Environmental geographer Ruth DeFries is a pioneer in the study of how humans have transformed the surface of the Earth. Using satellite data, she explores how changes in Earth’s vegetation can affect climate, ecosystems and the relative ability of humans and other species to survive on this planet.Her new book, The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, takes the very long view of human history, describing how, for at least 10,000 years, we have continually created new technologies that have allowed our numbers to grow. But each new invention creates a new problem, which we solve with yet another innovation that in turn creates the next problem – whether it’s climate change, loss of habitat for other species or global pandemics.
“Societies adapt, learn and alter course when conditions change,” said DeFries, the Denning Professor of Sustainable Development in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. All species seek to expand their territory and grow in numbers, of course, but what sets us apart is “the extraordinary ability of our species to twist food from nature,” she writes. “Through trial and error we have found new ways to extract more food with less work.”
These trials and errors have enabled population to boom, especially over the last century, as our numbers doubled to 7 billion. Today we struggle with an abundance of food, which in turn leads to new crises: obesity, for one thing, along with insufficient food for the millions who don’t have enough to eat because the surplus is unevenly distributed.DeFries compiles datasets that have changed the scale and focus of ecosystem research, allowing her and other researchers to make better projections of future climate change and contribute to understanding how human activities are altering habitat needed to conserve biodiversity.
“Our role is to provide input for sustainable decisions about land use,” says DeFries, who, joined the Columbia faculty in 2008. She has received a Fulbright award and been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2007 she won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work.
Q Your book discusses the idea that there’s a limit to how far we can manipulate nature before something goes wrong. Is that a new idea?
A No, it can be traced back to Plato and Socrates, and most likely to thinkers long before them. We often talk about the [18th century scholar Thomas] Malthus in relation to ecological catastrophe because of his predictions of famine at the start of the Industrial Revolution. But predictions of catastrophe and collapse haven’t turned out the way they’ve been prophesized. It’s human nature to extrapolate into the future from what you see around you without taking into account human ingenuity. The predictions seem logical, but history tells a different story.
Q Your book describes a historical cycle you call “ratchet, hatchet, pivot.” Can you explain that?
A A ratchet is a tool that creates motion in one direction so that once you have that motion, you can’t go backward. We keep ratcheting up ways to manipulate nature to produce more food. This allows civilization to support more and more people. But after manipulating nature on such a grand scale, it’s inevitable that new problems result, whether it’s disease or famine or pollution–the hatchet. The solution is the pivot. Then the cycle starts again.
“People have always taken as much as they can…We just do it more efficiently now because we have better technology”
Q What would be an example of a ratchet, a hatchet and the subsequent pivot?
A For most of human history, the biggest issues were famine and shortage. The domestication of crops was probably the biggest ratchet in history. The hatchet was that diets became starchier. People became shorter, life expectancy dropped, and there was tooth decay, and smallpox and tuberculosis from crowding. The pivot has been long and slow. Whenever people could afford to raise livestock, they have increased the animal products in their diets. We have also devised antibiotics and vaccinations to counteract diseases caused by crowding. A more recent example of food-related ratchets is the introduction of the potato from the New World to Europe in the 16th century. Because it’s nutritious and grows easily, it allowed populations to grow. In Ireland people relied almost solely on potatoes, and they were planted closely together. However, the potatoes were genetic clones, so when a fungus hit in the 1840s, it caused the Irish potato famine, which killed at least a million people. Ireland then stopped relying so much on the potato. Potatoes are not planted so closely together anymore, and there are new varieties. People emigrated from Ireland to other countries. While it was a tragic event, the aftermath shows the resilience of humans to overcome and move on.
Q In the 20th century the ratchets seemed to turn faster than ever. How different is our age from earlier periods?
A The hatchets falling now have more to do with abundance. Today the share of family income devoted to food is lower than at any other time in modern history. In the past the hatchets had to do with shortage—shortage of fertilizer, shortage of food. Now, we see too much of certain things. Obesity is spreading worldwide. Too much nitrogen is causing pollution, too many greenhouse gases. Our problems have mainly to do with the abundance we have created. We haven’t learned yet how to manage and live with it.
Q On the other hand, we also see the destruction of ecosystems, such as seas emptied of fish, taking place at a faster pace than ever. Isn’t that the opposite of abundance?
A Resources may be declining faster now, but the phenomenon [of resource depletion] is not qualitatively different. People have always taken as much as they can. All species do the same thing. We just do it more efficiently now because we have better technology.
Q As of 2007, for the first time in history half of us now live in cities. Are we still connected to nature?
A In a couple of decades, more than 70 percent of us will live in cities. That is a qualitatively different relationship with nature. Most of us are not growing our own food; someone else is. In the United States less than 3 percent of people are farmers. But to me, it’s science fiction to think that even if every single one of us lived in cities, that we would be disconnected from nature. Even if you go into a grocery store and pull your shrink-wrapped chicken or whatever off the shelf, we still rely on the planetary support machinery even though so many parts of that machinery are out of our control. Then again, I try hard not to hang onto this romantic notion that once upon a time, people lived in harmony with nature. While we can do a much better job of maintaining the ecosystems that we have, it’s not realistic to think that we can go back to some fictitious harmony with nature.
Q Does it bother you to see so much of the planet converted to our own uses?
A It does, because we can do better. We can all live well; there’s enough food in the world to feed everyone right now. Yet a billion people still don’t get enough food. We just haven’t learned to use our abundance efficiently. If we did, then we wouldn’t need to be destroying so much of nature.
“Solutions create new problems, and problems will generate new solutions.”
Q Do you think your book will anger environmentalists?
A There’s a line of thinking that the Earth has a finite carrying capacity and once we hit that, we will have some enormous catastrophe. The story is more complex. We have overcome problems time and time again. We need people whom we might call alarmists in order to move forward toward solutions. I think someone like [Silent Spring author] Rachel Carson did a huge service by calling attention to the problems created by pesticides. But then again, if there’s too much doomsday thinking, which I think there is today, then people turn off. On the other side, you have people who say we have infinite resources, that technology and free enterprise will fix anything. Yes, technology can solve problems, but solutions just don’t arise spontaneously. There’s a lot of hard work. I’m trying to step away from either extreme.
Q What do you do to live more efficiently?
A I try my best. I compost. I eat very little red meat, and I’m very conscious about wasting food; I’ve been labeled “the tofu mom” by my kids. I try not to drive too much. I put my efforts into working with my students—they’re already making the world a better place. But as far as what anyone else should do–I don’t want to get preachy.
Q So, is there hope?
A I do think there’s hope. Solutions create new problems, and problems will generate new solutions. But we can’t predict the future; the only guide that we have is what’s happened in the past.
“I always said you should never trust a bank with property, or a property developer with money,” says Peter Rees. The former chief planner of the City of London should know about such things, having presided over the results of both. Over the last 30 years, he has ushered in a menagerie of their monuments, from the Gherkin and Cheesegrater to the Walkie-Talkie and Heron Tower, during which time he has seen a significant shift in the balance of power. “When I arrived in the job in the 1980s, the big banks were in control of London,” he says. “But now it’s the big house-builders. We’ve gone from being ruled by Barclay’s bank to being controlled by Berkeley homes.”
Left unchecked, the banks went off the rails in spectacular fashion, as they sprayed money into the great mortgage mirage. And now property developers have been allowed to follow suit. Fuelled by the dazzling wealth of investors from Russia, China and the Middle East, who they turned to when the banks stopped lending, their steroidal schemes are causing irreparable harm to our cities.
