team.

Europe’s housing time bomb: a new report highlights the millions affected by housing exclusion

The European Union has not had its troubles to seek in the years following the financial meltdown of 2008. Continuing concerns about the euro, the refugee crisis and Brexit are challenging Europe’s leaders as never before, leading to speculation about the very existence of the EU. But at the end of March, new research highlighted an additional challenge that threatens Europe’s social fabric.

The authors of the report described the current situation concerning housing exclusion and homelessness as “a state of emergency” affecting all European countries. Startling figures uncovered by the research show a continent-wide crisis in the making:

  • In France, the number of homeless people increased by 50% between 2001 and 2012
  • In Germany, 16% of people spend more than 40% of their income on housing
  • In Romania, one in every two people live in overcrowded conditions
  • In the league table of homelessness, the UK now ranks 20th out of 28
  • The number of families in temporary accommodation in London has increased by 50% since 2010
  • In Copenhagen, youth homelessness has increased by 75% since 2009
  • In Warsaw, the number of people sleeping rough or in emergency shelters has risen by 37% since 2013
  • One in 70 people in Athens are now homeless

Vulnerable groups

The report finds that young people across Europe are being hit especially hard by housing exclusion.

“In all EU countries, young people are more vulnerable to prohibitive housing costs, overcrowding and severe housing deprivation than the rest of the population. For poor young people across Europe, the situation is becoming unbearable, with 65% in Germany, 78% in Denmark and 58% in the UK spending more than 40% of their disposable income on housing. The average in the EU is 48%.”

The report also found that Europe’s poor are being side-lined at a time when housing expenditure has increased while incomes have fallen.

“In general, people living below the poverty threshold are increasingly marginalised by a private rental market that feeds off a systemic lack of affordable housing.”

Non-EU citizens are another vulnerable group experiencing housing difficulties:

“Two-thirds of non-EU citizens are overburdened by housing costs in Greece, almost half in Spain and Belgium, more than one third in Ireland and Portugal, and more than one quarter in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and Slovenia.”

Unfit conditions

While homelessness and the rising cost of housing are proving to be growing problems across the EU, poor housing is are also a Europe-wide issue.  Across all European countries, a poor household is two to twelve times more likely to live in severe housing deprivation (leaking roof, dampness, poor sanitation) than other households, and in the European Union as a whole, one person in six lives in overcrowded housing.

Fuel poverty is another significant problem, affecting almost a quarter of poor households across the continent. In the UK, 9.4% of the population and 20.2% of poor households experience financial difficulty in maintaining adequate household temperatures.

Eviction: “a collective abandonment of other people”     

An entire chapter of the report is dedicated to eviction, which the authors describe as “…one of the worst forms of violence that can afflict someone.

The figures from national governments and Eurostat highlight significant variations in the pattern of evictions in each EU country, with surges in the number of evictions in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia and the Netherlands, while six countries – the Czech Republic, Denmark, Croatia, Lithuania, Portugal and Sweden saw substantial reductions in the number of evictions.

The figures also show varying trends within the UK and differences between the private and public sectors. In England and Wales, rental disputes rose in the social housing sector, but fell in private housing; in Northern Ireland, property foreclosures rose slightly, while tenant evictions rose dramatically by 75%; in Scotland, eviction procedures of all kinds fell by 17%.

Addressing the issue

The report argues that the tools for dealing with the challenges of housing exclusion in Europe already exist, including Europe-wide networks of local, regional and national governments, and EU initiatives, such as the Urban Agenda and the European Pillar of Social Rights. The authors note that there are many examples of good housing practice, notably in Finland, whose “housing first” strategy has achieved a reduction in homelessness – the only EU country to do so.

However, the authors contend that Europe’s leaders need to rapidly activate the political will to tackle the problem of housing exclusion:

“The EU and Member States should place the elimination of homelessness in the core of their social policy agendas. Responses to homelessness should be mainstreamed into the design and implementation of relevant sectoral policies including youth, gender, migration, and Roma inclusion. The EU and the Member States can and should act to enforce social rights.

