There is no Alternative? A discussion of an alternative on Tarlabasi Renewal Project

This blog post is inspired by the fieldwork I conducted during my PhD research. The research focuses on renovation and regeneration projects, and also on the gentrification concept, in two historic neighbourhoods of Istanbul. The overall goal of the research was to explore how poor inhabitants in these areas might be enabled to stay in their homes rather than being displaced. I sought to understand the processes that are leading to gentrification in Istanbul, to explain what is happening, how and why. I spent almost 6 months interviewing residents from two historic neighbourhoods in Istanbul (Galata and Tarlabasi), NGOs working in the area, academics interested in the neighbourhoods, people from the Municipality and the construction firm that won the tender for the Tarlabasi Renewal Project. In this research I found that state involvement expanded in order to secure Istanbul’s place in the hierarchy of world cities and I provide an explanation linking different spatial scales and levels of abstraction from city to neighbourhood. In sum I present a powerful critique of world city gentrification processes in a developing country. In addition to this critique I also sought ways to prepare an alternative policy option or a framework for Tarlabasi neighbourhood.

During the interviews I conducted, academics and people in NGOs stated their suggestion about alternative solutions for Tarlabasi. These suggestions can be summed up as:

  • Policies about displacement process should be drawn up, rather than solely eviction;
  • Social housing should be built for people living in the project area;
  • There should not be a specific project, but rather there should be physical rehabilitation of the neighbourhood and social policies to tackle the poverty in the area;
  • A project should be created with the inhabitants for the renovation of the area, rather it being run by a private construction firm. During any possible renovation process the Municipality should provide rent support for tenants.
  • Houses should be properly renovated with respect to their original form rather than demolishing the whole area and building it again:
  • Social policies (such as policies for poverty, rent assistance, educational support, tackling the crime rate, providing better infrastructure) should be drawn up to improve residents’ situation in the neighbourhood.

In this post, I present two main aims for at least one possible alternative; historical preservation and giving housing rights to the working class inhabitants of the neighbourhood. First, developing a historical preservation programme in accordance with the planning decisions and urban conservation laws with regard to population densities is a main target. The second is to keep the poor inhabitants in their homes and meet their housing needs. The main housing suggestion for the neighbourhood is to create social rented housing because owner-occupied housing schemes with low rate mortgages and monthly instalments are not feasible for the poor population of Tarlabasi.

To achieve this alternative policy, I suggest the immediate cancellation of the Project, reconstructing the demolished buildings with respect to their original form and providing social housing to all the displaced people that would allow them to live somewhere in or close to the central city, rather than pushing them to the periphery. But this strategy needs to consider tenure in Tarlabasi. The Project solely encourages owner-occupation rather than creating possibilities for rental property. Due to the high tenancy rate in the area, it is important to begin by building social rented housing, but this could be complemented by a model focusing on owning a house depending on the owner-occupier rate in the neighbourhood. Depending on the demand from the inhabitants for the owner-occupation model, the sale of the properties should respect the income levels of the inhabitants, that is, creating the possibility of buying the property through flexible and affordable instalments. If owner-occupiers choose to sell their property, they should be required to give the state first option of buying the dwelling in order to retain it in the social housing stock. In the case of a sale, the state should be able to buy the property from an owner-occupier for its market price before rehabilitation because in this alternative, the state is the main investor in the rehabilitation project. In the social housing model, the rent should be regulated according to the income level of the residents, with rent subsidies granted where needed.

 I suggest that the development of cultural and tourist amenities should be encouraged. For tourist-oriented developments, residents of Tarlabasi should be given priority in employment since these places would be state-owned the profit would go directly to state.

The Tarlabasi renewal land area is 20,000 m2, and the current project cost is 500 million TL (around £125 million) with luxurious office areas and shopping malls and residential areas amounting to the whole of the proposed built environment (Gap Insaat, 2012). Increasing the number of flats designated for residential use with well-restored buildings, instead of demolishing and re-building, would cost less than this amount. Finally, the Mass Housing Development Agency (MHDA) has housing ownership schemes on the periphery of Istanbul, where an eligible person (eligibility requirements are set by the MHDA) can buy a house for monthly instalments of 700 – 800 TL (£90- £100). In Tarlabasi, few people could commit to such long term instalments, as currently, rent prices in the neighbourhood are around 500 – 800 TL (£60 – £90). If social housing was constructed in Tarlabasi to rent to the inhabitants, it would be feasible for the MHDA to charge them around the same rents instead of the housing re-payment instalments.

This kind of project takes many years and requires a strong political will, but many municipalities that are re-elected every five years choose to do short-term projects that are not for the benefit of whole urban population, but to attract investments to their locality and thus increase their electoral standings. For that reason, neighbourhoods like Tarlabasi with the most disadvantaged segments of the population are frequently ignored since improving the social environment in these places is not a good advertisement for the municipalities at election time. Because the results are not immediately visible and it takes more than five years to see the positive effects of such social programmes. Because of this, these rehabilitation projects should have the support and help of the national state. Local municipalities do not have big enough budgets or strong enough authority to make them happen. Creating social housing in the area is crucial for this alternative to succeed. In Turkey, the MHDA, therefore, the organization responsible for creating social and affordable housing, should be responsible for the construction of these forms of alternative project.