Across the country – and especially in superheated London, where stratospheric land values beget accordingly bloated developments – authorities are allowing planning policies to be continually flouted, affordable housing quotas to be waived, height limits breached, the interests of residents endlessly trampled. Places are becoming ever meaner and more divided, as public assets are relentlessly sold off, entire council estates flattened to make room for silos of luxury safe-deposit boxes in the sky. We are replacing homes with investment units, to be sold overseas and never inhabited, substituting community for vacancy. The more we build, the more our cities are emptied, producing dead swathes of zombie town where the lights might never even be switched on.
Developers have bounced back from the crash with bigger plans than ever before, acquiring vast areas of land with the ambition to operate like the great estates of yore. Framed with the cuddly terminology of “long-term stewardship” and “adding value”, they are merely mimicking those aristocratic fiefdoms, recasting the city as a network of privatised enclaves. The landed families of Grosvenor, Portman and Cadogan have been joined by a breed of corporate giants like Lend Lease, CapCo and Ballymore. The latter is overseeing the £2bn transformation of Nine Elms into a high-security zone of luxury flats around the new American embassy, that will apparently “draw inspiration from the attractive residential and commercial estates which evolved over time in cities like New York and Boston”. CapCo is building its £8bn kingdom across a 30-hectare swathe of Earls Court, while Lend Lease is ruling Elephant and Castle, Argent is reshaping Kings Cross, and most of Victoria is now controlled by Land Securities. The list goes on.
They have been accompanied, and often outbid, by a newer kind of international development force, supercharged by the untold riches of sovereign wealth funds, national pension funds and the gushing pump of petrodollars. The Qataris, who bailed out the Shard and snapped up the Olympic Village, have been joined by the growing appetite of Malaysian and Chinese investors. Malaysian consortium SP Setia acquired Battersea power station for significantly more than its competitors could muster, while China’s recent property supermarket sweep includes such sites as Wandsworth’s Ram Brewery and a £1bn deal for the Royal Docks. These inflated land deals, with foreign buyers ready to pay over the odds, are spawning a new form of equally oversized and exclusive developments.
Bankers have faced our collective wrath, but what about developers? The economy goes in fickle booms and busts, cycling merrily through bubbles and crises, but cities, built in concrete and steel, generally stay put. What we are making now, we will all have to live with for a very long time. The iniquities of the banking crash have been intricately unpicked, but the wilful destruction of the places where we live and work remains something of a mystery. We may rant and rage against ugly additions to the skyline, but what of the mechanisms that are allowing it to happen? How did it come to this?
The principal reason can be traced to the fact that awarding planning permission in the UK comes down to a Faustian pact. If the devil is in the detail, then the detail is Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, a clause which formalized “planning gain”, making it in the local authorities’ interests to allow schemes to balloon beyond all reason, in the hope of creaming off the fat of developers’ profits for the public good.
Introduced as a negotiable levy on new development, Section 106 agreements entail a financial contribution to the local authority, intended to be spent on offsetting the effects of the scheme on the local area. The impact of a hundred new homes might be mitigated by money for extra school places, or traffic calming measures. In practice, since council budgets have been so viciously slashed, Section 106 has become a primary means of funding essential public services, from social housing to public parks, health centres to highways, schools to play areas. The bigger the scheme, the fatter the bounty, leading to a situation not far from legalised bribery – or extortion, depending on which side of the bargain you are on. Vastly inflated density and a few extra storeys on a tower can be politically justified as being in the public interest, if it means a handful of trees will be planted on the street.
“Council chief executives will allow schemes to be pumped up as much as they can go before they get political push-back from councillors,” says one planning officer from a London borough that has suffered from a recent a spate of towers. “And the worst schemes happen when there is no political resistance at all.”
It is a system that is all too open to political pressure, given that any officer who advises against a new development can be conveniently framed as “anti-growth”, heartlessly preventing a promised tidal wave of new public amenities from flooding into the borough. Based on negotiation and discretion, the result is entirely down to the individual planning officer’s ability to squeeze out as good a deal as they can get, a battle that all too often ends in the developer’s favour.
The results of such botched bargaining can be seen sprouting up across London’s “regeneration” hot-spots, such as Elephant and Castle, where the council is attempting to transform the maligned mess of the roundabout into an “exciting destination”. With shimmering golden fins rising into the skies, the 37-storey tower of One the Elephant promises to “set new standards for contemporary London living”. It is one of the flagship projects by Australian developer Lend Lease in the £3bn transformation of the area. But take a closer look, and it seems the new standards it is setting comprise an impressive ability to avoid providing any affordable housing at all. Such second-class accommodation would of course require its own “poor door” entrance and circulation and, according to a council report: “The cost of construction would increase with the introduction of a further lift, as well as separate access and servicing arrangements.”
Bypassing Southwark’s requirement for 35% affordable housing – which would have meant around 100 units – Lend Lease has instead contributed £3.5m in lieu towards the construction of a community leisure centre next door, which will cost £20m to build. A triumph for the public good, you might think, until you realise that the equivalent cost of building 100 affordable units would have been around £10m, three times what the developer paid. Pressure group 35 Percent – which campaigns for the borough-wide policy of 35% affordable housing to be enforced in Elephant and Castle – estimates that, in the six biggest schemes in the area, developers have avoided paying £265m in off-site affordable housing tariff payments required by policy. And of the 4,282 new homes being built, just 79 will be social rented (ie. managed by registered providers for those on low incomes).
The same story is repeated the other side of town, where Haringey awaits the momentous arrival of Tottenham Hotspur’s new £400m football stadium. This bulbous mothership was promised to bring 200 new homes, half of which would be “affordable”, and an abundance of public benefits to the area. But, once again, the affordable component has been mysteriously waived, replaced with 285 flats for solely private sale, while the Section 106 contribution has been reduced from an agreed £16m to just £477,000 – a token contribution towards transport improvements.
The system has spawned a whole industry of S106 avoidance, with consultancies set up specifically to help developers get out of paying for affordable housing at all scales of development. Section 106 Management, set up by solicitor-turned-developer Robin Furby, is one such company that offers a service to small-scale developers, promising “to establish the profitability of your project and thereby reveal unviable Section 106 obligations”. Its website displays a list of case studies proudly showing how much they have helped developers dodge, and boasting of planning permissions achieved “without any contribution towards affordable housing” at all, saving “tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds”.
So what exactly does it mean when a property developer pleads poverty? “If the profit margin for your scheme is pushed to below 17.5% by Section 106 payments, you should talk to us,” says the website. Other consultants promise to safeguard 20% profit margins and upwards, before any Section 106 contributions are even considered. If a scheme is declared “unviable”, it simply means “we’re not getting our 20% profit so why should we bother”.
The power of the policy to leverage affordable housing has been further eroded since the introduction of community infrastructure levy (CIL) in 2010. A non-negotiable fixed-rate tax on new development, CIL was intended to introduce more transparency and give developers a level of certainty about how much they would be expected to contribute towards infrastructural improvements. But, in reality, it has provided another excuse to dodge Section 106 obligations. A further change to the town planning act last year has made Section 106 agreements renegotiable, allowing review and appeal of all existing obligations, in a misguided attempt to promote growth – which simply makes it easier for developers to wriggle out of their promises, as happened in Tottenham and elsewhere.
“Not surprisingly, developers are now even keener to renegotiate the S106 after they’ve got planning permission, finding they can’t negotiate the CIL,” says Peter Rees. “In most cases, they manage to prove that they can no longer afford to pay for the affordable housing that they agreed – it’s simply ‘not viable’ any more.” One planning officer puts it succinctly: “There has never been a worse time to give schemes consent, in terms of securing public benefit.”
In all cases, how developers prove what they can afford to pay for comes down to the dark art of “viability”. The silver bullet of planning applications, the viability appraisal explains, through impenetrable pages of spreadsheets and fastidious appendixes, exactly how a project stacks up financially. It states, in carefully worded sub-clauses, just why it would be impossible for affordable housing to be provided, why the towers must of course be this height, why no ground-floor corner shop or surgery can be included, why workspace is out of the question; indeed, why it is inconceivable for the scheme to be configured in any other form. Presented as a precise science, viability is nothing of the sort; it is a form of bureaucratic alchemy, figures fiddled with spreadsheet spells that can be made to conjure any outcome desired.
