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It’s time for a ‘massive small’ approach to places

same-old-thinkingThe solution to ‘wicked issues’ is not a new big idea but massive small change, says Julian Dobson

One book I was particularly pleased to receive this year was The Radical Incrementalist, Kelvin Campbell and Rob Cowan’s urban manifesto and pattern book. It’s a call to open up the space for ground-up, incremental, experimental approaches to urban design and planning.

The problem with the system, they argue, is not that it’s broken: it’s the fact that people imagine there are big, systemic solutions for our urban problems. And that bigness, they say, will inevitably fail. The solution is not a new big idea but ‘massive small change’.

It’s a well-argued case, backed by examples from cities across the world, from Caracas to Mumbai. And it’s a case that sits well with a belief in localism and genuinely empowered communities. But it’s only one side of the coin.

Over three decades of regeneration-watching I’ve seen countless small-scale, radical, incremental projects wither because they have not won the support they deserved at different scales: urban, regional, national and international. And the events of 2016, across policy and practice, suggest that the case for radical incrementalism can only succeed if there are changes at the ‘massive’ scale too.

Put bluntly, no amount of radical, small-scale, exciting and sexy innovation will compensate for neglect, complacency and procrastination at a systemic level. And those have been the hallmarks of UK policy for nearly two thirds of a decade.

Their consequences are becoming visible in a housing crisis in which the moderately well-off struggle to rent a shoebox and the poorest end up on the streets; a crisis of poverty which has led to people going cold and hungry at a scale nobody would have imagined just ten years ago; and a climate crisis that policymakers seem to believe will go away if they make the right magical commitments and sign totemic agreements.

These crises will not disappear, and radical incrementalism – whether through co-operative housing schemes, local voluntary action or community-owned energy projects – will not solve them unaided. What they can offer is what’s known as prefigurative action: modelling the society you wish to see.

But the point of prefigurative action, if it is to avoid vanishing into navel-gazing utopianism, is to influence and permeate the mainstream, pushing the powerful to pay attention. The ‘massive small’ needs to be part of a coherent story, venturing beyond the ‘big is bad’ anti-establishment rhetoric so skilfully played by the Brexit and Trump camps in 2016.

My research over the last couple of years has focused on cities and climate change, and specifically on how the ‘anchor institutions’ in UK cities can play a part in the transition to a more sustainable economy and society. Adapting to climate change and preventing its worst outcomes could be part of a story that brings together social justice, community ownership, economic investment and technological innovation.

Since Theresa May took over as prime minister we have had a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There has been stronger rhetoric about investment in research and infrastructure. Much of that investment is in business as usual: more roads, faster broadband, a big heritage project. Nothing game-changing.

Serious investment, driven by serious purposes, takes risks and has goals. It allows space to experiment and it resources those experiments adequately. Let’s take air quality as just one issue where there is potential for genuine change.

Concerted action on air quality could make our cities more attractive for businesses, healthier for residents, and less carbon-intensive. It could help to prevent up to 50,000 premature deaths every year, according to MPs. Low-emissions buses, it has been estimated, could deliver £248m in social benefits across the UK by 2020.

That requires big decisions, not just small ones. Last month the think tank IPPR put forward a plan to phase out diesel vehicles in inner London, a measure that it estimates could increase Londoners’ life expectancy by 1.7 months.

Such calls aren’t just coming from the left-leaning, greener end of the policy spectrum. The free-market think tank Policy Exchange has also mooted proposals to shift government support from polluting technologies such as diesel farms to cleaner technologies like battery storage, even suggesting carbon taxes for ‘diesel farms’ used to provide standby power for the National Grid.

Some cities are already moving in the right direction. Nottingham has taken a lead in replacing diesel buses with electric transport and investing in its tram network. But local authorities can do little to address the major cause of poor air quality, which is the impact of thousands of private cars and vans.

Courageous and coherent national policy can make a difference – either crudely, through additional levies on diesel fuel, or creatively, by incentivising cleaner alternatives, from large-scale investment in charging points for electric vehicles to the promotion of city car clubs, to investment in fast, modern electric buses.

Across the piece, we need policies that take climate change seriously enough to make Britain’s carbon reduction commitments a realistic prospect rather than a well-meaning aspiration. Ten years after Sir Nicholas Stern’s landmark report on the economics of climate change, his verdict is that action has been too slow. The scope for kicking big decisions down the road is diminishing fast.

Having the ‘right’ policies won’t solve all our problems or prevent new ones. ‘Wicked issues’ have a habit of coming back in new guises, because today’s solutions tend to be tomorrow’s challenges. But devising policies that are conscious of that likelihood, that are strategic but adaptable and give local innovators the confidence to take risks in a supportive policy environment, will make a big difference. Maybe even a massive small difference.

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