Why segregation studies are stuck in Chicago By David Manley (Univeristy of Bristol)

The way in which we study segregation hasn’t really moved forward since the 1950s. Much of the literature that we use and the measures that we employ owe their conception to the Chicago urban school of thinking.  The thing is, these traditional ways of understanding segregation do not fit the modern urban environment. Of course, they didn’t really fit the 1950s urban landscape in the United States either but that was not the point: a measure that described the proportion of people that wold need to move to gain an equal distribution of whatever characteristic was of interest was sufficient. In the US that characteristic was racial inequality, and there wasn’t really a need to debate how the segregation had come about or what drove it: what they needed to know was how much segregation was there. Recently, scholars have noted that the city of Chicago isn’t particularly representative of US cities (no surprise), but that it also isn’t particularly representative of the other rust belt cities either.  Given that our understanding of segregation comes from a unique place at a particular time frame in history it is perhaps time to rethink how we investigated segregation more generally.
The most common measure of segregation is known as the Index of Dissimilarity. The thing is, it is biased. Studies by economists which simulated urban data have demonstrated that the Index of Dissimilarity has a tendency to record higher values of segregation than actually exist – that is to say it is upwardly bias. Actually, more recent work has suggested that it is more complicated than that and that the bias in the Index tends to move values towards 0.5 (or saying that to achieve an urban landscape with no segregation around half the population would need to move home). This is troubling because it suggests that what we thought we knew about segregation is wrong – or at least not as clear as we thought. However, even if the index was not biased there is a bigger problem that pervades the studies that have used it. I mentioned above that in the US segregation studies were, rightly, concerned with racial inequality. The modern segregation literature is much more diverse than this and not only considers segregation along racial or ethnic lines but also include multiple other factors as well: class; social; economic, and; cultural to name a few and the index has been deployed to measure all of these and more beside. But in doing so researchers trying to understand how segregation is playing out in our urban environments are forced to over simplify. In the urban environment people do choose where to live (or get forced to live) purely because of their ethnicity or social status or age. There is a complex interaction between these factors (and others) which can serve to intensify or the resulting distribution of individuals within neighbourhoods. But the index has no way of help us determine which of the factors is the most important (remember that the index is bias so a higher value may not necessarily mean that there is more segregation, just that the index was bias) and nor can it help us understand how much age segregation there is once we have accounted for the level of educational segregation that occurs. Moreover, index values calculated for units of one size (say small neighbourhoods based on a couple of streets) cannot readily be compared with units of another size (say large neighbourhoods or even regions within a city) because the index is relative to the size of the units used. Crucially, this prevents us from identify the scale at which segregation is occurring.
What should we do about this, are all segregation studies doomed to repeat the same mistakes as before? No. Recent work undertaken with colleagues at the University of Bristol has developed an approach using multilevel models harnessing the idea that segregation is about the variability in the numbers of different groups within neighbourhoods, the greater the variable in the number of a group within neighbourhoods over a city the greater the segregation. Importantly, once measured in a modelling framework we are able to include multiple different types of segregation at once and even multiple scales. In doing this we might be able to further our understanding of one facet of the complex urban environment.

My Generation? The Use and Abuse of Generational Labelling By Adriana Soaita (University of St Andrews) & Beverley Searle (University of Dundee)

The ‘Lost Generation’, ‘Baby-Boomers’ and now ‘Generation Rent’ are popular labels attached to groups of people who are deemed to share particular social experiences. Such labels not only confuse distinct demographic, sociological and genealogical concepts but uncritically cast generational winners or losers. Drawing on 112 interviews from the Mind the (Housing) Wealth Gap study, we aim to clarify the concept of ‘generation’ using four key understandings. We tease out ideas of generational belonging among people aged 35-65 and reflect on generational identities and inequalities.