“Councils just don’t have the expertise to challenge viability reports,” says one senior planning officer. “We can’t argue back.” Instead, they can commission viability assessments, produced by the same consultants that work for developers, to determine whether the report is accurate – but not to propose an alternative. The figures may well stack up, but it doesn’t mean the scheme could not be designed in a different way, which would still guarantee the developer’s 20% profit margin.
“You only have to modify one of the variables very slightly to get completely different outcome,” says one planning consultant. “You can very easily go from something being rip-roaringly viable to completely unviable by tweaking something very modestly. If a planner doesn’t understand that, they’re not going to do very well.”
Evidence suggests that is all too often the case, judging by the number of planning officers’ reports that diligently conclude a scheme would simply be unviable if it was obliged to fulfil the policy objectives. With calculations often undisclosed for reasons of commercial confidentiality, councils are forced to blindly accept the developers’ figures as the ultimate de facto truth, allowing their own policies to be flagrantly breached.
“I’ve never been confident in reports that I’ve received on viability,” says one planning officer, describing how the big property consultancies operate as something of a cabal, with one wary of challenging another’s figures. “Every consultant that’s advising a local authority is hoping to advise a developer tomorrow. If they put the boot in on a big development scheme, they simply won’t be hired again.”
A relatively new field, viability has been given increasing weight by the government’s National Planning Policy Framework, introduced in 2012, which slashed 1,300 pages of policy down to 65, as part of the coalition’s triumphant bonfire of red tape. The NPPF introduced a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, which sounds innocuous enough – but as Rees points out, “the definition of ‘sustainable’ has nothing to do with green issues or energy at all. It means one thing: commercially viable.”
Immune from public scrutiny, viability assessments have rightly come under fire for clouding the accountability and transparency of what should be a statutory public process. Their confidentiality is closely guarded, in order to preserve developers’ trade secrets, but where the sale of public assets is concerned, there is increasing pressure for the books to be opened.
One such case recently ended in victory for housing campaigners, when after two years of fighting, which culminated at a tribunal, Southwark Council was ordered to disclose the viability assessment produced by Lend Lease over its controversial redevelopment of the Heygate Estate. The 15-year project is seeing more than 1,200 mainly social-rented homes on the post-war estate replaced with over 2,300 units, only 25% of which will be classed as affordable, with just 79 flats for social rent. Many leaseholders were subject to compulsory purchase orders so low they have been forced to move to the far reaches of outer London, their decent-sized two-bed flats valued at under £150,000, while the new homes of “Elephant Park” will be sold for prices reaching £420,000 for a one-bed apartment.
The figures explaining why this was the only feasible way to develop the site were safely locked away in the viability appraisal, which Southwark fought tooth and nail to keep secret. The borough has been particularly keen to keep financial details under wraps since it accidentally disclosed it had sold the entire nine-hectare site for just £50m, having spent £44m on moving residents out – while estimating its gross development value at £990m.
“Without some commercially sensitive information remaining private, developers could simply refuse to work with councils, leaving boroughs without the housing and regeneration we all need,” says a spokeswoman for Southwark Council. The borough brought a legal challenge against a decision by the Information Commissioner’s Office last year ordering the council to disclose the full details of the viability report, after a freedom of information request was denied. Southwark argued that full disclosure would “damage regeneration”, while Lend Lease, in a defence that verged on farce, pleaded the human right to “peaceful enjoyment of its possessions”, arguing that disclosing the viability assessment would amount to “unjustified interference with this enjoyment”.
The tribunal concluded that the information must be disclosed, stating that “the importance … of local people having access to information to allow them to participate in the planning process outweighs the public interest in maintaining the remaining rights of Lend Lease”. It sets an encouraging precedent for campaign groups battling similar situations elsewhere, from Greenwich Peninsula to Earls Court – where the information commissioner has supported further disclosure of viability assessments on gargantuan regeneration schemes.
The Heygate decision comes after increased scrutiny of Southwark council’s cosy relationship with Lend Lease, following reports in Private Eye of perks enjoyed by Peter John, the Labour leader of the borough, at the expense of the Australian giant. From a pair of £1,600 Olympic opening ceremony tickets to a £1,250 trip to the lavish Mipim property fair in Cannes, these sponsored outings were reported to have joined a lengthy list from the previous year of Proms tickets and dinners at the Ivy, paid for by at least 10 other companies.
Developers getting into bed with local authorities might usually happen behind closed doors, but at Mipim the conspicuous chumminess was proudly on show along the Croisette for all to see. In the wake of headlines decrying public money being spent on councils attending the champagne-soaked jamboree, their private “development partners” have been more than willing to step in and foot the bill. With a borough’s presence at Mipim costing up to £500,000, developers happily pay for glistening city models, trade show booths and yachts, where cakes iced with their logos are handed out by mayors. More than 20 local authorities took part this year, with developers sponsoring everything from a “Croydon on the beach” cocktail party to an entire “Manchester bar”, where public-private relationships could be cemented by free-flowing booze.
“The boroughs might be proud that they’re not here at the public’s expense,” says housing campaigner Jake Freeland, who held a protest in Cannes this year. “But that’s precisely the problem. They’re in the pockets of the investors, and they’ve come here to sell off our city.”
Developers have long thrown parties and funded foreign trips as a way of lubricating their plans through the system, but the quest for permissions now extends into the statutory planning process itself, through the rise of deals known as planning performance agreements. Introduced to help fast-track large, unwieldy schemes through the system, PPAs see the applicant pay for a new dedicated position in the council’s planning team to focus solely on their application, guaranteeing a faster turnaround and a better “bespoke” service.
Capital and Counties Properties (Capco) paid over £2m to Hammersmith and Fulham council under a PPA to have its £8bn redevelopment of Earls Court assessed, while similar deals were reached for Westfield and Hammerson’s £1bn plans for another mega-mall in Croydon, as well as Argent’s £2bn redevelopment of King’s Cross.
“There’s nothing wrong with planning performance agreements,” says one planning officer. “It’s just like allowing people to travel club class. You pay for a better service.” Quite whether club-class planning should be offered by a statutory pubic service is questionable, but developers have few qualms about throwing money at an authority, spitting out as many applications and fees as are necessary to see a project through. “We pay vast sums of money to have things determined quickly,” says the director of one major development company. “We pay the planner’s salary, cover their lawyers’ fees and everything, but we wouldn’t expect preferential treatment. It’s not a bribe.”
Under the coalition’s localism agenda, the wheels for private-sector encroachment into public planning have been further oiled, with the introduction of neighbourhood plans. Presented as a means of empowering communities, they have in fact left the door wide open for canny developers to move in, host a few community coffee mornings with felt-tips and post-it notes, and engineer a plan to their own advantage. There is no requirement for those who draw up the plan to even reside in the neighbourhood and, although they need a 50% “yes” vote at referendum, there is no requisite minimum turnout.
But such a tactic would require at least cursory engagement with the community and the council, something which many developers are increasingly choosing to bypass altogether. Since the introduction of the NPPF, there has been a sharp rise in the number of planning applications won on appeal, as many applicants choose to go straight to the inspectorate, conscious of the new “presumption in favour” of development.
Rather than being the last resort option, after negotiations with the local authority have broken down, the process of planning by appeal has become a tactic in itself. One developer is particularly candid on the matter: “Planning decisions are so often the result of political wrangling at committee anyway,” he says. “Why would you waste months negotiating something to get the planning officer on side, when they can’t guarantee delivery at planning committee?” On appeal, it comes down to a battle between planning lawyers, the judgement often determined by who can afford the best representation. When the Rolls Royce legal team of the private developer meets the quivering case officer of the emasculated public sector, its not hard to guess the outcome.
