Tag Archives: LSE

Designing the Urban Commons

Went to the launch event for this last night, it has been an interesting few months after a good invitation to people to submit proposals for how urban commons might be designed, created, reimagined, repurposed, preserved. heroish The website with the original call from earlier this year states:

The city itself should arguably be treated as a common: a collective physical and cultural creation by and for its inhabitants. However the range of activities permitted in urban spaces is becoming increasingly narrow. Many streets and squares are now managed by private owners and those held by the state are too often sanitised by public space designs that serve to enhance local property values and business rates. This leaves little possibility for the urban public to be used productively by its communities to sustain themselves materially or culturally. Where today is there space in public for people to work together to produce the city and its resources outside of market demands?

Commoning, the collective ownership and management of resources, is currently being reimagined across social, political and economic debates as a response to this challenge facing all cities today. With Britain’s rich history of common rights, London is the perfect place to test commons out as a vital approach to urban design.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSEI think London is a good place — though in many ways it is a difficult place as struggle of who has a right to public spaces is so very fierce here as the housing crisis grows ever bigger, austerity bites ever deeper and people’s lives become even more precarious. Once diversity of class and race and occupation is lost simply by virtue of who can afford to live in an area and who has been priced out, beautifying public spaces takes on a whole new dimension with its user-base fixed.

The exhibition showed the ten winners, a few of them grappling in some way with these dynamics, though many not. It is a difficult thing to ensure manageable concrete interventions work to counter to the movements of capital and privatisation.

In reality, I think that things like this can often contribute to such movements, many are easily co-opted into placemaking for the elite who can’t manage to create their own own bottom-up ‘culture’ the way it sometimes emerges naturally and vibrantly in cities, often in places where the local residents have had the time and inexpensive space to create. Holding an exhibition at LSE under the gazes of nobel laureate economists doesn’t give me more confidence, perhaps more so because I went there. Truth is, though, after having living in Glasgow, after visiting Liverpool and Sheffield, I find myself jealous of the kinds of shops and the activities (art, music, writing, all that stuff that almost never pays its own way) that can flourish there where ground rents don’t kill everything but boutiques and chain stores.

Unquestionably, however, vibrant public spaces help people find the inspiration and the means of preserving their rights to remain living nearby. Such spaces also inspire people to fight for them, and protect them from privatisation. I quite love imagining how to help facilitate this vibrance, and thinking through just how much is possible through design. Whyte, Jacobs and Gehl among others show a great deal is possible. But only if you’re paying attention.

UrbanCommons_Service-Wash-Headline-Image_AD_TRPOne of the pieces — Service Wash — was certainly a provocation around austerity and its consequences (and while launderettes may be declining in popularity, I rather challenge its premise that they are no longer much used, as they certainly are in my neighbourhood, and I’ve heard that women come for miles to wash clothes with their mums on a Saturday, back to their communities where they can no longer afford to live).

An urban phenomenon, the launderette is a relic of postwar social infrastructure, a provision intended to be egalitarian. Its decline in popularity is countered by an A1 class designation that prohibits change of use…thus explaining the bye-gone-era flavour of your local launderette. The Service Wash utilises the launderette’s quotidian presence proposing an expansion of its established function in favour of those most marginalised by urban renewal – the homeless. The physical inability to clean or be clean can be psychologically punishing; it creates an additional barrier to inclusiveness that the proposal aims to remedy. By partnering with homeless charities and drawing on existing initiatives, the launderette becomes a place to wash both clothes and self for those who have no other means to do so.

I’d prefer a focus on the problem of housing. I’d prefer a different use of words, perhaps, public baths were still being built at the turn of last century for example. But I like not ignoring the large and steady increases of those sleeping rough, I like imagining public places that serve their needs before we build their homes, and I especially like highlighting the negative changes in our society that are causing this increase in people who need public showers along with somewhere to wash their clothes. There was one explicitly battling developers — Commonstruction: A Manual for Radical Inclusivity:

Local community groups are resisting the planned regeneration of Tottenham with the claim that a policy of social cleansing is being used to facilitate a land grab by developers and speculators. The purpose of our design manual is to create a circular reference for various actors in the area that will coordinate collective action and enrich the threatened public life. There are 3 key combinations of spaces that constitute it: • Live-work & Community workshops • Public social spaces • Residential & Start-up spaces

It starts with a land trust…so I like it, though I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what it would be. It provokes questions about how commons are preserved exactly, and what happens when they are too full of activity and new building. I wonder. The winners were profiled on large boards along one wall, it was full enough to make it difficult to get wine and get close enough to the boards to read them properly, space was cleared though as the speeches started.

