1. Environmental
September 7, 2017

Migrants don’t undermine communities – and four other lessons from the best planning research

By Mike Harris

Academic researchers are often accused of not providing useful answers to real-world problems – but the projects that won the Royal Town Planning Institute research awards this week offer many interesting insights into topical issues. Here are five things we learnt.

Migrants don’t undermine communities – poor housing policy does

Immigration has become a thorny issue in many western nations and came to a fore in last year’s Brexit and Trump victories. Many reasons why communities do not welcome migrants have been put forward – xenophobia, pressure on local services, gradual loss of a share sense of community, to name but a few.

But a study by Dr Zheng Wang and colleagues from the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London on the impact of internal migration on neighbourhoods in Shanghai reveals something different.

Based on a survey of hundreds of households, the study finds that older and poorer neighbourhoods where migrants tend to settle can have low levels of social cohesion – but this is because these neighbourhoods are often targets for redevelopment. In other words, insecurity among residents about displacement predates the influx of migrants.

Indeed, neighbourhoods that have a longer history of welcoming migrants have higher levels of cohesion, and those neighbourhoods with the most migrants are also the most cohesive.

The researchers suggest that redevelopment needs to prioritise the attachment to place that existing residents have, and avoid rampant demolition. Perhaps that’s a useful lesson for the UK as well.

We can build more affordable homes – but we need to be realistic about just how long it takes

With planning permissions consistently on the up but number of houses still way too low to meet demand, many are asking: what is stopping the homes we need from getting built? Planning consultancy Lichfields has examined the data for 70 sites outside London across England and Wales to identify how quickly they can deliver, and what is stopping them.

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Contrary to assumptions, the viability of affordable housing is not necessarily a barrier. Indeed, affordable housing supports higher rates of delivery – a 40 per cent increase in the annual build rate for large sites that deliver 30 per cent or more affordable housing, compared to those delivering much less.

One explanation is that affordable housing meets a different type of demand (it doesn’t undermine private market demand), and having an immediate purchaser of multiple properties (say a Registered Social Landlord) can provide cash flow and reduce risk for developers.

Large sites, while being able to deliver more homes per year over a longer time period and reduce pressure on undesirable piecemeal developments, also take longer to get going. Local authorities need to recognise this, for example, by allocating more sites with a good mix of types and sizes, and being realistic about how fast they will deliver so that consistent supply is maintained over time.

Physical space matters to the digital economy

This one comes from a study into Shoreditch’s ‘Tech City’ in East London by Juliana Martins from the Bartlett School of Planning at UCL. It reveals that, while their portfolios may be virtual, digital workers value the office, other workspaces and events (collectively, ‘extended workplaces’) for their critical role in fostering interaction and collaboration. These interactions are especially important for fluid, constantly evolving technology-based industries.

Martins’ work shows that planners and others need to go beyond the clichés if they are going to create the conditions for the creative economy. Rather than a superficial sense on how creatives like to consume (for example, coffee shops), planners need to focus on how the industries they are part of like to produce and behave as a social group, for example their tendency to seek ways to create exclusivity and build shared identity – think member-only workspaces, access to secret gigs and so on.

Cities trying to attract these industries need to ensure adequate supply of physical brick and mortar space, but also need to beware of the potential social divisions they can create.

Big data is resetting traditional geographical boundaries

Mega-regions have long been understood in geography as cities connected by their economies and infrastructure. But does this way conglomerating places really reflect what is happening on the ground?

Alasdair Rae from Sheffield University and Garrett Nelson from Dartmouth College have used five years’ worth of commuting data to create nothing less than a new economic geography of the United States.

Mmmm, maps. 

By exploiting very large datasets – in this case the daily work journeys of more than 130m Americans – for the first time the researchers have identified commuter-based mega-regions in a way that is much more useful for, say, deciding where to invest in regional transport connections.

One implication of the research is that familiar boundaries – such as cities and state lines – are less significant than we tend think, and new connections are identified more easily. For example, Florida is split into three areas: the (northern) panhandle is really part of the Alabama mega-region, central Florida is a separate region, while south Florida (centred on Miami) is effectively an entirely different economy.

The better that policymakers and planners can understand how places really work, the better they can plan for them of course, including infrastructure, transportation and even the geography of elections.

E-bikes could get more older people cycling

Nearly one in ten journeys taken by older people in Germany are by bike. In the UK, it’s only one in a hundred. Cycling could make an important contribution to active ageing, good health and prolonged independence for older people. So how can we get them cycle, and keep them cycling?

A project led by Tim Jones at Oxford Brookes University shows that alongside cycling training and better street design (which older people should be consulted on), electric bicycles can reduce the fear of difficult junctions and hills, and can have huge impact in increasing uptake of cycling among older people.

No solution was presented for dealing with unpredictable British weather.

Dr Mike Harris is head of research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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