Demographers conceptualise ‘generations’ as birth cohorts – a population born in any one year often aggregated by decades. The examination of social change in relation to different cohorts at similar life stages through longitudinal analysis requires long term data series in order to differentiate between period, cohort and lifecycle effects. Although demographers clearly separate the concepts of cohort and age, our study indicates that peoples’ generational identities are generally not constructed within these categories:

I look around and there are older people similar to me and younger people similar to me! I don’t really see generations (male, 45).

I associate on a daily level with people of all ages, so I don’t really feel myself as part… There aren’t generations of people in society, there’s just a constant grey area, a constant flux of people (female, 40).

While rigorous longitudinal birth cohort analyses are welcome for the understanding of the enduring effects of socioeconomic events (such as economic growth or decline), cohorts need to be theoretically specified in relation to the subject of enquiry (Arber & Attias-Donfut 2007).

Mannheim’s (1927) concept of sociological generation tries to move away from simple chronological contemporaneity – ‘potential generation’/cohorts – to a more meaningful co-presence in a shared geographical location ‘where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic destabilization’ (182-183). As the social context is differently interpreted by different individuals, these bonds emerge from, and coalesce in, ideologically and culturally different ‘generation units’ whose members share indirect ties of exposure to similar events. Mannheim’s theoretical contribution helps to question generational labelling while raising awareness of substantial socioeconomic inequality and socio-cultural difference within cohorts. Yet the concept of sociological generation was considered to be too static given that formative learning was exclusively located in early youth. We exemplify the idea of generational units and intra-generational inequality by two contrasting views from early Baby Boomers, the cohorts most likely to accept generational labelling:

I’m a baby boomer born 1949, so we’re the ones who’d never had it so good. We had everything (male, 63).

What generation I belong to? The poor one! (female, 61).

In the context of austerity, aging societies and low economic growth, the concept of ‘welfare generation’ has permeated public discourses. By differentiating between welfare contributors and receivers, several studies documented the changing balance of public spending between the young and the old and differentiated between winner and loser generations (Thomson 1996, Kotlikoff 1992). These studies were criticised on methodological and philosophical grounds (Buchanan 2009, Piachaud, Macnicol and Lewis 2009) as well as for their disengagement with the horizontal macro-distribution of resources across socioeconomic classes (Hills 2014) and the vertical micro-distribution within families (Kohli 1996, Arber and Attias-Donfut 2007, Hills et al. 2013). Generational changes in the balance of welfare were fully recognised by our participants – as captured in the quotation below – but so were the important differences in generational opportunities arising from technical advances and broader socioeconomic changes:

I am a late baby boomer born in 1964… early baby boomers have had the best time, they’ve done exceptionally well… Late baby boom, myself, are going to have a difficult end of life… Generation X, they had a good start but struggled in the middle… Then generation Y, or Z, or where are we now? They are going to have good schooling, health service but have to pay for education, are going to start paying for pensions for previous generations and their own… And they have to try getting on the housing ladder, which is going to be difficult if not impossible (male, 50).

Finally, the concept of genealogical generation was particularly employed in sociology. Linked genealogical generations [1] are often the most appropriate unit for the study of intra- and intergenerational inequalities since family is the recognised social institution that transmits privilege/disadvantage along individual life-course (Hills et al. 2013). Sound theoretical sampling allows linking family generations to Mannheim’s (1927) generational units. Our study suggests that while individual belonging to a genealogical generation is least problematic, its role in the transmission of social inequalities is generally overlooked on the assumption that gifts/inheritances are relatively equal and universal within particular cohorts (which of course runs against the evidence):

We are the generation that will reap the rewards of inheritance that grandparents and parents are able to pass on (male, 36).

The Mind the (Housing) Wealth Gap team continue to explore the multiple ways in which housing wealth reinforces inequalities within and between families, cohorts and generational units.

Adriana Soaita (University of St Andrews) and Beverley Searle (University of Dundee)


[1] Dyads or triads of children-parents-grandparents.


Arber, S. & C. Attias-Donfut. 2007. The Myth of Generational Conflict London: Routledge.

Buchanan, NH. (2009) What Do We Owe Future Generations? The George Washington Law Review, 77, 1237-1297.

