...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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February 27, 2006 || 3:52 pm
Housing density

Again...another week, another report. This time its the Policy Exchange promoting some seriously muddled thinking about family housing in cities and a version of planning gain levy which would apparently promote more family housing rather than 'too dense' flats, save our green spaces and make 'communities' roll over with happiness every time a developer wanted to build something in their area, rather than standing up and complaining as they apparently do all the time now.

There are two linked themes in here - the meaning of 'density' and how to provide a good urban environment for families. These themes cropped up a month or two ago in the ippr report on city centre living that concluded that city centres shouldn't try to accommodate families, and the myriad other attacks on 'density' that complain that the government's new targets are making our cities crammed and unsustainable, forcing families out. And many other recent pieces of commentary have criticised the regeneration of our town and city centres into monocultural zones for the young and childless, unwelcoming for families and lacking a real sense of community, blaming this on the culture of density stemming in part from the first urban task force report.

In a way, there's a point here. The way that local and national government is now measuring density does tilt the market towards one- and two-bed flats, because they insist on measuring in dwellings per hectare (dph), rather than habitable rooms per hectare (hrh). This, quite honestly, is stupid, because you can more profitably meet a target of, say, 200 dph, by building one bedroom flats than by building three bedroom homes, so the result is a monocultural population of transient 'first time buyers' who move on after three years and who stimulate demand for bars, clubs and clothes stores, rather than the more mixed economy and generous public realm demanded by families. Whereas, if you had a target of 400 hrh, it would be quite possible to meet this in four bedroom houses or flats.

This plays into the hands of the lobby that is trying to create a 'backlash against density' by citing the monothematic nature of a lot of new 'dense' development. They are using the facts to suit their own ends, of course, and to lobby for a deregulation of land use. The likes of CPRE, in their strange confluence of interests with radical urbanists and Richard Rogers, keep arguing for density and brownfield development. But they should keep their arguments valid and cut off the 'anti-density' lobby at its root by pushing for this fundamental change in the way density gets measured in this country.

The London Plan tries to do so by giving guidelines for both dph and hrh, but doesn't really go far enough and still makes a presumption for higher densities meaning more, smaller dwellings by giving guidelines for the number of habitable rooms per dwelling that should be achieved for different zones - less for the 'denser' areas near good transport, and larger dwellings for the areas further out. Though who needs to live closer to a public transport node - a mother juggling pushchairs, shopping and children, or a single young person with a handbag or briefcase?

The other point - how to provide family-friendly cities - is more loaded with assumptions. The first persistent myth is that families can't live happily at 'high' densities. To debunk which, just look at the fantastic family housing in New York, Paris or even most of London. Design is the issue - providing generous internal and external spaces, not microflats, with decent balconies, roof gardens, communal gardens, pavements to play on as Jane Jacobs observed in the 1970s. The second issue is the quality of the public realm and of the local social infrastructure. Again, generosity and space for pleasure: greenery, wide pavements, pocket parks, corner playgrounds, and schools, corner shops, activities that include all ages, space just to wander around and enjoy watching city life go by. This is the real issue - all of this costs money, of course, and local authorities simply find it easier, in effect, to designate areas child-free zones and not to have to worry about schools, nurseries, doctors and playgrounds. Section 106 - the current version of 'planning gain' that developers are meant to pay - goes mostly into grotty social housing (again, not generally for families despite the affordability of family housing being much a much greater issue) built in the most inaccessible corners of sites or neighbourhoods, not into infrastructure that might actually improve quality of life.

This is the issue that the Policy Exchange paper tries to address, but in fact muddles through in a horrible way. It proposes that the 'market' says that families would rather live in suburban-style housing, but that developers are stopped from building on greenfield sites and instead build on the "allotments, playing fields, parks and gardens" inside cities (a strange reversal of the 'selling off the playing fields' critique, given the right-wing nature of the PE). So, their deeply illogical conclusion is not that the greenbelt should be loosened up, or that better quality housing should be built inside cities without compromising on public space, but that communities should in effect be bribed not to object to their allotments being replaced by crap microflats, by a planning gain levy on development sites. If anyone can explain how that is logical or desirable, please let me know.