It is true that rehabilitation alone cannot solve all the problems of the neighbourhood; the ability of inhabitants to pay affordable rents depends on their incomes, so also that needs attention.  For that reason, it is also necessary to develop solutions involving the local and national authorities and NGOs, to decrease the poverty rate in the neighbourhood. It can be concluded that the rehabilitation of Tarlabasi for the working class residents is economically and socially feasible, but the political will to initiate such a process is not there. A rehabilitation project with the inhabitants that improves not only the physical and historic environment, but also the lives of those who are having financial and social difficulties due to unemployment, underemployment and territorial stigmatization, is suggested for Tarlabasi. I suggest that before any physical renovation processes are planned, social policies to decrease the poverty and crime rate and to provide free legal counselling and education are needed in the area.

As it can be seen in other world cities in the Global South, massive urban regeneration projects that focus only on the physical rehabilitation of the urban environment can have detrimental effects on the poor. This may seem like a quick fix for urban deterioration for the developing (and sometimes developed) part of the world; however, in the long-term, it can lead to further social exclusion, increased poverty and stigmatization in the city.


This post is part of my PhD dissertation and attempts to open a discussion on alternative ways in which urban regeneration ad rehabilitation projects can be managed to enable the poor inhabitants to stay in their neighbourhood rather than displacing them. 


Aysegul Can received her PhD from University of Sheffield, Department of Urban Studies and Planning. She is currently a Lecturer in The Department of Urban and Regional Planing, Istanbul Medeniyet University.



Gap Insaat, (2012). Tarlabasi Renewal Project Leaflet. Istanbul: Gap Insaat.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Slow academia and the neoliberal university: call for blog posts

The blog of the AESOP Young Academics network is looking for contributions on all aspects of spatial planning (see for example a general call for blog posts, including such themes as “bridging theory and practice”, and a call for insightful contributions about the values that drive the AESOP community). An additional theme that deserves discussion is the potential for slow academia to emerge in a context of an increasingly neoliberal management of higher education and research performance. What is the current trend? Are research and education all about quality (as in quality education, quality research outputs), or are they more about quantity (number of students enrolled/taught, tuition fees being cashed in, number of research papers published per year)? Is a balancing act really possible in today’s day and age?

So do send your contributions to, following these guidelines for submissions. Below is some food for thought: plenty of questions for you to explore and suggest answers to.

Entering the rat race? Finding a steady (s)pace?

As many AESOP young career researchers and practitioners are planning their next steps, one can wonder whether there is space for everyone in academia. A former blog post by Enzo Falco and Alessandro Rinaldi showed how grim the outlook might seem to aspiring academics in Italy and beyond, with the need to consider academic prospects across countries. But say you find a space within academia, is that space really secure? Is it all a rat race where performance criteria and quantity of outputs are more important than quality research and education? Does quantity necessarily have to outweigh quality?

A respondent to the ongoing survey about the values that drive members of the AESOP community shares his responses to the following question: How much of the values from Ancient Greece and other parts of the Ancient World live on in AESOP?

I think that values from Ancient Greece are important to build the European attitude towards democracy and for balanced and responsive territorial planning in Europe thereof. However, I also think that these values are fading away in the recent years due to multiple pressures of liberalism. This has an influence on all levels of planning and related issues.

While liberalism is affecting much of what planners do and observe, it is also affecting planners’ own education and ways of knowing the world they engage in. So how can we as practicing planners, researching planners, and planners-in-the-making manage these “multiple pressures of liberalism”?

An emerging movement within academia in general is “slow academia” or “slow science”, modeled on the corresponding “slow food” movement which started in Italy in the 1980s to combat a dwindling interest in food quality, and help revive food systems that supports well-being, the natural environment and communities. Slow science is about quality, plurality and taking the time necessary to make landmark contributions to knowledge. In today’s world of fast science, slow science increasingly has strong political implications, philosopher of science Isabel Stengers in her book Another Science is Possible. Slow science is about finding ways to address multiple challenges related to fast science, such as increasing competition and work loading, dwindling and shorter-term funding and the stakes of true innovation as opposed to innovation for its own sake.

An effective analogy of slow academia for PhD researchers can be soup-making – that hearty, warming winter-type of soup that wants to simmer for many hours to release all its flavours. In other words, a good thesis, or any other good piece of work for that matter, cannot be rushed. It needs the time that it needs to ripen and come to fruition. Even if a PhD should not be your life’s opus work, as PhD supervisors often say.

At the same time, slow academia might just be some foregone utopia. Alison Edwards shares her critique of slow academia in the Thesis Whisperer, titled: “Slow Academia is for the privileged – but then, isn’t all academia?”. As Mark Corrigan and Filip Vostal write: “to be a slow professor is a privilege. It’s a privilege available only to those already at the summit of the academic career structure”, where more junior academics would likely be making up the gap in productivity.

