Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.

ShotSpotter

In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.


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If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles:

Night mayors: building bridges between businesses and communities

We’ve previously written about the importance of the night-time economy as a driver of tourism, leisure and business growth in towns and cities. And we’ve also blogged about the challenges facing night-time industries, notably the number of nightclubs forced to close due to economic factors and security concerns.

A growing number of city authorities are responding to these developments, and exploring new ways of meeting the distinctive economic development, public safety and quality of life demands presented by cities after dark.

The pros and cons of the after-hours economy

The UK night-time economy is substantial. One estimate has put its value at £66bn, employing 1.3m people. In London, an already thriving after-hours economy is set to grow by a further £77m a year following this year’s launch of the 24-hour Tube on the Victoria, Central and Piccadilly lines.

But a city’s nightlife is about more than commerce. Noise, violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour can upset nearby residents, and put people off living in or visiting a city.

Some authorities have taken a hard line towards areas with a reputation for trouble at night. The New South Wales government has introduced laws to crack down on drug and alcohol-fuelled violence in parts of Sydney. But, while the new rules – including 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks at nightclubs – have reduced street crime, their impact on Sydney’s night-time economy has been devastating. More than 100 venues have closed, and the once booming entertainment district of King’s Cross is now being described as a ghost town.

Night mayors: bridging the divide

There’s a balance to be struck between protecting communities from anti-social behaviour and enabling a dynamic night-time economy to flourish. One idea for bridging these competing interests is the appointment of an individual dedicated to the needs of the city after dark.

Shortly after the Night Tube started operations, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to appoint a “Night Czar”. The role of this new figure will be to engage with night-time businesses, residents and public authorities, and to create a “vision for London as a 24-hour city”. And on 4 November it was confirmed that the new Night Czar would be the writer, broadcaster, DJ, performer and campaigner Amy Lamé.

London is following a trend set by other cities that have recognised the need for a distinct approach to their after-hours economies. In 2014, Marik Milan was elected Amsterdam’s first night mayor. Previously a nightclub promoter, Milan leads a non-profit foundation funded jointly by the city council and the business community.

One of his early successes has been helping to establish 24-hour licences for selected nightclubs on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s hoped that the relaxation of licensing laws will help to relieve the pressure on the city centre, while regenerating pockets of the city lacking both daytime and night-time offerings. And, given that most problems happen when clubs are opening or closing, the 24-hour approach may also lower the chances of disturbances.

Marik Milan also wants to bring some of the positive lessons from music festivals into the centre of Amsterdam. He’s suggested that the presence of stewards, trained in how to de-escalate situations and report incidents, could make for a safer city, especially at weekends.

Milan believes his approach, in contrast to that adopted in Sydney, is more likely to bring positive results:

“Cities are always interested in solutions, but if they keep treating night life as a problem, they’ll keep having the same outcome.”

An idea whose time has come?

The successful deployment of night mayors in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities has prompted municipalities around the world to consider, and in some cases, to copy their example. In France, night mayors have been elected in Paris, Toulouse and Nantes, and they are also to be seen in Zurich and most recently in the Colombian city of Cali. Similar posts have been proposed for cities such as Berlin, Dublin, Toronto and New York.

Earlier this year, Amsterdam hosted the first Night Mayors Summit, at which city representatives could combine knowledge and share experiences on their night-time economies. This short film, from Monocle magazine, reports on the summit, and explains how the cities of Amsterdam, Berlin, Tokyo and Sao Paulo are exploring creative approaches to managing the night-time economy.

It remains to be seen whether London’s new night czar can win the support of local communities while championing the capital’s night time culture. But the experience of Amsterdam suggests that it’s an idea worth exploring.


If you’ve enjoyed his blog post, you might also like our other posts on the night-time economy

 

ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.


