Friday, 30 August 2013

Demolish Morningside!

That was the controversial title of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show I was involved in, the fantastic Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas organised by Beltane Public Engagement Network. Yes folks, after my most popular blog post ever on cycling and the Niceway Code (1244 hits so far...) we're back to me blogging about academia, which I know you all love...

So, what was the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas? Well, it was a range of academics speaking for an hour in the afternoon on a range of subjects to a paying audience. In our case, it was me, Professor Richard Williams of Edinburgh College of Art and the wonderful compère skills of stand-up Susan Morrison.

I've uploaded a sound recording of it to SoundCloud for you to listen to:

I've got some videos that have been given to me as well, including one where I explode with rage about the way Forth Ports have treated Leith and Edinburgh - I'm told this was quite the moment in the show!

Basically, the premise of my argument was one I've kind of rehearsed here - that we're more than happy to demolish deprived neighbourhoods and disrupt the lives of vulnerable working class people to delivering "mixed communities" but we'd never dream of doing the same to affluent neighbourhoods, like Morningside. Indeed, Edinburgh Council's accidental introduction of Moving to Opportunity when homeless people were housed in private-rented housing through a contract with a company, led to widespread opposition to the hoi polloi being moved into nice areas (often quite rightly, as the tenancies were not managed properly and there were many incidents of distressing anti-social behaviour).

Myself and Richard only spoke for about 15 minutes in total and then we moved onto discussion with the very informed audience. This was very interesting indeed it also allowed me to progress my argument a bit more - particularly introducing the complicated idea of "neighbourhood affects" and highlighting the complexity of understanding them in a Scottish context; and also my main argument that rather than demolishing neighbourhoods, maybe we should invest in them and deliver very good public services in them? That way we can move away from the situation where local authorities think that this is a good way to manage green space in a deprived neighbourhood:*

Two quick reflections on the experience. Firstly, the discussion ended up containing a lot of statistics and a lot of complex ideas. What was really impressive for me was the depth of this discussion. The audience members were very good at providing critical insights, particularly to the stats, highlighting for example, how Edinburgh's population stats are skewed because of the city's boundary and because people are increasingly living in West Lothian, Falkirk and Fife due to housing affordability issues.

Secondly, the audience response was quite amazing. We had an audience of 32, only 11 of whom were our friends and family (including my mum and my partner). Somebody came up to me at the end and suggested I should run for office. I declined politely as I think my role is best served in the academy. And, if I can do more things like this, then maybe I'll start to change how some people think. One of my mum's friends said to her afterwards that it was the best festival show he had seen that day, and the discussion and ideas that were being bounced around left him thinking for the rest of the day and distracted him from the concert he was seeing. 

So, in a little way, we were helping to create a bit of a Habermasian discourse. Of course, because we had the power imbued upon us as being "academics" it did not meet the conditions of the perfect public sphere. But the audience definitely didn't hold back from being engaged in the debate! And I can't tell you how nervous I was beforehand. I've heard that Immanuel Kant was never paid, but left a bucket at the exit to the lecture theatre for students' contributions. This experience felt very much like that! 

All in all, I'm very glad I did it.

* a bit of background here, this is what the City of Edinburgh Council have been doing in Wester Hailes, a neighbourhood I work closely with. They basically tarmaced over areas of grass and shrubbery they couldn't be bothered maintaining. The Council say this was due to "community demands", but from what I hear the community demanded the spaces be tidied up and they were offered the opportunity to get some tarmac. It gets me so angry. The evidence is that this will literally shorten the lives of the people living around these areas. In terms of partnership working, I think the Council should be expected to fund local primary care for the increase in prescriptions of anti-depressants that will result. Further, the grass and plants are already growing through the tarmac and the trees are dying because they don't get enough water. And not to mention the increased flood risk. And this, after Scottish Enterprise spent hundreds in the 1990s putting in the landscaping in the first place! Luckily, the community is equally as angry and in some other neighbourhoods in Wester Hailes these areas are becoming community gardens.

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