Hills, J. 2014. Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us. London: Policy Press.

Hills, J., et al. 2013. Wealth in the UK: Distribution, Accumulation, and Policy Oxford: OUP .

Kohli, M. 1996. The Problem of Generations: Family, Economy, Politics. Budapest: IAS.

Kotlikoff, LJ. 1992. Generational Accounting: Knowing Who Pays, and When, for What we Spend. New York: Free Press.

Mannheim, K. 1927. The Sociological Problem of Generations. In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Piachaud, D., J. Macnicol & J. Lewis. 2009. A Think Piece on Intergenerational Equity. London: Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Thomson, D. 1996. Selfish Generations: How Welfare States Grow Old. Cambridge: White Horse Press.



Adding to the Neighbourhood Effects Debate: a response to Crawford. By Bo Malmberg (Stockholm University)

In his Oct 17 2014 blogpost,  Joe Crawford argues that neighbourhood effects research is flawed because it focuses on only on how neighbourhood factors influence individuals and not on how individuals shape neighbourhoods. This is a valid point to raise but I am not sure that this argument fully acknowledges how neighbourhood effects studies are related to research on patterns of urban segregation.

“Neighbourhood effects research fails to acknowledge the simple assertion that where there are stratified societies there will be stratified areas of residence”, Crawford argues. I do not think that this is correct. To the contrary, if areas of residence were not stratified no-one would, in my view, consider it worthwhile to engage in a study that looks for effects of residential social context on the life-course of individuals. The existence of residential stratification is, thus, the starting-point of contextual effects studies. Maybe sometimes a taken-for-granted starting point but if some studies do not mention it explicitly it is nonetheless a starting-point.

But what Crawford argues is perhaps that neighbourhood effects research has another implicit assumption, namely that if there are neighbourhood effects then more socially mixed neighbourhoods could be a means to reduce urban inequality. But even if this is what Crawford claims it is not a valid argument against neighbourhood effects studies. The motive for such studies is, instead, to find out if residential stratification not only reflects social stratification, but if it also can contribute to deepen social stratification.

As demonstrated in a recent study by Chetty et al (2014) this very much seems to be the case, at least in the US context. It is possible that Crawford would argue that the Chetty study reflects a liberal world outlook and I would agree. But where I and Crawford might differ is that I find it is of interest to know if segregation can be one driver of social inequality, whereas Crawford from a critical perspective maybe looks at this as a non-issue.

It is understandable that Crawford after a reading of Bourdieu has come to the conclusion that neighbourhood effects studies have little interest. But to base an evaluation of neighbourhood effects studies on Bourdieu is not necessarily a good idea since Bourdieu’s analysis of the role of spatiality in social reproduction is exemplarily weak. “Socially distanced people find nothing more intolerable than physical proximity”. Yes, but this is not exactly news, and it is not an absolute truth. What Bourdieu in general fails to acknowledge that taking up residence in privileged neighbourhoods can be an important means by which privileged groups seeks to ensure the reproduction of an appropriate habitus.   Bourdieu’s analysis of how this reproduction is maintained in schools is ground-breaking but he more or less totally lacks an analysis of the role of neighbourhoods in this process.

Yes, neighbourhood effects research does face important challenges as argued by David Manley in a follow-up to Joe Crawford’s blog. And every research fields has examples of less well-designed studies. There are, however, no strong reason why such challenges cannot be overcome and I would argue that much progress has been made in recent years. Especially important here is the use of longitudinal designs. But also improved measures of residential context that overcomes the problem with using fixed statistical areas (Andersson and Malmberg 2015), and the use of exposure time for identifying neighbourhood effects (another Chetty et al 2015 paper).

Finally, in contrast to Crawford I would argue that a good understanding of how residential context shape the life course of individuals is central concern in urban research precisely because of the dialectic between the subjective and the objective. Neighbourhood contexts constitute objective factors that shape life-course trajectories, which in turn are instrumental processes of neighbourhood change. If the first part of this process is not understood then the second part cannot be understood either.