If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy:

Ensuring that growth and great places aren’t incompatible … reflections on the RTPI Convention

rtpi programme image

The 2016 RTPI Convention earlier this week was attended by over 400 people keen to discuss how the profession and the planning system can support the delivery of growth. Being held just a few days after the UK’s Brexit vote, there was a predictable inevitability when every speaker prefaced their talk with the caveat ‘of course everything is uncertain now’. A consistent message across the day however was that regardless of the political uncertainty, the key challenges of demographic change, enhanced mobility and a national housing shortage still need to be addressed. And planning is central to producing long-term, strategic responses to these issues.

While Idox were at the conference exhibition in order to highlight the success of the i-Apply combined online planning and building control submissions service, our Knowledge Exchange team were at the convention itself.

Planning great places

Although there was plenty of discussion during the day about the ongoing impact of planning reform – especially the current review of the planning system in Scotland, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the role of the National Infrastructure Commission – the most inspiring sessions focused on practical examples of collaboration and inclusion in strategic planning.

Paul Barnard, Assistant Director for Strategic Planning & Infrastructure at Plymouth City Council described the key ingredients of aspirational plan making. The council has twice won the RTPI’s Silver Jubilee Cup for their pioneering approach, firstly in 2006 and then again last year for their Plan for Homes. This city-wide planning framework addresses issues including land release, infrastructure and delivery. Incredibly, the overarching Plymouth Plan replaced over 138 different strategies.

Paul explained that the challenge for the team was to develop credible policy responses to the social challenges facing the area, and then win over hearts and minds to support these solutions. The benefits of having one integrated strategy is that it sets a vision for ‘place’ that all departments can mobilise behind. Paul argued that the profession has to “believe in proactive, positive planning” and make the case for that every day in their work.

Delivering housing growth

Throughout the conference, the need to deliver more housing was a recurrent theme. A number of speakers argued that direct intervention in the housing market, for example through local housing companies or councils buying sites, was becoming a necessity. Toby Lloyd, Head of Policy at Shelter, pointed out that central government interventions have been focused on the consumer end of the market (for example, Starter Homes) rather than on delivering development sites and land.

Discussions during the day highlighted the current disconnect between where new housing is being delivered and where there are employment growth opportunities. Yolande Barnes, Head of Savills World Research, also suggested that we need to stop planning in terms of ‘housing units’ – people live in neighbourhoods and communities, and we shouldn’t forget this.

The question of how we capture land value, and use this to fund infrastructure development, was also raised repeatedly. In many situations, we have fragmented development delivered by different developers and the question of responsibility for wider public benefits is difficult. Planning tools such as the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 have attempted to address this, but do not necessarily provide a timely or joined up approach to infrastructure delivery.

What if cities could change our world?

While recognising the challenges facing the profession, there was a strong emphasis during the day on the transformational potential of planning.

Alfonso Vegara, of Fundación Metropóli, describing the rejuvenation of Bilbao, suggested that successful planning needs to recognise the new scale of cities and economic development. The interconnections mean that growth corridors or city regions are only going to become more important. Successful economic growth will be dependent on retaining and attracting talent and skills in polycentric areas, and strategic planning needs to take this into account. The successful regeneration of Bilbao “was not a miracle, but the result of vision and leadership.”

This theme was also reflected in Ed Cox’s session on the RTPI’s work with IPPR on the need for an integrated, spatial approach to growing the economy in the North of England. Producing a vision for prosperity will depend on addressing key structural challenges. Maximising opportunities within an interconnected metropolitan region needs to recognise the importance of both cities and their hinterlands. It was also argued that the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ ambition will fail if citizens aren’t helped to feel engaged economically, politically and socially.

A rallying cry for leadership

There has been a trend in recent years for the planning system to be portrayed as a barrier and a bureaucratic obstacle which is getting in the way of growth. One speaker quoted Joseph Konvitz saying “planning has been discredited in the public mind and starved by the public purse”. There was a strong sense during the conference of ‘enough is enough’. The consistent message was that planning and planners are not the problem, and are doing the best they can in a difficult context.

