Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference is a ‘huge success’

SPEL Conference 2018 banner

Last week, we welcomed delegates and speakers to the 2018 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) conference in Edinburgh, sponsored by Terra Firma Chambers.

Delegates and speakers came from organisations across Scotland to discuss and debate the current state and future opportunities for planning and environmental law in Scotland.

Should we just scrap planning altogether?

The conference was kicked off in typically thought provoking style by Greg Lloyd, Professor Emeritus at Ulster University, and visiting professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Professor Lloyd delivered this year’s keynote and took the opportunity to challenge delegates and other speakers to consider what might happen if the current planning system were to be abolished altogether, to clear the way for a new and more fit-for-purpose planning system.

The creation of a new way of planning has, Professor Lloyd argued, the potential to better align community needs and other areas of policy like land and taxation, as well as creating opportunities for a more functional system, not as bogged down in process, where communities can come together to help make decisions about planning in their local area.

This “utopian vision of the future of planning” could potentially allow planning to ‘catch up’ with other services given that currently it is a 1950s model which has been shaped and adapted to allow us to “get by” rather than being reformed to suit new and changing planning needs. This new way, he argued, could be achieved if we are bold enough to take the leap away from the constraints and barriers presented by the “old” system.

Community empowerment and community right to buy: what are the implications for planning law?

Mark Lazarowicz and Pippa Robertson from Terra Firma Chambers and Aurora Planning respectively, navigated delegates through the complex waters of community right-to-buy, with Mark setting the scene and outlining some of the key elements to legislation and policy which have helped to shape community empowerment, including discussions around “relevant authorities”; “subjects of transfer”; and the “activation and implementation of community right-to-buy”. Pippa followed this with a discussion around community empowerment in relation to right-to-buy, and how this can be used to bring land back into active use.

The Planning Bill and funding infrastructure

Archie Rintoul, former chief valuer in Scotland, gave what many found to be a frank and insightful discussion of the issues around infrastructure development. Continuing on a similar theme after lunch, Russell Henderson from RPS explored the role of transport policy, and in particular sustainable transport. In both sessions there was further discussion of the importance of facilitating and accommodating new infrastructure, while recognising the growing responsibility to be aware of environmental factors, in part through the development of sustainable development measures for transport.

Following Russell, Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers outlined the basis for, and the potential implications of, the Landfill Tax Ban, including an exploration of what the Bill may mean for those who work within the waste sector, and the potentially significant environmental impacts that the landfill ban may have when it is introduced in 2021.

The conference also included timely discussion of the progress of the Planning Bill and case law updates from Terra Firma, informing delegates of the latest developments in recent key cases.

Planning’s role in promoting inclusive economic growth

The conference was closed by RSA Scotland’s Lesley Martin who discussed how planning can help to promote inclusive economic growth. She questioned how the implementation and translation of the planning bill into practice will impact on inclusive growth in towns and cities.

Economic growth within places, she argued, can be driven through effective planning, and inclusive planning processes can in turn help to create inclusive economic growth. The planning bill is, she suggested, a symbol and an opportunity to provide an ambitious statement of the potential of wiser policy approaches. Planning is not merely about controlling or enabling development – it is an example of how the way we think and behave more generally impacts on inclusive growth in our towns and cities.

Summing up

This year’s SPEL conference sought to explore some of the wider implications of the Planning Bill for Scottish planning and the environment. By covering a range of topics the conference sought to highlight some of the key challenges and implications that the Bill may pose to the profession and to practice. The speakers were brought together to provide a range of perspectives and to help frame these issues for delegates and raise points for discussion and debate – and there was certainly plenty of that!

We would like to thank our speakers, those who attended and our sponsors, and hope to see you all next year!


We publish Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal every two months. More information on the journal and how to subscribe is available here.

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Unlocking the potential of smart cities: All-Party Parliamentary Group calls for coherent UK Government strategy

Hong Kong city

By Steven McGinty

The role of smart cities is not to create a society of automation and alienation, but to bring communities together”. (Iain Stewart MP)

In June, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities published a report outlining the findings of its recent inquiry into how the UK Government can support the expansion of smart cities and enable the UK to become a world leader in the field.

