Interview with Mike Raco
Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London
Leader of DIVERCITIES Work Package #4: Assessment of Urban Policies
Can you tell us about your research background and interests?
My research background includes working on debates about open governance, thinking about communities and urban change and regeneration in cities. Who makes decisions in our cities? Who decides how they’re going to be, what a ‘good city’ is and what a better life means? The DIVERCITIES project of course is an extension of these topics but in a broader, more comparative perspective.
What do you consider to be your most influential work?
My recent book State-led Privatisation and the Demise of the Democratic State (Ashgate, Hants.) looks at debates over privatisation and public-private partnerships in the provision of welfare and infrastructure in cities. In London, you’ll find that much of the new infrastructure like hospitals, roads, even the street lights are owned by private companies financed under long-term contracts.
For instance, some hospitals built in 2003 in south London didn’t realise how many computers they’d have by 2010/2011. These hospitals now get too hot because there are too many computers in them but there’s no way to improve the ventilation because the contracts written in 2003 are fixed until 2039.
The implications of this are enormous. Cities like London have seen a population increase of something like 14% – over a million people in the last 10 years. You need very flexible governance systems to plan for that kind of increase, to deal with increases in diversity as well. The whole point of voting for people in elections is that they can change schools, hospitals, universities etc in ways that electorates think are important. Things like sustainable cities and smart urbanism require flexible planning arrangements, the ability to constantly change and re-change. But if you have locked-in infrastructure built by private companies which cannot be changed very easily or without enormous cost then you have a real impediment to flexibility.
What are the core objectives of “Work Package 4: Assessment of Urban Policies”?
The purpose of WP4 is to look at governance arrangements in the case studies across Europe and to compare and contrast them. How cities are governed, how urban policy agendas in those cities differ and how policymakers and other groups (eg. businesses, politicians, voluntary community sectors) think about diversity.
We have researchers working in 14 cities. At the moment, we are at the first stage of the work, which is to map all the organisations that are involved in governing our 14 cities. To think about how fragmented or how cohesive those governance arrangements are, ways in which diversity is or isn’t imagined and the different types of thinking that exists across Europe. This will then be complimented and supplemented by interviews with key policymakers and people from different groups to talk to them about what they understand diversity to mean or what forms it takes.
The logic is twofold: firstly, to set up the context for the rest of the project. Clearly these are fundamental questions so we will take the findings from this work package and embed them into later work in the research. For example in a city like London, you might find that diversity is thought about in specific ways. In later work packages, we will look at different aspects and how that relates for example to entrepreneurism or to people living in diverse neighbourhoods, or to specific urban projects in one part of London. We need to do this first, over-arching piece of work under this work package (WP4) in order to understand the context within which those local initiatives are taking place.
Secondly, to look at how views may differ between different scales of government. You might find that in some countries, national policy is quite positive and progressive but at local levels quite reactionary with anti-diversity policies. In London for example, you’ll find the mayor of London and others very positive about diversity and London’s global city status but the national government in Britain of all political persuasions have tended to move the other way and started to put up barriers to migrations; barriers to diversity in some ways. There’s a little bit of tension there. So we are interested in relationships between different scales of government.
Is urban policymaking more art or science? How important is research and statistics vs. innovative ideas and a vision for the future?
Urban policymaking is partly scientific and requires evidence (which of course is what the DIVERCITIES programme is seeking to provide). It also requires some systematic understanding of key social dimensions, economic changes and so on. But it’s also partly an art in that it’s about making choices, it’s about thinking through core questions and fundamental beliefs about what a better type of city might be.
One of the things we’ll be addressing in the research, particularly in relation to WP4, is to think about whether there is scope within a term like diversity to really encourage policymakers to think about policy in a way that is more creative. It’s about engaging different cultures and different ways of thinking about cities. It’s not just about coming up with rational policy solutions.
We’re very cautious about whether terms like diversity are perhaps used too broadly. They almost sound as though they’re non-conflictual, they’re consensus based – diversity is about inclusion. But maybe it might be better for policymakers to be more honest about what it does and what kinds of outcomes it contributes. I’ve never seen a policymaker say “this policy will create losers as well as winners”. But all policies of course do create some losers. Can you have policy where everyone wins?
So going back to what the DIVERCITIES project is about, it’s about looking for more positive aspects – that of course will be done in a systematic way, but in a way that tries to take on board that a definition of something being positive might mean – that some people lose. Whether that means that there is some re-distribution or that some people lose in terms of their own particular political perspectives being put to one side for example – that may be a desirable outcome of policy and quite an interesting area for us to develop.
The DIVERCITIES team has a tough road ahead – to work through these complex issues and eventually consolidate its research findings into a policy handbook with key recommendations. Are you up for the challenge?
I think it’s an exciting challenge. I don’t quite see it as such a technical process. Part of it is about producing a handbook, trying to establish core recommendations. But all of us know that a lot of the impacts come from actually doing the research. Only yesterday we did an interview here in London with policymakers who told us that they had never heard anyone talk about the positive aspects of diversity. So that kind of thing has an impact, that’s a very important part of the project.
One of the big areas of change we hope to see over the next four years of this project is how the people we engage with might even change their practices or ways of thinking by being quizzed about what they do, by being asked to really specify how they think about these core issues.
So it’s as much about the process as the final output.