Final thoughts

The report’s figures make sobering reading: more than 36 million households living in overcrowded conditions; almost 11 million households facing severe deprivation; more than 22 million households experiencing fuel poverty. Perhaps most worrying is the number of homeless people in Europe. This is an unknowable figure, but all the indications are that it is rising dramatically.

Published a week before the UK signalled its intention to leave the EU, the report received comparatively little media coverage. But if the problem of housing exclusion and homelessness continues to grow, it threatens to overwhelm political leaders at EU, national and local levels. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that homelessness could rival Brexit in its impact on the future of Europe.


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Driving diesel out of town: how cities are tackling the deadly problem of air pollution

2017 was less than a week old when, on a single day, London used up its entire annual air pollution limit.  European Union air quality standards permit the maximum safe levels of toxic nitrogen oxide (NO2) to be exceeded no more than 18 times a year. But on 6 January just one site – Brixton Road in Lambeth – generated levels of NO2 high enough to burn through the capital’s annual limit.

Experience underlined that the first breach of the year was always unlikely to be the last. In 2016, another part of London (Putney High Street) exceeded the limit 1,200 times. Other UK cities are also badly affected by air pollution. Government figures show that 38 out of the country’s 43 air quality zones breached legal limits for air pollution in 2015.

The deadly effects of air pollution

Since 2012, evidence on the effects of air pollution on the environment and public health has been mounting. Health issues such as cardiac and respiratory conditions can be aggravated by poor quality air, which can also cause lung cancer. In the UK, pollution is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. Beyond the human costs, poor air quality also has economic costs (around £15-20 billion a year), as well as damaging biodiversity, wildlife and crops.

Action on air pollution

“Nearly 40 per cent of all NOx emissions within London come from diesel vehicles, and unless this is explicitly tackled it will be impossible to cleanse London’s air.”
Lethal and illegal: solving London’s air pollution crisis – IPPR

The most significant cause of poor air quality in the UK is road traffic pollution, and in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from diesel engines. In recent years, scientists have been highlighting the dangers of diesel, but the Volkswagen emissions scandal underscored just how bad diesel vehicles are for urban environments.

In 2015, the UK government announced plans to discourage diesel vehicles from entering clean air zones in Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Nottingham and Derby. Further measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London,  Sadiq Khan, announced yesterday that from April 2019 the most polluting vehicles will have to pay a daily charge to drive within central London. He is also proposing to expand this charge, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), across Greater London for heavy diesel vehicles, including buses, coaches and lorries. In the meantime, from October this year, cars, vans, minibuses, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in central London will need to meet minimum exhaust emission standards, or pay a daily £10 Emissions Surcharge (also known as the Toxicity Charge, or T-Charge). In addition, London has been considering more innovative approaches to cleaner transport.

Last month, four House of Commons committees announced an unprecedented joint enquiry into the health and environmental effects of toxic air. Louise Ellman of the Transport Committee acknowledged the need for an efficient and flexible transport system, but added:

Emissions from vehicles are a significant problem and the standards that governments have relied on have not delivered the expected reductions. We will be asking what more can be done to increase the use of cleaner vehicles as well as to encourage the use of sustainable modes of transport.”

Cracking down on diesel vehicles

But many believe tougher action is needed, and that the time has come to drive diesel vehicles out of towns and cities.

This month, Westminster City Council becomes the first in the UK to impose additional charges for parking diesel-powered vehicles. For a trial period, drivers of diesel cars and vans will have to pay an additional 50% to park in one of the borough’s most heavily polluted streets.  Westminster’s Councillor David Harvey believes the charge will cause drivers to make more environmentally-friendly choices:

“Additional charges for diesel vehicles will mean people think twice about using highly polluting cars and invest in cleaner transport that will make a real difference in the quality of air we breathe and our environment.”

Another London council – Hackney – has gone further, announcing plans to ban any non-electric cars from parking on several streets bordering the City of London’s financial district.