It explains that although some people have concerns that smart cities are expensive gimmicks, or even something more sinister, the potential in becoming smarter could have a tremendous impact on the lives of citizens.  And ‘smart’, the report makes clear is not just about clever technologies, but any innovative approach or solution that brings together industries or government departments to solve everyday problems.

Included in the report are the number of ways smart approaches can improve city life, such as:

  • Making cities accessible for all – improving the design process can ensure that people with physical disabilities are not prevented from enjoying the public spaces.
  • Empowering citizens in democracy – new technologies can give citizens a voice by connecting them with each other, as well as those running services or those making decisions.
  • Reducing the strain on our health service – providing citizens with access to their own health records can encourage greater responsibility for their own healthcare.
  • A more efficient, flexible transport system – improving transport information can help citizens plan journeys and smart ticketing options can allow citizens to travel easily between transport services.
  • Creating a cleaner environment and enhancing air quality – smart technologies can help address environmental challenges, such as improving traffic flow to help limit harmful emissions in congested areas.

If cities are looking for a blueprint to success, there have been numerous smart city initiatives introduced across the world. For example, the report highlights how the Scottish Cities Alliance, a joint initiative between Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling) and the Scottish Government, is encouraging collaboration and the take-up of technologies designed to improve air quality, traffic flow and cut pollution.

There’s also two examples from further afield. Estonia, which is widely recognised as a smart city leader, is viewed as an example of best practice in data sharing. The country provides citizens with control over their data by providing easy access to their education, medical and employment records through an online portal (with the option to request changes). And in Singapore, the “Smart Nation” initiative has become known for its use of a coordinating body to provide leadership to their smart cities agenda.

In concluding the report, The APPG make a series of recommendations to effectively drive forward the smart cities agenda. This includes:

  • encouraging the promotion of a smart culture;
  • convening smart standards and data; and
  • promoting the UK’s smart city expertise overseas.

In particular, a number of interesting points are raised about how to promote a smart culture, from ensuring smart city initiatives focus on the outcomes for citizens to putting collaboration with other cities (and the sharing of best practice) before any form of competition.

Iain Stewart MP, chairman of the APPG on Smart Cities, summarises the report’s main message, as well as calling for the UK Government to create a strategy. He argues:

A coherent strategy from central government is needed to ensure a joined-up approach between businesses and those who work most closely with and on behalf of their citizens – local government. By fully embracing the smart cities approach, central government can empower local authorities to show ordinary people how smart can positively impact on their everyday lives.”


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Planning to protect: how architects and urban planners are balancing security with accessibility

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

 “In high profile buildings or crowded places that may be attractive targets for terrorists, the challenge for designers is to incorporate counter-terrorism measures into their buildings and public spaces whilst maintaining quality of place.” RIBA guidance on designing for counter-terrorism

In recent years, terrorist attacks in London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona and Nice have heightened concerns about the safety of living in and travelling to cities in Europe and North America. In many of these attacks, cars or trucks have been driven at high speed into crowded streets with the aim of causing the maximum number of casualties. While such attacks remain relatively rare, planning authorities are now working on methods to deter and thwart the use of vehicles as weapons in public spaces.

From buildings and infrastructure to “soft targets”

The attacks on London’s transport infrastructure in 2005 and an abortive car bomb attack at Glasgow Airport in 2007 prompted a rethink in the UK about how to protect people from acts of terrorism.  As a result, protective cordons and barriers were installed at government offices, public buildings and transport hubs.

Subsequently – and perhaps as a consequence of the success of these measures – terrorists have changed tactics, focusing their attention on members of the public in crowded city centres. These so-called “soft targets” are harder to protect, partly because of the scale of defences that would be required, but mostly because city authorities want to retain the open and accessible nature of places which are most attractive to shoppers, tourists and businesses.

Approaches to protection

Guidance issued by the Home Office in 2012 explains how public authorities, communities and the private sector can mitigate terrorism risks by physical, technical and procedural measures, such as speed gates, barrier systems, closed-circuit television cameras and sufficient stand-off distance between vehicles and buildings. Similar guidance has been adopted in the United States, and most recently in Australia, which has also developed a self-assessment tool to help owners and managers of public spaces to assess their own risk.