Every time this topic comes up in the office, we groan. One of my directors has four children, lives in a Barbican skyscraper, and is moving to an even more extraordinary city centre flat that she's building for herself practically on Old Street roundabout. She doesn't see any contradiction between her family life and living dead central in a buzzing part of the city. The real problem lies in the lack of investment in the public realm and social infrastructure that mixed family neighbourhoods require. To get this right depends on more bravery on the part of local government, and national (the current proposals for a new kind of planning gain certainly don't achieve this) to demand better quality development that in itself incorporates a decent public realm, rather than just offsetting its inadequacies by putting money into an ill-defined pot; and more commitment to the idea that city neighbourhoods can contain and should provide for both families and 'first-time buyers'. Social infrastructure and the public realm is what creates the 'sustainable communities' that we're meant to be aiming for. It needs to be built into development, not added on or compensated for, when it's lacking.


3:20 pm
Equal pay

Another day, another damning report with no surprises: a 17% average wage gap between men and women. In fact, men will earn £2.6m over their lifetimes (averaging around £57,000 p.a. if working from 20 to 65) as opposed to women earning £1m (an average of £22,000). Nice.

The depressing thing is that if you go back six years, you get an almost identical report. Nothing changes. And still, we don't get progress on equal paternity and maternity leave. In fact, it seems that the government is going to double women's right to maternity leave - to a year in 2009 - without increasing paternity leave at all. It will stay at two weeks, with the potential for six months unpaid leave only if the mother has returned to work.

Regular readers will know my views on this. It is blatant and institutional discrimination. While we face a bad 'baby gap' that threatens our future economic health, and while other civilised countries find that having decent paternity leave reaps real benefits, and a survey found that 80% of UK dads would be happy to care for their babies if only they had the chance, what is our government doing by sanctioning Victorian views on the place of women?

The fact is, as I bang on about time and time again, the pay gap will only get better if men and women are treated equally when they have kids. It should be equally 'risky' for an employer to take on a man approaching child-bearing age as it is to take on a woman. Then they will get equal chances of promotion and responsibility. All the other stuff - equal pay reviews, better careers advice, etc is important but the studies show time and time again that the big pay gap comes with kids and that is absolutely unacceptable.

I think maybe it's time for another campaign...Give us twelve months maternity leave that can be split between the parents as the parents wish. You don't have to force the man to take leave - but you shouldn't force the woman to either. Then let the arguments start erupting inside all those homes, as women discover what 'traditional' men they have married...and if one still finds that all the men go back to work while the women stay at home, well, blame the sisterhood for not having the guts to fight it out. But at least level the playing field first.


February 25, 2006 || 11:42 am
Boring conferences

I was forced to spend a day this week, as an experiment in whether it was a useful thing to do more often, at a terrifically dull conference at Earl's Court. Two things struck me:

a) What a rip-off! at around £250 per delegate, someone is making a lot of money. All to watch a few big-wigs give the same old speech as they always give, answer a couple of questions and then run off before you get the chance to buttonhole them yourselves or network at all; and then hear a lot of non-big-wigs ramble on with bad powerpoints about their latest fantastically awful projects; partake of crap catering; half-heartedly try to network despite the total lack of interesting people there or a decent way to meet them; and wander around a load of crap stands telling you nothing at all.

b) Everyone always says the same thing. Its voting for apple-pie and motherhood - we all want 'sustainable' 'communities', 'design quality', economic 'diversity', 'creativity', 'partnership working', etc., etc. Why is that all that people talk about, whether big-wig or not, at these things? What we actually need to be taught or at least discussing is how to get there. And that's where everyone will suddenly find that they either haven't a clue or disagree violently with each other. Is the first step in the process to send out a questionnaire to every local citizen or to employ a large economic consultant to do a needs assessment? Is it to meet with an official from the ODPM, or the local council, or DEFRA, or the local soup kitchen? How, in practical steps, do you actually work in partnership so that you get creative results and not another bland talking shop? Is 'design quality' about nautically-themed apartment blocks or Dutch minimalism, design codes, young architects or established volume contractors? Who decides?

These are the questions that we desperately need answers to - many answers as there is no one solution. There are brains out there who have been working on these things. Why, rather than presenting yet another lookalike 'strategy' for 'double devolution' (this weeks buzzword) or worse, can't they present the nuts and bolts of what they actually did during the last three years of their 'project', how it worked in detail. Then, maybe the boring officer-level types who attend these conferences might at least be able to learn something useful.

