The Stronger Towns Fund that the UK government launched earlier this year commits only £1.6 billion, and that is spread over a seven-year period. It was widely seen as an attempt by Theresa May to charm Labour MPs from Brexit-voting constituencies into voting for her Withdrawal Bill, and so enabling the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. We all know what happened next.
I am writing this column in Michigan, a US state that is almost defined by "places left behind", here called "Legacy Cities". The term "rust belt" was coined in the 1980s, and the big cities across the south of Michigan were its exemplar. Places like Detroit and Flint, once the source of well-paying factory jobs that fostered a local middle-class, are amongst the poorest cities in the US. It is a similar story in the remote Upper Peninsula – the area between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Iron, copper and logging saw the area boom, leaving a legacy of grand commercial and public buildings from the late 19th/early 20th century, in small towns that are now backwaters trying to fashion a future out of tourism. Public universities are the mainstay of some of the local economies, providing jobs and helping to retain young people.
Between 2010 and 2012, Detroit undertook a major public consultation exercise which led to the adoption of Detroit Future City, a positive 50-year vision for the city. This project was led by a non-profit civic organisation, which continues to undertake research and advocacy in pursuit of the implementation of the strategy. For example, one of its campaigns has been about public open space networks, while throughout its work in this highly diverse city, there is a strong emphasis on equity and inclusion and putting residents at the heart of the planning process. Given the centrality of race in all aspects of American life, this is essential.
Charles Cross, director of landscape architecture at another non-profit, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, that was involved, has explained how his team used a range of outreach initiatives – Twitter town hall meetings, drop-in conversations, a mobile phone app – and sought out residents in public spaces throughout the city. Linking professionals like Cross with community organisers and local groups to create a "community of practice" is the essence.
Such partnerships cannot fully compensate for the disinvestment that Michigan’s urban centres have suffered, or the weakness of local government (Detroit went bankrupt in 2013). However, there are signs that Detroit is recovering and that the Detroit Future City initiative played a part. Given the debilitated condition of our planning authorities, could a Planning Aid network refocused on today’s needs kickstart similar civic society-led partnerships in the UK?
Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher