On Monday evening, Creative Exchange and Engage Liverpool are holding an event to investigate improving the planning process, as part of Creative Exchange's Open Planning project.
Given that I walk round the city lots, and have an interest in how it evolves, I often stop to read the planning notices posted up on lampposts to see what is being proposed. That's how I spotted that we were set to lose the Banksy Rat (which sadly has gone, although we're three-and-a-half years down the line and the building is only just nearing completion now).
The problem with notices posted on lampposts is that you have to spot them. And stop long enough to read them. And if you want to know more you have to try to remember a code for the application and then remember to check on the council website when you get back to a computer. Plus you won't necessarily spot ones round the corner if that's not somewhere you regularly walk, and you can't keep an eye on other areas in the country. I still have a house in Cambridge, so it would be handy if I could maintain an awareness of what's going on around there.
All of this is stuff that the Internet should make much easier, and a couple of years ago it did. There was a lovely civic-minded website called Planning Alerts. It let me define an area around a postcode (so I looked within half-a-mile or so of my house in Cambridge, and across most of the city centre and Georgian Quarter here in Liverpool) and then whenever there was a new planning application in one of those areas I got an email that told me about it.
It was great, but sadly fell foul of the misguided belief that it was better for us citizens if third-parties were made to pay to licence the postcode database.
It seems that Openly Local has made attempts to provide the same functionality, although it's hard to find on their site - I had to resort to guessing URLs to try to find the page of planning applications in Liverpool, and it doesn't seem to have been updated for almost a year.
That's good, but seems rather coarse-grained. I'd get all of the planning applications for Liverpool, whereas I'd prefer to limit it to a smaller area. I'm interested in what happens in Everton or West Derby, for example, but not at the level of reading every planning application.
So, as a first step I'd like something that restores the level of functionality provided by Planning Alerts.
Beyond that it would be good if there was some way for people who were interested in a particular area or application to find each other and discuss proposals.
I know that sounds like I'm suggesting a discussion board, or forum, but I'm not.
Planning applications aren't something that I want to discuss frequently enough to visit a website dedicated just to that. The discussion needs to come to where I already hang out. In my case, that's Twitter, but for others it would be Facebook. Hashtags (on Twitter at least) are the way that people congregate around a given subject, so reuse those. Maybe spark up a new hashtag for each application, something like the first half of the postcode, plus a unique number, for example #L1_325 for the 325th application in central Liverpool; or #CB4_88 for the 88th application on the Cambridge business park.
The new-planning-alerts website could then aggregate and display the latest discussion on a page for the application, but would be pointing people to where the conversation was happening. Yes, you'd split debate across Twitter and Facebook, but you wouldn't have to police a discussion forum and it would widen participation as other Twitter followers would see the hashtags and maybe join in.
This is all hand-waving and ignoring the problem that many people aren't as engaged online or even have Internet access. Providing SMS alerts as well as the email alerts would widen the coverage, although not completely.
I have long wondered (though annoyingly never blogged about, despite regularly wanting to point to it!) whether a Neighbourhood Printer would help bridge that gap. The idea being to stick Internet-connected printers (just a laser-printer) into corner shops, etc., which would print-on-demand the recent planning alerts, useful notices from the council, and also blog posts from relevant local blogs. (Looking at some of the information on Openly Local it does feel a bit like it could be the Openly Local paper edition). Pair it with routes into learning about computers and the Internet for people who then realise there's something useful on the Internet, and repurpose some of the techniques from Walking Papers and you start to take the Internet out to areas where it doesn't normally reach. If anyone wants to fund me building a few to test things out, get in touch!
Finally, the focus on planning applications often leads to people trying to stop things happening, rather than encouraging them. How can we find ways to bring people together to discuss and organise ways to make their locality better? Projects like I Wish This Was and YIMBY are an interesting start. How do we get more of that?
Last night I thought I'd finally found a way into writing the blog post I've been labouring over for the past week (and in fact, parts of it have been percolating in my brain in various forms for months). However, I happened to read this article railing against the gentrification-through-shipping-containers of a pop-up shopping mall in London, which took me off down a different rabbit-hole. So you'll have to wait a bit longer to hear about viruses, culture and innovation. Sorry.
The rabbit-hole led to Byron, Brewdog, and the recuperation of radical aesthetics which left me with that feeling you get in certain restaurants, when you suddenly realise that the "other half" of the room is in fact a reflection in a wall-length mirror.
It's rather depressing to spot the pared-back aesthetic born of thrift being adopted by corporations who'll use that to fatten existing profits, rather than the small indie's counterstrike to offset the lack of economies of scale and enable any profit.
Grungy design isn't the only thing being co-opted of late. In the tech world things like hackdays are–depending on how cynical you're feeling–being used to provide a sheen of tech solutionism or advance the neo-liberal agenda.
I think there are two ways to frame this.
One is to rail against the powerful as they absorb the radical and interesting movements and ideas, while neutering anything likely to change the status quo.
And the other is to acknowledge that 'twas ever thus, that the mainstream always adopts the successful alternative cultures: just ask the punks, or the hippies. This isn't failure, but in fact success. It's evolution rather than revolution, but has moved society in a better direction and fewer people died.
The reality is likely to be somewhere in the middle, but I don't think it particularly changes what to do next.
As Dan Hill says, we should continue our dance with the dark matter, recognising that the problems of the world cannot be solved by technology alone. Continue pushing to make the world a more equitable place, while keeping a critical eye on how our work could be misused to the opposite effect. And find ourselves some new edges to inhabit, which will take the next wave of gentrifiers to places they wouldn't expect.
The recent interesting links have a bit of a politics theme to them it seems...
I like how it makes the everyday urban infrastructure that most people don't notice the subject of the film. It reminds me of somewhat of the Walkshops that Adam Greenfield runs.
One of my projects-I'd-like-to-organise-this-year is some sort of Walkshop around the centre of Liverpool. Maybe this would help introduce what we'd be seeking out...
Two interesting links that have crossed my path recently...
And while I'm here, I might as well let you know about Internet Icons, an event linking up the British Library with a number of other libraries around the country, including Central Library here in Liverpool. Before the London talks are streamed, there's a local speaker at each location and they've asked me to talk at the Liverpool one.
In the Footsteps of Robert Moses is a fantastic, long journey charting the influence of one man over New York.
Moses was the head of planning in the city for the middle half of the 20th Century, and his legacy is in the reworking of many parts of the city in service to the motor car.
I first read this sometime in 2012, I think, on a train journey down to London. At the time, I wrote a long blog post of my thoughts as I read it, but managed to lose the draft. I've harboured dreams of rewriting it ever since, but have only just found the time to re-read it.
No epic, rambling blog post this time I'm afraid, although the talk of expressways carving their way through neighbourhoods still evokes memories of Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct and sends me off exploring potential futures to try to better resolve the legacy of the Shankland Report No.7 here in Liverpool.
The Shankland Report was the 1960s plan to run a network of inner-city motorways through the city, as happened in many other cities. It wasn't realised in the end, but much of the land was purchased and so while we escaped the elevated motorways, many of the ground-level main thoroughfares have ended up just as wide, and formed just as harsh a barrier.
We need to find ways to make those barriers more permeable, and to allow the pedestrian, more human life to move through them more easily, as that will perform a much better job of revitalising North Liverpool than Liverpool Waters.