Bo Malmberg, Dept. of Human Geography, Stockholm University



Andersson, E. K., and B. Malmberg. (2015) “Contextual Effects on Educational Attainment in Individualised, Scalable Neighbourhoods: Differences across gender and social class”, Urban Studies 52 (12):2117-2133.

Chetty, R.; Hendren, N.; Kline, P. and Saez, E. (2014) “Where is the Land of Opportunity?  The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States”, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 19843.

Chetty, R.; Hendren, N. and Katz, L.F. (2015) “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighbourhoods on Children: new evidence from the Moving to Opportunity experiment”, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 21156.

What is it that Bugs me about Neighbourhood Effects Research? By David Manley (University of Bristol)

There are many answers to that question. I could, for instance point to the lack of appreciation for the temporal scale – the theory that has been laid out for the neighbourhood to impact the individual relies on a far longer temporal scale than the time frame most analysts (if not all) allow for the analysis. Or, I could have lamented the lack of thinking about causal pathways: open any health related journal and I guarantee you’ll find a paper analysing the relationship between public open space and improved health outcomes (quite how the mere presence of local open space is sufficient is never disclosed in these papers. My grandmother lived very near a number of parks but she rarely, if ever, ventured into them). Or, I could have pointed to near silence in the literature that recognises that where people are located in residential space owes a lot to the spatial expression of inequalities and class struggles so that the urban differences between places are not accidental outcomes (but others blogging here are far better placed to talk about that than I am!). No, when I was asked to respond to Joe’s blog on neighbourhood effects I thought long and hard about Bourdieu and what his work could mean for the field. Then I thought harder and longer about the dominance of the disciplines represented in the near 20,000 papers reporting neighbourhood effects. My gaze landed on the econometricians and I wondered how they would engage with the ideas of the philosopher: whilst I may be doing a disservice to some econometricians, many within the field are likely not to be listening. So, the thing that keeps me awake at night and where I think we (by we in this instance I mean people interested in neighbourhood effects) need a step change is to wrestle the term and analyses back from the economists and econometricians.

What is wrong with the econometricians you ask? I’ll tell you: in the world of the econometricians complex modelling approaches can be used to overcome some pretty serious problems. What’s wrong with that, after all, that’s what all quantitative modellers are doing isn’t it? Well, no: for instance ‘things’ that we have not been able to measure (this could be personality, how risky an individual is willing to be in their financial behaviour to name two) can be ignored through the use of complex modelling techniques (the ‘fixed effect’ approaches). The econometricians are happy with these models because they allow them (they believe) the chance to estimate values to attached to neighbourhoods that are ‘unbiased’ and not altered by those inconvenient things that we do not know or cannot measure.  The problem is, in reaching those ‘unbiased’ estimations a lot of other important information that we do know and that is important has been thrown out: for instance, in their simplified representation of reality (for that is all a model really is) other variables have also been discarded because the model cannot cope with information that does not change. In short the baby is thrown out with the bath water and variables such as ethnicity and gender, to name two, are omitted from the model and any effect that these variables may have (and there is reason to suggest that they may be important!) is lumped together as ‘error’ with those other ‘things’ we don’t know. So far, so mechanical. But this blog is about more than just the specification of the variables in a model. Because, the same assumptions that apply to the econometrician’s variables also apply to their neighbourhoods!