As a profession, planners are trained to take a holistic view. They operate at the junction between politics, finance and community. And they are perfectly placed to provide leadership, foresight and clarity. The skills to deliver great places, which people want to live in, are needed now, more than ever. And there is a need to “rekindle the idea of planning as a key democratic process”.

The challenge at the end of the Convention was “do it with passion, or not at all”. Planning is not a ‘numbers game’ – we need to consider quality of place and ambition, not just the drive for housing completions.


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Creating inclusive, prosperous places to live

by Heather Cameron

What does quality of life and ‘a good place to live’ mean? What are the key challenges to ensure quality of life in cities today? How can we create better places to live and who needs to be involved? These were just some of the questions explored at a seminar hosted by Policy Scotland, Glasgow University’s research and knowledge exchange hub, last month.

Running the event was Dr Georgiana Varna, Research Fellow at Glasgow University. Georgiana is a multidisciplinary scholar, specialising in urban regeneration and public space development.

Cities back on the agenda

A particular emphasis was placed on the importance of both place and people. Georgiana noted that cities are very much back on the policy agenda as we try to fix the mistakes of the 60s and 70s. She alluded to the New Urban Agenda, which embodies three guiding principles:

  • Leave no one behind
  • Achieve sustainable and inclusive urban prosperity
  • Foster ecological and resilient cities and human settlements

Following Georgiana’s introduction, several short presentations were given by a range of professionals and scholars.

Speaker: Michael Gray, Housing and Regeneration Services, Glasgow City Council

Michael Gray of Glasgow City Council delivered the first of the presentations, focusing on the Commonwealth Games Athlete’s Village in the East End of Glasgow. There was a clear pride in what they achieved with a belief that the result is a sustainable, cohesive community.

Michael did allude to some concerns that have been highlighted by GoWell East surveys regarding speeding vehicles, lack of buses and lack of local retail. But he also noted that lessons have been learned from the project, which was very complex in terms of procurement, design and construction, and that future development is addressing such concerns.

Speaker: Keith Kintrea, Glasgow University

Keith referred to Scotland’s standings in the PISA survey, showing that maths, reading and science achievement in Scotland sits in the middle and ahead of England, despite their efforts to improve. However, he noted that there is no room for complacency as those children in the most deprived areas were less likely to do well – nearly 70% of Glasgow pupils live in the most deprived areas.

Again, the importance of neighbourhood/place was emphasised, this time for local educational outcomes. It was noted that while Scottish schools are less segregated than the rest of the UK and more inclusive according to the OECD, (similar to countries such as Finland), this is not necessarily the case in cities. Keith concluded that we need to do much more about what places do in terms of educational outcomes.

Speaker: George Eckton, COSLA/SUSTRANS

George highlighted the importance of transport for delivering social, economic and environmental initiatives, and for growth in city-regions. Inequality in social mobility was put down to inadequate transport and it was noted that many people are disadvantaged in the labour market due to lack of mobility.

He stressed the need to increase the use of sustainable transport and argued that a collaborative approach will be essential to create inclusive growth for all.

Speaker: Andy Milne, Scotland’s Regeneration Network

Andy focused on community regeneration, arguing that the issue of centralisation and decentralisation is crucial. He stated that as a result of centralisation, urban areas – where most of the population live – are vastly under resourced.

Interestingly, he also noted that regeneration doesn’t work when not all areas are addressed. He argued that successful growth and inclusion will depend on economic policy decisions and not on all the small actions taken to address inequality.

Speaker: Richard Bellingham, University of Strathclyde

Richard’s focus was on smart cities. He noted that cities rely on critical systems – food production, waste/water handling, transportation, energy systems, health systems, social systems – and that if any one of them fails, the whole city fails.

The issue of rapid growth was emphasised as something cities need to respond to in a smart way. The recent 50-lane traffic jam experienced by Beijing suggests that there was a lack of smart thinking in its approach of building more roads for more people.