Developers with bigger ambitions are choosing to bypass the local authority in a different way, by going straight to the top and playing for a “call-in” – waving their schemes under the nose of the mayor of London or secretary of state. Such a situation has emerged at Mount Pleasant in north London, where the Royal Mail Group has proposed a fortress-like scheme of 700 flats, only 12% of which will be affordable. The site straddles the boundary between Camden and Islington, both of which have a target of 50% affordable housing. Boris Johnson ignited local fury when he called the scheme in earlier this year to be determined by his planning team, describing it as a “beautiful design … and a wonderful place to live” before the local boroughs had even turned it down.
“It is hardly surprising that the mayor has called this in,” says Duncan Bowie, lecturer in planning at the University of Westminster. “The mayoral planning process is based entirely on achieving the maximum number of housing units on any given site, aimed at selling to an international market. The London-wide target of building 42,000 new units per year is predicated on a lot of very high density developments that don’t even comply with the mayor’s own policies on density.”
The same thing happened at Convoys Wharf in Deptford, where a £1bn proposal for 3,500 units (of which just 15% will be affordable), in the form of three towers rising up to 40 storeys, was called in by the mayor after the Hong-Kong based developer wrote a blustering letter complaining of planning delays. The scheme was approved in April, against the advice of the local authority and the cries of heritage groups.
“It’s common practice to play the mayor off the borough,” says one senior planning officer. “We recently had one vastly oversized scheme that we’d spent months trying to tame, then we had a meeting with the GLA planning team, and their first response was ‘why not make it taller?’” Driven by tick-box housing targets, the GLA merrily rubber-stamps whatever comes its way, yet most of these schemes are doing nothing to help the housing crisis, given the fraction of “affordable” homes they include are still out of reach of most, at up to 80% of market rent.
“Developers have quickly latched on to the fact that, even if they can’t get local authorities to approve schemes, they can get them through the mayor or the government,” says Peter Rees. “The bigger the better. And they know that they’ll happily allow towers to be built outside designated clusters.”
As deputy prime minister, John Prescott personally approved both the Shard and the Vauxhall Tower, the latter against the decision of the planning inspector and after strong warnings from his advisers that it “could set a precedent for the indiscriminate scattering of very tall buildings across London”. How right they were. With a 50-storey shaft already on the skyline, the council was in no position to refuse further skyward ambitions. The GLA, keen to seem “strategic”, quickly declared the area a “cluster”, beckoning in a thicket of towers and opening the floodgates for the emerging Dubai on Thames. A wall of glass stumps is beginning to sprawl along the river from Wandsworth and Battersea to Nine Elms and Vauxhall – and beyond.
“It is an absolute fiasco,” says Mark Brearley, professor at Cass Cities and former director of Design for London. “It is the outcome of not really taking much notice of plans and being fairly relaxed about negotiating the best outcome, and not placing too many obligations on developers. Nothing hangs together as a result, nothing makes sense at ground level. As a piece of city it’s a farce.”
A similarly galumphing form of urbanism is appearing across London, from the gauntlet of City Road to Stratford High Street. Many of the worst offenders are the result of our slippery two-stage planning system, in which general outline permission can be given, while further details are postponed to a later “reserved matters” application. In a system based entirely on negotiation, it is a fair way of allowing developers to test the water and see what they can get away with, before spending money on detailed work. Yet it also allows crucial elements, like ground-floor uses, the location of entrances, the nature of materials and even massing and bulk, to slip through the net, allowing designs to be watered down to pale imitations of what had been agreed. And the hands of the local authority are hopelessly tied.
“Once an outline permission is granted, it makes it very difficult for us to refuse a scheme further down the line,” says one officer. In Stratford City’s “International Quarter”, part of the promised spoils of the Olympic legacy, consented tower proposals have recently gained a substantial number of extra storeys. Similarly in Wandsworth, a proposed pair of towers have put on a growth spurt and lost their planned mix of uses, reverting entirely to high-end flats.
Conditions that have been agreed are relentlessly renegotiated at reserved matters stage. Good architects are employed to win outline planning, then ditched for a cheaper alternative; high-quality materials are substituted for flimsy plastic panels – all in the name of viability.
Just like the banking crisis, the problem of botched urban development has long been encouraged by a system that is open to exploitation and all too susceptible to careless regulation. But it is also not something that can be easily fixed. “There’s only so much mileage in vilifying developers or planners,” says Brearley. “Making cities is imperfect and messy, and has been for thousands of years. But we should be able to do better than this.”
It comes down, he thinks, to the fact the UK planning system is overly reliant on individual negotiation between private developer and public servant, which is usually far from a level playing field. “It makes a very opaque and confusing system that relies on having people that are very sophisticated at brokering deals,” Brearley adds. “And those people will generally settle in places where they’ll earn more money. The people negotiating on behalf of the public are simply not sophisticated enough.”
One former planning officer is frank about the reality of the imbalance in our confrontational system. “If you throw enough resources at a planning application, you’re going to manage to tire everyone out,” he says. “The documentation gets more and more extensive, the phone calls get more frequent and more aggressive, the letters ever more litigious. The weight of stuff just bludgeons everyone aside, and the natural inclination is to say, ‘Oh yeah okay, I’ve had enough of this one,’ and just let it through. It’s like a war of attrition.”
And it is a war in which the side representing the public interest has been systematically drained of expertise. The number of architects employed in the public sector has fallen from over 60% to less than 10% over the last 30 years, while planners have been relegated to third- and fourth-tier officers, with some boroughs contracting the service out altogether. As part of the Farrell Review into architecture and the built environment, a “Plan First” initiative has been proposed, by GLA regeneration manager Finn Williams, on the model of Teach First, to try to lure the best graduates into planning. But it faces an uphill struggle to overturn the years of neglect and transform a system that is fundamentally anti-plan-making.
“To this day our planning system is the wrong way around,” says Rees. “It evolved to protect the countryside from the encroachment of the towns, rather than to make the cities better. It isn’t about building great places, it’s about protecting non-places.” And in the process, it has allowed our cities to cannibalise themselves and become those non-places it set out to protect.
Bullied and undermined, planning authorities have been left castrated and toothless, stripped of the skills and power they need to regulate, and sapped of the spatial imagination to actually plan places. As one house-builder puts it simply, “The system is ripe for sharp developers to drive a bulldozer right through.” And they will continue to do so with supercharged glee, squeezing the life out of our cities and reaping rewards from the ruins, until there is something in the way to stop them.
PoorCainis to blame foreverything.That the feethave beennailedto the groundwith the vehemence ofa pick.That the feethave becomelazy.That, asDavidBretonsays inpraise ofwalking,the carisnowthe kingof dailylife andhas madethesuperfluousbodyfor millions of people.
“The human condition has becomein a positionsittingor immobile, assisted by a number ofprostheses,” writes the French anthropologist. “Individualactivity consumesmore nervous thanphysical energy.The body is aremaining debriscrashingagainstmodernity (…). The feetserve mainly todrive a car orto holdthe pedestrianstandingmomentarilyin the elevatoror sidewalk. Thistransforms them intoinvalidsbeings whosebody justdoes moretoruin their lives. Moreover, due to underestimation feet areoftena nuisancethat couldbe storedwithoutproblemsin a suitcase. “
MaybeCainis at faultbecause theirdescendants builtthe first citiesand sedentary lifestyles. Abelwas always thenomad.Cain, thesedentary.Abelenjoyingnatureas it was andnottiedtoany place.It was thehomoludens. Cain, thesinnerisboundand tried totamea landto builda new world.It was thehomofaber.