You can just see here the Reimagining the Lodge poster from the folks at Shuffle whose events, mostly held at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park where the lodge sits are amazing:

Reinventing the Lodge is about creating a place to meet, a place to be and opportunities for things to do. To give people permission to inhabit this undervalued environment in new ways is to cultivate local pride, identity and sense of belonging – the feeling of being at home.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE I was far and couldn’t see the wonderful Richard Sennet, who I never did manage to see lecture while at LSE. I could hear though: Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31I’m not a big tweeter (I left the right hashtag off and everything), but I couldn’t resist this one a bit later (I just make up my own hash tags you see): Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31-2It was good, though, to hear about occupy and the struggle over public space. Some proposals fit that better than others, like Saturday Commoning Fever:

Saturday Commoning Fever is an online platform that provides Londoners with means to common in the streets of the city. By simplifying “street rules” in a website rather than hiding in regulation files, we aim to question those rules and challenge them.

I quite loved Rainbow of Desires — not least because it involves theatre of the oppressed and mentions Augusto Boal, but I am quite intrigued by these kiosks and the uses an estate might make of them…

“Rainbow of desires” is a set of small pavilions installed in the open spaces of the Rhodes estate in Dalston. During a period of three months the pavilions are doubling as performative devices and workshop spaces based on the techniques of the theatre of the Oppressed and spaces of communal everyday life (public seating area, an open kitchen, an exchange library, a cinema).

Rainbow-of-Desires-close-up-900x526 There was a proposal to fill the old gasworks with trees (being raised in America it was years before I knew what the hell those things even were, and now I can only think of all the workers suffered there). Good idea, though they are fascinating structures and I sometimes dream of what else they could become…

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

I did like this little display showing the winners’ physical locations around London, though I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to it when this is done, and will we be able to play with it then:

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

A good event, it was wonderful to view the ideas that poured out in response to the call and honestly, can we just put up these notice boards around lamp posts already? UCHeadline-900x900

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The Dalai Lama at LSE



On June 20th the Dalai Lama came to the London School of Economics to give a talk titled ‘Resisting Intolerance: an ethical and global challenge‘. Of course I went, though I did feel the immense ironies involved in seeing him there. His short bio:

HH the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He was born on 6th July 1935 in north-eastern Tibet and recognised as the incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of two. Since 1959, he has been living in Dharamsala in the north of India which is now the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration.

In 2011 HH the Dalai Lama completed the process of democratisation of the Central Tibetan Administration by devolving all his political authorities to the elected leadership. How did I miss this happy fact of devolution and the welcome separation of spiritual from temporal power? I don’t know, I suppose these things happen.

I wrote to my dearest friend that same day that the Dalai Lama has a belly laugh that sounded just like my grandfather’s, but he seemed far nicer and wiser. He laughed a great deal. I wonder how much he geared his talk to LSE, it was very focused on positive fundamentals which I am still pondering. He started with happiness, that all of us strive for a better life and for happiness in that life, and yet we have created a world of immense unhappiness. This can change, must change, with focus on three things: truth, justice, and compassion.

I have been thinking and thinking and at the end of it I think those are the values we need. Those values are fundamentally incompatible with every awful thing that has ever been done in this world, their practice in a real way would make such things unthinkable.

Truth and justice seem to me rather like swords wielded in struggle, and compassion ensures that they are wielded in a way that ends in true healing and makes the world better. We all know how much truth and justice can hurt. He continued to say then that what is needed is action to change the world, not wishes or prayers.

As in liberation theology, I think it is powerful when a religious figure can situate problems and answers squarely in this world and the actions of human beings, giving a strong moral framework for change. While of course I do not believe that you need the religion, I do believe strongly that you need the moral framework, love and compassion are so key to carry with us in our struggles for truth and justice. I think the focus on interior as well as exterior is also key here, and where our movements also lack. How many problems of ego and personality do we encounter in our struggles? Questions of burnout and emptiness and despair? The constant issue of ends and means?

Without a strong interior commitment to uncover our own truths, to be fair and just to ourselves and in our personal relationships, without a strong community of love and support, we fall prey to the terrors and injustices of the world. They are legion

So how do we take this foundation and apply it beyond the personal to our actions and our strategies for analyzing economic and political systems, for changing the world? That is what I found lacking in the talk, and given who else was sitting in the room with me, that left me a little upset. I was glad when the Dalai Lama described exploitation, lying, and cheating as violence. Sadly it is not often described that way, however true it is. But he didn’t connect this violence with the majority of corporations for whom LSE graduates go on to work, and with whom many of the expensively-suited people in the room were intimately connected.