Richard suggested that greater collaboration is required for smart cities to succeed.

Speaker: David Allan, Scottish Community Development Centre & Community Health Exchange

The final presentation focused on community development. David highlighted the importance of community development approaches to build healthy and sustainable communities and referred to four building blocks of community empowerment:

  • Personal development
  • Positive action
  • Community organisation
  • Participation and involvement

Two examples of successful community-led initiatives were presented: Community Links (South Lanarkshire) and Getting better together (Shotts Healthy Living Centre).

Key elements of these initiatives were identified as: community-led, responsive to community need, fair and inclusive, and flexible and adaptive. Challenges were also identified: the level of understanding of ‘community’, community ‘stuff’ is often seen as nice but not essential and there is a lack of capacity and supply at the local level. David also noted that there is a danger that city-regions may exacerbate existing inequalities by concentrating resources in powerhouses.

He concluded by noting that future cities are unlikely to look like something from Back to the Future. Rather, they will probably look very much like today but the underlying systems need to change.

‘Smart successful cities – distinct, flexible and delightful (great places to be).’


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Rebuilding a community without bringing down the house: an alternative to demolishing ‘sink estates’

In January, the prime minister outlined plans for a £140m development programme in England that he said would improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged people living in social housing estates with high levels of deprivation.

“A new Advisory Panel will help galvanise our efforts and their first job will be to build a list of post-war estates across the country that are ripe for re-development, and work with up to 100,000 residents to put together regeneration plans. For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again. For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links.”

The proposal received a mixed response. Some commentators observed that demolishing the worst “sink estates” built during the 1960s and 1970s would free up much-needed land for new homes. Elsewhere, the head of the ResPublica think tank welcomed the chance to replace ugly estates with more attractive environments

Others criticised David Cameron’s idea as a form of “social cleansing”, claiming it raised the spectres of privatisation and gentrification. And Councillor Richard Lewis, executive member for regeneration, transport and planning on Leeds City Council challenged the prime minister’s view that the problem of ‘sink estates’ could be resolved by demolition.

“Through careful management of our housing funds and rental income we have managed to make significant investment in council housing. “I simply don’t recognise the language of ‘sink’ estates when it comes to Leeds and I don’t think we should write off entire areas and the people that live in them.”

After the storm, a dramatic turnaround

A recent New York Times report echoed the view that renovation of deteriorating housing estates can be more effective than demolition. The article reported on a 1970s housing estate on Long Island that had gone into decline after years of neglect. Crime, drugs and vermin were just some of the problems associated with the crumbling properties of the estate. Things got a great deal worse when Hurricane Sandy stormed into the estate in 2012, flooding many of the apartments and cutting off power and fresh water supplies.

The obvious next step would have been demolition. But instead of being torn down, the estate has undergone a remarkable transformation that astonished the newspaper’s reporter:

“The place is almost unrecognisable. Apartments are occupied once again. Hallways, kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems are refurbished; lobbies opened up with big windows; a floodwall installed; the landscaping upgraded, with a broad promenade to the beach; and leaky facades clad with new, waterproof, energy-efficient panels. Energy bills have dropped 30 percent.”

The turnaround is thanks to a partnership between developers, government and the local community. The new owners renovated the estate at a cost of $60m, but avoided having to raise the rents of longstanding tenants through subsidies from the federal government. The improvements raised property values, enabling the developers to rent out vacant apartments at market rates.

Lessons from Long Island

As in London, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in New York City. And – also as in London – subsidised public housing has largely given way to private developments for the super-rich. The New York Times reporter described the changes in his own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, and other parts of New York that were once home to low- and moderate-income residents:

“Now the Village is like a gated playground for runaway wealth. Subsidised apartments all across town are converting to market-rate rentals and condos faster than City Hall can build affordable units or preserve old ones. The city Housing Authority is broke. Its ageing properties face $17 billion in capital repairs.”

