Friday, 25 April 2008

Jigsaw Cities: Big Places, Small Spaces

Anne Power and John Houghton (2007)
Policy Press, Bristol
Paperback £23.99 ISBN 9781861346582
Hardback £65.00 ISBN 9781861346599

The decline and subsequent renewal of British cities is a key theme in contemporary urban policy. In this timely and insightful book, Power and Houghton use the metaphor of a ‘jigsaw’ to illuminate both the complexity and interconnectedness of cities as they respond to a plethora of social, economic and environmental forces. Crucial to their analysis is the role of neighbourhoods as building blocks for urban renewal. The need for cities to remodel themselves in response to ever changing conditions, and the role of state interventions are also emphasised.

Drawing on decades of direct involvement in a range of urban programmes and communities, the authors offer a comprehensive coverage of the issues facing Britain’s cities, both past and present. Importantly, the book is written in an accessible style, making it a key text for students, policymakers and practitioners in the field, as well as academics.

The book is divided into three substantive sections. Part I explores Britain’s urban history, ranging from 19th century urbanisation to contemporary developments such as housing stock transfer and gentrification. In doing so it outlines landmark legislative change, and emphasises the pivotal role of philanthropic reformers such as Octavia Hill. Part II offers a “progress report” (p105) on Britain’s cities today, engaging head-on with policy initiatives concerned with averting urban decline and promoting the growth and sustainability of cities. It explicitly addresses key policy agendas of the New Labour administration, such as the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal (2000) and the Sustainable Communities Plan (2003). Finally, Part III moves on to consider the future evolution of our cities. In particular it emphasises the need for “smart growth”, by creating a “fixed urban growth boundary” (p165), and related to this the need for local neighbourhood management and sustainable communities. All of these are topical issues in contemporary urban policy debates.

A key strength of this book is that is highlights how a consideration of our past is relevant to understanding our present. The historical detail of this book is therefore to be welcomed, and indeed, by bringing together such a comprehensive review of Britain’s urban history in one publication, it makes an important contribution to the literature. However, it does not have the same depth of analysis and critical insight offered by other historical accounts of urban Britain, such as Alison Ravetz’s (2001) excellent book Council Housing and Culture: the history of social experiment, and more recently Mike Raco’s (2007) Building Sustainable Communities: spatial policy and labour mobility in post-war Britain. Power and Houghton’s book may therefore be too descriptive, and also found wanting in terms of critical interrogation of contemporary policy agendas, for some readers. Furthermore, although this publication is primarily aimed at a policy audience, a brief acknowledgement of wider theoretical debates would have been beneficial.

Whilst the introduction to the book frames it as an analysis of ‘British’ cities, discussion is nonetheless dominated by developments and policy agendas that are occurring in England. Given the divergence of urban and housing policy post-devolution this is a disappointing omission. Whilst some of the debates touched on by the authors are applicable to other regions of the UK, a more detailed consideration of developments in Scotland, Wales, and indeed Northern Ireland, would have been useful. The case of stock transfer is pertinent here. The authors focus considerably on the 2001 stock transfer ballot in Birmingham, yet offer no detailed exploration of the 2003 Glasgow ballot, which had a very similar set of problems (Daly et al 2005). Much more could have been made of this potentially useful comparator, in order to explore policy divergence across the UK.

In conclusion, Jigsaw Cities: Big Places, Small Spaces is a valuable textbook for students, researchers, policymakers and practitioners in the broad, multi-disciplinary field of urban studies. Drawing on a wide range of contemporary policy debates combined with historical analysis, it is a key reference point for understanding the challenges and solutions facing urban Britain.

Daly, M et al (2005) “Housing Stock Transfer in Birmingham and Glasgow: the contrasting experiences of two UK cities”, European Journal of Housing Policy 5(3): 327-341.

Raco, M. (2007) “Building Sustainable Communities: spatial policy and labour mobility in post-war Britain”. Bristol, Policy Press.

Ravetz, A. (2001) “Council Housing and Culture: the history of social experiment”. London, Routledge.

Kim McKee
Dpt. Geographical & Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow

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