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UK–Ireland Planning Research Conference Report 2017

Top of Lanyon building with blue sky

Conference Report


Attended by well in excess of 150 delegates from four continents, the 2017 UK–Ireland Planning Research Conference was hosted by Queen’s University Belfast between 11 and 13 September 2017. Focused upon the theme ‘Transcending Boundaries: Global Flows and Spatial Justice’, the conference also marked fifty years of planning at Queen’s and was the first conference to be hosted by the School of Natural and Built Environment. Formally welcomed to the university and the city by the mayor of Belfast, Councillor Nuala McAllister, and Professor Geraint Ellis, head of the school, at a civic reception in the baroque revivalist splendour of Belfast City Hall, the primary business of the conference took place at Riddel Hall, a Grade B1-listed building that is now home of the QUB Management School, a short – though wet –walk from Queen’s main campus.

A total of 95 individual papers were delivered across the eight tracks: ‘Curating the city’, ‘Public space and the city’, ‘Practice’, ‘Culture’, ‘Theory’, ‘Education’, ‘Housing’, ‘Ageing and health’ and ‘The environment’. These were supplemented by three plenary sessions, three round-table discussions, a series of PhD workshops, and a poster session that highlighted the work of current doctoral students from the Universities of Birmingham, Heriot-Watt, Liverpool and Queen’s Belfast. In addition, a gala dinner was held in the Victorian Gothic grandeur of the university’s restored Great Hall, at which delegates were treated to an excellent stand-up comedy routine from Dr Jenny Wood of Heriot-Watt, and an array of field trips were organised for the final afternoon. The conference also played host to the RTPI awards ceremony.

Plenary sessions

Entertaining, erudite and informative, the first plenary, ‘Or both? Brexit and belonging’, was delivered by Fintan O’Toole, the literary editor of the Irish Times. Speculating upon the evolving concepts of place and belonging, he argued that, since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the people of Ireland have accepted not only that identity and belonging are communicative processes but also that they may be multiple. This not only has rendered nineteenth-century concepts of territorially imagined nationalism (in which people were a function of place) increasingly obsolete, but also has direct implications for the process of Brexit. Memorably likening Northern Ireland to the Schrödinger’s cat of Brexit, delegates were reminded that, subsequent to the GFA, everyone in Northern Ireland has the right to identify or recognise themselves as Irish, British, or both, and that this is a right granted in perpetuity regardless of constitutional change. It follows, therefore, that all those who identify themselves with Ireland automatically possess a right to EU citizenship, even if they continue to reside within Northern Ireland. This, O’Toole suggested, has not been appreciated in Brexit dialogues, which have instead focused, almost exclusively, on an English-centric view of withdrawal. Moreover, the nature of post-peace-process identity is such that the reintroduction of a physical, man-made boundary between the North and the South would be politically unacceptable not only to the people but also to politicians of all hues.

Though the speech primarily addressed the ‘Northern Irish question’, it was also suggested that the nature of the Brexit vote within England – and particularly the spatial nature of the vote which had pitted London against the rest of the country – had brought to the fore the issue of English nationalism. Long-buried and subsumed into wider concepts of UK nationhood, O’Toole speculated that the (re)emergence of a distinctive, non-metropolitan English voice was problematic. This was because it was unclear how this new English nationalism, seemingly based on concepts of otherness, fits into discourses pertaining to the future of the UK, as well as to modern notions of identity that stress the extent to which they are fluid, multi-contingent and chosen, rather than being bound solely to a single physical state.

Arguably posing more questions than it answered, the second plenary, ‘Who owns the city’, was given by Professor Saskia Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Seeking to address ‘the fuzzy edges of the paradigm’, Sassen proposed that, whilst ‘in principle a city is owned by all, [and] transcends ownership’, the reality was that cities such as London and New York were now witnessing a ‘private takeover of buildings by foreign owners and especially the Chinese’ that has given rise to ‘dark towers’ in which new buildings act as agents to ‘deurbanise the city’. For example, where once local banks had provided money, finance, particularly ‘extractive finance’, is something different. It does not recirculate money, but instead extracts it, and, within the context of a deurbanising city, buildings therefore become little more than assets to be traded.