Some key factors played a part in the transformation of the Long Island estate:

  • Private development was made possible through tax incentives and other publicly financed programmes
  • The developers consulted a sceptical local community, earning its trust and building consensus
  • On-site management teams maintained oversight of the renovation project
  • Design features to save energy, improve the neighbourhood and enhance quality of life were built into the renovation process

Final thoughts

The $60m price tag for renovating a single estate in New York City suggests that the £140m earmarked for regenerating England’s 100 worst “sink estates” won’t be nearly enough, and may even have been downgraded. A month after the prime minister’s announcement, it emerged that the money set aside for the project will only be available in loan form to private sector developers.

And a warning of how badly off course the prime minister’s plan could go came from The Independent, which highlighted London’s Heygate Estate:

“Formerly one of the largest social housing projects in Europe it was home to thousands, a large number of whom disagreed with its nefarious depiction as problematic sink estate. Widely praised for its green spaces and innovative architectural design, many argued in favour of its refurbishment, but it was nevertheless ‘decanted’ and finally demolished last year to make way for largely private apartments.”

Perhaps addressing the needs of declining housing estates requires a more constructive approach than bringing in the wrecking ball.


Further reading from our blog on housing and regeneration

Learning from “Alcatraz” – the regeneration of the Gorbals
Empty homes…Britain’s wasted resource
Improving the built environment: how to tackle vacant and derelict buildings

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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Rural transport: connecting communities

By Rebecca Jackson

For many people the buses which run through rural towns and villages in the UK are a lifeline.  However, with councils under increasing pressure to reduce costs and deal with significant budget cuts, some communities are being cut off by the loss of local services. A cycle of low passenger numbers, rising costs of running services and a reduction in the frequency of services is hitting rural communities the hardest.

 

Community-wide impact

Often, when rural buses are discussed, it is their role in enabling elderly people to remain active and involved in community life that is emphasised. However, younger people within rural communities are also increasingly feeling the impacts of cuts to services. Such restrictions can influence their social life and can limit their opportunities to find employment.

According to statistics, two-thirds of job-seekers in the UK have no access to a vehicle or cannot drive, meaning that they are reliant on public transport not only to find work but then to travel to and from work each day. But rising costs are putting some off even finding work in the first instance; and with some modern apprenticeships paying less than £130 a week, and the cost of transport  being as much as £100 a week, it is not surprising to see why some don’t think it’s worth it.

Practical solutions

Councils and members of the public will have to come to terms with the fact that there is just less to spend, and transport, in many instances, is not top of the spending agenda (despite generating £5 for every £1 invested for local economies). This is particularly the case when up to 70% of the councils’ already-reduced budget is pre-allocated to fund statutory services. This means that councils and communities have to be smarter with how they spend their money and look at alternative methods to fund and run bus services within rural communities. Potential strategies which have been considered by local authorities already are:

  • Focusing on key routes and securing funding for them
  • Putting routes out to tender for private firms to run (although they tend to only take on the most profitable routes, leaving people even more isolated – of the 56 million miles which have been lost in rural bus services, only 13 million miles of that has subsequently been taken up and run by private bus companies)
  • Increasing fares, which has its limitations due to the number of bus users who are exempt from paying fares through the use of a concessions card.
  • Providing an on demand mini bus service which only runs and stops when required
  • Promoting or supporting the creation of a community bus service

Digital solutions

In addition to this, despite funding difficulties, advances in digital transportation technology are making rural routes more and more accessible and cheaper to run in the long term. The proposed roll out of contactless technology by 2020, described by the Transport Secretary as the “smart ticketing revolution”, is helping to build a modern, affordable transport network that provides better, more cost efficient journeys for bus users. It is possible that this can be used in rural areas to promote the remaining bus services, and increase their accessibility to all users. The long term savings made by going “contactless” could then be reinvested into routes.