International action

Beyond the UK, national and local governments are also taking the problem of air pollution caused by diesel emissions more seriously.

In December 2016, the longest and most intense pollution spike for a decade jolted the authorities in Paris into restricting traffic coming into the city. On alternate days, drivers of vehicles with odd-number and even-number licence plates were told to leave their cars at home. At the same time, public transport in the city and the suburbs was free of charge. The following month, a mandatory scheme was introduced in Paris and Lyon obliging drivers to display anti-pollution stickers indicating the age and cleanliness of their vehicles. Paris had already announced that cars registered before 1997 would be banned from the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

Paris has also forged a joint agreement with Athens, Madrid and Mexico City to completely remove diesel vehicles from their city centres by 2025. The Netherlands is also believed to be considering a diesel ban, although reports of a similar move in Norway proved premature.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s ambitions for car-free “superblocks” to improve the city’s air quality have received international attention, but have also encountered some local resistance.

The death of diesel?

Some are concerned that a total ban on diesel vehicles is being put forward too easily as a solution to the problem:

Transport for London recently sought public consultation on what they should do to improve air quality, and their website notes that people are twice as likely to die from lung diseases if they live in “deprived vs. affluent areas of London”, both signs that this problem is too complex to be solved by a blanket ban on diesel cars.”

But as the case mounts against diesel, drivers are taking note. In February 2017, registration of diesel cars in the UK fell by 9.2%, while demand for alternative fuel vehicles saw a dramatic increase of 48.9%. London and other UK cities may not yet have completely banned diesel vehicles from their centres, but increasingly the question is not if, but when.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, check out our other articles on air quality:

Famous last words? Is this the beginning of the end for city slogans?

How do you sum up a city in a slogan? The simple answer is that you can’t. But that hasn’t stopped towns and cities around the world trying to encapsulate their essence in a few well-chosen (or sometimes ill-chosen) words.

For some, a slogan is a fun way to show that a town or city is a great place to live, work and visit. American municipalities that proclaim themselves to be “The Best Town on Earth” (Madisonville, Kentucky), or “The Toothpick Capital of the World (Strong, Maine) are doing so with their civic tongues firmly in cheek.

But for many towns and cities, slogan making is a serious business that requires considerable amounts of time, money and brainpower to come up with something that highlights communities as worth visiting and investing in.

And for some cities, a slogan can mean the difference between success and failure.

How a slogan saved a city

New York City today is a lively, attractive place that’s proud to trumpet its cultural, architectural, retail and culinary attractions to residents and tourists alike. Things were very different in the 1970s. Years of financial mismanagement and neglect had given New York a reputation for grime, crime, drugs and disrepair. By the mid-70s, the city’s image was in tatters.

The turning point came with a campaign promoting one of New York’s enduring strong points – its theatre district. A television advert featuring Broadway stars launched the campaign on Valentine’s Day 1978. Its message was short and sweet: I ❤ NY.

As Newsweek reported, the campaign was an overnight success:

“There were some 93,800 requests for the tourism brochure after the commercials aired. Hotel occupancy in New York City hit 90%, year-on-year earnings from travel activity shot up nearly 20 percent.”

Forty years later, I ❤ NY still has pulling power:

Walk around Manhattan today and you’ll find pretty much every store that caters to tourists is packed with T-shirts, mugs, keychains and more, all emblazoned with the iconic slogan. A 2011 report said the city still earns some $30 million a year through licensing the logo.”

Glasgow’s Miles Better

The New York campaign had a profound influence on another city whose image required a makeover. In 1984, Glasgow was making efforts to recover from industrial decline, and to regenerate its city centre as a retail and cultural hub. The city’s Lord Provost, Michael Kelly, wanted to promote Glasgow’s progress, and to show that the city was miles better than it used to be.

The Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign was one of the first of its kind in the UK, and – like its New York inspiration – the brand had important after-effects. The message was carried across the UK, appeared on London buses and was used to promote the city internationally. Arguably, the campaign boosted Glasgow’s success in becoming European City of Culture in 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999.  Michael Kelly later summed up the impact of the campaign:

“The legacy was a permanent change in attitude towards Glasgow, exposing the reality rather than the rather distorted image people had outside. People began to look at it in a proper light and were able to make economic decisions based on that, so we got investment, we got employment. We turned the economy round, and that legacy is still being felt today.”

The slogan was finally dropped in 1997, but subsequent campaigns – Glasgow’s Alive, Glasgow: Scotland with Style – never enjoyed the commercial success of the Miles Better brand, nor did they win the hearts of the people.  Today, the city has another slogan – People Make Glasgow – which puts Glaswegians firmly at the heart of the city’s identity. The change recognised that in a city which still has significant social, health and housing problems, a slogan focusing on the strengths of its citizens is more likely to have credibility.

Slogan-free cities

But while numerous towns and cities around the world have embraced the power of a slogan, there are signs that city slogans may be reaching the end of the road.

In 2015, the city council of Edmonton, capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, voted to drop the “City of Champions” slogan. The Mayor of Edmonton contended that a city’s brand can never be expressed in a meaningful way by a single tagline. Other North American cities, including Moncton in New Brunswick, Mississauga in Ontario, and Cleveland, Ohio, have also been phasing out their city slogans.

Slogans with a smile

“The challenge of finding a slogan is handling the plurality of images and identities that the residents possess. The multiple and distinct identities supported by populations within a city should be included and coincide within the urban brand as much as possible in order to accommodate the resi­dents’ diversity.”
Championing the City

Faced with such a daunting challenge, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some cities and towns have given up on the idea of a civic slogan. But most are sticking with the concept, and some are hoping that even if they don’t greatly raise the profile of their municipality, they might at least raise a smile:

  • The Odds Are With You (Peculiar, Missouri)
  • It’s All Right Here (Dunedin, New Zealand)
  • It’s a Location, Not a Vocation (Hooker, Oklahoma)
  • Aha! (Suncheon, South Korea)
  • It’s Not Our Fault (San Andreas, California)

Prefabs sprout: could factory-built homes tackle the housing crisis?

Long regarded as a relic of the past, prefabricated housing is now emerging as a potential solution for the UK’s chronic shortage of affordable homes.

Britain’s golden age of prefabricated housing happened after World War II, when the government authorised thousands of factory-built homes to replace housing destroyed by bombing raids. Intended to last for no more than ten years, many prefab homes were still occupied thirty years after construction.

For a period during the 1960s, prefab housing enjoyed a resurgence. One scheme was showcased at Montreal’s Expo 67 as a solution for high-quality housing in dense urban environments. But in Britain prefabs became associated with shoddy, damp and dysfunctional housing. The largest remaining post-war prefab estate, located in London is now facing demolition.

The prefab renaissance

In recent years, prefabricated housing has been rebranded and is now showing signs of making a comeback:

  • In Yorkshire, the Legal & General insurance firm has opened the world’s largest modular homes construction factory.
  • In Manchester, regeneration company Urban Splash is developing a 43-home scheme, with each house designed by the customer, then built offsite and shipped to the New Islington estate.
  • In Lewisham, south London, Rational House is working with AECOM to build “off-the-shelf” homes for young professionals struggling to get on the property ladder.

Renewed interest in prefab housing has been driven by the severe shortage of housing in the UK, along with the rising cost of traditional construction methods. At the same time, new materials and construction techniques have made prefab homes a more economic and attractive option. This week, leading engineering firm Laing O’Rourke has suggested that the acute lack of space in Britain’s cities could lead to the next generation of tower blocks being built almost entirely off-site.

In its 2017 housing white paper, the government proposed measures to stimulate the growth of the offsite construction sector and promote more factory built homes through the Accelerated Construction programme and the Home Builders’ Fund. The paper highlighted Creekside Wharf in Greenwich as a good example of prefab housing’s potential.

