Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Letters from Malmo

Good news today! Mend has been invited to present a paper at the "Psychoanalysis and Politics Summer Symposium" in Malmo, Sweden. The Symposium will be looking at the theme of "Narratives and Collective Fantasies" and will look at the junction of politics and psychoanalysis with literature, rhetorics, film, linguistics, etc.

We are ridiculously excited and not just because we've been reliably informed that the venue is so close to the sea that we can take a swim during breaks - oh, go on then!

Our abstract was submitted earlier in December and outlined our "Psychotherapy for places" idea that we posted on here a few weeks ago. We now have an opportunity and incentive to explore and develop this idea in time for the symposium in August.

Our basic concept is that places have personalities that are as complex and multi-layered as people. The theme of narrative and collective fantasy hooks onto this idea: that a place or the city itself is a character that we develop in our cultural imagination. In literature the Victorians talked about the Pathetic Fallacy- where descriptions of the landscape and the weather are used as a metaphor for human emotions and relationships.

Film and graphic novels take it a step further. The setting of a film (and a novel) is picked specifically to evoke a particular feel, emotion and social context. Blade Runner was a key source in my Planning MPhil because of the way the city itself is brooding and in conflict just like the main character. A powerful illustration of the relationship between our environment and our behaviour - and not messing with Darryl Hannah! Interestingly the Architects Journal presented their Top Ten Comic Book Cities in 2009 as a selection of the greatest illustrated urban spaces - there are stunning ones in there such as Dean Motter's Radiant City and of course Gotham City.

The graphic novel genre is a unique in that the city becomes more than just a backdrop to the frame of each illustration - it is a character itself. The city is used to communicate and illustrate the story so in this way urban space is read as text - it carries symbols, signs and meanings that we interpret visually as comic book illustration. This act of reading space is itself evidence that space is capable of holding and attaching emotional and behavioural information that we can then read.

The panels can present a distorted and mutated city to make or it can be brutally accurate pointing out warts and all - or it can be softened and sanitised, heavily stylised to appear beautiful and other-wordly, or nostalgic presenting an idyllic view of life as golden. Whichever, the graphic novel helps illustrate perfectly how place can have a personality.

Graphic Novels and comics grew as urban life grew and their depiction and portrayal of city life - whether its futuristic sci-fi terms, or the undeterred city detective, or underworlds and sub-cultures - have single-handedly managed to convey the personality and contemporary visualisation of what cities look like for over 100 years. We have them to thank for thinking that cities all look like Gotham City! (See the excellent "Comics and The City" J. Ahrens eds. 2010)

So these are the sort of things we will draw upon when we explore our ideas. We will keep you posted....maybe via comic strip...

The symposium is being organised by the Norwegian Psychoanalytical Society/University of Oslo/University of Copenhagen

Photo Credits: Dean Motter and Marc Antoine Mathieu

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Localism and other fairytales

The forthcoming Localism Bill is being speculated upon left right and centre. If the delays in publishing it are a cynical drive by the coalition to divert attention away from a myriad other hot political potatoes then it is almost working. The proposals will have far reaching influences upon the way local decision making will take place in our local areas, our interface with local authorities and require a level of community cohesion, joint mindedness and a commitment to working for the common wonder debate is raging.

However, way back in 2001 when New Labour published its "Strong Local Leadership, Quality Local Services" it spelled out that “By removing restrictions and requirements on planning, spending and decision-making and providing new powers to trade and charge, we will free up councils to innovate and deliver tangible improvements in the quality of services and effective community leadership.”

Sound familiar? It’s not the first time policy has been recycled, repackaged and resold?

Many are seeing the proposed relaxation of planning permission and increase in local decision-making as a traditional Tory assault on the planning profession reminiscent of the “jobs locked up in filing cabinets” sentiment of the Thatcher days. A further trip down memory lane would elicit such gems as “been spending most my life living in a NIMBY paradise” “Me & Mrs Jones (and her fat brown envelopes)” and “an unscrupulous developer ate my greenbelt”.

Except these are the things people are complaining will happen under Localism. Is this really all that public planning debate really amounts to still? Who is to blame for this cynical and stereotypical outlook on what planning is about and for? Why is it that people only engage with the planning system when they are thoroughly browned off, want to complain or officially object? How did it become such a deficit model?

