Russell Wallis was one of the Academicians in the assessment team that visited two of the three shortlisted cities for the 2011 award.
Being part of an Academy of Urbanism (AoU) assessment team tests you both professionally and physically. A shared learning event, the team uses its combined experience to get under the skin of a place, to learn about local best practice and exchange our own knowledge and experience with that of our hosts. You listen a lot, you talk a lot, you learn a lot and you walk a lot, which inevitably leads to at least one of the group succumbing to a characteristic limp which the Lead Assessor Chris Balch assures me is known as Urbanist’s Leg.
This was my second experience of being part of an AoU assessment team for the 2011 awards. For a first outing I chose to stay local and was really pleased to be able to join the Great Street assessment team when they assessed Steep Hill, Lincoln earlier this year. Driving rain failed to dampen the enthusiasm of either the assessment group or our hosts and I came away prouder than ever of the City where Globe is based.
Being part of an assessment team for Gothenburg and Oslo, two of three shortlisted Cities for the AoU European City of the Year 2011 award, was however of a different magnitude.
Day one got most of us independently to Gothenburg, Sweden on a hot sunny Sunday afternoon, which provided some time as a tourist to explore the streets and sample the local taste for staggeringly strong coffee. Arrive in Gothenburg and you are immediately struck by the significance that water plays in segmenting the City, both into two halves, north and south and then into smaller portions created by canals and the historic city moat with its distinctive zig zag format.
Days two and three got off to a slightly different start with an exaggerated repeat of Lincoln’s rain, so we arrived with our new hosts as a damp and slightly dishevelled team to begin a round of fascinating presentations, site visits and informal conversations. These covered a range of issues and approaches, including explaining newly developed tool kits being used to engage children and young people in the City’s planning process. It is very humbling to receive such a high quality of presentation from people who are speaking in a foreign language and who are giving up so much of their time to present, explain and show the urban and policy framework of their City.
From an economic development point of view a couple of key things struck me about Gothenburg;
Firstly that the City has made extensive use of companies owned or controlled by the public sector to deliver a whole range of services and regeneration tasks. These companies are strongly profit motivated and provide a flexible and responsive vehicle for the politians on their boards. It was interesting to learn that there is a history of tough negotiation between the companies when the community objectives of one affect the profits of another. All of this takes place, of course, against a complex and fairly inclusive social welfare and housing structure, which seemed to me to be a reflection of the sense of civic pride and responsibility that we encountered throughout the visit.
Secondly, the huge scale of regeneration and economic restructuring that the city has seen, and continues to undertake, as it translates former ship building docks into new mixed use developments. Gothenburg is a company town, which takes nothing away from its efforts to diversify the economy, with businesses such as Volvo, Ericson, SKF and Astra Zenica being centred there. Employment has therefore tended to be in big organisations, making the task of developing new small companies even more of a challenge than normal. The regeneration and development effort is however greatly assisted by the fact that the municipality owns most of the development land, which has allowed it to work closely with its universities to develop new science parks and support innovation.
What were my key learning points?
That finding a genuine role for children and young people in the urban planning process is an essential way to engage future citizens and ensures that their voices are heard in the community before rather than after development takes place.
That the use of commercially viable cultural events alongside a range of significant arts related activity has been used to very good effect as part as a long term strategy to encourage the migration of residents into new regeneration areas that were previously seen as unattractive and undesirable.
That there is a role for third party mediation in the regeneration/development process, providing a buffer between community interest groups and regeneration companies (however benevolent), to ensure that development and community interests are treated equally.
If you visit Gothenburg (which you should) take an umbrella.
Day Four ended with an excellent lunch from our hosts before boarding the train for a rather slow journey to Oslo. Travelling in the EU we have all become rather unaware of borders, so absorbed in writing draft proposal, I’d failed to notice the passing of two sniffer dogs only to be politely interrupted by a Norwegian Border Guard. Some confusion ensued as my passport and luggage were both in different places because like the rest of our group I’d migrated through the carriage in search of power points and coffee. I’m pleased to say however that it all ended without incident, which allowed me to work with the lead assessor Chris Balch along with the rest of the team feeding comments into the assessment framework for the remainder of the journey.
Our arrival in Oslo was greeted by a burst of sunshine which allowed us to get to the hotel just before the start of the heaviest rainfall for 120 something years but once over, the remainder of our visit was in brilliant sunshine.
Day Five started our visit to Oslo at the Radhus (City Hall), a large imposing building in the centre of the city that many of the group, including me, rather bizarrely failed to find on the first pass. Once gathered however we had the opportunity to admire the hall used for the Nobel Prize ceremonies before meeting our hosts for an introduction to the City, its political structure and its planning framework.