The philosophy ofwalking hasdistant origins. Rootedto theBible itself, as recountedBritish academicMerlinCoverleyin his book TheArtof wandering. Jesus and Mohammedwere also greatwalkers.Butthe virtuesof walkingare not confined toreligious textsand legends.Socrates,in theVcentury BC,was a“walker philosopher.” Even thenthey knewthat thoughtsemergemore easilywhen walking. Aristotle and his followers, the Peripatetics, alsowalkedto spark yourintellect.
The listof philosophers whoassociated theirfeetto their thoughtsis endless.WhatdidHobbes, Kant, Rousseau, DeQuency… andKierkegaard.In 1847the Danishexistentialistwrote toHenriettaLundin which he said:
“Most importantly, do not loseyourdesire to walk. Every dayI‘ve been walkingtowardsa welfare stateand similarly, walking, walk away fromthe disease.I have walkedup tomy best thoughtsand I have neverfoundsuch a heavythoughtthat walkingwouldnotscare. “
Nietzschesaid thatsitting still, not moving, it was a sinagainst the HolySpirit and thatthe most valuablethoughtsarosewhen walking.The ideasyou wrote inThus Spoke Zarathustracome fromlong hourswandering theItalian hillsofRapallo,accordingCoverley. The philosopherwrote inThe Gaya Science(1882): “I do not write onlyby hand”.The footalways want toalso write ‘and, six years later, in a letter toGeorgBrandes, wrote: “Deepstate of inspiration. All this ison the road,duringlong marches. Extremebodyelasticity andfullness. “
The habit ofwalking alonein natureto escape the noisehas beenboastedby many philosophers. Not only forNietzsche.So didRousseauorThoreau.The Americanwas evenfleecivilization andtook refugefor two years, in a literarycottage.ThereWaldenwrote andfrom thereran everyday for fourhours,walking through the woods.
Walden, published in 1854,in the USA,byTicknorand Fields(Wikimedia.org)
Thepaths of historyare marked withshoe prints. There are alsorows ofcartwheels, but the memoryof humanroutesmorehumanfoothorse legs. The inventionof the railway,in the eighteenthcenturywas a turning pointinthe pathof history.Especially inthe West.
“The improvementof transportand infrastructureled to thefigureof the travelerat the endof the eighteenthcenturyalsomarked the beginning ofa trend thatwould eventuallyreplacethe activityof walking throughthe use ofa means of transport,” writes MerlinCoverley, “Walking wassoonrelegatedto the domestic sphereand becamethe form ofdisplacement of women, the poor, the sick and theindividuals whostubbornlyrejectedspeed andclamorof metropolitan life.”
Thisrejection of thespeed, noiseand fumesthat brought theinventionshave emerged from theindustrial revolutioninHenryDavidThoreauone of hismost lucidvoices.TheAmerican naturalistphilosopherwas one of thegreat defendersof the culture ofwalking.In 1862, in an essay entitledWalking andthe Wild, wrote that walking isan expressionof freedom andwildness. The poetdetestedthe expansionof urban cultureand, to escape it, was deliveredto the “artwalk“.
In the early twentiethcentury, thespeed neverwentdown the street. Butin the decade ofthe 20’s and30‘s auto industrybegan to fillthe cities ofcars.Individualswerenotused to seeingappearsuddenlya fastmachinewith no specific direction. Then therewere separatespacesfor humans andmachines. The carsprovedintruderson the harmoniccoexistenceof walkers andbicycles andalsodestroyed thesociallife thatflourished inthe streetsince early civilizations.
The carswere movingaround obstaclesand pedestriansran towhere they couldwhen they saw themappear. “Vehicleskilled thousandsof children each year,” says American journalistRomanMarsin his articleThe ModernMoloch: “Manypeople sawthecarasa killing machine. A cartoonin a newspaperevencomparedto the car withMoloch, the Phoenician god whosacrificedchildren.“
“The deathsof pedestrianswereconsidered publictragedies.In citieswerebuiltparades andmemorials tothe childrenrun overand killed bycars“, he continues. “Mothers wholosttheir children inthe streetsreceiveda white starin recognition of theloss.”
An article in TheNewYorkTimes,published in November1924, said that “the horrors of peace seemas terrifyingasthe horrorsof war.The carlooms as amuch more destructivethan amachinegun. Thedaredevilbikerscause moredeaths thanguns.The man inthe street seemsless certainthat the man inthe trench.The majorlethal factoris the automobile.He leftafterdestroyingtheir wayin 1923. “
Thatslayerimagethreatened to ruinthe auto industry. But it isnot so easyto fighta marketheartless. Sector companiespartnered ina pressure groupcalledMotordom. Thelobbylaunched apublic relations campaign, devised by EBLefferts, who circled theaccusing finger.
“Do not blame the car. Blamehumanrecklessness “
Thelobbyof automobile clubsshotto kill.He focused hiscommunication in theyounger audienceto change the mindsetof future generations, according to an article in TheAtlanticCitiescalled TheInvention ofJaywalking. They financedprogramsand road safetyeducationin public schoolsto makechildrenbelievethat the streetswerefor cars.It was they whohad to stopto avoid interruptingthe passage ofa vehicle andnever the reverse.
Sign prohibitinga pedestriancrossing the street inSingapore.Wikimedia.org
WhileinCincinnati,growinganger against theabusespedestrians.The academicat the University ofVirginiaPeterNortonin his bookFightingTraffic: TheDawn of theMotorAge intheAmericanCity,in1923, submitted 7,000signaturesin support of alaw limitingvehicle speedto 40miles per hour.Theautomobile clubsthought thatthis limitationwould reduceits sales andredeployedall their artillery. They sentletters toall owners ofcarsin the city andtold them thatthis measurewould condemnthe USAthe same fate asChina,the country, in his view, further backthe world.And besides, they hired attractivewomen toinvitemen tolead thepropaganda againstthe law.Bothpositions aremet ina referendumand the machinewonthe man.
The automotive industrywas becomingstrongerbattle after battle. He did it inpublic opinionandthe law.Thelobbycustomary lawhad orderedurban lifefor centuries andmanaged to imposea traffic lawthat turnedthe streetsintoterritoryfor cars.Thepedestrianwas relegatedtothe edgesof the road andalsocouldnot leave theexclusion zonewhere the newurban developmenthadrelegated.
First, they sought a nameloadedwickednessjaywalker. “In the early twentieth century, jay was apejorative termreferring torural people. Thereforeajaywalkerissomeone walkingaround town likea jay, gapingbuildingsaround andcompletely unawareoftraffic passingtheir side”, Roman writes.Thenitcriminalized: “The termoriginallywas used tobelittlethosewho crossedthe path of otherpedestrians, but Motordomhim alegalterm forpeoplecrossingthe street atthe wrong place orthe wrong time.”
Youwander thestreet becamesuspicious activity. “Wander seemsan anachronismin a worldin whichmanreignsrushed: enjoy thetime, place; running isan escape, a way to givethe slipto modernity“, writes Bretoninpraise ofwalking:“A shortcut in thefrenetic paceof our lives, proper way to takeaway.”
Frenchsaysthat ourfeet haveroots.Weremade to move.Butin Western societiesand nobodylooks atas a meansof transport.Not evenfor shorterdistancesorclimb stairs. Walking hasbecome
“arecreational activity, selfassertion, seeking tranquility, silence and contactwith naturetrails, trekking, popularity ofwalking clubsof oldpilgrimage routes, especially theSantiagorecoveryride…“.
“The wayin whichdenigratesmassivewalk indaily useand its parallelrevaluationas a means ofentertainmentarefacts that reveal thestatusof the body inour society,” he continues. “Prowl, so little toleratedin our societyas silence,itstands in oppositiontothedemands ofpowerfulperformance, the urgency andabsolute availabilityat work orforothers.”