The benefits and challenges of prefab housing

The champions of prefab housing argue that it provides comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed much more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern prefab apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly. Proponents also argue that offsite construction generates less noise, dust and disruption for neighbours. And although offsite costs remain higher, the margin is narrowing as prefab manufacturing achieves efficiencies of scale.

But although today’s prefab homes are a world away from their post-war forerunners, critics have argued that contemporary prefab housing is no match for a traditionally-constructed home. There have also been concerns that prefab homes could be deployed as a quick fix. The Guardian’s architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright commented:

“If taken up as the silver bullet to endless waiting lists, there’s a very real risk it could sow the seeds for a future of cheaply built, meanly scaled, less stable housing that can be conveniently swept away at a moment’s notice.”

Some have expressed concern that factory-built homes could end up deskilling traditional building, but others believe that prefabricated housing could plug a skills gap in the construction sector after the UK leaves the European Union.  Meanwhile, lenders to developers are still cautious about financing prefab projects until their long-term durability has been tested.

Prefab present…

Despite these reservations, prefab housing is shedding its outdated image and increasingly entering the mainstream housing sector. In some areas, factory-built housing is already being deployed to help people with urgent housing needs.

The architecture firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners is internationally famous for its cutting edge projects, from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five to the National Assembly for Wales. But in 2015, the firm joined forces with the London Borough of Merton, the YMCA and Aecom to create Y:Cube. The first 24-home Y:Cube development is located at Mitcham in south-west London, and took just five months to build. Tenants come from YMCA hostels and Merton’s housing waiting list, finding the flats as welcome alternatives to hostels and B&B accommodation. A similar project is taking place to provide Y:Cube accommodation for local people with acute housing needs in the London borough of Lewisham.

Beyond the capital, further prefab housing developments are in the making:

  • Manchester City Council has been leading an offsite construction consortium of 17 housing associations with the aim of building hundreds of new homes in the north of England.
  • In December 2016, Your Housing Group announced a partnership with a Chinese construction firm to deliver 25,000 prefabricated homes over the next five years.
  • Swan Housing Association is building an 18,000 sq ft factory to deliver new homes for the regeneration of Basildon’s Craylands estate.

…and prefab future?

While prefab housing is gathering pace, one entrepreneur is taking the concept to the next level. Alastair Parvin, a graduate of Sheffield University’s school of architecture, believes that harnessing the possibilities offered by technology can make building a house more straightforward.

The idea behind Parvin’s “WikiHouse” is to enable users to draw up plans for their new home online. But instead of the house then being constructed at one offsite location, the components will be manufactured by a network of small business and community spaces – known as maker-spaces.

We’ve come a long way from the prefab housing of the post-war years, and perhaps there’s some way to go before the vision of the WikiHouse is realised. In the meantime, prefabricated housing could offer a much-needed boost to tackling the nation’s existing housing shortfall.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in our other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

An Englishman’s home is his rabbit hutch? Implications of the national space standard for the building control profession

When the coalition government launched a fundamental review of England’s building regulations in 2012, it was called “the biggest change in housing standards in a generation.”  One of the review’s major outcomes was a standard that prescribes space sizes for all new-build homes, bringing the rest of England into line with London, which has had its own space standard since 2011. But a year on from its introduction, the national space standard has been branded too complex to implement and too easy to evade.

Looking back on housing space standards

Housing space specifications are not a new idea. There were prescribed floor space minimums in England’s public housing between 1967 and 1980. These were based on the recommendations of the Parker Morris Committee of 1961, which linked space to the utility of homes, rather than to expected occupancy levels (a benchmark that’s still applicable in Scotland). This standard was sidelined in the 1980s, and the focus shifted to housing delivery.

The new national standard

The government’s 2012 Housing Standards Review aimed to reduce the cost and complexity of building new homes by streamlining the large number of codes, regulations and technical housing standards applied to new housing through the planning system.