The problem is, of course, that most of these people have actually done nothing at all. They've written the strategies but not yet carried them out. And they keep avoiding carrying them out by commissioning yet more reports, studies, business plans, scared of making the leap into actually doing something radical so watering down the lofty rhetoric by the mundanity of the detail. What a waste of public money. How great for the consultancy industry (though, sadly not for consultants like us who keep the radicalism in and try to act as though things might actually happen, scaring off risk-averse clients) and what a massive tragedy for our citizens.


February 21, 2006 || 11:25 pm

What more exquisite pleasure than becoming the first English team to ever beat Real Madrid at home. I hadn't dared hope; and by the looks of things, neither had the BBC or the Guardian who both gave limp and somewhat perplexed early reviews to the game.

I could have been there - but my last minute ticket offer conflicted with meetings (not the equal of a date with Real, but necessary to attend) and I credit our win with my absence, having the feeling that my intense jealousy at the boy's attendance at the match would entail even greater jealousy at him witnessing us doing London proud. But, to counter the early reviews, it wasn't just about Thierry. The whole team put in exceptional performances, full of commitment. The number of tackles won, headers reached at the risk of injury, balls booted bravely out of play when needed - our captain should surely now sign a new contract, seeing the passion that can be ignited within the team when he gives them a chance. It should also show him that we play our best when he also commits rather than spending his time raising his hands in frustration and giving Gallic 'bouf's to his teammates whenever a pass goes awry.

But enough of the dissection; we are all on Cloud Nine. This is what football is all about; and I still think I'm dreaming.


February 20, 2006 || 10:27 pm

Apologies again for lack of posts. I had a lovely break in Kerala last week, far from emails, computers, English grey February days. It was my first time in the most 'equitable' state in India, famed for its successful war against the caste system, its 91% literacy rate, welfare system and supposed equality of women, thanks to its communist government - the first democratically elected one in the world, dating to 1957.

What I saw of Kerala certainly stood out against my previous brief visit to Delhi and Ahmedabad. Granted, this time I was a tourist pure and simple, not seeking out slum dwellers or sprawling rubbish dumps. But nevertheless, I saw less beggars, almost no street children and plenty of, if not wealthy, at least decently living people, even on the bus journey through the outskirts of the city of Cochin where you might expect to see endless slums and wretched poverty.

We saw the famous, beautiful and ingenious Chinese fishing nets, dipping back and forth slowly on the shore, rarely seeming to catch anything more than a handful of sardines, being snapped by slightly flaccid Western tourists living out their somewhat hippy dreams from the late 1960s in a way commensurate to their entry into the mainstream of holidaying society. We watched sunsets on the beach alongside Keralans who all seem to come out too at that time of day, to perch on rocks, eating twists of roasted nuts, watching the sun disappear into the haze of the horizon. And the extraordinary synagogue, made famous by Salman Rushdie in The Moors Last Sigh, the remnant of a Jewish community dating back perhaps to Babylonian times and certainly to the first century AD, and now reduced to a mere four families thanks to the incentives to emigrate from the Israeli government. Its hand-painted Chinese tiles, dating to 1100, and strange trompe l'oeil ceiling were magical and odd, the mixture of the European and the Indian something very particular to Kerala as a whole.

Elsewhere, old Portuguese churches - grand and large in the cities, similar in atmosphere to some remote Andalucian or southern Italian churches with their naive, gaudily painted statuary bleeding drops of lurid red paint against impossibly pink skin. In the backwaters, where we spent an extraordinary three days in a watery world, they are smaller, even more naive, thick with the accumulated layers of slightly blue-tinted whitewash that gives them a somewhat papier-mache air, like the effigies that get burnt as ceremonial fireworks in Mexico, similarly garlanded with flowers. Adorable nuns and impossible cute schoolchildren murmur lessons behind barred windows or traipse along the dusty paths in impeccable uniforms. Jesus, on top of a tower or column, carries an umbrella to shade him from the strong sun, as do the nuns.