To me it seems so clear that to work for an investment bank is to participate in such violence, but I wonder how many people left the Peacock Theatre with that thought in their minds. Especially when he put on the stupid LSE ballcap. I suppose politeness is something.

But it was indeed wonderful to see him and hear him speak, he was much more frail than I was expecting. To be honest I didn’t know what I was expecting, though I certainly didn’t have the glint of worship and hunger than I espied amongst some other audience members. He seemed far too human and down to earth for such nonsense, but I suppose it doesn’t stop other people from seeing him as something to fill their own holes. It was only a few days later that I saw this photo posted on facebook:

 

 

And it definitely made me happy, both his support for the exciting new student movement 132, but also to see that the Dalai Lama chooses sides.

[first published at drpop.org!]

Marcuse & Davies: 2 views on roots of crisis

Thought I’d start out with a funny quote I’d forgotten about, courtesy of Howard Davies. It’s all downhill from here though…

“Bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement.”
–Dan Quayle

Peter Marcuse spoke on Tuesday night at University College of London, and Howard Davies spoke in the heart of LSE on Wednesday at noon, so technically I suppose they weren’t speaking to each other. But they should have been. So they shall through me. This is my interpretation and expansion on events of course, not a faithful recording of exactly what I heard…just to be clear.

Who are these guys exactly?

Peter Marcuse is the son of Herbert Marcuse, and a lawyer and planner. He has been a professor of Urban Planning since 1972, for three years at UCLA, and at Columbia since 1975. He has also been president of the Los Angeles Planning Commission, and has written extensively on housing and planning issues.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics, and the former head of the Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, the UK’s single financial regulator since 1998. He also served for two years as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England after three years as Director General of the Confederation of British Industry.

Two basic summaries of root causes:

Marcuse started with what are commonly seen as the underlying roots of the current economic crisis (then he tears those apart, but I’m saving the best bit for last!). In his view (his headings with with my own filler) these are:

  • The housing bubble – you know, that whole mortgage crisis thing. The inflated price of land, the mad speculation in it, the crazy loans to people with no equity. Those damn NINJA loans (I’ve always been with the pirates myself).
  • Unscrupulous people – the greedy bankers, the banks, those bastards who were out there sweet-talking your grandma into a loan worth more than her house, one that she would never be able to pay back. So she now lives with you instead.
  • Securitization – this is a big word, and of course it’s complicated. It’s deliberately complicated to get around annoying regulations and the agencies that tried to enforce them. Thousands of mortgages all packaged up together and insured and sold and then maybe reinsured and sold again and then maybe one more time…the important thing to know is that it made a lot of people rich as long as the housing market kept going up.
  • Deregulation – Not only were those “unscrupulous” people getting around existing regs and preventing the implementation of new ones, but they succeeded in getting rid of the Glass-Steagall Act which was made law in the 30’s to ensure that the Great Depression never happened again. Nice work.
  • Too much money floating around looking for something to invest in. You have to laugh at that really (and then cry), I’m sure none of us have known the feeling of too much money, too few options of what to do with it. But apparently there were trillions of dollars floating around the world economy that needed a home. I wished they’d asked me, but if equality and a just distribution of wealth around the world aren’t issues, than I suppose perhaps that could be seen as a problem.

This isn’t actually all that different from the analysis of the problem given by Mr. Davies, though he got much more technical around issues 3, 4 and 5, and sliced them up rather differently. I didn’t catch his final “summing up slide as he was talking fast and out of time, but the earlier top 4 underlying causes were:

  • Global imbalances – There was a huge increase in global imbalances, I know this is bad. I can’t remember exactly why, I do apologize! You can see the chart of global imbalances here, along with many other charts full of much technical financial information. I will, of course, be correcting my ignorance.
  • Loose monetary policy leading to a mispricing of risk and a credit bubble. What was Greenspan thinking keeping interest rates so low? There was just way too much money out there, anyone could borrow anything, and god help us all, they did. Luckily China was able to come in and sell the West lots of cheap goods (since they don’t really pay their employees) and then buy US treasury bonds. A third of them. That kept the wolf of inflation from the door, but confused everyone as to what kind of market they were operating in. Especially Greenspan.
  • Excess leverage facilitated by procyclical regulation and regulatory arbitrage. Yikes, no? It just means that banks were doing the same thing that all of those “gullible” homeowners (the same ones who are now getting evicted) were doing, taking out massive loans with no down-payment and not enough savings in the…er…bank. They had nowhere near enough money to cover their asses. And why did they think this was ok? Because their advanced historical and cyclical analyses of the housing market told them it was one market that would always go up. So everything would be fine. The equations promised.
  • ‘excess’ unmanaged growth of the financial sector – it exploded into one area really, securitizing mortgages and playing with derivatives, and by moving into this area the financial sector thought it was diversifying risk (you know, putting down bets on lots of horses, not just one. And placing bets as part of a pool so to speak, by insuring your bets and…it’s complicated). But turns out so much money was being put into trading these property related bonds and CDO’s and etc, they were actually creating risk rather than managing it. A failure of betting strategy if you like. The fall of dominoes was insanely impressive however.