Most of the outcomes from the review (such as those affecting security, energy and accessibility) required changes to the building regulations. But when it came to the national space standard, the government decided there was no case for statutory regulation. Instead, the standard is optional for local authorities to adopt, subject to local plan viability testing and approval by the planning inspectorate.

The national space standard, which came into effect in October 2015, includes requirements such as:

  • A new three bed, five person home should be a minimum of 93m²
  • a one bed, one person flat should be a minimum of 37m²
  • Two-bedroom homes should have at least one double bedroom
  • A double bedroom should have minimum floor area of 11.5m²

House builders strongly disagreed with the changes, claiming the standard would reduce the number of new homes being built and increase costs. But the space standard won vociferous support from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who went on to argue that it didn’t go far enough:

“Local authorities should be able to set space standards in order to improve new build homes in their communities. However….the most effective solution would be for a national space standard to be applied through building regulations so that it applies to all homes, in every location and type of housing.”

England’s shrinking spaces

England has the smallest homes by floor space area of any EU country. In 2013, the average size of a home was 93.6m², compared to 115.5 square metres in the Netherlands and 137 square metres in Denmark.

The contrast has given rise to new family homes in England being described as “rabbit hutches” because they are not big enough to comfortably meet the needs of residents. Smaller rooms have implications for wellbeing and quality of life, creating problems for storage, preparing food and entertaining visitors. More fundamentally, smaller living spaces can have impacts on mental health and family relationships.

Fighting for space

Shortly after the introduction of the national space standard, in October 2015, RIBA claimed that administration costs, red tape and potential challenges from developers on site-specific viability grounds, made it unlikely that the standard would have any meaningful impact:

“All of these bureaucratic processes place an excessive and unnecessary burden on local authorities to justify something which the government has already recognised is sensible and fair.”

Again, RIBA called for the space standard to be included in the building regulations, and again house builders voiced their opposition. Stewart Basely of the Home Builders Federation claimed buyers were content with the size of new builds, and warned that mandatory space standards could make the housing shortage worse:

 “Imposing space standards and so restricting what builders can build takes away choice from home buyers. This would not only prevent more people from buying their own home but also exacerbate the acute shortage of housing that we have experienced over several decades.”

Space: a place for building control?

On the face of it, the national space standard is not an issue concerning building control, whose focus is on enforcing the national building regulations.  But government guidance on the internal space standard has indicated that building control surveyors may have a role to play in the approvals process:

“Building control bodies may choose to provide checking of the space standard in development proposals as an additional service alongside carrying out their building control function. In these circumstances, local planning authorities may wish to avoid further additional checking of plans with regard to space standards.”

And the national standard could yet be included in the building regulations. In a House of Lords debate on the Housing and Planning Bill in May 2016, Labour peer Lord Beecham, put forward an amendment to make the standards mandatory. His intervention followed the Labour Party’s Lyons Housing Review, which recommended that space standards should be applied nationally, but suggested that more work was needed to consider exemptions in certain markets.

Later in 2016, the government launched a review into how the space standards are operating in practice. The findings of the review will be published in the spring, and it will be interesting to see the effects of the standard, and whether RIBA’s argument for mandatory implementation has taken hold.

Building control surveyors may have their hands full, not least because of changes to the building regulations resulting from the Housing Standards Review. But it’s not out of the question that the national space standard could yet become part of their workload.

Urban bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Bike sharing schemes are now a familiar feature of the urban landscape. From Montreal to Marrakesh, London to Lublin, more than 1000 cities around the world are learning that bike sharing can play a supporting role in reducing congestion, cutting air pollution, improving citizens’ health and boosting their reputations as great places to live, work and invest in.

But not all bike sharing schemes are progressing at an equal pace. While some, such as those in Paris and London are moving into the fast lane, others are struggling to stay upright. In today’s blog, we look at how two different cities – Seattle and Dublin – are tackling bumps in the road to better bike sharing.