The backwaters life was extraordinary, eccentric and moving. A completely different form of human life, occupying thin strips of solid land between canals and marshy paddy fields or partially reclaimed swamp, everything dictated by the water. Thin slipper-like canoes seemed almost an extension of the human body. Women (liberated? I don't know) rhythmically slapping their washing on smooth flat stones by the waters edge was a sound that accompanied us everywhere, from dawn till dusk. They stood knee-deep in the canals, saris hitched up, swinging the clothes with a weary accustomed air, sounding like the beavers that I heard in the swampy rivers of Alabama. Or washing metal pots and dishes with a very particular movement unlike how we wash dishes and scooping water up with them to fling into the air.

Men with wider canoes often work fetching mud (for reclaiming land) or sand (for building work) from the bottom of the canals - a human dredging act that looked horrendously taxing, diving down with a basket or metal tray, scooping up mud or sand and rising to tip it into the canoe until it was heavy and the edges only an inch or two above water, when they paddle it to its destination, unload, return and repeat. These mudmen, dressed only a ragged white loincloth, were wiry and, given the pollution of the water (not as bad as the urban watercourses but still the repository for everyone's shit and rubbish) I dreaded for their health - but they always smiled at us, even so.

For some reason, there's a lot of duck farming on the backwaters (again, I dread the inevitable advent of bird flu) with the flocks swimming around or dabbling on the edge of paddy fields like flocks of sheep, crowded together in large herds although not penned in, with seemingly no desire to escape from the crowd. I saw one 'herd' get shepherded by a man in a canoe, gently moving them along to a little ramp leading up from the water which they obediently waddled up and over to the field on the other side. Very strange.

We were floating on one of the ubiquitous 'houseboats' - converted rice barges that ferry tourists around with a driver or two and a cook to cater, luxuriously though simply, to your every whim. Breakfast of fresh pineapple, Keralan steamed rice cakes or eggs and chapatis; lunch of spicy fried fish, a myriad of little vegetable dishes, puffed-up pappadums and rice; tea -time with banana fritters or bean cakes; dinner of fish or meat, maybe a kind of Keralan biryani, occasionally a pudding. It's on the one hand, a horrendously decadent way to travel - you don't need to lift a finger, just lying on the shaded deck reading or watching the world go by, stopping for the odd church, eating and drinking tea. On the other, our boat was also very simple - no TV or radio, no frills, no endless hassling to buy tourist tat from the shops of uncles and brothers or nudging winks about whether we wanted to get drunk on local booze. We stopped by the house of the skipper's aunt one day to drink fresh coconut juice and laugh at jokes in Malayalam that we couldn't understand but still found hilarious, and then our skipper, after serving us our delicious dinner, shyly asked if it would be OK, but he lived just across the water and he wanted to go home to stay the night.

Altogether it was an incredibly beautiful, restful and eye-opening week's break. A different, calmer, more harmonious-seeming (at least, to my untutored eye) India. However, its amazing how quickly that sense of easy well-being can leave you after several hours of airplane airconditioning and the rude shock of cold England. Plus, the boy returned with me and has full-on jetlag after his ten weeks away, so keeps waking up at 4am. Which doesn't exactly do wonders from my state of Zen-like calm...


February 05, 2006 || 8:53 pm
Market forces

Since coming back to Cheshire Street after over a year away, I've noticed a lot of changes on my beloved East End Sunday markets. Actually, they're really quite radical changes - seemingly having altered more in that year than in the three and a half previous years that I've lived in Bethnal Green.

Firstly, you no longer have to get up at 8am to catch the best of the market. It used to be that all the good stuff was gone by 9 (well - all the really good stuff was gone by 6) and the whole market packed up around midday - at least, the bits I loved the most, being the dodgy stolen-goods flea-market super-cheap non-organic veggies and headless dolls bits. Now the whole thing barely kicks off before 10. Well, a few little bits do - but this is really symptomatic of the massive underlying shift in clientele and legality. No longer headless dolls and stolen bikes underneath my windows. No - the police have decided that the market can't happen any further down Cheshire Street than the Carpenters, and certainly no dodgy stolen random crap. That doesn't mean, of course, that people don't still sell the most random things in the more 'legal' part of the market - but it certainly means that if I come back home at 3am on a Sunday morning, there isn't the same throng of early-bird dealers and wheelers starting to stake out the territory, peering at chairs in the gloam to see if they can spot a genuine antique or smoking under the streetlights in that way which makes London still so Dickensian.