As a combination of factors it all makes some kind of sense, it certainly hangs together. And if you’re a bit rusty on your economic jargon, it makes your eyes glaze over but it sure sounds damn impressive. I think I’ve got a handle on most of it, but who really knows? Understanding the ins and outs of what actually happened takes a massive amount of energy, involving remote corporate skyscrapers, hundreds of acronyms, and unfathomable sums of debt being sliced up, repackaged, insured, reinsured, moved constantly from one major player to another. And it’s all happening on a global scale. And let’s not forget the distracting million dollar bonuses and offshore accounts…

And so these kind of explanations lead to even more complicated solutions, we are witnessing a grand escape into the technical. For Howard Davies? We need more and better regulation, better internal management of banks, better global coordination and so on into excruciating detail and even bigger words.

But instead of delving into all of that, let’s return to Peter Marcuse’s lecture: everything I have written above is interesting, but really it is missing the point entirely. You got it. Missing the point entirely. How is it that so many incredibly smart people are missing the point?

Focusing on technicalities of regulation and management hide the reality that the economic system itself is fundamentally flawed.

Some of us take that for granted, others will never believe it is true. Capitalism? Well, you know what they (or some of us) say. Crisis happens. We’ve been in crisis quite regularly for several hundred years, and that will continue as long as the system continues. Because crisis is inherent to the capitalist system.

What is the motor of the current system? Adam Smith called it self-interest, but it seems rather silly to expect people to hold the contested and rather imaginary line between self-interest and greed. Greed ultimately is the motivating force, it is the entrepreneurial way and a constant pressure. When you see regulation as the answer, you really aren’t giving people enough credit. They are hell of smart. And there are thousands if not millions of them trying to get around any rule keeping them from their self-interest. And they will. The mass securitization of incredibly risky mortgages as sound investments was just one clever proof of the power of invention to get around regulation. We can fix that loophole, but there will surely be others as it is symptomatic of the fundamental basis of the current economy.

Why is this particular crisis concentrated in real estate, as so many of them are? When buying real estate, you aren’t just investing in land, you are investing in a commodity that has only a fixed supply. There’s only so much of it, and it’s all spoken for. Because of this, you can sit on it, do absolutely nothing at all to improve it, and it will continue to grow in value. This value is due entirely to population and urban growth, it is socially created, it is ‘easy’ money. It invites speculation, always has and always will until we change how the housing market and property ownership work, and we change it completely. As long as housing is seen as a means of profit and vehicle for investment, this kind of crisis will be a recurring one. There’s nothing new about housing bubbles!

Too much money? No, there isn’t too much money, there is too much capital. Capital is what is produced by the exploitation of workers, it is profit extracted from production and at great cost to those who actually produce, and it is money whose sole purpose is to be reinvested to make more money. For me, this distinction goes some way to explaining a world where we can have simultaneously the problem of ‘too much money’, and millions earning less than one or two dollars a day. Clearly there needs to be change there, as the fundamental dark absurdity of such a world is obvious. Isn’t it?

So if Marcuse is right, and I rather think he is, it renders much of current policy and debate a bit meaningless really. All of these solutions are looking at the “fundamental” roots of an issue that really has foundations much deeper still. And if we dig those up, what will we build instead? That is the perennial question.

So the next blog will be about Marcuse’s vision of the Right to the City and the role of critical theory in building a new world…very exciting, even my cynical self can get somewhat excited about that. And I will.

The other very exciting note is that Howard Davies admitted that we’ve seen the failure of the efficient market hypothesis, a mainstay of economics for years. The idea that investors will act rationally? Well, obviously, that’s been proved laughable, so we really need to start all over again there. They’re creating something to take a look. I’m going to have to watch the aftermath of such an admission, I mean, where can they go after that while keeping within their framework? I have no idea, but do hope it will be interesting. It should be, I have immense respect for their intelligence. So we’re all rebuilding, though not quite together, and not quite for the same people. But it’s an interesting time to be alive.