Seattle

In recent years, bike-sharing schemes have been springing up in cities all over the United States. Among the success stories is Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare programme, which is rapidly becoming an integral part of the city’s transportation system.

On the other side of the country, however, Seattle’s Pronto bike share scheme had a difficult birth. In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes (the comparable figure for Capital Bikeshare was one million rides). A year after its 2014 launch, Pronto became insolvent, and Seattle’s city council bailed out the scheme at a cost of $1.4 million. Last year, the council announced that Pronto would cease operations in March 2017.

Pronto’s disappointing performance has perplexed cycling enthusiasts in the city. One Seattle bike blogger observed:

“Washington, D.C. is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting.”

The factors behind the failure of Pronto have been the subject of considerable debate. Some have blamed it on compulsory helmet laws in the city, pointing out that similar rules in Melbourne also resulted in poor take-up of its bike share scheme. Others have put forward a range of theories, from poor cycling infrastructure and inadequate marketing to Seattle’s rainy climate and hilly topography. The city’s bicycle club also weighed in, arguing that the scheme’s small size, insufficient density of bike stations and prohibitive pricing structure put the brakes on what should have been a success story.

Bike sharing in Seattle may be down, but it’s not out. The city council is preparing to launch a successor to Pronto that will provide electric bikes and double the number of stations. There are still concerns that the mandatory cycle helmet rule may discourage take-up, although helmets will also be available for hire.

The council hopes the new scheme will be launched in summer 2017. It remains to be seen whether motorized cycles can kick start Seattle’s bike sharing journey.

Dublin

In contrast to Seattle, Dublin’s experience of bike sharing started off with positive results. Within seven years of its 2008 launch, the Dublinbikes scheme had 55,000 long-term subscribers and had recorded over 10 million trips. An expansion in 2013 took bike sharing stations beyond the core of the city and delivered an extra 950 bikes.

The popularity of Dublinbikes has continued to grow, but would-be users have often been frustrated by the lack of available bikes and delays in further expansions. Funding difficulties lie at the heart of the problem.

Dublin City Council contracted the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux to operate the Dublinbikes scheme. In exchange, the company was given the right to advertising space at a number of locations around the city. Dublinbikes also secured sponsorship from Coca-Cola, and managed to stay in the black for its first six years. However, the scheme has been running a deficit since 2015.

The stark figures tell their own story:

  • the Dublin Bikes scheme costs €1.9m to run
  • subscriptions and usage charges generate €1.2m
  • sponsorship by Coca-Cola is €312,000

Under its contract with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council must fill the €388,000 shortfall, but the council is itself under financial pressure.  Expansion of the scheme would cost €1.2m, with a further €500,000 a year of running costs for the additional bike stations.

To fulfil its side of the Dublinbikes deal with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council proposed the placement of advertising screens in the southeast of the city. However, these plans were thrown into question in August 2016 when Ireland’s national heritage organization lodged objections. One heritage officer described the proposed screens as “nasty” “contemptible”, “tacky” and “grossly offensive”. City councillors subsequently voted against installation of the screens, leading to concerns that the costs would have to be shouldered by bike users.

In November 2016, the annual Dublinbikes fee rose by €5 to €25. That’s still lower than annual membership of London’s more extensive Santander bike share scheme (£90), but there are now concerns that the price increase will exclude people on low incomes or unemployed people, who may have found the bike share scheme more affordable than getting around by car or public transport.

Overcoming spokes in the wheel

Seattle and Dublin have experienced different problems in establishing their urban bike sharing schemes. But it’s worth remembering that Washington, DC’s early bike share scheme suffered very low use rates, while Montreal’s first attempt at bike sharing went bankrupt. Today, DC’s Capital Bikeshare is among the most admired in the world, and is contributing to cuts in congestion. Meanwhile, Bixi, which now operates Montreal’s bike share scheme, is exporting its expertise to other parts of North America.

Clearly, successful bike sharing schemes require careful planning, public participation, adequate funding and – perhaps most important of all – time to grow.