And of course, the Carpenters Arms is no longer functional, so one can no more get an 8am pint to sip on the pavement while selling or browsing. And even the posh bit on Brick Lane itself and in Spitalfields - well, I got there the other day around 10 and there was nary a stall to be seen - everyone still unloading their vans. Incredible. It used to be almost unbearably crowded by 10 in the olden days. But now, you can go down at nearly 5pm and its still just about going - the real crush comes around 12-3 or 4 - so strange, and yet I know I haven't really the right to mourn.

Even the cute kooky shops on my street are opening later than they used to. 11am for Labour and Wait and all the rest, when it used to be 10. I'm a late riser so you might think this would suit me, but actually I would rather it still woke me up early, that lovely sound of just people buzzing on the street below, footsteps, no cars, the odd little call-out. I liked getting up earlier to beat the rush - the benefit of being a local - and then retiring to have a coffee or go home when all the outsider trendy crowds arrived. But somehow its just not quite the same, beating the crowds when its still only 10.30. I also liked the fact that people coming from across town had to make that real effort to get up early too, to hunt down the real stuff, the good vintage clothes or stolen old-school cycles. Now - well, its just a little bit too easy. And you don't really find that much good stuff any more, either.

Still, some elements of the illegality survive and change, too. The DVD trade has expanded massively and become an entirely Chinese operation, extremely well-organised, with a man or woman every few yards down Cheshire Street selling porn and children's films, the latest Hollywood blockbusters and the latest Bollywood alongside the latest X-rated girl-on-girl, all 3 for a fiver or some ridiculously low price. When the police arrive they are adept at vanishing, as are the Eastern European cigarette sellers.

But all in all, with the opening of the 'up-market' in the Truman brewery and the decline in the dubious trading down my end, the balance has shifted in favour of more handbags and printed t-shirts, organic pastries and badly-made young designer dresses. And that's even without the next stage of evolution that can be seen in full flow at the far end of Spitalfields, where the stalls have been squeezed out, Norman Foster architecture pushing in, and you get chain crap like Giraffe and (oh, sell-out) Patisserie Valerie catering to Boden-clad professional couples with mewling brats in oversized strollers.

Sigh. I'm such an old codger. But at least, the Mon-Sat market on Bethnal Green Road hasn't changed hardly one bit. I can buy my winkles and spuds undisturbed...


8:22 pm
Open your eyes

I've been following Go Magazine's campaign to make Sheffield's cooling towers into Britain's biggest public artwork and the other day, I came across their more expanded manifesto for the future of Sheffield. In the clearest possible way, they say exactly the same things that we try to persuade our clients of, whether in Canning Town or Dorset - "If you want a city strategy, all you need to do is open your eyes."

"It seems obvious to us: if you want your city to be famous, you have to make it different to other places. The greenery, the music, the friendliness: these make it different to other cities. So it's these that could draw people to Sheffield, make it a place to visit, an individual city...A strategy for the city has to be based on these things. It's the only way to make Sheffield stand out. All the brilliant plus points of Sheffield that you and I see every day, the things that make us love our city, brought to the fore instead of brushed under the carpets. This city could be amazing."

Their strategy is based on a few simple things based in the intrinsic character of Sheffield - Green City, Music City, Modern City, Punk City. The language that they are using is much more up-front, ballsy and, dare I say, effective than the kind of language that we use at work, which tried perhaps too hard sometimes to be serious enough to be taken seriously by the men in suits. (Of course, they aren't in this instance trying to suggest actual spatial strategies, masterplans, policies or programmes - which is where most or our bureaucrat-speak probably comes in, at least we hope.) But here's a bunch of people with genuine passion for the city, a intimate and wonderful knowledge of its every strange and beautiful corner and a whole load of great ideas for what to do about it.

All I hope is that, as Jeremy Till beat us to the British Pavilion in the Venice architecture biennale this year with the concept of doing Sheffield (rather than our utterly ace and totally timely idea about getting radical with the countryside), he's calling these kids up. Or if the kids read this, hope you call him up, sharpish.


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