Reading through the literature (and I am a part of this literature so I must shoulder some of the guilt) the most important component of the investigation – the neighbourhood to which we are ascribing these effects – is the part that receives the least attention. Indeed, in many cases the neighbourhood is used as a non-spatial entity. We (and this time I am using the ‘we’ for geographers!) should be the front of this literature using our considerable spatial arsenal to explain, examine, critique and explore how space matters. Neighbourhoods (whatever they may be – that is another blog to be written at another time) are fundamentally about the organisation of individuals into spatial entities. They may be spatially contiguous – that is next to each other like residential neighbourhoods – they may be disjointed – like work, leisure or cultural neighbourhoods – or they may not exist in a physical sense but all are important. The neighbourhood must be the most important part of any study trying to determine if there are linkages between places and individual outcomes. And of course, neighbourhood is a highly contested and debated object at an atomistic level neighbourhood has a unique meaning to each individual in the data. Yet, it is also the piece of information that received the least attention in much of the literature: neighbourhood is frequently used to mean purely the residential context and is derived from standard administrative units created to satisfy the delivery of state statistical data. They have no meaning for the activity space of individuals, of the spaces through which people travel or interact, and have no meaning for the spaces in which people inhabit. Moreover, the kind of neighbourhood that you would use for, say, trying to understand peer group effects on children are very different to those that you would employ for understanding   Similarly, the things that we measure in the neighbourhoods are equally important. Much of the neighbourhood effects work uses the percentage of X, or Y and then attempts to make an assertion that the more (less) of X or Y the worse (better) things will be for individuals.

So, until we engage spatially then we are going to continue to look for effects without getting a handle on where they may (or may not) exist. In doing so we may not find the needle in the haystack, but at least we’d be looking in the right place!

David Manley, University of Bristol (@david_j_manley)

The Continuing Danger of the Right to Buy – how housing is on the election agenda for the wrong reasons By Vikki McCall (University of Stirling)

Suddenly, housing is back on the election agenda. The Conservatives have pledged to ensure security for people by expanding the Right to Buy in England to housing association tenants. The policy has been framed as helping to give people security at every stage of their lives. The expansion would enable social tenants to buy a housing association home if they have lived in it for 3 years.

The plan has been challenged from several directions on social, moral and economic grounds. The Chartered Institute of Housing has already called for a ‘crack-down’ on the Right to Buy as it has disadvantaged different groups. David Orr from the National Housing Federation has questioned whether handing over assets will break the charitable rules and challenge the charitable status of most housing associations. The Audit Commission also report that fraud around the scheme has cost £12.3m a year. Other commentators such as Owen Jones have stated quite clearly:

“This is social cleansing, as simple as that”

It also sets English policy in direct opposition to the direction of travel in Scotland, where the Right to Buy will be ending in 2016. The abolition of the Right to Buy within the Scottish Housing Bill (2014) was introduced to save the current and future social housing stock. Housing Minister Margaret Burgess has noted that:

“These measures will protect up to 15,500 social houses from sale over a ten-year period and safeguard social housing stock for future generations… With 185,000 people on waiting lists for council and housing association houses, we can no longer afford to see the social sector lose out on badly needed homes” (Scottish Government 2014).

The impact of the Right to Buy on the social rented sector is well known and clearly documented. This can’t be underestimated. Further expansion of the Right to Buy will herald the decimation of the social rented sector in England. It will add to the already pressing demand for more social housing throughout the UK. Why would any landlord build social housing only to be forced to sell it 3 years later?

This policy change is situated within a housing market where ‘expansion is largely dependent upon maintaining demand among a widening section of lower income households’ (Malpass 1986: 241). This trend was continued as the Right to Buy was followed by other schemes that have been targeted at those on lower incomes. It has been shown that these have posed a number of financial challenges for new owners, questioning the appropriateness of home ownership for lower income groups (McKee 2010). There is a perception of ‘winners’ (those who benefited from the policy and became owners) and ‘losers/victims’ (everyone else) with focus on its more negative impact has been predominantly on the social renting sector.

However, this is a debate with much wider repercussions even for the ‘winners’. I recently presented a piece of research written with Drs Madhu Satsangi and Corinne Greasley-Adams at the Housing Studies Association conference in York around older owner occupiers in lower value properties. There was an emerging view that there was a group of owner occupiers whose housing needs were not being met.

The research indicated that the group ‘older owner occupiers in lower value properties’ was synonymous with those who had exercised their Right to Buy. Over half of the group surveyed were in properties built before 1990, which generally have higher repair and maintenance costs and are less energy efficient. A third of the participants reported that there was a part of their home they could not access. Furthermore, a third of them wanted to move, mainly due to ill health, but lack of options and affordability were key barriers to moving.