Safer places with style

The challenges presented by terrorist attacks have prompted urban planners and architects to think again about how to protect the public without creating forbidding strongholds.

A successful example of an innovative approach can be found in New York City’s financial district. Home not only to the New York Stock Exchange, but to museums, shops and waterfront entertainment attractions, this part of the city is a vibrant area that brings together many people from different walks of life.

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

It’s this widespread appeal which makes the financial district a potential target for terrorism, and which presented Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers with the challenge of ensuring its security while retaining the positive aspects of the area.

Working with stakeholders, city agencies, and law enforcement officials, the architects came up with an innovative concept that includes sculptural barriers which play a dual role of seating and security. These “NOGO” installations quickly won over pedestrians and were widely applauded in the media. The Chicago Tribune was noted that the NOGO’s bronze surfaces:

“…echo the grand doorways of Wall Street’s temples of commerce. Pedestrians easily slip through groups of them as they make their way onto Wall Street from the area around historic Trinity Church. Cars, however, cannot pass.”

Closer to home, the National Assembly for Wales has also adopted counter-terrorism measures to protect the people who work in and visit this major public building. The architects have taken advantage of the public plaza around the building to achieve sufficient stand-off through landscaping. In addition, staircases and reinforced street furniture contribute to the protective facilities without turning the building into a fortress.

Secure and liveable public spaces

“Barbed wire and concrete barriers may be effective, but they make city dwellers feel like they are living in a war zone.”
A Green Living

Urban planners have a fine line to tread between making people feel comfortable in public spaces while ensuring their safety. Concrete barriers may be effective, but if they make residents and visitors fearful, they are more likely to drive them away. And since that is what terrorists are aiming to achieve, it’s all the more important to get the balance right.


Our thanks to Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers in New York City for supplying the information and photographs concerning the streetscapes and security project in the financial district.

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Berlin Brandenburg: the airport that failed to take off

The UK has had its fair share of landmark construction projects that struggled to reach their completion targets and suffered from soaring costs. Wembley Stadium, Edinburgh’s tram network, and the Scottish Parliament are just some examples of major projects affected by delays and cost over-runs.

But the significant problems affecting these sites appear minor in comparison with the seemingly never-ending story of Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport. It has become a copybook example of flawed project management, and dented Germany’s reputation for efficiency and engineering excellence.

 The economic importance of airports

Once regarded alternately as glamorous gateways or noisy nuisances, these days it’s hard to overstate the significance of airports, not only to their locality, but to national economies.

In 2015, a study found that European airports and associated aviation activity create and facilitate a total of almost 12.5 million jobs, or 675 billion euro in gross domestic product (GDP) each year (that’s just over 4% of the entire European economy). The report noted that, aside from the economic importance of the aviation sector, wider economic activities are facilitated and supported by the connectivity that airports deliver:

“Tourists can spend money in previously unreachable locations. Businesses can produce goods to be consumed in far corners of the world. Investors can set up new offices, call centres and factories exactly where they are needed.”

In the UK, Heathrow Airport has been estimated to support 120,000 jobs and contributes £6.2 billion to the national economy, while Manchester Airport contributes £1.7bn each year to the North West’s economy.

At the same time, delays to the development of airports can have significant negative impacts on economic competitiveness.  The CBI has warned that uncertainty surrounding the construction of a new runway at Heathrow could cost the UK more than £30bn by 2030.

A new airport for a reunited city

Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) was supposed to be one of the symbols of the reunited German capital. First announced in 2006, it was intended to replace Berlin’s existing smaller airports – Tempelhof, Tegel and Schönefeld – and to handle a projected 20 million annual passengers.

But, almost from the start, the project ran into difficulties. Property speculators learned of the planned acquisition of new land by the airport authority, bought up the properties and drove up the price. As one observer noted: “The airport corporation was half a billion euros in debt before ground had even been broken.”

As the project grew, so too did the problems. The 2008 global financial crisis meant banks were reluctant to issue loans for the new airport, and private investors backed out. The planned 2011 opening of BER was pushed back to the following year.

Growing faults, soaring costs

In the spring of 2012, all seemed set for BER’s grand opening, with Chancellor Angela Merkel and 10,000 guests invited to attend. But with just a few days’ notice, the inauguration was cancelled due to a fault with fire alarms and smoke extractors.