As before, the standard of presentations and use of English was exceptional and our hosts went out of their way to make time for questions and discussions to help us understand the challenges and successes of the City.
A driving characteristic of Oslo is a very strongly protected equivalent of our green belt concept to protect the forest and farm land that forms the backdrop to the City. Development is therefore focused on increasing density and using brown field land. We were already aware, from some fairly strong lobbying on our first evening, that the construction of high rise development and a focus on development on the now redundant port areas at the edge of the Fiord were not universally popular. It was clear however, that the massive investment being made in road infrastructure and the use of congestion taxes to encourage modal shift is generating large areas of quality public space within the city centre and on the waterfront. This has started to create pedestrian friendly environments and tram routes alongside high density high rise buildings in a City where 90% of development plans come from the private sector.
The level of growth in Oslo is very significant, running at 2% per annum since 2007 with the highest birth rate in Europe whilst unemployment remains at 3%.
Regeneration and re-use of buildings were strongly in evidence, driven both by public sector initiatives working with multiple land owners and through large scale private sector development. It was interesting to note and contrast with England, the levels of confidence being shown in Oslo by creating new mixed use streets without obvious anchor food retailers, allowing a variety of small and medium retail outlets to emerge at ground floor.
The presence of water is very strong in both Norway and Sweden, and Oslo is in the process of re-opening many small rivers that were previously culvorted in order to bring interest and diversity back into the urban landscape. We saw at least one example where this approach was being used as the starting point to encourage mixed use development to emerge in what had previously been fairly sterile area of small scale commercial/industrial development.
Day Six and one of the final parts of our visit was to go to a housing suburb with market failure. An area with significant challenges in which 90% of residents aged between 0-20 years are from minority groups and where 143 different languages were spoken.
I spent much of my early career working on city fringe projects in deprived communities so I arrived with a set of preconceptions that proved to be 100% wrong. Firstly, like Gothenburg, Oslo’s failing estates have to be viewed from the starting point of the social and tax infrastructure of the country. Even in areas of market failure home ownership is higher than 80% and a significant proportion of the apartment blocks we saw were under renovation, not by the state but by the owner co-operatives that manage them.
Clearly there were problems and challenges in these areas, but there was evidence of well directed and resourced responses to everything from gang culture and crime reduction to kindergarten provision to assist working parents, and the creation of meeting places that are valued by residents. To put the scale of the interventions into perspective the annual budget for the community intervention project was greater than the combined capital and revenue budgets of some English district councils.
What were my key learning points?
That highway improvements being undertaken in parallel with public transport investment (rather than as an alternative) can achieve modal shift, whilst ensuring that private drivers directly fund a proportional part of the investment. The target is to move from 31% to 61% public transport market share – currently on target.
That incentivising urban ecology in new development works (within the context of the Norwegian economy) when it is backed up with serious penalties for failing to meet agreed goals. Oslo uses fines and claw back at twice the level of any grant offered if a goal is not achieved.
The level of population growth coupled with national taxation and housing policy is driving an increased urban density which is bringing with it growth in small business and business innovation through the creation of private sector led new mixed use areas. With 3% unemployment and a predicted 50% increase in the older population, experience appears to be highly valued and people are being encouraged to stay in employment to fuel this growth rather than to plug a pension gap.
Norway (and Sweden) have virtually no social housing. Almost everyone owns their own home, often as part of housing co-operative. State ‘housing’ benefits go to the individual allowing them to generate equity in their property and tax laws incentivise and support property purchase. It seems that it is therefore possible for almost anyone to join the property ladder if they wish to do so.
That, when looking at Norway it is important to keep in mind that the county, unlike the UK, has managed and invested its North Sea oil revenues to create a significant legacy of funding. Coupled with social policy and taxation this has created a society with relatively small pay differentials and a completely different housing structure that actively encourages ownership as a means of encouraging social responsibility. 80% of residents say Oslo is a good city to live in – so it seems to be working.
My final comment is to thank all of our hosts and presenters and to say how much I enjoyed being part of such an experienced team, they certainly kept me on my toes with interesting discussion, challenge and observation from breakfast to bedtime throughout the whole visit.
The Academy team members were; Chris Balch Lead Assessor, Professor of Planning University of Plymouth, Kevin Murray AoU Chairman, Kevin Murray Associates, Roger Evans Managing Director Studio Real, Jinty Balch Director Savills, Ann Wallis Director Culture Partners, Ian Todd Managing Director Studio Todd, Jas Atwal, Jas Atwal Associates, Nick Corbett Director Transforming Cities, Michele Grant, Director Blue Sail, Linda Gledstone, Academy of Urbanism, Russell Wallis, Director Globe Consultants.
The choice of the European City of The Year 2011 will be decided by a ballot of all Academicians and announced at the Academy’s Awards Events in November 2011.