Real-time passenger information provided by companies like Cloud Amber can be another particularly effective solution for increasing passenger usage in rural areas where buses are less frequent. This increases passenger confidence that a bus is on its way and therefore use increases, leading to a more robust service requiring fewer subsidies.

There is a recognition that bus services in rural communities can have a positive environmental and economic impact. Effective saving without cutting services may be possible, whether that is through: long term strategic or community based planning; flexible services, able to integrate digital technology to drive passenger use; or the development of services and routes which are robust enough to run on reduced funding.

Final thoughts

The effect of transport cuts on rural communities shows us that transport is about more than vehicles and logistics; it is about connections: allowing people to form and maintain them; allowing communities to be sustainable and to grow; giving young people the chance to maximize potential; enabling older people to remain engaged and active, with a reduced risk of social isolation. Potential solutions are available and councils now faced with reduced funding will have to consider the best of these options for their local areas.


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Health Champions – “unlocking the power of communities”

Health Cubes_iStock_000022075266Large

By Heather Cameron

“On the societal level, we must understand that health is not an individual outcome, but arises from social cohesion, community ties, and mutual support.” Dr Gabor Maté

Health inequalities have long been an issue in the UK and despite continuous government commitment to tackling them, they continue to persist.

It is estimated that avoidable illness costs around £60 billion and that 1 in 4 deaths are preventable with the adoption of healthier lifestyles. Calls have therefore been made for radical changes in the approach to public health by improving health and wellbeing outside of the core public health workforce.

This is just the approach of the Community Health Champion model, developed by Altogether Better, which has demonstrated not only the positive impact on health but the social value of such an approach.

What are health champions?

Health Champions are volunteers from all walks of life who are provided with accredited training and support so they can undertake health promotion activities within their communities to reduce health inequalities and improve the health of the local population.

The Community Health Champion role began as a five year Big Lottery Funded programme (Wellbeing 1) in 2008. Over 18,000 Health Champions were recruited, trained and supported between 2008 and 2012, reaching over 105,000 people.

Through a combination of their training and own personal experiences, these volunteers empower and encourage people within their families, communities and workplaces to take up healthy activities, create groups to meet local needs and can signpost people to relevant support and services.

Challenges

While Wellbeing 1 succeeded in reaching many people in need, the programme also raised two specific challenges: in almost all cases, the work being done was invisible to the NHS; and securing ongoing funding to continue the support was difficult.

Peer support was later identified as the most appropriate way of trying to connect communities with health services.

Following this recognition and the success of the original model, further lottery funding was awarded to develop the Champion model and use it to engage champions, communities and health services (Wellbeing 2).

Co-production of health and wellbeing outcomes

The model was applied to health services specifically with the aim of addressing the apparent disconnect between the NHS and community-based services. It helps connect both patients with support in their communities and professional practices with those communities.

Many citizens have volunteered in different ways and in different settings. These include:

  • Practice Health Champions working closely with their General Practice to create new ways for patients to access non-clinical support
  • Youth Health Champions where children and young people are recruited, trained and supported to help young people more actively engage with and influence their own and their community’s health
  • Pregnancy and early years Health Champions who are interested in giving children a better start
  • Health Champions working within a specialist, hospital-based NHS service
  • Senior Health Champions who engage with older people, offering a complimentary approach to more formal programmes

Community-based health improvement initiatives such as this could help to strengthen community-professional partnerships and cross-collaboration among health, social and other services. And this in turn could lead to a reduction in health inequalities.

Positive outcomes

According to a recent evaluation of the Health Champions programme, Wellbeing 2 has resulted in a range of benefits:

  • 86% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme reported increased levels of confidence and well-being;
  • 87% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme acquired significant new knowledge related to health and well-being;
  • 98% of champions and 99% of participants in the programme reported increased involvement in social activities and social groups;
  • 95% of practice staff involved with the programme would recommend it and wish to continue.