The investment opportunities, security, freedom and autonomy that were promised to them was therefore not in place for a certain group of owner occupiers. This group, especially after a health crisis, were turning to the social rented sector to help. Despite the presiding myths and the veneration of homeownership in UK housing policy, there has been a perception that people are ‘perceived as victims of housing policy rather than its beneficiaries’ (Malpass 1986: 243).

We therefore have come to a full circle from the initial promises of the 1980s that cashing in on the Right to Buy guarantees future security for everyone. David Cameron introduced the new expansion of the policy on the same promise: security and a ‘good life’ for all. Although clearly some people have won from this policy, what we see now is that housing options can be reduced as a certain group of homeowners grow older and develop new support needs.

This ideologically driven policy ignores the wider socio-economic inequalities that exist amongst homeowners (whom are not an homogenous group). The expansion of the Right to Buy is a dangerous, short sighted policy that will further the socio-economic inequalities in the UK.

Blog by Dr Vikki McCall, University of Stirling

All views represented here are my own.

Follow @vikki_mccall @HousingStirUni

Home-ing in on Domestic Energy Research: moving away from technological house improvements to consider the dynamics of home life By Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs (University of St Andrews)

Business-as-usual and the Techno-fix

With increasing urbanisation, people now spend more time interacting with the built environment. Several sources suggest that Americans and Europeans spend on average 85-90% of their time indoors; this has implications for consumption and strategies for reducing demand.

I started my PhD with the intention of challenging the idea of a ‘techno-fix’ for environmental problems, particularly in relation to the energy we use in our homes. A techno-centric approach is usually justification for some form of ‘business-as-usual’ because technological innovation will ‘save us.’ We can make heating systems and transport more efficient, so there is no need to alter Western lifestyles or temper increasingly demanding expectations. Thus, as individuals we don’t need to make radical changes to our lifestyles, businesses don’t need to shift from their pursuit of profit, and governments can continue with behaviour change programmes deferring their responsibilities onto their citizens. Generally, critique of mainstream ‘techno-economic thinking’ argues that improvements in efficiency, design or technological innovations do not address or engage with why demand is created. While efficiency means we can do ‘more with less,’ overall demand continues to rise as lifestyle expectations also shift with technological advances.


What about social interventions?

There are several ways one could go about trying to provide evidence of the misjudgement of relying on the techno-fix. For instance, many researchers have bolstered widespread acceptance of the ‘rebound effect’ providing numerous studies with evidence of modelled or predicted savings from improvements in efficiency not being realised. While this line of research has advanced concerns around techno-economic thinking, a mismatch between predicted and actual demand is partly related to quantitative modelling and assumptions of these methods. Certainly, actual savings can also be greater than predicted; for example, some research has highlighted a prebound effect suggesting that technical calculations generally overestimate the energy demand in older energy-inefficient homes because inhabitants generally accept lower temperatures in these properties.

Another criticism of the techno-fix is underpinned by a more fundamental acknowledgement of the interrelatedness of social and technical aspects of society. Morley and Shove (2014) offer a relatively accessible illustration of the need to consider technology in relation to social customs by linking Christmas, oven size and energy demand. With oven-baked pizzas on the rise, and Sunday dinners in decline, it would be more efficient to produce an oven optimised for ‘normal use’. Instead, year round energy demand is inseparable from the classic Christmas tradition of roasting a turkey because this peak demand determines a larger oven size. Morley and Shove argue that “if turkey was not the classic meal and if roasting was not the norm […] ovens would not be sized and designed as they are today.” A focus on technological innovation ignores and overlooks these sorts of alternative intervention strategies, which emerge from a greater consideration of how social conventions determine demand.