Thehiker,according to Breton,hasbecome “anachronistic character':
“The city is transformed intodistancesto be traveledwiththe desire not towaste time. The functionalitycomes first, “he writes in his book. “The sidewalk is a straight lineto be traveledfast,”and thatis thesame speedthat “kills the streetto make it afunctionalspacetravel (…). Walkingaround the city isan experienceof tension andsurveillance.The proximityof the carsis a permanentdanger, thoughhis behaviorissupposedlygoverned by therules of the road“.
Resistance to thisexpulsionwas extendedas much ashe could.Not so long agochildren played inthe streetand adultsdrewchairsto the curbto make itin the community roomof all the neighbors. Carsoverwhelmedthese twohabitsand turnedthese scenesinto something quiteexceptionalin the West.
Walking has become, in a sense,a form ofactivism, nostalgiaor resistance.Walking isa sensory journey, and hikersoftenseek to discoverthose detailsthat hidesand destroysthe city.
“The background musichas becomean effective weapon againsta certainphobia ofsilenceand aggressiveway to capture theattention of passers-by shops” thinks Breton. “The urbaniteisnot comfortableinspaces bathed insilence.Runs awayoris quick toaddsoundsto makeyoufeelsafe, talkingloudly, leaving the car radioon orthe phone tocallsomeone tocomfort you. Aquiet and peacefulworldeventually becomesa disturbingworld in whichthey feel lostallaccustomedto the noise. “
This resistanceto a worldfor carshas neverquite dead.Many peopleconstantlyclaimthat public spaceis not dissipatedat all.Several Europeancitiesare buildingbike paths andpedestrianizedhistoriccentershavein recent years. But, at the same time, 60 millionvehiclesare added tothe world’s roadseach year.Andthe abuseshave not disappeared.Every year270,000 peopledieoverwhelmed bya vehicle, according to a recentBBC articletitledPedestrianpowertoshapefuturecities. Thesecarsalsomakeincreasingpollutionand sedentary lifestyles. Moreobeseandheart attacks.
A century laterstill strugglingpassersmore walkablecities. InCincinnatithey did not succeedbut peopleinsistmovements. In Europecall‘cities 30′so no vehiclesexceedingthat speed.Also claimback publicspace becauseitnot onlysnatched thetraffic.Some cities, likeMadridhave mademany publicplaces incementconcoursesfor saleto the highest bidder. Barsrenteda floor thatwasallbeforeto deployits terraces.Brandsrentthat spacewheremaybebeforethere were trees, ridingevents.
The association ofpassersA Pie voluntarilyworkinginMadridsince 1995, so that politicians do notforgetthewalkersin theirurban and socialpolicies.“We support walking asa means ofhealthy, economical and sustainabletransportation,” said VeronicaMartinez, a memberof this association.“We alsocare about thepublic space.It is a placeof playand sharing, but the massive introduction ofvehicleshas snatchedthese spacespeople. Oftencities putpedestrians toextreme situations. “
Walkfunctionto begin with,is topublicize the rightsof pedestriansand try toalleviate many of thefenceswhere they aretrapped ina city.“We proposesimplesolutionsto the Cityor the person responsiblefor improvingconflictingcrosses,reclaim spacefor walkingor extendthe sheltersaresidewalks,” says MateusPortoSchettino, a member of the association.“You have tobecarefulabout how weselltraffic.They say thatthey dofor our safetybutactuallyleave uswithoutmobility. “
At the momentthere are no plansfor a newrevised and updatededitionof the Bible. Butif this happensyou caneitherCainnoabsoluteevil.Motordomalso havetheirs. #walkablecities
In many ways, the ideal of interconnectivity, expressed individually by the smart phone, the driverless car, or the lenses beaming turn-by-turn navigation advice into welcoming eyeballs, finds its communal expression in the dream of the smart city.
That is, roughly, a city in which those individually connected devices inform and are informed by a massively connected, real-time updating urban computer, which allows the moving parts of the city to function with the greatest possible efficiency – no traffic jams, no wasted energy, no dark corners or hidden dangers.
As such, it is no surprise that he is returning to the concept of the networked city – a focus of Urbanscale’s practice, and one of the most visible and media-friendly applications of networked technology – in a tightly-argued short book, Against the smart city. Indeed, this pamphlet – which also serves as the opening section of the upcoming The city is here for you to use – could be seen as a continuation of the themes explored by Greenfield and his fellow urbanist Mark Shepard in their dialogic Urban Computing and its Discontents.
Smart dust, smart dreams
There are various injections of smartness into contemporary urban spaces – often piecemeal agglomerations of data collected or repurposed for a specific service. In London, automated camera data is cross-referenced with lists of those who have paid for the right to drive in the centre of town, in order to find and punish transgressors. Public and private services can provide at least some sense of the most efficient way to get from A to B, and ideally also what unique circumstances might affect that judgement from minute to minute, and deliver that information to a mobile device.
Greenfield, however, keeps Against the smart city focused not on these slow accumulations of connectivity – although real-world examples are cited from the idealism of Chile’s Project Cybersyn to Rio’s “war room” monitoring station – but rather the ideal of the smart city being proposed by three major urban developments.
These are Songdo City, a $20-40 billion development for a 500,000-person city built on reclaimed land by the Yellow Sea in South Korea; the embryonic “eco-city” of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, which is marketed as a future home for 40,000 residents and a place of work for 50,000 commuting workers; and “PlanIT Valley“, a $10 billion collaboration in Portugal planned to accommodate 225,000 citizens in an area “about the size of downtown Boston”.
To say that these cities are being studied would be misleading – to a considerable extent, these cities as envisioned in the literature do not currently exist. Greenfield, however, argues that the marketing materials and promises of their sponsors, however imminent their ribbon-cutting plans may be, provide a valuable insight into how large corporations with an investment in this kind of top-down, data-rich urban management system will position – and budget for – the ideal, greenfield smart city.
(To quote the Futureheads song of the same name as The city is here for you to use, ”These extra expenses make brilliant senses”. The smart city is big business, and big players are involved – IBM, Cisco, Samsung, Intel and others are operating in the automated city space.)
The bad best fit
These projects are not in an advanced state, and it is arguable whether they will look much like the advertising and promotional materials when they are completed. Greenfield finds worth in these materials, however – and specifically finds a series of precepts, implicit or explicit, about the conception of the smart city that are more or less consistent across all three, differing primarily in degree.
These ideas are not only consistent, to Greenfield, but consistently in error – based as they are on the belief that “the smart city” is a turnkey installation – a collection of technologies that, once deployed, will function consistently and uniformly. Cities, he argues, are rather products of specific geographies, social milieus and inhabitants. We do not live urban informatics lives divorced from the physicality of the city and ourselves; instead that other “smart” technology, the smartphones, has smashed physicality and data-presence together by its ubiquity and regular reporting of data to the network.
Sometime between the Clinton Administration’s 2000 decision to offer a clean GPS signal to non-military operators, and the rise of Facebook as a clearing house for unitary identity circa 2008, the virtual was folded back onto the physical fairly decisively. Far from dematerializing the self into a permanent state of “bodyless exultation”, our technologies of biometric recognition now increasingly moor it in and to the individual body.
If I read this right, the thrust is that the individual, not the metropolis, must be the atomic unit of urban data, and smartness resides in the unique systems of a city, which are formed by accommodations and alterations made in response to the unique circumstances of that city and its citizens.
Conversely, the visions of Masdar, Songdo and PlanIT are new builds on hitherto unurban ground – and often do not identify the specific technologies to be applied, talking instead in generic terms of “smart walls” and “iris recognition door systems”. This is important because the products offering these potential are not themselves interchangeable.