So does it mean the neoliberal turn in academia is unavoidable? Some critical academics advocate more inclusive systems of research and education that move beyond competition and hierarchy, and the supporting mechanisms of knowledge-production as neoliberal capital accumulation. These could  be non-university spaces for learning and research, for example, that still engage with conventional outlets for knowledge dissemination (e.g. conferences) without necessarily being dictated by neoliberal forms of management. Other academics are exploring the different ways in which academia could slow down, such as: following the way of the ant; committing to publishing less, as part of a revised ecology of publishing; or resolutely resisting the push toward consumerism in knowledge transmission and acquisition. In all, do higher education and research need to be repoliticised? Or the shift (back) to “quality” a cultural or aesthetic one?

Make haste, but slowly

The tortoise has repeatedly been associated with the idea of “hurrying slowly”, from the time of story-teller Aesop in Ancient Greece with his fable called “The Hare and the Tortolise”, to the Medici family in Renaissance Florence, or Jean de la Fontaine’s re-vamping of the Aesop fable in 1668. There are apparently many tortoise to be found in different forms in Florence, including in the Palazzio Vechio, a notable case being a tortoise with a sail on its back. The Latin phrase Festina Lente, which can be loosely translated as “Make haste slowly”, has been a popular motto throughout Western history, from the Roman emperors Augustus and Titus, to Cosimo de Medici in Florence, or the Earl of Onslow in England. The French poet Nicolas Boileau also used the idea in describing how one can become a good writer, achieving excellence and managing setbacks. So whoever said tortoise were slow or ineffective? For the record: several hundred years later after the Medici, a 100 year tortoise named Charles managed to escape from his adoptive family’s garden in Florence, Oregon, and go completely missing for two whole days.

Like the dwarf in Florence, we could ride on the turtle’s back and find our way (back?) to greatness.

Or should we learn to think fast AND slow, putting into practice some of Daniel Kahneman’s advice?

James Abbott - Festina lente - Florence Tortoise sculpture.jpg

The above sculpture, called “Searching for Utopia”, is by Belgian artist Jan Fabre, and was exhibited Plaza della Signoria in Florence (see an artistic commentary here) Picture credit: Florence 2016-07-16 044-LR, by James Abbott on Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Looking for Aesop in AESOP: call for reflections

AESOP is broad and diverse community of scholars and practitioners at diverse stages in their career(s). The AESOP 2018 conference was a strong, engaged and engaging reflection of this diversity, which finds expression in the different thematic groups and wide range of events which AESOP members organise and participate in. Yet the diversity of what spatial planning does might lead to a sort of identify crisis for planning as a discipline, as mentioned at the 13th Head of Planning Schools meeting in Newcastle last spring. Looking at this diversity of research and industry practices in spatial planning, can we speak of a particular identity for the AESOP community? Is its name just an acronym or does it tie in with a deeper tradition of perceiving and experiencing the world? Or is it rather so that AESOP’s identity is a recursive one, an endless flow of contingent, amorphous expression and self-reconstruction?

Historians debate whether Aesop was an Ancient Greek story teller, or simply a style of popular story telling, in the manner of fables. The fable about the hare and the tortoise is probably one of the most famous ones. Here is an extensive selection of Aesop’s fables.


The Tortoise and the Hare: a classic fable that has been retold over the centuries. What does it have to say about the dynamics of the neoliberal university and economy, or about the value of slowlife or slow academia? Picture credit: “Tortoise and the Hare” taken by Patrick Q’s sister on Flickr, Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution

From Plato’s Republic, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the writings of Aristotle and the minimalist lifestyle and Cynic philosophy of Diogenes, the stories, myths and philosophy of Ancient Greece have had a tremendous influence on European thoughts and worldviews to this very day, alongside numerous sciences and other aspects of Ancient Greek society.  That is not even to mention myths, philosophy, spirituality and scientific approaches from other parts of the Ancient World, which have also travelled wide and far.

Guiding questions for concise, reflective contributions to the blog would be:

  • How much of the values from Ancient Greece and other parts of the world live on in AESOP?
  • How do some of the values from the Ancient World shape your own contribution to the AESOP community?

You are warmly invited to share your reflections in contributions that span anything from 100 to 1000 words, either as a short response to this two-question online survey (, or as a more developed blog post to:

Looking forward to hearing from your muse!


Hellenistic statue claimed to depict Aesop, Art Collection of Villa Albani, Rome. Picture by Shakko, Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution 3.0. 

Posted in Academia, research quality and assessment, Beyond planning, Dissemination, outreach, communication, Economy, Heritage and Planning, Methodology and ethics, Planning, city, and society, Sustainability and resilience, technology, Territory, landscape, land, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Public participation: databases and resources

In this post, I provide a list of resources, repositories and models that can help to design, conduct and evaluate effective public participation in spatial planning. The list is meant to grow and be crowdsourced, so please leave a reply or fill the google spreadsheet here if you can share some relevant links (particularly in non-Anglophone settings, in different countries, and on different continents).