Energy demand, house and home

This starting point, of not accepting a techno-fix and recognising the need for a socio-technical perspective, has implications for how research is done and resulting policy recommendations. I explore what this means in the context of domestic energy. Sure enough, the mainstream research and policy focus is on improving the physical building, our houses, without paying attention to social expectations we have for our homes. Yet our homes are not just physical place, they are also linked to ideas of comfort and companionship. While home is not always positive for all people, all the time, it is a place that is widely recognised to be both a social and physical locus. Take wood-burning stoves for example, which are recommended as a low-carbon and energy-saving home improvement. The popularity of wood-burning stoves is not simply explained by their energy-saving properties; indeed, similar savings may be achieved by investing in a new boiler or insulation. The appeal of the stove may be better explained by social considerations; fire is a pleasant, cheery, and cosy form of heating that cannot simply be replicated or replaced. Whereas, modern central heating systems have become more efficient and more automated; householders do not have to regularly remove and clean away ash and can expect their homes to be warm when they get in from work because of programmable thermostats. Yet there is appeal in having a wood-burning stove that is not easily understood or explained by a techno-economic discourse. Drawing attention to the more intangible appeal of living with a wood-burning stove attempts to highlight that focusing on the physical features of the house is not sufficient to understand important social considerations that also shape demand.

Engineers, building scientists and designers recognise that different householders living in the exact same house will use a different amount of energy; yet explaining this variation is seen as someone else’s problem. I suggest that engineers and building scientists are targeting and researching the ‘house,’ while we should be thinking more holistically about the ‘home.’ Energy demand is partly the result of social conventions, such as expectations of comfort, following norms for being a good host, and everyday activities like cooking (which can be impacted by less routine social conventions like Christmas). The dominance of targeting the house overlooks the opportunity to address social customs that also shape demand. This is why we need to home-in on domestic energy research; re-evaluating how occupant satisfaction is defined and opening up a wider avenue for intervention by moving away from targeting the house and technological fixes. While I have focused on domestic environments, it is arguably an appropriate characterisation of how the wider built environment is perceived in mainstream policy and research: belief in the techno-fix also rules in our urban environments. In conclusion, a move beyond the ‘house’ would have to go hand in hand with policy that is more ambitious – seeking advice on economic, societal, and political questions from a wider genre of social scientists than those offering big data, techno-economic inspired strategies.

Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, PhD Researcher, University of St Andrews (@Ellsworth_Krebs)



The Privileging of Growth in Planning Policy By Sarah Longlands (University of Glasgow)

‘I think its very hard on people who aren’t’ already part of the party if you like, and who aren’t’ going to get a slice of the pie and there’s an increasing number of people who aren’t part of that, even in Cambridge’

(Interview 1103, Cambridge)


The dominance of market led approaches in planning is a concern that has been shared for some time amongst academics and practitioners. Molotch (1976) famously coined the term ‘growth machine’ in the 1970s to describe what he saw as the dominance of growth interests, particularly land, in US cities. In the 1980s, Brindley et al. (1989) were describing what they saw as a ‘crisis in planning’ created as a result of what they identified as “another underlying weakness of the planning system, its dependence on economic growth” (Brindley et al., 1989,5).   Most recently, Rydin (2014) has again expressed her frustration at the dependence of planning upon economic growth.

The privileging of growth in planning policy, whilst by no means new, has been further amplified as a following the 2008 economic crisis and the coming to power of the Coalition Government in 2010. The Coalition Government’s 2012 National Planning Policy Framework, argued that the purpose of planning was about helping to achieve ‘sustainable development’ (DCLG, 2012) defined as ‘positive growth’ and reinstated, a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’. Despite the couching of planning reform within the softer, post-political language of sustainable development (Swyngedouw, 2007) the emphasis upon the ‘economic’ progress is unmistakable, particularly when read alongside the HM Treasury ‘Plan for Growth’. This 2011 publication argued that as part of the UK’s plans to attract business, planning needed to be ‘radically’ reformed with the expectation that local authorities should ‘prioritise growth and jobs’ (HM Treasury and BIS, 2011, 23).