Hundreds of staff hired by shops for the new airport had to be let go, and airlines that had moved baggage handling facilities to BER had to move them back to Tegel – their claims for damages adding further to the spiralling costs.

The cost overrun of the extraction system added half a billion euro to the budget, and noise protection demanded by nearby residents another 600 million euro. But this was just the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg.

Hans Brandt, in a report for Deutsche Welle has described the growing list of faults with BER:

“90km of electrical cables were incorrectly installed; all 4000 doors were incorrectly numbered; the escalators were too short; the planner-in-chief was not an engineer, but an imposter; and, last but not least, the emergency line to the fire department was not installed.”

The flight not now departing…

Further scheduled opening dates – May 2013, March 2013, October 2013 – have come and gone. Gone too are some of the key figures involved in the project, including Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, whose high-profile role in the project sank his chances of challenging Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany. Last year, the airport’s spokesman was fired after claiming in a newspaper interview that “no one, unless he is addicted to drugs, will give you any fixed guarantees for this airport.”

The most unsurprising announcement of 2017 came in January, when BER’s project chief confirmed that the airport would not open this year – the latest hold-up: faulty wiring for 1200 doors.

In the meantime, Berlin’s popularity as a tourist and conference destination has reached stratospheric heights. Tempelhof Airport closed in 2008, but last year Tegel and Schönefeld airports handled over 30 million passengers, higher than any recorded for a single year. As a result, it’s now claimed that on the day that BER finally opens, it will already be under capacity, and will have to be extended.

Capacity problems have prompted many to call for Tegel Airport to remain open after BER eventually becomes operational. Last month, a non-binding referendum saw a majority of Berliners voting in favour of retaining Tegel. However, the airport and city authorities continue to insist that Tegel will be turned into a business park once BER opens.

A byword for ineptitude

As things stand, there is still no firm opening date for BER, and the initial cost estimate of around 2 billion euro has reached nearly 6.5 billion euro.

It’s not unknown for major projects to bounce back from failure:

  • The Scottish Parliament – three years late and ten times over budget – is now a working legislature and has won awards for its architecture, including the prestigious RIBA Stirling prize for the best building in the UK.
  • Wembley Stadium opened in 2007, after years of delay and tripling its cost. But in 2015-16 the venue posted record revenue of £370 million.
  • The Millennium Dome in London, which spent much of its early years being ridiculed as a waste of public money, is today a world-class entertainment venue.

On the other hand, Berlin’s airport authorities might be looking nervously at the experience of Montreal’s Mirabel Airport. Designed to replace the existing Dorval airport that was nearing capacity in 1975, Mirabel never managed to win the support of travellers. In the 1990s, Dorval was reopened to international traffic, while Mirabel was abandoned and eventually demolished.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the BER fiasco that perhaps it would be easier for future project managers to study BER’s entire experience as a model for how not to build an airport.

The German word for ineptitude is unbeholfenheit. But, until Berlin Brandenburg Airport is finally operational, perhaps “BER” can be used as shorthand for any major project that fails to get off the ground.


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Highlights of the SPEL conference 2017

This year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference, held in Edinburgh’s COSLA building, focused on Anticipating and preparing for change and covered a range of topics from the impact of Brexit on planning and environmental law in Scotland to how planning and planners can help tackle the growing housing crisis. Delegates were given the opportunity to reflect on the challenges for planning and environmental law in Scotland as well as the great opportunities the next few years may present to the profession.

Bringing the planning profession together

The conference provided an opportunity for professionals from across the planning and law professions to come together to discuss some of the key challenges to their profession going forward. While Brexit was high on the list of discussion topics, the possibilities for reform, and the opportunities for practitioners to learn and share their experiences and knowledge with one another, for what is now the 26th year of SPEL, continued to be at the heart of the conference discussions.

Is planning fit for purpose?

Chaired by Stuart Gale QC, from event sponsors Terra Firma Chambers, the conference was opened by Greg Lloyd who addressed the issue of the “distinctiveness” of the Scottish planning system, asking the question, “Is planning fit for purpose?” In the context of Brexit and with the benefit of years of planning knowledge, Greg discussed the performance of planning and how its modernisation is equipping planners to deal with challenges in the future.