The ParticipateDB database is the global Yellow Pages directory of web-based participation platforms and resources (except you don’t have to pay to be on it). I start with this resource as it is by far the most comprehensive resource I have ever come across so far. It is crowdsourced, so do contact them to new e-participation projects with them. The database can be queried in different ways. Up-to-date.

The Bee Smart City database is equally worth a visit. It lists smart city solutions across the world, many of them participatory and very local. It is free, and crowdsourced, so add your own project on the database if it is not already there. features case studies in community development, local governance and public participation from across the globe. Some of the content is a bit outdated, but has valuable resources.

Resources and repositories provides an extensive repository about community planning at large: methods, principles, case studies, toolbox, etc. It is largely UK-based, and geared toward practice more than formal academic research. Check out its extensive though very mixed international list of websites for citizen engagement and community initiatives from the local to the national level by

The Cooperative City Magazine is a repository of various collaborative urban initiatives.

The Deliberative Democracy consortium is “an alliance of leading organizations and scholars working in the field of public engagement, participation, and deliberation” that is US-based. It hosts the Journal of Public Deliberation together with IAP2.

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) is famous for its Spectrum that can broadly guide the design and conduct of public participation. The website hosts some resources, and you can join professional training workshops in community engagement in North America, Europe and Australia by becoming in member. Check out also the Journal of Public Deliberation as well for topical articles.

Project for Public Spaces has some resources and case studies on the theme of participatory urban design and planning for people-friendly public space. See all their projects here.

The Californian Institute for Local Government has a handful of resources to support local government in conducting effective public participation with various technologies.

Blogs of online community engagement companies and organisations

Among many others, the following online community engagement companies have blogs that are good sources of project and research summaries: Future Dialog (Finland), Citizen Lab (Belgium), Bang the Table (USA and international), Social Pinpoint (Australia & USA), MetroQuest (USA), Cap Collectif (France).

Engage 2 Act is a collective that brings together citizens, community engagement professionals, students, community leaders, government officials and other individuals interested in community engagement issues. Based in Australia.

mySociety runs a blog providing insight about their products (e.g. FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou). Check out also their topical and timely research reports and data that measures the impact of Civic Tech. Reports include: Civic Tech Cities (2017), Who Benefits from Civic Technology (2015), among others.

Duncans snakes and ladders by Marasmusine Flickr Attribution CC

Public participation: a game of snakes and ladders??? Picture credit: Duncan’s Snakes and Ladders, by Marasmusine on Flickr, Attribution Creative Commons.

Models of public participation

“Public participation”, “citizen engagement”, “civic engagement”, “public involvement”… so many terms, but do they all mean the same thing? Some definitions and perspectives on community engagement and public participation are still needed even today, as they were some years ago (Rowe & Frewer, 2005). We all know about Arnstein’s ladder of participation: How high should communities really climb? Did you know the world’s tallest ladder is made of wood, has 120 rungs and measures 41 meters long?

International public participation models 1969-2016. Arguably the most comprehensive list of public participation models I have EVER come across! An absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in public participation. Kindly shared by Salley Hussey from the online community engagement company Bang the Table – Engagement HQ. Highly valuable for researchers and practitioners alike.

What is community engagement? By the platform provider Bang the Table – Engagement HQ. Check out the rest of their blog for plenty of news on community engagement and public participation.

Ladder by Mark Giles on Flickr Non-Commercial Attribution Creative Commons.

Picture credit: Ladder, by Mark Giles on Flickr, Non-Commercial Attribution No Derivs Creative Commons


Special issues & conference proceedings about public participation

Special issue: Citizens in City Regions in different contexts, in Journal of Urban Affairs

Special issue: Voluntary Geographic Information and the City in Urban Planning [open access]

Conference proceedings about public participation

Urban Living Labs for public space: a new generation of planning? Proceedings of the Incubators Conference at KU Leuven, 10-11 April 2017.

International Conference on Participatory Governance of Built Cultural Heritage 3-4 October 2018, Amersfoort, Netherlands. (Proceedings to come?).

DG.O 2018: 19th International Conference on Digital Government Research, “Governance in the Data Age” 30 May-1 June 2018, Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. Participatory governance, public engagement, and open data are major themes.

TICTeC 2018, 18-19 April 2018, Lisbon. A conference about civic engagement technology, organised by mySociety, the famous organisation that supplies FixMyStreet, TheyWorkforYou, and other platforms that help connect government and citizens.

Public participation journals

The Journal of Public Deliberation, hosted by The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2).

Bibliographies about public participation 

A comprehensive community engagement reading list by Graeme Stuart, lecturer at the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. The literature approaches three broad themes: 1) community engagement in community development and community building; 2) community engagement in service delivery; and 3) community engagement in planning and decision-making. Relevant for practitioners and researchers alike.

Urban PGIS: PGIS, PPGIS, Participatory Mapping in the Urban Context utilising Local Spatial Knowledge. An extensive bibliography by participatory mapping expert Michael K. McCall (2015).

Community-university engagement

Not quite public participation, but a way of increasing the impact of research. Here are some resources for effective public engagement between universities and communities.

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement is the leading institution in the UK that encourages universities to share and research with communities.

The Living Knowledge Network. The international network for science shops and community-based research.

Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education.

Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement

Snakes and ladders by eltpics Attribution CC

Picture credit: Snakes and Ladders, by eltpics on Flickr. Attribution Creative Commons.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

13th AESOP Heads of Schools meeting: reflective account by Simin Davoudi.

Guest author: Simin Davoudi, Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning, Director of GURU, Newcastle University. 

On the 20th of April 2018, the City and the University of Newcastle welcomed about 100 delegates representing over 45 universities from across Europe and beyond to the 13th AESOP Heads of Schools Conference.

We were delighted to be the first planning school in the UK to host this event, and to do so in a year when we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of our research centre, Global Urban Research Unit (GURU).

On a personal level, hosting the conference meant a lot to me because the inaugural meeting of the Heads of Schools took place during the first year of my presidency of AESOP in 2006 in Bratislava.  Twelve years on, these meetings have gone from strength to strength and become a key forum for exchange of ideas and experiences about planning education and research.

The Newcastle conference was very well received especially because of the quality of the speakers and the discussions that it generated. Following from a great introduction by Professor Suzanne Cholerton, our Pro Vice Chancellor for learning and teaching, we heard an inspiring speech by Professor Patsy Healey, the founder of the first planning research centre in our school which later became GURU. Patsy talked passionately about her experience of leading a planning school and mobilising its research agenda.  Many of the points that she raised in her talk were picked up in subsequent discussions in four panels as well as the closing remarks by our Head of School, Professor Adam Sharr.

We asked panel speakers to reflect on issues that are at the heart of planning education and research; issues that most planning schools in Europe are grappling with.  The plenary panel focused on the challenges and opportunities of leading or being involved in an interdisciplinary planning school.

I am going to use this Blog to share my own reflections on this theme, which has long defined planners’ soul-searching for disciplinary identity and will, undoubtedly, do so for the generations of planners to come, including AESOP young academics community. It is about a question which John Friedmann asked exactly thirty years ago and I, along with my colleague John Pendlebury, revisited in 2010 in our centenary paper for Town Planning Review: what is planners’ unique competence that no other discipline can legitimately claim as their own? What distinguishes planners from geographers, architects, environmental scientists or professional mediators?

The usual answer to these questions is that planning lacks a disciplinary foundation as such; that its intellectual basis is exceptionally flexible and fluid; and, that it draws on other disciplines whose relative significance changes all the time.  Another typical answer is that planning is interdisciplinary but this answer does not go into the details of how to define a discipline.  There is also some confusion about the difference between inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary.

This lack of clarity and acknowledgment of the epistemological challenges of engaging in integrative knowledge construction has meant that the unconditional addition of new subjects to planning education over the years has been justified and even celebrated in the name of interdisciplinarity.  The results are mixed. At its best, it has enabled planners to look at problems from different perspectives and cultivated collaborative values in planning processes. At its worst, it has led to what Mike Batty called a layer cake approach to planning curriculum; an instrumental picking-and-mixing of subjects from other disciplines, and from competing and sometimes conflicting epistemic communities.

In many countries, planning education has been extended to adapt and respond to the growing expectations from it.  This adaptive approach, which has been useful for its survival, has come at the cost of a vaguely defined and diffused intellectual foundation.  The knowledge base of planning now covers physical design traditions, a multitude of social science theories, natural and environmental sciences and engineering.  With all its benefits, this approach also presents a risk of further overlap, diffusion and fragmentation of planning discipline.

The Heads of Schools Conference provided us with stimulating ideas and thoughts but, I believe the real impetus for energising the debate and digging deep into planning’s underlying epistemological, methodological and ethical issues lies in the AESOP Young Academic community. That is where we need to look for novel and imaginative ideas, going forward.


Simin Davoudi

Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning

Director of GURU

School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University

Past President of AESOP

For a detailed account of Simin Davoudi’s work, follow the link to her staff profile at the Global Urban Research Unit (GURU), Newcastle University.

Photo gallery of the event:

Davoudi_AESOP Heads of Schools Meeting 2018 NCL UNI_20180726_smaller

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Building Ourselves Fat

Guest author: Jo Ellis, Blue Kayak and Northumbria University. 

We all know that it’s bad to be too fat, don’t we? Voices on every side tell us so, particularly those of us who are female. On our right, there is the medical profession, predicting furred arteries, overloaded joints and strokes; on our left, the Beauty Industry, telling us that Small is Beautiful; and all around us, in shop windows and clickbait and telly adverts and magazines, a whole economic sector dedicated to making us shed the pounds. Buy this book! Follow this programme! Join this gym! And if you don’t – you’ll be a fat lump with no mates, no dream job and definitely no sex, and it’ll all be Your Fault.

