Another packed SPACE for Gosforth event took place on Wednesday 27 January. This time people came to hear Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones talk about the City Futures project, and how Newcastle might look in 2065.
One of the project aims is to encourage people to ask what’s the future for city, what kind of place do we want for ourselves and our children? Part of the research involved engagement and collaboration with over 2500 Newcastle residents and over 50 different public, private, community and voluntary organisations.
Three future scenarios were developed from this to stimulate further discussion:
- continuation of present socio-economic trends
- London implodes: rebalancing the national economy
- Newcastle finds its niche: test-bed city
The test-bed scenario, with the city focussing on innovation in engineering, technology and public health, is the most dynamic and exciting.
However we imagine the future though, it will be different. To illustrate this Mark looked at how the Quayside has changed over the last 50 years from 1965. If you’re old enough you’ll remember a very different place, very industrial, not somewhere you’d go to spend leisure time.
In 1969 architects Ryder and Yates were looking into the future and produced the concept for the Tyne Deck – a wide concrete bridge at ground level spanning the river east of the Tyne Bridge with an art gallery, concert hall and restaurants – as a means of creating a joint ‘City of Tyneside’.
People at the time wondered where the ships could go, and obviously it didn’t get built, but as both sides of the river have been developed over the last 25 years some of that vision has materialised. Now there is an art gallery, theatre, concert hall, restaurants, bars, even a beach in summer.
The City Futures engagement events in 2014 were well attended. People were keen to see the city evolve, they had lots of ideas, they wanted to discuss them and to be involved in decision making.
At the SPACE for Gosforth event, discussion covered the city’s future growth and how it can be sustainable, climate change, and having a bold vision for the future.
If Newcastle became a test bed city for the UK, could Gosforth become a test bed area for Newcastle? Trying new forms of public participation in local decision making, finding ways to change the High Street to give more space for people to enjoy shopping and relaxing, encouraging residents to leave their cars at home and take the healthier and pollution reducing options of walking, using public transport and cycling.
In short, how do we make Gosforth a better place? Let’s discuss …
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I was somewhat underwhelmed by the presentation. Clearly, as was argued, there is a lot of harm being done by today’s dominant ‘short-termism’, especially in government and business circles. Conversely, there is, a strong case for thinking about the long-term. That said, unanticipated events in the future do have a way of catching out ‘futurists’. To some extent, the challenge is one of building resilience and the capacity to cope with various turns of event, especially, of course, dangerous ones.
Much was made in the talk of the need for ‘vision’. Certainly the current ones of Newcastle city council are almost too pathetic for words. Under the slogan “ambition in the face of austerity”, its “ten big ideas” include “being profitable”, “targeting our help”, and “reviewing the things we own”. Their banality can be seen by recasting them in the negative (in brackets). Who wants to see a “city with (in)effective public services’ or “a city which (does not) help people to find work”, or a “city with(out) cultural vibrancy”? All mean almost anything and therefore virtually nothing. As they stand, they are scarcely inspiring.
The trouble with vision is that one group’s dream can be someone else’s nightmare. ISIS certainly has vision but a clerical-fascist state might not be everyone’s idea of progress. More generally, there is a thin dividing line between vision and fantasy. All around the world millions of people dream of living like the average American but any attempt to attain that goal would well and truly destroy our finite planet’s life-support systems. Wish lists drawn from the public can sometimes be little more than Disneyesque dreaming, divorced from Earthly realities.
Already, humanity is collectively transgressing several planetary boundaries (see the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre or the data from the Global Footprint Network on Earth Overshoot Day). If only part of the analysis that led Sir John Beddington to proclaim 2030 as the crunch year (“perfect storm”) is true, none of the above scenarios has any deep value, even if this or that detail might still be useful (the talk was interesting with several useful snippets).
On top of that, there is mounting evidence that, ecological factors apart (though they can never be separated), we face a long economic downturn, given past asset inflation and debt accumulation. Overall, the era of comparative abundance seems set to be replaced by a certain ‘downsizing’. In turn, fairness in sharing out a more limited ‘cake’ becomes even more critical if it is to be palatable and not lead to ruinous conflicts.
So any scenario-building has to start not from wish lists, no matter how desirable, but from rigorous analysis of the way things seem to be going. It points to massive ecological ‘overshoot’ and a corresponding need to ‘think shrink’ if the conditions for some sort of civilised living for all (all species!) are to be maintained.
But this was the very scenario the speaker simply would not entertain. For all the claims about “free thinking”, “neutrality” and open-mindedness, the whole presentation was based on an unwavering assertion that on-going expansion is both necessary and desirable. “Grow or die”, he said.
Yet growth is the goal of nearly every council, business, national government and international agency. So Newcastle council wants to expand its built-up area, with big new housing estates, business ‘parks’ and new roads on the urban fringes. So too does North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and every other council up and down the country. The consequence in a finite world can only be a complete sea of concrete, brick and tarmac, if not checked. Similarly, Newcastle council wants more air traffic at the local airport. Other airports share the same ‘vision’. The consequences can easily be imagined. Clearly, there are limits so the time to call halt is when there is something left to save and an opportunity to built a sustainable society.
The case against more physical growth is well documented. Beyond a certain optimum point, growth comes increasingly counter-productive (hard evidence in the case of urban growth is provided, for example, in Eben Fodor’s “Better Not Bigger”). In sustainable systems, growth gives way to a mature ‘climax system’. After all, children do have a habit of ceasing to grow when they become adults. On-going growth is obesity.
But the steady-state scenario was not considered. Instead, it was equated with dying. In fact, what is sometimes called ‘steady-state economics’ allows for growth in some areas, providing there is compensating de-growth in others. It is about dynamic equilibrium, not stasis. As Edward Abbey said, “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”.
All the above scenarios implicitly assumed that “smart growth” could somehow magic away constraints on future expansion. Yet the evidence from Portland in Oregon and other cities where there have been real efforts to plan ‘smartly’ is that on-going physical growth must backfire. It cancels out what might be achieved by better zoning, more sophisticated management, greater densities and so forth. The same applies to new technology: it cannot cheat geology, entropy and ecology.
The scenarios also assumed the on-going availability of cheap and readily available power and other resources. An instance was in Scenario 3 which envisaged a thriving Newcastle airport linked by a new railway line to a new High Speed train line between Newcastle and Edinburgh. That scenario also included massive new housing covering most of the remaining farmland of SE Northumberland. In reality we face a future of ‘Peak Everything’, as Richard Heinberg puts it.. As the title of a very good study by Peter Victor puts it, the only valid scenario is one of “managing without growth”.
Perhaps the best way to start thinking about Newcastle’s future might be to look at the city in ecological terms first and foremost, then build social desiderata around that. It would mean engagement with ideas about carrying capacity, limits, ecofootprinting and physical resource flows in and out of the city. In the report ‘Newcastle City Futures 2065’, these are not exactly foregrounded. Fortunately, some cities abroad (with Bristol in the lead in the UK) do seem to be taking on board more genuinely visionary work.
Perhaps the people in the ‘Foresight’ programe circles see themselves as ‘realists’, thniking and arguing in ways that enable them to speak to those in the corridors of local and national power. Perhaps they see themselves as ‘movers and ‘shakers’. But, on the evidence of Newcastle council’s main plan for the future (the appalling ‘Core Strategy) and of national government policies, there may be movement from one conference to another but not much shaking of the status quo..