Planners? Well, what have we as a planning profession done to alter the perception of us as process monkeys seduced by the resounding kerrr-thunk of the “REFUSED” stamp? For most local people the planning process is a mystery, shrouded in tiny fonts, aggressive institutional-speak, over-the-top bureaucracy, inability to see things without the safety blanket of policy and a funfair of forms. Is this fit-for-purpose and in the public interest? No. It alienates people and divorces them from their local area by sticking up all manner of opportunities for them to go: “it’s just not worth it.” That is not good enough.

Councils? Councils are in the proverbial rock and a hard place; refuse development and they risk stifling any chance of local recovery; so under pressure to let development through it risks chucking hard-won goals to weave strategic, balanced and consultative planning framework
s out of the window. RSS’s have gone, LEPS are coming, LDF’s and AAP’s sit alongside outmoded UDP’s and the landscape is getting very crowded......oh and with less resources. But committee meetings are death by typeset, unsociable hours and go on forever. Why would anyone ever want to sit through that?!

Central Government: to quote Greg Clarke “The current sum of circulars, policy statements and so forth is bigger than the complete Works of Shakespeare, and not nearly as entertaining. Guidance on this scale flirts with the absurd: there’s no way a practitioner can keep it all in mind. “Thanks for your concern, but actually I know many a planner that prides themselves on being able to do this! It didn’t all arrive overnight. Some of us write, research, study and argue it out in court not to mention implement it on a daily basis! These people are also unlikely to be person reading your lovingly laminated planning notice in 5pt arial tied to a lamppost at the dark end of the street.....

Developers? Ah planning, the whipping boy of the development process and then some. Got an issue with your development – got to be something to do with planning! Why can’t I develop what I want, where I want, with what I want and not ask anyone what they think and then just walk away when I’ve got my magic number? Planning is a necessary evil guarding against unfettered development and irresponsible land use. It’s not perfect, is open to abuse and has many holes but it is there for a reason – to protect local areas and local communities from being rode roughshod. Developers need to engage with communities in ways that avoid the adversarial and that means real dialogue and real relationships.

Us? Afraid of putting local decision-making on planning in local hands? It’s as if you expect local people to just be in it to screw each other, self-promote, thwart everyone else’s happiness? It’s not like we are tone deaf when it comes to design, woefully narrow minded and petty, always moaning and never thinking beyond the garden fence? Well, there are a lot of people who ar
e interested and do care but don’t have the time, resources or skills to participate. Or they did once and they were roundly patronised and ignored. Or this is the umpteenth time I’ve been asked to do this now why will this time be different? It will only be different if we make it different.

OK I’m playing devil’s (pro-bono) advocate but it seems to me that we are all culpable. As a planner I would naturally say that it is for the planning profession to step up to the plate and change perceptions of us just being about fulfilling a process and more about enabling it. Communities, councils, developers, activists, businesses, organisations all have a role to play in that process. The real question is what will a planning system look like without planners?

Planners have to manage a wide variety of diverse and often conflicting issues, seeking the best outcome that marries the local with the global and represents wide interest whilst also thinking strategically and decades into the future. That is a craft and a skill and should not be undervalued and undermined. We need to be vocal and assertive about this and the need for sound planning rigour to underpin any transfer of power and decision-making to communities. Without it we could be counting the costs and consequences for a long time. Planners are not the vanguards of doom (mostly).

Localism could make a difficult and convoluted process even more so. Or it can provide an opportunity to offer clarity to local people, restore trust and faith in the planning process and profession, allow proper engagement between developers and the people they will be affecting and finally......treat community as client instead of receiver.

Or.....maybe that’s just my fairytale.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

wild hackney tonight!

the first meeting of the wild hackney project is being held tonight and we hope you can join us to talk street art. we have had some great responses from street art blogs across the world, artists, writers, the media and local politicians so we are all fired up and ready to demonstrate some localism. 6.30, Fellows Court Community Centre, Weymouth Terrace E2 8LR - the Council have already agreed to review their policy and now it is up to us to get in there and get our hands dirty.

photo from