The Rt. Hon Brian Wilson, former UK energy minister, spoke next on the challenges energy targets are posing not only for environmental lawyers and practitioners but also for planners. He discussed how the drive to achieve energy targets both in renewable and traditional energy generation needs to be tackled as much by planners as environmentalists and politicians. He also highlighted the need to meet the growing demand for energy by helping to reduce energy use and tackle wider socioeconomic issues relating to energy in Scotland.

Brexit – the impact on planning

The morning session was brought to a close firstly by Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers who spoke about the intricacies, expectations, challenges and potential opportunities for environmental law and practitioners in Scotland following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. She highlighted the importance of ensuring that the essential elements of environmental law are retained within any future UK or Scottish legislation and that a system is created which provides an opportunity for robust scrutiny and maintenance of standards, specifically in relation to the consistency of application. She also discussed some of the ways in which existing principles and policies can be future proofed. Following on from Laura, Robert Sutherland gave an overview of recent developments in community right to buy in Scotland.

The morning session also included a case law roundup which reviewed and discussed recent significant cases including: RSPB vs Scottish Ministers (2017); Douglas vs Perth and Kinross Council (2017); and Wildland ltd vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

Delivering new housing

The afternoon opened with a panel session, where speakers tackled the million-dollar question of whether planning reform will assist in the delivery of new homes to help tackle the growing housing crisis. Speakers from Renfrewshire council, the University of Glasgow, house builder Taylor Wimpey, and Rettie & Co. discussed a range of topics from barriers to the delivery of homes and infrastructure, to the setting of national housebuilding targets, as well as the challenge of building the right sort of housing, in the right place at the right cost, and the role of local authorities in meeting housing need.

The afternoon session included a second case law roundup which saw review and discussion of recent significant cases including: Taylor Wimpey vs Scottish Ministers (2016); Angus Estates (Carnoustie) LLP vs Angus Kinross Council (2017); and Hopkins Homes Ltd. vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

The role of planning in driving inclusive growth

The conference was closed by self-professed “economic agitator” Ross Martin, who discussed the role of planning more widely within Scotland’s economy and its role as an agent for driving inclusive growth. He stressed the need for planners and other related professionals to look at the “bigger picture” when it comes to planning, using the system as the engine for growth and development, rather than as a barrier, and challenged those in the room to think creatively about how planning can play a role in strategic, but inclusive growth in Scotland going forward.

Some of the key points of discussion to come out of the conference were:

  • Planners, and planning lawyers need to recognise the importance of the wider social and economic context on their decision making, even if that decision only relates to one single building
  • Brexit is providing a lot of uncertainty and raising a lot of questions about the future of planning and environmental law in Scotland and the UK as a whole, but it may provide an opportunity for practitioners to take the lead and shape the system in a way that better suits current needs
  • There is scope and appetite, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, to create a specialist planning and environmental law court to help scrutinise decisions and fill the void left by the EU in terms of accountability and implementation of environmental law, practice and strategy going forward

SPEL Journal is a bi- monthly journal published by the Idox Information Service. The journal is unique in covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. Each issue contains articles on new legislation, significant court cases, expert comment on key planning appeals, government circulars and guidance, ombudsman cases and book reviews. SPEL deals with matters of practical concern to practitioners both in the public and private sector. Please contact Christine Eccleson at christine.eccleson@idoxgroup.com if you are interested in learning more about the journal or our subscription rates.

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Designing for positive behaviours

St Paul's Cathedral, London, England

By Heather Cameron

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill, 1943

This much borrowed saying from the former prime minister was made during the 1943 debate over the rebuilding of the House of Commons following its bombing during the Blitz. Although many were in favour of expanding the building to accommodate the greater number of MPs, Churchill insisted he would like it restored to its old form, convenience and dignity. He believed that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, it has since been widely acknowledged that the built environment has a direct impact on the way we live and work, thus affecting our health, wellbeing and productivity. A new report from the Design Commission, which opens with Churchill’s statement, is described as “a very valuable contribution” to the debate on how the design of the built environment can influence the way people think and behave, “making a healthier, happier and more prosperous and sustainable country”.