Where the plans are more specific, Greenfield goes on, is when they are talking about the sponsors’ proprietary systems – and the core technologies of these model cities are some variant of proprietary, for reasons of security or lock-in (and that argument feels like an Apple versus Android in the making). At one point, the pamphlet relates, the Portuguese project talked of introducing its own social network purely for the city, despite the fact that third parties such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are already tied into the social systems of those rubbing physical elbows in the city, not to mention services elsewhere in the urban navigation stack such as Yelp. Greenfield homes in with a hunter’s eye on what he sees as wooliness or hubris – and, given that this is essentially marketing copy, the hunt is not a fruitless one.
Which raises a query: since much of the material being studied is marketing copy, should we expect it to be wholly representative of what might happen, in these locations or anywhere else? Greenfield’s skepticism that these grand projects will actually be completed does not, by his lights, invalidate the close examination of their self-representation.
Against the smart city is certainly a focused work – a piece of targeted analysis which does not overstay its welcome. It might, in fact, make an interesting companion read to Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities (I say this more as a note to self as a recommendation, since I have yet to get to Townsend’s far larger work). Where urbanist works often feel like concept albums, Against the smart city is more like a punk song.
And, like punk, Against the smart city is unashamedly political. Not party-political, but infused with a strongly argued mistrust of the bedrock of the doctrine of the top-down, turnkey smart cities. That is, the proposition that a smart enough city – for example one built from scratch with a single dominant supplier or alliance of suppliers and no existing infrastructure or accreted urban culture to deal with – will provide perfect knowledge of the needs of its citizens and be able to meet them perfectly. This is depicted as a recipe for disenfranchisement for those who are now subject to “smart” processes they do not understand, and for exploitation by those with sufficient knowledge to “juke” the system – Greenfield here deploying the trenchant terminology of The Wire.
The last part of the pamphlet, where Greenfield moves from a reading of specific texts to a broader identification of the historical context and overarching concept of the mechanistic city, contains some fine passages of disapprobation. The claims that one of these ideal cities will have the best features of many other major cities – the skyline of Manhattan, the walkability of Boston, the green spaces of London – are smacked down as “cargo cult urbanism”. The ideal of the smart city is tied into the high modernist ideal of urban development as the creation of self-contained units applying consistent architectural precepts, to which the inhabitants must bend, and the grisly example of Pruitt-Igoe, St Louis’ unhappy flirtation with the ideals of le Corbusier.
At times the picture Greenfield is painting, of these semi-independent city states divorced culturally and architecturally from the nations in which they are housed, may have a whiff of Peter Thiel’s seasteading ambitions – in this case, the city does not float, but the prioritization of wealth generation, and the creation of an environment with the minimum of regulatory barriers to it, is not unfamiliar.
As I read it – and I may be misreading – there is a particular critique of an approach that privatises profit and makes risk public , often by absorbing civic resources in pursuit of corporate goals. The greatest condemnation Greenfield has for this conception of the smart city is, ultimately, that it has little as a concept to do with cities – complex masses of emerging properties in which the inhabitants of the streets as much as a centralized “war room” decide how it will function.
For those interested in the smart city – and in particular in the marketing of the smart city – this is a book worth reading – tight in focus and often very entertaining in its dismantling of what are, admittedly, often easy targets. Those who broadly align with its ideological thrust are likely to find it invigorating, those who do not may feel at times as if their counterarguments are not being treated with respect – but this is, as I said, an unwaveringly politically engaged piece, and Greenfield makes no secret of his own preferences for engagement with the imperfect over subjection to the perfect – or the dream of the perfect.
Against the Smart City is available from the Amazon Kindle Store
We all know we should recycle our electronics, but we don’t really know what happens after we drop them off at the e-waste center, right?
So filmmaker +Alex Gorosh followed his old phones, all the way to Agbogbloshie, Ghana, the largest electronics dump in the world. It’s a place so dirty and dangerous it’s nicknamed “Sodom and Gomorrah.”
It turns out about half of our discarded electronics are shipped overseas to places like Agbogbloshie where environmental regulations aren’t as strict. At this particular site, some of the gadgets are taken apart, their salvageable components sold. But the large majority of them are burned so the workers—largely teenagers—can scrap the metals inside.
Darknesslawworks the same forthe hidden,the forgottenorlost. Butinternetdarknessfall onsomething elsethathas nosearch tags. Millions ofimages on thehistory of the worldwere in danger ofdisappearing forever.They werefiled indigitized booksbut had notags. There was no wayto rescue them. Thatandforgetting isthe same.
Big dataexpertKalevLeetarubegan to regainlast Decembermillion photographsand drawingsof more than600 millionpagesscanned by theInternet Archiveorganizationbooks. Today thereare more than2.6 millionimages are availablefree of chargeandwithoutcopyright, in a newpagecalledInternet ArchiveBookFlickrImages.
“The purpose ofthis project is tore-imaginethe book.I wanted tofindimages based ona set of criteriaand findimagery ofobjectsovertime, not justtoday, “explainsthe expertincommunication technologyin an interviewvia email.
So farthe wordshad been imposedon the images.This bodywas onlylabelingtextsofdigitized booksandno way toaccess thesephotos anddrawings datedfrom1500-1922through an onlinesearch. Yahoo!researcheratGeorgetown University(Washington,USA) sawlibrariestodigitize its archiveshadbecomebooksinPDFformat (this prevents extract images) andallsearch criteriarefer to onlytexts. Leetaruthought thoseimages containmuch ofthe past five centuriesinformationeverbe seen inmuseums andgalleries,and sohad torecover. These imageshave escaped thedarkness.Eventhe past.And now they areon a trackoutput. Atthe starting pointof whatKalevLeetarucalled“atime travelthrough images.”
“For example,when viewing imagesofphonesat different times, you realizethat you havegone from beinga deviceused by themen intheofficeanessentialhouseholdappliance inthe home.I realizedthat there were manydigitizedbooks aboutthe phonebut there wasno way tosee acollageof all the imagesof those works.My intention wastosearch forimagesrather thanwords.Thus was born theproject.“
And sohe took himout. “Internet Archivehas alreadydigitizedbooksbyOCR. Thisprocess recognizestextfrom scannedpagesand socan be searchedby key words. TheOCRsoftware identifieswhere are allthe imagesof the pages,justignores them andgoesto the text.What I didwas to createa tool thatre-OCR results, trace images,extractedthetageaautomaticallyand saves them asseparate files. “
You have a powerful idea for a photography project, but not all the funds you need to make it happen. Sound familiar? The great news is there are many foundations, non-profits and private companies alike, who are willing to fund worthy photographers based on talent and project goals. Some offer grants for photojournalists who expose social injustices; others focus on editorial photographers who tell long-form stories. We’ve rounded up 16 as a start to help you in your search. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to add others to the list via the comments section!
The Siskind Foundation’s Individual Photographer’s Fellowship Grant is awarded to artists working with photography or photo-based art. With this specific grant you must be 21 years or older and a U.S. citizen. 2013 winners include Michelle Frankfurter, Wayne Lawrence, Joshua Lutz, Justin Maxon, Jenny Riffle and Sasha Rudensky. Although the application process for 2014 is closed, you can follow up to see this year’s recipients and begin to think about submissions for the 2015 award. You can check out their submission page here.
The Alexia Foundation provides grants and scholarships to photojournalists whose mission focuses on fostering cultural understanding and exposing social injustice. The Alexia Foundation awards multiple grants including a professional and student grant and a Women’s Initiative Grant. Although the submission deadline has passed, the recipient of the 2014 Women’s Initiative Grant will be announced by September 1st, 2014. Previous winners include Sebastian Liste, Farzana Hossein and Mehran Hamrahi.
