Tokyo

A recent trip to Tokyo illustrates something about the old question; is it ‘people’ or ‘place’ that matters?

Tokyo has poor cycle infrastructure

There are very few bike lanes in Tokyo. Cyclists often share the pavement with pedestrians which is frustrating for both groups.

However, far more people cycle than in Washington DC or London, which have both invested heavily in things like bike lanes and cycle hire schemes.

In fact, about 14% of journeys in Tokyo are by bike, compared with only 4% ish of people in DC that commute on bikes.

Tokyo allows some public smoking

 

Tokyo has fewer restrictions on where you can smoke than many other rich cities.

There are designated public smoking areas and many restaurants have smoking areas.

More people smoke in Japan than in other rich countries, but not that much more. Roughly one in four Japanese people smoke, whereas one in five Americans smoke.

Homeless people in Tokyo are highly visible

 

Some homeless people in Tokyo live in prominent blue tents made of tarpaulin in Ueno park.

There is something much more permanent about these tents than I have seen in Washington DC. They reminded me of the old cardboard city in London.

There are up to 5,000 homeless people in Tokyo. This is considerably fewer than in Washington DC, a much smaller city.

It’s not so much ‘place’ that matters as ‘social’

A recent report by the Work Foundation takes as it’s title the old question, “People or Place?”, asking, in essence, where should we focus our attention, on improving places or helping people (through whatever means)?

These three examples from Tokyo show how places can acquire social meaning for people. Different people will have different feelings towards the same place. Some might feel like they belong, while others feel that they are trapped and others in turn feel like they are just passing through and so on.

The social meaning that places have is bound up with people’s relationship with other people and with more abstract groups such as ‘the public’ or ‘my neighbours’. As Zachary Neal says, cities are social networks as much as geographic or administrative areas.

Rather than solely looking at how we can get a certain company to locate in an area by giving it tax breaks or asking how we reduce unemployment through training schemes for everyone out of work, we should also try and understand the different social meanings of places and use this as a basis for policy.

This could mean a number of things, from Renaisi’s work on ‘Tech City‘, to Porter’s ideas on ‘Business Clusters‘ or the ‘going with the grain‘ approach that John Houghton has talked about.

Either way, talking about ‘people’ or ‘place’ can be unhelpful if it blinds us to the importance of social interaction, norms and values.

Pictures of housing and homelessness in DC

This is a short photo essay on housing and homelessness in Washington DC.

There are many homeless people in DC.

The city government’s hostels look like prisons.

In some areas, housing for people on low incomes is being replaced with housing for people on higher incomes.

While in other areas, housing has been abandoned.

The city is planning to give away public land for free to developers so that they can build more houses for people on high incomes.

But some people are organizing against this.

It’s hard for homeless people to organize because they have limited social networks.

That’s why I am working with the Father Mckenna centre on a project that encourages homeless people to grow their social networks.

Stories about homeless people’s social networks

Sometimes it’s only when you buy something new that you realize how many other people have it. Suddenly, you notice lots of other people with the same shirt as you or the same phone as you.

Well, it can be the same with ideas.

Since I’ve started thinking about homeless people’s social networks (their friends, family and acquaintances) I am noticing more and more how questions about relationships are important in homeless people’s stories. Perhaps it’s that old problem that if you have a hammer you only see nails, or perhaps looking at the world in this way helps us see things we might otherwise miss.

I’m going to put down three stories here and let you decide what to make of it all.

***

He is addicted to hard drugs and living with friends who are also regular users. His place has lots of people coming and going, many of them also using.

One day he decides (not for the first time) that he wants to get clean. He leaves his place and checks into a homeless shelter. He’s so desperate to stop using drugs that he makes himself homeless to get away from the temptation.

He starts to get lonely and restless away from his friends.

***

Something happened when he was living in LA. It’s not quite clear what. It seems to have involved his home being invaded, his mother starting to use hard drugs and he thinks people from his church were implicated.

Somehow (he says someone at the Church helped) he gets enough money together to get to Washington DC. He arrives in Union Station. He doesn’t have any friends or family in the city.

A homeless person tells him about a day shelter that might be able to help.

***

Whenever he would visit a member of his family they would hide their pocketbooks because they didn’t want him to steal from them again. This would make him angry and he would get in fights with his siblings.

He’s clean now. He went over to visit his sister. Some members of the family left the room and left their pocketbooks behind. Surprised, he asked his sister why they hadn’t taken the pocketbooks with them.

“We know you don’t do that anymore” she replied. He cried.

Dream Housing presentation

I am delighted to say that I have secured funding from The RSA for the Dream Housing project I am working on.

The project will mostly be done in partnership with the Father Mckenna Centre in Washington DC.

Here is the lastest presentation I gave to staff at the centre on how we have progressed with the idea.

Civil Partnerships

Washington DC has a big problem with homelessness. To give you a sense of the scale of the problem last winter the city paid God knows how much putting over 200 families up in motels, and according to a recent survey 4% of pupils in DC schools are homeless.

There are lots of different people who are trying to deal with this problem including city agencies, charities and advocacy groups. These groups regularly meet under the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) and have a plan to end homeless by 2014. Given that there are literally thousands of homeless people in Washington, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they are not going to hit this target.

I have never heard of a public policy question where people don’t say we need better partnership working. Crime, education, public health, you name it, people will say that we need better partnership working to solve these problems. The same is true of homelessness provision in DC.

In the UK, New Labour mandated a number of partnerships at the local level including Local Strategic Partnerships, Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships and partnerships relating to the Every Child Matters agenda. I think it would be fair to say that these mandated partnerships did not quieten the chorus of people calling for better partnership working.

I attended the last meeting of the ICH. This meeting showed many of the reasons why partnership working so often fails. Many of the people attending the meeting did not have the seniority to actually make decisions, the agenda was mostly updates from various sub committees and, there was no clear process for how to come to agreements or to take action.

One thing was clear from the meeting, if there are fewer homeless people in motels this coming winter it will not be because of the existence or work of the ICH.

I could not help but contrast this meeting with the meetings of the Clarence Way Tenants and Residents Associations (TRA) in Camden.

These were well attended meetings. The TRA did a good job of getting a range of residents to attend and they did a really good job of getting the different public services out. There were always police, housing officers, councillors, someone from the local community association, environmental health officers and so on. The TRA basically forced everyone to work together.

There is a beautiful quote from Ella Baker “strong people don’t need strong leaders”. In this case, it’s more like organized communities don’t need organized partnerships.

What are the implications of this observation for things like the ICH? I think a much better way of organizing things would be to spend money bringing homeless people together and building their ability to come together. Once homeless people started coming together they would inevitably start to make demands of the various agencies that are relevant to their lives and partnership working would naturally occur. What’s more, this more empowering approach would be, I believe, far more effective.