Other benefits included reduced social isolation, increased levels of exercise/healthy eating and feeling physically better. One champion reported “this has helped me more than any medication might.”

Success stories  include the work of a cycle champion who has improved her own health and wellbeing, encouraged over 70 other people to improve theirs through taking up cycling, provided cycle training to over 50 people in 6 community groups and provided specific detailed help to 5 people.

Other successes have involved volunteers setting up football training, providing support to women with mental health issues, providing advice and support to ethnic minorities and providing advice on healthy eating.

In terms of monetary value, an  analysis of the social return on investment (SROI) of a series of Altogether Better project beneficiaries found a positive SROI of between £0.79 and £112.42 for every pound invested, highlighting the potential value of these initiatives to funders.

Final thoughts

At a time of increasing demands on health services and with the relentless squeeze on public sector resources, perhaps the move towards greater community empowerment and collaboration across sectors is the right one. After all, as I’m sure we’d all agree, prevention is better than cure.


If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s earlier post on social prescribing

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The local prevention of terrorism

by Steven McGinty

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris there has been a renewed focus on preventing terrorism.  On a national level, the UK government has increased the defence budget by an extra £12 billion, and is expected to hold a vote on airstrikes in Syria. More locally, there has been fierce debate about looming police cuts, with the Muslim Council of Britain suggesting that it could harm trust with communities.

At the Knowledge Exchange, we recently received an Ask-a-Researcher request for information on the role and importance of local partners within the counter-terrorism and extremist space. We provided the member with a number of resources to support their work; but there was one that stood out.

Essential resource

The book was ‘The Local Prevention of Terrorism: Strategy and Practice in the Fight Against Terrorism by Joshua J. Skoczylis, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Lincoln, UK. It was published in September 2015 and appears to be a vital resource for UK policymakers and academics.

The book explores the UK government’s Prevent policy, a key strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) that focuses on stopping people becoming or supporting terrorism, as well as examining its impact on local communities.

Concepts and tensions affecting Prevent

In chapter 2, the key concepts are analysed that underpin CONTEST, and in particular the Prevent policy.  This involves looking at the idea of prevention, the relationship between Prevent and policing, and the relationship between communities and CONTEST.

An interesting point raised is that the narrative of CONTEST provides a powerful basis for which policies are based on. There is a critique of the phrase ‘international terrorism’ (often used in government strategies), with the author suggesting that the lines between international and local have been blurred, with terrorist attacks being carried out by local residents.

Prevent – an innovative counter terrorism strategy

One of the main arguments put forward is that the Prevent policy is an innovative approach to counter-terrorism. The author explains that Prevent occupies the ‘space somewhere in the middle, between extremism and violent extremism’. In essence, this space provides an area for honest engagement within communities, free from the security and intelligence community. This space allows local actors to be involved in the debate, including local authorities and Muslim organisations.

Delivering Prevent to Maybury Council

In the final chapters, the book reflects on Prevent’s impact on Maybury, a mill town in the north of England. Since 2007, several Prevent programmes have been delivered in the area, including Channel, an early intervention programme for young people vulnerable to be drawn into terrorism. Although, the majority have focused on community cohesion and awareness raising.

The book also discusses the findings of a report commissioned by Maybury Council into the Prevent policy. It highlights that the Prevent programme has been viewed as ‘divisive’ and has alienated members of the community that local agencies need to engage with. In particular, it suggests that focusing solely on Muslim communities, using surveillance measures, only breeds distrust.

The report also highlights the tension that exists between the national and the local delivery of Prevent. It explains however that Maybury Council have adapted their own policy to address local needs; although it’s noted that this may change as the government have introduced a more centralised administration process for Prevent funds.

Conclusions

At the end of the book, the author comes to several conclusions about the local delivery of Prevent. One of the main conclusions is that evaluation is crucial for establishing what policies and programmes are successful. It is important that an evidence base is developed and that good practice is shared amongst practitioners.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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The Govanhill Baths: a successful example of community-led regeneration

A run-down looking sign for the Govanhill Baths.