With all this pressure, it’s amazing that any of us are remotely plump. But, increasingly, we are not just plump, but obese -26% of us. (1) It’s been calculated that by 2050, Britain could be a “mainly obese” society (2).

Why’s this? Are we all so morally wretched? Well, there isn’t a single reason, of course. But we’re all affected by the environment we live in, and increasingly we’re coming to realise that we’re quite literally “shaped” by ours – that is, that we’re building ourselves fat. (3)

To illustrate, let’s imagine our friend Frieda Salad. Fortysomething, fourteen stone [89 kilos], Frieda lives in a sprawly new estate on the outskirts of town.  The doctor tells her that she really ought to try to lose some weight, and hands her one of those cheery Change for Life leaflets with the Plasticine men on them.

“That’s all very well,” says Frieda, “but I just haven’t got time.”

The doctor fixes her with one of those quizzical “tell me more, and you’d better make it good,” looks.

“Well,” says Frieda, “I’m at work all day. Before I go to work I’ve got to drop the kids off at school. Then I drive to the office. It’s out on the industrial estate, so for lunch it’s the canteen or nothing – I’ve basically got to sit down all day, except in the lift –“

“Could you take the stairs?” says the doctor.

“Oh – erm – well, nobody does. There are some stairs, I suppose.”

“Ok,” says the doctor, tapping some notes into the computer. She’s had a few of these conversations.

“Then I drive home – pick the kids up from after-school club – normally I have to take them home to give them something to eat then take them out to gym or Scouts or whatever. Then I’ve just about got time to get home before I’ve got to get in the car to fetch them again. And, yeah, I suppose we do eat quite a bit of take-out, but once the kids are home, I can’t go out again till Mark gets home, and there aren’t any shops near me – it’s miles to anywhere. And the gym’s really expensive, and anyway, by the time we’ve eaten, I’m ready for bed.”

“Could you go for a walk round the block after you’ve eaten? Just for twenty minutes or so?”

“Well – you could – but there’s nowhere to go. Just estate roads, and all they go to is other bits of estate. I’d feel – a bit weird. Like a spy. And there’s no parks or anything.”

“Ok,” says the doctor, “so – the industrial estate’s only three miles from home, isn’t it? Could you bike it?”

“God, no!” says Frieda, shocked. “The roads near me are awful. Juggernauts, taxis – and at rush hour, it’s heaving. A lad was killed on the main road last year. I wouldn’t risk it!”

When Frieda leaves, the doctor rolls her eyes, and taps into the computer, “Discussed lifestyle. Little enthusiasm for change.”

Now let us consider Frieda’s sister Lena Thanher, whose living environment is very different. She lives in a close-packed Victorian suburb fairly close to town, with good cycling and walking routes (she probably doesn’t live in the UK) and with shops and school within walking distance and a nice local park.

Lena’s kids can walk to school by themselves, because the streets are safe, while Lena walks the dog in the park. Then she can cycle to work in the town centre. At lunchtime, she has plenty of opportunities to buy healthy food. She can also stop off on the way home to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables for dinner. Her kids are able to make their own way home and back out again to their various evening pastimes, so Lena is able to go out to an exercise class that runs in the school out of hours.

Lena doesn’t take more exercise than Frieda because Frieda is a lazy person. She doesn’t eat more fruit because she’s Being Good. It’s just that the place she lives in makes it easier for her. Poor Frieda – though she might be quite privileged in some ways – lives in a place which makes it harder to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s not just more effort. It’s time-consuming, perhaps stigmatising, perhaps expensive, and, more than likely, even dangerous. Frieda’s environment, we might say, is quintessentially “obesogenic.”

“Nice idea,” you might say, “but is it true?”

Well, yes, it is. We’ve got reams of evidence to suggest that, when it comes to active travel, the Field of Dreams advice “build it, and they will come,” applies. That is, where there are safe cycle routes, people will cycle. 27% of all trips in the Netherlands are made by bike, which has “at least 33,000 to 35,000 kilometres of dedicated cycling infrastructure.” (3).  But figures can be higher in cities, and they can change. In the 1970s, Copenhagen was as car-oriented as anywhere else, but the authorities since then have gradually transformed the city to make it more cycle-friendly: 56% of Copenhageners use bicycles every day. (4)

As for public parks, associations have been shown between the quality and availability of urban green spaces and increased physical activity. (As well as this, green spaces have an effect upon mental health and sociability, help to screen out noise and air pollutants, and even boost the immune system.) (5)

People living in “walkable” cities are also less likely to be fat. Put simply, a “walkable” city is one where you can walk to wherever you want to go. They are likely to be quite closely-packed, so that everything is in close proximity. (6)They will have amenities like shops, schools and workplaces mixed in with houses and flats. They will have clear and direct street patterns, so that you can find your way around. (7) In a “sprawling” neighbourhood, however, like Frieda’s, there is nothing much to walk to; if there were any shop units within her estate, they couldn’t possibly survive, because there isn’t a critical mass of people within walking distance of them. Everyone, therefore, has to drive or be driven. (The same goes for rural areas – meaning that it’s quite wrong to suggest that people in the countryside have healthier lifestyles. They don’t.)