The Burn Magazine Emerging Photographer Grant is provided to aid in the continuation of a photographer’s personal project, whether a documentary project or one of a more artistic aesthetic. Previous winners include Diana Markosian, Iveta Vaivode, Oksana Yushko and Maciej Pisuk. This year’s deadline is September 2nd, apply here.
The Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award is presented to photojournalists from around the world who want to pursue a long-term reportage project on a specific theme. Themes can range from focusing on an internal conflict, advocations of peace or social justice, or highlighting a gradual change within a nation. Photojournalists may only submit a portfolio highlighting their project. No written explanation is accepted as the judges believe that the images should speak for themselves.
CENTER’s Project Launch Grant is awarded to talented photographers working with a fine art series or a documentary project. The $5,000 cash award is intended to help photographers complete their respective projects and provide opportunities for professional development, press and the ability to disseminate their project. In addition to the cash award, the winner will be featured in an exhibition at the Center for Contemporary arts, receive a Lenscratch publication and more. Guy Martin was the 2014 recipient with his project titled City of Dreams. CENTER also awards a Project Development Grant, which provides financial support to fine art, documentary, or photojournalist works-in-progress. Adam Reynolds was the 2014 recipient of the grant, with his project titled Architecture of an Existential Threat. To apply for either grant, visit CENTER’s website here.
Crusade for Art is an organization that aims to inspire photographers to create new audiences who want to engage with art in a meaningful way. Their $10,000 Crusade Engagement Grant is awarded to an individual photographer or group of photographers with the most innovative plan for connecting audiences to their work. They look for projects that create a demand for photography and provide a plan to foster real connections between the photographer and the audience. Check out the Grant guidelines and FAQs here.
The Documentary Project Fund is awarded to documentary photographers who use photography as a medium for storytelling. They provide voices to impoverished and oppressed communities. The deadline for the $3,500 Emerging Vision Award and the $5,000 Established Artist Award has passed for the summer, but the program is bi-annual and the application will open up again soon. Mafalda Rakos is the March 2014 recipient of the Emerging Vision award for her vision on the issue of body image and eating disorders.
This grant, open only to photographers self-publishing on fotovisura.com, recognizes both outstanding personal projects and outstanding student projects. Judges look for photographers with powerful images and a strong dedication and commitment to their story – especially if that story is meant to affect positive change in society. The 2015 Open Call will be announced later this summer, but you can take a look at the 2014 winners here.
In partnership with Lean In, an organization whose mission is to empower and support women through community, education and group circles, Getty Images has opted to provide a $10,000 grant to a photographer whose work depicts a story of women or girls achieving their goals within their communities or personal lives. The 2013 winner was Matt Eich, for his project titled Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town. While the submission deadline for the 2014 grant has passed, the application will re-open next Spring and winners are announced every September.
Established by the members of Magnum Photos, the annual Inge Morath award is presented to a female photographer under thirty who shows exemplary prowess in the documentary photography field. The award is a means to fund a long term documentary project and is awarded each July. This July, Shannon Jansen, who won for her project titled A Long Walk. The project featured stunning shots of the shoes of refugees who fled the Blue Nile State to reach the border of South Sudan.
The John Gutmann Photography Fellowship Award is presented annually to emerging photographers that demonstrate artistic commitment in artistic photography. The award is between $5,000-$10,000 and sometimes presented to multiple photographers. To be eligible, you must be a U.S. citizen and nominated based on your professional accomplishments. Previous recipients include Soo Kim and Penelope Umbrico.
This grant enables documentary photographers and filmmakers to receive funding for their projects. The cash award is $5,000 for non-fiction works based on social issues such as health, poverty, oppression, war, famine or religious/political persecution. The 2014 Photography Grant recipient is Mohamed Ali Eddin, a freelance Cairo-based photojournalist. Eddin’s project, Life of Quarry Workers focused on worker exploitation in the Minya governorate in northern Egypt. Details on the application process can be found here.
The National Geographic Young Explorers Grant is unique program that provides between $2,000 and $5,000, to adventure, ancient world, animal, environment, society and culture, and space photographers. To be eligible, you must be between 18 and 25 with the desire to pursue research, conservation and exploration-based projects. There are several programs, such as the Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE), the Expeditions Council (EC), and the Conservation Trust (CT). Each program has a separate application process and awards separate grants. Application details can be found here.
The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) hosts an annual competition to provide grants to photographers, editors or online photojournalists. This contest explores all dimensions of photojournalism, from still photographs to video, multimedia and photo/video editing. Each category is presented with a separate award. The categories include contemporary issues, environment, feature, international news, portrait and personality and more. To enter, you must register here.
Awarding grants to both individuals and organizations, Open Society’s Documentary Photography Project supports photography to mobilize people around issues of justice and human rights. In contrast to many photography funders, they offer support of projects beyond documentary photography and encourage projects also around civic engagement, education, media attention, advocacy and reform. Check out their schedule for upcoming entry deadlines.
The W. Eugene Smith Grant is awarded in honor of the late prolific photo essayist, Eugene Smith. The award is to recognize exemplary talent and vision in documentary photography that highlights the human condition. The 2013 recipient was Robin Hammond, a New Zealand-based freelance photojournalist. Hammond is a consistent contributor to National Geographic, Time Magazine, NYT and Polka Magazine.
Although photography has the capacity to expose, persuade and move masses, the cost to make an impact can be high. These grants provide opportunities for photographers to not only get their work done but achieve their project goals without the concern of financial implications. Remember, there are also many crowdfunding opportunities to help cover the cost of your project including Kickstarter, gofundme, indiegogo, and rockethub.
Interview withPaulRomer, Professor of Economics -NewYorkUniversity.The interview took placeat the Workshopon SustainabilityofCities: Modelsfor BetterPlanning and Management, organized bythe Initiative forEmerging and Sustainable Cities(ICES) of the Inter-American Development Bank, and the International UniversityMenéndezPelayoinSantander,SpainbetweenJuly 27andAugust 1, 2014.
In light of this need, ESCI, created by Inter-American Development Bank works closely with each city in order to implement our Methodology, which has two main phases. ESCI starts off with a participatory process to evaluate the quality of life in cities and to identify priority areas for action; this is the core of our methodology. This process leads toward the development of an Action Plan for each city. Based on the Plan’s objectives, the Methodology’s second phase focuses on implementation of actions and specific urban interventions, as well as on the establishment of platforms for citizen-led monitoring of impacts.
ESCI’s methodology is based on the premise that urban development strategies that are well-planned, integrated, and cross-sectoral, can ensure improvements in the quality of life for citizens and help materialize a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive future for emerging cities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
ESCI developed an innovative rapid-assessment tool to understand and analyze the different elements that determine and impact the quality of life in cities. Our experience in each participating city has allowed us continuously to gather lessons and improve on this tool, better to address each locality’s needs.
The assessment tool gathers 140 indicators from a variety of sectors, which are exhaustively analyzed in collaboration with local governments and civil society over a nine-month period. This evaluation represents the core of our methodology, around which to identify and develop priority activities. Overall, the results are embodied in an Action Plan that offers a narrative view of the assessment and outlines strategic interventions in those sectors that can have the strongest positive impact on each city’s quality of life. Throughout this phase, ESCI works closely with each city to determine the requirements, in terms of time and resources, to implement prioritized activities.
Once finished, the Action Plan, which reflects the collaborative work of a diversity of local stakeholders, paves the way for implementation of priority proposals. ESCI helps with the design and development of at least one priority project to reach pre-investment stages. Depending on local interest, ESCI can help identify and mobilize financial resources from a variety of sources, including the public and private sectors, special partnerships between the two, and other commercial institutions.
In addition, ESCI provides direct support for the design and launch of a citizen-run monitoring system, in collaboration with civil society stakeholders such as non-governmental organizations, private organizations, and academia. This monitoring system evaluates progress against the initial evaluation and the proposals and goals included in the Action Plan.