Impact of design

The report, which follows a year-long inquiry, is described as providing “solid evidence in difficult areas” on what it is in the built environment that makes people’s lives better. Evidence was gathered on four specific areas believed to be the most important to national policy:

  • health and wellbeing
  • environmental sustainability
  • social cohesion
  • innovation and productivity

It is suggested that design acts at two levels: it can affect individual choices of behaviour, which can then affect health and sustainability; and it can affect the way people are brought together or kept apart, which can then affect communication and creativity, or social cohesion.

The inquiry therefore looked into how people’s behaviour, health and wellbeing are affected by their surroundings; the role design can play in encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviours; the role design can play in social cohesion through its effects on creating or inhibiting co-presence in space; and how the design of work environments can drive innovation and improve efficiency, therefore tackling the current ‘productivity crisis’.

The evidence

The evidence highlights the built environment as “a major contributing factor to public health”. A range of public health issues, including air pollution and obesity, were suggested to be directly linked to factors within the built environment. Other recent research has similarly highlighted this link between health and urban design.

Evidence of the potential for design to positively influence sustainability behaviours, such as greater cycling and walking activity, was also highlighted, with New York cited as a good practice example.

Providing evidence on social cohesion, a senior university lecturer stated that “to divorce the physical from the social environment is inappropriate”. Other submissions referred to the “alienating effects” of various aspects of modern corporate life on civic participation, including estate management, crime and safety, the perceived negative impacts of poorly-conceived urban planning and poor or no maintenance.

Well-designed places, on the other hand, are suggested to improve access and facilitate social cohesion. Nevertheless, the evidence also noted that regardless of how well designed a place may be, “neglecting its aftercare will lead to antisocial behaviour and environmental damage.”

The relationship between the built environment and productive behaviours is supported by substantial evidence, according to the report. In the context of the UK, a lack of access to daylight and fresh air is cited as a reason for offices failing to get the best out of their workers. One study cited, indicated an increase in levels of both wellbeing and productivity in office environments with so-called ‘natural elements’.

Policy – “muddled and fragmented”

While there is evidence of good practice throughout the UK, a principal argument from the report is that more needs to be done.

Policy making for the built environment has traditionally been “muddled and fragmented”, according to the report. It suggests that there is a lack of understanding of the significance of the influence of the built environment on behaviour among policy makers at all levels and therefore makes recommendations for central government, local government and the private sector.

It argues that the relationship between government and local authorities requires reconsideration, calling for greater power at local government level.

Despite encouraging steps with regard to devolution in positively impacting behaviour and quality outcomes, such as in London, it is suggested that more can be done in terms of better collaboration between all stakeholders.

It is also noted that as national policy will be now be conducted in the context of Brexit, adaptation of the regulatory regime will be required.

Final thoughts

The key message from the Design Commission’s inquiry is evidently that the design of the built environment is particularly important in the context of current challenging times for the UK:

 “The way we design our built environment could be one of our greatest strengths in navigating the course ahead… If we get this right, we can build a Britain that is healthier, happier and more productive.”


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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:

Graduate ‘brain drain’ – is regional economic growth the solution?

college graduates groupBy Heather Cameron

With the economic performance of cities and regions increasingly reliant on the skills of their workforce, the longstanding issue of graduate ‘brain drain’ to London and the south is something that needs to be addressed.

Although students attend many of the universities spread across the country, a significant number of graduates flock towards the capital at the end of their studies. According to a recent report from Centre for Cities, this deprives other cities of skilled workers and essentially damages the overall economy.

The evidence

A quarter of all new graduates in 2014 and 2015 were found to have moved to work in London within the six months of finishing their degree. And the highest achievers make up a significant proportion. While London accounts for around 19% of all jobs, of the graduates that moved city six months after graduation London employed 22% of all working new graduates, and 38% of those with a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.

Although most cities experience an overall graduate gain, cities outside London don’t retain the majority of students that move to their city to study – the ‘bouncers’ that drive the brain drain overall, overshadowing any gain:

  • Manchester lost 67% of these students upon graduation;
  • Birmingham lost 76%; and
  • Southampton lost 86%.

Other figures show that 310,000 graduates have left the north in the past decade, contributing to a net average deficit of 7,500 highly qualified workers leaving annually, or 75,500 over a decade.

Northern regions have to some extent offset the effect of local brain drain by attracting enough highly qualified foreign workers to fill the gap. But with reductions in immigration, these regions could be left lacking.

Given the UK’s current position regarding the EU, concerns have also been raised over whether Britain faces a further brain drain of academics to Europe, following Brexit. A recent survey highlighted that 42% of academics said they are more likely to consider leaving Britain after the vote to leave.

Why?

While it may seem plausible to assume that higher salaries are the reason for this brain drain, it appears that the main pull for graduates is the availability of jobs and career progression, which London’s vast labour market offers.

However, as recent research from Homes for the North has identified, these are not the only reasons. It highlights the importance of additional non-work drivers of graduate location decisions, including the cost and quality of housing, quality of local amenities and the prospect of home ownership.

Of the graduates polled, 80% said the quality of housing was important, while more than 60% said the cost of housing was important. The quality of green spaces and local amenities was also deemed important by over 60% of graduates.

What can be done to redress the balance?

There have been numerous graduate retention initiatives at the local and regional level aimed at tackling the uneven distribution of graduates, such as graduate wage subsidies and local graduate job matching.  But it seems little has improved. The Centre for Cities research argues that these alone will not tackle the root cause of the graduate brain drain.

It suggests that cities themselves have a vital role to play in ensuring the local job market offers an appropriate number of graduate job opportunities that will allow them to both retain graduates and attract graduates from elsewhere. Policy should therefore broaden its focus to improve local economies by investing in transport, housing and enterprise, rather than focusing solely on graduate retention and attraction policies.

The chief executive of the Centre for Cities commented that the government’s new economic and industrial strategy should be used to strengthen existing devolution deals for city-regions such as Greater Manchester, extending their scope to grow.

Indeed, the industrial strategy green paper, published in January, clearly places emphasis on addressing the economic imbalances across the UK through a number of measures, such as working with local areas to close the skills gap, including new schemes to support the retention and attraction of graduates. However, the strategy has been criticised for providing little clarity on how regional rebalancing and sectoral deals will work in practice.

Final thoughts

While it appears clear that cities outside London need to improve their graduate offer with better job prospects, the evidence on graduate migration suggests it is more complex than this.

As has been argued, the provision of good quality affordable housing could play a role alongside high-skilled job creation and opportunities. With the cost of living in London so expensive, this would make sense, particularly as the average graduate salary in London is not that much higher than the average across other UK cities.


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Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

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Innovation – just another meaningless buzzword?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Heather Cameron

As one of the trendiest terms of recent times, innovation has become familiar across the business world. But has its excessive use to refer to anything new effectively made the term a meaningless buzzword?

Lack of meaning

Certainly, critics argue that innovation is overvalued by its promoters and that it is what follows innovation that is really important.

An article published in Aeon magazine last year discusses this view. It highlights that over the last decade questions have been raised over the intrinsic value of innovation, citing a number of statements, including:

‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword’

‘Innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

Even a professional innovation consultant interviewed for the Wall Street Journal said he had advised his clients to ban the word at their companies, describing it as just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.

The article suggests that maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the labour that sustains functioning and efficient infrastructures, has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Indeed, an idea can be argued to be of little value on its own.

Meaningless or misinterpreted?

An array of definitions can be found for innovation, perhaps the most widely referred to being that of the OECD:

‘the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations’

The important term here is implementation. Other definitions similarly refer to innovation as the implementation of such things that add value. Therefore innovation isn’t just about the new idea/technology/process, it is about the application of it and the outcomes it achieves.

As a recent blog in the Huffington Post noted, while being ‘new’ matters to the definition of innovation, ‘it is far less important than the description of what’s achieved through innovation’.

With so many definitions, it is hardly surprising that innovation has not only been overused but has often been misused. In particular, it has often been used instead of invention. The difference between these two terms is that an invention is the creation of an idea whereas innovation is an activity or process that adds value.

As the Aeon article suggests, innovation isn’t technology and that highlighting maintenance ‘involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends‘.

Final thoughts

Perhaps the Aeon article’s conclusion sums things up pretty well:

Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

Rather than labelling innovation as meaningless, perhaps it is more accurate to say that innovation means little on its own.


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