We know all this. So what are we doing about it?

The revised national Childhood Obesity Strategy, chapter 2 (9) was published for consultation recently. Now, you’d think it would make an effort, especially since the previous version was found to be inadequate. It might put aside money to fund those safe routes to school and those public open spaces. It might require all new development to look like an urbanist’s dream of a walkable suburb, complete with pavement cafes and little children pedalling blithely and bareheadedly to the park along the cycle routes.

But the Obesity Strategy is all words and no promises. It admits that “where we live… has a huge role to play in tackling childhood obesity. “ However, it lobs responsibility well and truly back into local authorities’ court: “Each local authority already has a range of powers to find local solutions to their own level of childhood obesity but while some are already taking bold action, others are not.” There is hardly a word about the specific design features that encourage active travel. There’s nothing substantive about empowering local authorities to require those features, at a time when developers are able to plead “lack of viability” when asked to build anything but Barratt boxes. And the funding the Strategy allocates to active travel to school – £1.62 million – would barely buy you a two-bed semi in some parts of London.

Of course obesity isn’t just a matter of environment. I’m sure there are people in compact little Dutch towns with miles of cycleway who sit around in their pants eating chips all day. But, given the increasing body (ha, ha) of evidence on obesogenic environments, the doctor’s eye-roll at poor Frieda’s lack of exercise begins to look a bit like victim-blaming.

Ok, so we can’t rebuild the city from scratch – and we wouldn’t want to. But we can change it. We can put in cycling and walking routes, calm the traffic, make sure our parks are attractive and welcoming, keep up our local schools, support community centres that run exercise classes, support local businesses in residential areas. And we can make sure that healthy lifestyles are planned into all new development from the very beginning.

We have planned ourselves fat for too long. It’s time to plan ourselves fit.


  1. NHS Digital.Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – England, 2018. [Online]
  2. Butler, Bryony.Foresight: Tackling obesities – future choices. London : Government Office for Science, 2007.
  3. Lake, Amelia A, Townshend, Tim G and Alvanides, Seraphim.Obesogenic environments : complexities, perceptions, and objective measures. Chichester : Blackwell, 2010.
  4. Bicycle Dutch.Dutch Cycling Figures. [Online] 2018.
  5. Copenhagenize.Meteoric Rise in Bicycle Traffic in Copenhagen. [Online] 2016.
  6. WHO Regional Office for Europe,.Urban green spaces and health: a review of evidence. Copenhagen : s.n., 2016.
  7. Land use, transport, and population health: estimating the health benefits of compact cities.Stevenson, Mark et al. 10062, s.l. : The Lancet, 2016, Vol. 388.
  8. City planning and population health: a global challenge.Giles-Corti B, Vernez-Moudon A, Reis R, Turrell G, Dannenberg AL, Badland H, Foster S, Lowe M, Sallis JF, Stevenson M, Owen N. 10062, s.l. : The Lancet, 2016, Vol. 388.
  9. Department of Health and Social Care: Global Public Health Directorate: Obesity, Food and Nutrition / 10800.Childhood obesity: a plan for action, Chapter 2. London : HM Government, 2018

Jo Ellis is a researcher and freelance planning consultant in Newcastle upon Tyne. She has a particular interest in sustainable cities and transport.


Posted in Beyond planning, Planning, city, and society, Sustainability and resilience, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concrete-stop: from metaphor to reality

Guest author: Clemens de Olde, University of Antwerp

The new Spatial Policy Plan for Flanders hasn’t been approved by the Flemish Government yet, but it has already stirred up quite a media storm. Since its first announcement it has become known as the “concrete-stop” (betonstop). As more details emerge, the intent to completely stop building in open space by 2040 has become the token measure of the entire plan. The fact that exactly this element has caught on says a lot about planning culture in Flanders. Why has the concrete-stop become so mediagenic?

Link: for more background on the changes afoot in the Flemish planning systems read my first blog

The Power of Metaphor

Metaphors are essential in presenting planning to a wider public. Famous examples include the Dutch Randstad or the European Blue Banana. Flanders too, has its planning metaphors. The Flemish Diamond, which was presented in the 1997 Structure Plan as a “precious gem” to represent the region’s core economic area between the cities of Antwerp, Ghent, Brussels, and Leuven.

The use of metaphors can bring actors together in a development strategy but they are never neutral. Dühr, Colomb & Nadin define preparing spatial concepts as a political act that favours and promotes certain interests:

‘Who is involved in the preparation of the spatial concept, and which spatial information is selected to represent it, will thus significantly affect the message’ (2010, p. 56).

And now there is the metaphor of concrete-stop as popular moniker for the new Spatial Policy Plan. It represent the intent of the plan to reduce and halt the “additional daily intake of open space” from 6 hectares currently, to 3 hectares in 2025, to 0 in 2040 (Vlaamse Overheid, 2016). This implies a large operation of rezoning land currently marked for housing development, and stimulating densification in the urbanized areas. That seems at odds with what De Decker (2011) has described as “the compulsion to possess a non-urban single-family house that is engraved in the minds of the Flemish people.”


