Average city futures

(Attention conservation notice: this is a bit of a ramble).

My local (and rather good) listings mag Venue just ran a six page feature on what the future might be like for the Bristol-Bath region. Got me thinking again about how to approach such a question. I guess I didn’t think the actual feature (not online) was that good, though it was certainly readable. That’s not surprising or interesting in itself – I’ve had a two year immersion in the subject while the feature was a week’s work, I’m guessing.

A question then: how to do better? I’m not sure I can, but I can think how one could start to go about it. One thing which struck me was that the whole thing needs a clear global framing for local issues. This is interesting because it is such a hard thing to achieve the connection between these levels. This was local journalism, so the piece had to be about transport, jobs, and so on in the city. And that is the level at which actual futures will be experienced, too. The global framing was there, but mainly restricted to climate change/oil shock – the overridingly important issue for Venue, rightly in my view – and a bit about food.

What more can one say? One thought I’ve come back to a few times in the last few months is that cities the size of Bristol – a bit under a half a million – are incredibly important. Everyone knows the majority of the world is now urban, and the proportion of city dwellers will probably go up to 70 per cent in the next decades. Less widely noted is that at least half of those people live in medium-sized cities of half a million people or less. So cities like this are the future, for a big slice of humanity. They are also pretty diverse, and may well get more so. But it is interesting to think what resources a city this size can bring to bear to help think about its future – and what it can learn from other cities of similar size with different histories, resources, politics, and propensities to experiment.

This one I’m living in seems well placed in some ways in terms of adaptability and inventiveness. Two universities, and lots of other organisations (the Soil Association gets mentioned a lot at this point, but I am not a fan – though it is certainly true that quite a few people in Bristol think about where their food comes from, though I imagine still a minority). There are disadvantages – the mass of old housing stock is one shared with most other British cities, as is flaky infrastructure like a sclerotic transport network (and London-Bristol trains still run on diesel!) The limitations of a feature, even a long one, also make it difficult to get into the discussions which will really matter – how to get necessary projects started, and how to move them toward scale up.

A case-study here which is not, as yet, auspicious, is the Refit West scheme to insulate and otherwise render less huge the carbon footprints of old Bristolian houses (like our lovely, drafty, 1870s Victorian pile). This scheme is being set up by Forum for the Future, as part of their larger Sustainable Bristol City Region project – which oddly Venue doesn’t seem to know about. Back in March they were saying there would be ten pilot homes give a low-carbon makeover in the Summer, and a scale-up to 1,000 by the end of 2011. Well, maybe, but as someone who would be happy to be one of the ten, I can say that they haven’t managed to get started yet. Finance seems to be a stumbling block, but there is also the problem of finding the best way to get people signed up and provide information about the menu of possibilities for their property, and the best choices.

I am intrigued by the way this is going beyond my interest in having a cosier home (in fact we are notoriously insensitive to cold in our house, visitors say, so heating bills are not that huge – a warning for anyone thinking of dropping by). What is also tantalising is watching a process in embryo which at the moment is very far from straightforward, gets a bit technical by the sound of it, and calls for quite a lot of thought and commitment. But the target (that 1,000 homes round here not to mention the government’s quite fantastical target of 7 million homes retrofitted by 2020) obviously means it has to get pretty simple for the average punter.

So here’s the thing. This is an obvious, urgent need. No (or not much) fancy new technology is needed for most of the benefits to be realised. And it has to be addressed by a quite subtle bootstrapping process which simultaneously builds conviction, commitment, and capacity to actually stick stuff into houses in ways people can live with, financially and practically, and tell everyone else are worthwhile. All of that will be easier when energy prices have doubled or tripled, but we really need to start now. A city this size still strikes me as a promising place to figure all this out. There are enough sympathetic homeowners, perhaps, to get started, plenty of wider networks to spread the word, contractors who can be encouraged to get into the business, and lots and lots of houses to benefit from the scheme if it achieves take-off. But it doesn’t really seem to be happening… Don’t know if the problem is lack of pump-priming funds, the need to have some demonstrators in place to convince others to sign up, or difficulty working out what a self-propagating scheme would look like. Getting people to spend money on something they already own (or are paying for) is a hard sell.

Oh, and incidentally, the Paris-emulating bike-rent scheme seems to be a bit of a joke in Bristol as well. It seems 140 people have signed up to use the shiny new city bikes, which exist in small numbers in a tiny set of locations. And this is the second greenest (this year) city in the UK which has ambitions to be a cycling mecca as well… Maybe the best future strategy is to start as many schemes as possible as most will stall? Or perhaps this is an example of failing to learn from other cities who have made this kind of thing work.

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