Image by Laura via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty,

In September, the Govanhill Baths Community Trust (GHBT) was given £1.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The funding will enable the Trust to begin the refurbishment of the Govanhill Baths, including the ‘Ladies’ pool’, the ’Teaching Pool’ and the Turkish baths and sauna.

The Trust’s chair, Alan Walsh, highlighted that this was a ‘breakthrough’ moment, explaining that:

This award means that we can finally confirm the long term future of the project and begin work soon that will realise the aims of our 14 year fight to bring swimming back to Govanhill.”

History of the Govanhill Baths

The fight, referred to by the Trust’s chair, started back in 2001 with the high-profile campaign to save the Govanhill Baths. At that time, Glasgow City Council had indicated that £750,000 worth of refurbishments were required to keep the Baths open. However, they argued that there was no economic case as too few people used the Baths. And although these statistics were disputed, the Baths were eventually closed in 2001.

The impact of closure

In 2009, research was carried out into the impact of the closure on black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. The Govanhill area has a higher than average BME population (approximately 34.9%), therefore addressing social exclusion is a priority for the area. The research found that:

  • Older people were negatively affected by the closure as they found it difficult to access other swimming pools.  This occurred because of a lack of local transport to the Gorbals Swimming Pool (nearest alternative); fear over gangs and safety; and the cost of travelling.
  • Very few women went to the Gorbals Swimming Pool. The majority of women noted that it was difficult to find ladies’ swimming nights.
  • The Baths building had become derelict and vandalised.
  • The majority of people, including a police officer, felt that anti-social behaviour in the area had increased. One of the main reasons cited was a lack of activities and facilities, particularly for children and young people.

Govanhill Baths Community Trust ‘in the community’

In 2005, the Govanhill Baths officially became a charitable trust. The aim of the organisation was to:

…re-open the baths as a Wellbeing Centre and at the same time contribute to the wider social, cultural and built regeneration of Govanhill as a community through a range of activities.

Over the years, the Trust has worked in collaboration with a number of statutory and voluntary sector partners, including the Govanhill Baths Advice Centre, Govanhill Housing Association and Development Trust, and Historic Scotland.

At present, the Trust runs a variety of community-based wellbeing activities and educational and training courses, primarily aimed at the residents of Govanhill. These include:

  • Govanhill Baths Art – which includes using art to campaign, but also to improve the health and wellbeing of the community.
  • Rags to Riches – an award winning upcycling project, which reuses materials creatively to create products of a higher value. The project provides workspace and educational programmes in topics such as dressmaking, bookbinding, and home furnishing.
  • The Emporium – a charity shop which opened in 2011.

The impact of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust

An evaluation of Rags to Riches has shown the project to be a great success. It has brought a number of benefits to participants and the wider community, including:

  • Providing high-quality apparel that can be sold to generate income for the Trust.
  • Developing the abilities of participants and providing them with a sense of enjoyment.
  • Increasing the Trust’s involvement with other community groups and participating in local events. This has enhanced the reputation of the Trust within the local community.
  • Supporting community integration – for instance, after the event, most of the participants have kept in touch.

The Govanhill Grub programme, based in the GBCT kitchen, has proved to be successful at supporting a wide range of people in cooking healthy, affordable meals. It’s been particularly effective at bringing different members of the community together, and engaging women living in hostel accommodation or who have just moved into their own tenancy, as well as older men who live alone.

Final thoughts?

The GBCT is a great example of a community-led organisation. Although without its historic Baths, the community has been able to lead the way in delivering services to the people of Govanhill, the Trust has been able to move away from simply being a campaign group to becoming an important community asset.  Hopefully, with this latest announcement of funding, the Trust will be able to reopen the Baths, and continue to be a positive force in the community of Govanhill.


 

Further reading:

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like to read James Carson’s post on regeneration in Glasgow’s Gorbals district

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