Elucidating further, Sassen suggested that the extractive finance is a process that is ‘killing urbanity as a living space’. Moreover, it is process that affects not only the poorest in the Global South through the expansion of slum areas, but also all sectors of society, as the middle classes are priced out of urban dwelling. Indeed, she noted that ‘extractive sectors can extract even from modest households’, and warned of another ‘mutation of urban land’ which is the buying of property as investment and as a means to cleanse money. Notwithstanding the fact that foreign investment is buying into urban areas and that ‘what horrifies us is the private takeover of buildings’, it is the case, as Professor Sassen concluded, that the city is a space where those without power may make a history. Thus it is a place where identities can be made through cultures, and people ‘still have the chance to talk to government and say “This is our city”’. Yet, at the same time, mixed living spaces have not worked, and the trend of asset-backed securities is increasingly shaping the nature of the lived urban environment through deurbanisation. The question of who owns the city, therefore, remains unanswered.

The final morning of the conference opened with a keynote presentation by Professor Tore Sager of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Less well attended than the other two main addresses, the paper nevertheless offered those in attendance a wide-ranging discussion on the topic ‘Neoliberalism: does planners’ hate-object have redeeming features?’. Pitting contemporary debates pertaining to the positives and negatives of neo liberalist approaches within planning against each other, particular stress was also given to the dangers associated with adopting populism within planning. Delegates also enjoyed a thorough examination of the extent to which public officials and especially planners are treated within existing neo-liberal governance frameworks as ‘utility maximisers’. The linked suggestion that this has resulted in a system that is predominantly ‘self-serving, catering to personal rather than societal goal achievement’, is one that stimulated much discussion both within and beyond the confines of the plenary session itself.

Parallel sessions

Given the high number of parallel sessions, it is impossible to report on all of these. Nevertheless, among those which I attended (‘Curating the city’, ‘Practice’, ‘Culture’ and ‘Education’), it was refreshing to see the extent to which the conference embraced scholars at various stages of their academic careers, from first-year PhD students to professors. The global spread of the subject matter was also invigorating. In the ‘Curating the city’ strand, for instance, papers ranged from the preservation of street markets in Dublin, the cities of Omuta and Yubari in Japan, the redevelopment of the former Ford factory in Cork, and the reimagining of contested heritage areas of Belfast, to heritage in post-conflict states, focusing on the (London)Derry Walls and the role of public participation therein. A global perspective was also clearly evident within the ‘Culture’ track, where the focus of two UK studies was more than amply balanced by papers that explored cultural practices in the city. These included two case studies of slaughterhouse complexes in Vienna, a former bicycle factory in Ljubljana, mining cities in China as smart cities within the context of culture-led development, and the role and place of fringe theatre in breaking down boundaries within Akko, Israel.

Finally, the three round-table discussions considered ‘Spatial imaginaries’, ‘Child-friendly spaces’ and ‘Cross-disciplinary research methods’. Though running concurrent with the parallel track sessions, the round-table sessions were well attended, with lengthy discussions in each raising a number of interesting points that not only combined aspects of practice with theory but also recognised the nuances of approaches adopted within different cultural settings. As with last year’s conference in Cardiff, there was also acknowledgement of the need for the discipline to be mindful of changing research funding priorities and to ensure that there is public engagement with all aspects of research presently being undertaken. This is a theme which, one suspects, given the ever-increasing importance attached to impact and engagement, is set to become, if it is not already, one of calendric regularity. This was a well-organised conference that delivered a very intense three-day programme of papers and events. Thanks, as ever, must be recorded to the organising committee, as well as to the track and round-table chairs. The bar for the next UK– Ireland Planning Research Conference has been set high; it takes place at Sheffield University in September 2018.