My PhD, examining the privileging of economic growth in planning policy, developed from my own experience working for both the public and private sector in the North of England. No matter the context, the pursuit of growth was a dominant objective in regeneration and planning policy. Despite the fact that growth was often difficult and unequal, there was an absence of critical debate about the concept of economic growth and particularly the mechanisms through which policy makers hoped that ‘growth’ would solve place-based challenges.   The pursuit of economic growth was simply the axiomatic good that policy makers sought. Using case studies of Middlesborough and Cambridge, my work asks whether this has any particular influence on how local planning policy is developed and implemented in different contexts.

My findings to date have comprised three main themes. Firstly, the disaggregated nature of the ‘growth’ as a concept. Whilst conventional economic wisdom would have us believe that economic growth is devoid of normative attribution, what becomes quickly apparent when discussing the concept with the planning community in different parts of the country, is the constructed and value laden nature of the growth concept. People’s views on what economic growth means and what ends it will serve, vary significantly. There is a spectrum of views which ranges from a basic association with jobs and business development through to the pursuit of human progress and social enlightenment. What was particularly striking was the different weighting of these priorities according to economic fortunes, for example, the understanding of economic growth as ‘more personal wealth’ was particularly prevalent in Middlesbrough, whereas, the physical development of housing and communities was dominant in Cambridge.

What has also become apparent is the increasingly difficult position of local government planners given the Coalition’s continued enthusiasm for austerity. Planning, particularly in areas which have experienced the wholescale removal of place based regeneration initiatives, has had to reconstruct its purpose to become a means of generating income for local authorities in order to support local services. This has included support for new homes on greenfield sites to both secure New Homes Bonus as well as the potential council tax revenue of future citizens. Planning has investigate how it can use the value of development to support local infrastructure and regeneration because in the current climate of public sector austerity, ‘the state can only do so much’(public sector planner).

Whether you’re a planner in Middlesbrough, Cornwall or Cambridge, the ‘plan for growth’ is the same. The effect of this seems to be encouraging planning to reconsider and ‘rethink’ the challenges that it needs to address (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2013). Max Lock, a planner, and Ruth Glass, a sociologist, working together in the 1940s were vocal about the role of planning as a means to support human development, particularly inequality and poverty. Max Lock argued that the purpose of planning was to plan for and prioritise the needs of the people who live in an area, what he called ‘the raw materials of a plan….the planners’ clients’ (Lock 1948).  But in 2014, the challenges being identified in local plans tend to be focused on growth-orientated development with the main aim of generating economic benefits. Not only does the evidence suggest that this may be exacerbating issues such as inequality but planning is increasingly valuing people according to their ability to generate economic growth, to be ‘self-sufficient’ as one interviewee put it.   In time, there is a vague hope that the benefits may ‘trickle down’ but the channels through which this may happen are poorly defined. So the impact of planning on the lives of people becomes increasingly oblique and dependent upon the actions of developers rather than the state.

Sarah Longlands, University of Glasgow (@sarahlonglands)


ALLMENDINGER, P. & HAUGHTON, G. 2013. The Evolution and Trajectories of English Spatial Governance: Neoliberal Episodes in Planning. Planning, Practice and Research, 28, 6-26.

BRINDLEY, I., RYDIN, Y. & STOKER, G. 1989. Remaking Planning. The Politics of Urban Change in the Thatcher Years, London, Unwin Stanley.

DCLG 2012. National Planning Policy Framework. In: GOVERNMENT, D. O. C. A. L. (ed.). London HMSO.

HM TREASURY & BIS 2011. The Plan for Growth. In: HM TREASURY & SKILLS, B. I. A. (eds.). London: HMSO.

LOCK, M. (1948) Preface, in Glass, R. The Social Background of a Plan. A study of Middlesbrough. Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited.

MOLOTCH, H. 1976. The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place. American Journal of Sociology, 82, 309-332.

SWYNGEDOUW, E. 2007. Impossible sustainability and the post political condition In: GIBBS, D. & KRUEGER, R. (eds.) The sustainable development paradox. New York: Guildford Press.