The term concrete stop does not appear in the Green of White Papers for the Spatial Policy Plan, yet  the term is omnipresent in Flemish media and its use far outstrips that of the plan’s official title. In order to understand the career of the concept I performed a media analysis where I charted all articles that mention the terms concrete-stop and Spatial Policy Plan. The results are shown in the graph below.

graph blog 2.jpg

Prior to February 2014 the term did not exist in public debate. It was then introduced in three subsequent articles by the director of an environmental NGO, but not connected to specific spatial policy. The first wave of articles broke in May 2016 when newspaper De Morgen got an exclusive look at the preliminary documents for the new policy plan and headlined their report “Schauvliege wants BETONSTOP” (Joke Schauvliege is Minister of Environment). This launched the term connected to the Spatial Policy Plan into the public debate. From then on it keeps appearing in news reports on the plan-in-preparation with an explosion in December 2016 when the Flemish Government approves the White Paper. That same month concrete-stop is nominated in the annual election for word of the year and ends as runner-up. Subsequent waves can be traced to developments in the dossier. From February 2014 until July 1st 2018 the term is found in 658 articles.

From the White Paper’s approval the term starts to appear in a majority of cases even without mention of the policy plan. The results show that “concrete-stop” is starting to lead a life of its own, becoming a force in its own right, without proper contextualization as part of a 200-page strategic spatial policy document. What’s more, in some ten percent of cases the term is explicitly equalized to the Spatial Policy Plan through formulations such as:

‘It is just another indication that the Spatial Policy Plan Flanders, popularly called ‘concrete-stop’, requires a cultural change’ (De Standaard 8-2-17).


So what does the metaphor do? Unlike the ones mentioned above, concrete-stop wasn’t conceived by planners. Despite the first mentions by an NGO director, the journalist of the May 2016 article when asked, stated that he came up with the term himself in an attempt to make a terrible policy term such as the Spatial Policy Plan for Flanders more accessible to the reader. This is ironic because even though the media declares the concrete-stop to be very controversial, it has created and disseminated the term itself. There is actually extremely little mention of citizens’ voices in the press coverage on the new Spatial Policy Plan.

But controversial it is. The metaphor of concrete-stop might be understood to strike at the heart of the Flemish planning culture and the importance of the self-built single-family home therein. It is an image that engenders fear of losing value of land acquired long ago and the opportunity to build there for one’s (grand)children or to sell it to supplement one’s pension. Additionally it engenders images where residential choice might not be as free as it once was. Indeed, when posed as a side question in a series of interviews on residential satisfaction (De Olde et al., 2018), respondents stressed the importance of the freedom of choice of where to live and did not think that this choice could be lawfully restricted by a concrete-stop. Not being able to build anymore can be understood as a threatening to the large numbers that subscribe to this housing-economic model, which makes the Spatial Policy Plan framed as concrete-stop a very sensitive issue.

Concrete-stop seems to have been an excellent choice of metaphor then to stir up quite a bit of public unrest. The choice of metaphor affects the contents of the policy plan, much to the chagrin of the politicians responsible. Both the Minister of Environment and the Flemish Prime Minister now push back on the term. The latter states in a newspaper interview:

‘That’s why I’m so annoyed by the term concrete-stop, because that’s not what it is about. I don’t even know where that word came from so suddenly.’ (Het Nieuwsblad, 3-12-2016)

While experts and an increasing amount of politicians agree that it’s high time to reduce the spatial uptake in Flanders, the introduction of the term concrete-stop seems not to have helped to promote public support for the new Spatial Policy Plan. It is still uncertain whether the plan will be approved before the elections of next Spring but if it does, it will almost certainly be in the next few weeks before political summer recess. Should that happen then it won’t be a surprise when the headlines read: CONCRETE-STOP APPROVED!



Friday July 20, the Flemish Government approved the new Spatial Policy Plan as part of a larger package of decisions made before summer recess. Interestingly enough, the main newspapers paid little attention to the concrete stop the following Monday. New regulations regarding energy policy waste management were at the center of the media’s attention. Perhaps the potential for a media outcry has exhausted itself now that the plan has been approved, perhaps other decisions present a more immediate influence on citizens’ daily lives. Nonetheless when it was mentioned, the entire spatial policy plan was subsumed under the heading of concrete block. Whether this bodes well as indicator for the effectiveness of the new policy plan remains to be seen.

This article is part of a feature anticipating the replacement of the planning system in Belgian region of Flanders in 2019.


Clemens de Olde studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam where he developed an interest in cities and space. Currently he is PhD researcher in sociology at the University of Antwerp. His PhD research focuses on urbanization and the transformation of Flemish and Dutch planning culture.

Clemens de Olde_Profile Pic_Resized.jpg

Posted in Territory, landscape, land, Uncategorized | Leave a comment