The power relations in the Spitalfields market regeneration: An assessment through urban regime theory

By Rodrigo Caimanque


Images Source: and, modified by the author


The present essay attempts to address the power relations among different actors involved in the regeneration of the historic Spitalfields market in London, towards an approach which allows to understand how different groups exert power and influences the decision-making process. These relations are analyzed through the lens of urban regime theory (Stone, 1989, 1993) as a conceptual basis for the case. The Spitalfields regeneration and its evolution from the former wholesale market of fruits and vegetables to the current vibrant and attractive place of London provides a context in which power relations change over time due to different scenarios shaped by major economics constraints. These changes gave ground for a complete reinterpretation of the place transformation. More inclusive process of decision-making, triggered by new community movements in the 1990s. However, under the urban regime theory, the idea of stable and long-term arrangements among dominant stakeholders, shows that the economic growth agenda continued being the key driver of the place regeneration.

The structure of the essay is divided on 4 parts, starting with a brief explanation of the urban regimes and its main features. Following that, it will be explain the historical process of the Spitalfields Market regeneration, to continue then with the discussion around power relations in the process of decision-making. Finally, it is drafted general conclusions.

Urban regimes

The complexity of the urban process under the post-fordist structuration involves, among other factors, complex and narrow relations of actors beyond the role of the state and its different levels in decision-making, where the private sector and the civil society become influential stakeholders. To understand the relationships among these actors, urban politics provides relevant approaches by establishing theoretical frameworks to understand how are positioned and what are their role within the structure of power. The United States has been the ground for relevant and rich theories, such as the growth machine (Molotch, 1976) and the urban regime (Stone, 1989), trying to provide more specific approaches of power and decision-making in relation to urban development processes (Harding, 1996).

The growth machine theory refers to the elite’s influence that exerts pressures for growth modifying the land use with the objective to obtain profit (Molotch, 1976, 1993). The mains actors in a growth coalition are primarily the elite society and entrepreneurs, who sets the agenda for urban development in a determinate locality. The urban regime for its part, understand the process decision-making through informal arrangements between public institutions and the private sector interests, working together in a collaborative manner “in order to make and carry out governing decision” (p 6). Although both the growth machine and the urban regimes establish the coalition configuration as the key driver of change, the first rely almost exclusively in terms of economic development while urban regime goes beyond that (Harding, 1994, cited in Van Ostaaijen, 2013), becoming more appropriate especially in the analysis and applications of cases outside the US.

Urban regimes are based on arrangements from different actors with mutual interest which build coalitions and establish a common agenda (Ward, 1997). These actors must be able to provide the necessary resources (monetary investment, skills, information, etc) to pursue the agenda (Stone, 1993, 2005). When Stone (1989) depicts the actors involved to the governing coalition in the public-private frame, the private interest are not exclusively limited to business. Other groups may be organizations, foundations or communitarian leaders, providing a useful approach to understand power relationships among diverse and heterogeneous actors (Lipietz, 2008).

Through the urban regime focus and under specific socioeconomic arenas, public policies are defined by the following factors “(1) the composition of a community’s governing coalition, (2) the nature of the relationships among members of the governing coalition, and (3) the resources that the members bring to the governing coalition” (Stone, 1993, p 2).

Urban regimes, according to Harding (1996) establish links with pluralism, as a position to understand and establish who are the actors involved in the governing process. Although Stone (1993) recognized that both pluralism and urban regime are based on coalition-building, and states the importance of politics, there are several differences that help to shape the purpose and scope of urban regime. While pluralism gives special importance to the electoral process and democratic control through votes, urban regime transcend the barriers of a particular government cycles, being the regime’s stability in larger periods of time a key factor to its success. From pluralism, decision process “takes shape in the same plane” (Stone, 2005, p. 311) in a system that is open and penetrable. Urban regimes recognizes the multiple levels of political decisions and question the idea of penetrability, especially considering the existence of class and its stratifications that triggers social and economic inequalities (Stone, 2005).

There is a permanent debate on the applicability of the theory in the United Kingdom (and Europe in general), with various attempts to adapt it to this context (Mossenberg & Stoke, 2001). There are also approaches which establish that is not possible to use those theories for being too related to the U.S. reality (Wood, 2004), where the local level decision-making has more autonomous features, in contrast with the UK system with a strong concentration of power in the central government (While et al, 2004). However, the recognition of differences should not deny the existence of “signs of convergence between the two countries” (Harding, 1995, p 47). Indeed, empirical research such as Dowding et al. (1999), applied the urban regime theory at London Boroughs level, which helps to support the analysis of the Spitalfields regeneration.

Moreover, considering urban regimes analysis has been a concept intensely discussed by several authors over time, with different approaches and application to understand it (Van Ostaaijen, 2013), it is clear there is more ground towards new interpretations for particular cases. In fact,  Stone (2005) establishes, in a more recent review of urban regime, an approach which seems more flexible in terms of, for instance, how coalitions work. Within a coalition,  there are no fixed actors, who are basically determined according to the agenda that wants to be addressed, in a problem-solving perspective[1]. Therefore, from a still open debate, the aim of this essay is suggest the existence of some of the elements that might establish a regime coalition in the Spitalfields experience rather than set the process as a literal expression of the theory.

The Spitalfields regeneration

The ward of Spitalfields is located in the fringe of the City of London, specifically in the east boundary of the city, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. The area has been appointed as one of the most deprived and poorest in London (Fainstein, 1994) but also has been the settlement of successive waves of immigrants for over 300 years (Jacobs, 1999). Currently is a zone characterized for the presence of Bengali people, especially located around the area of Brick Lane street. Within the ward is located the Spitalfields market, the former wholesale place of fruits and vegetables of the East London. It was one of the oldest market in the city becoming a key area for redevelopment since 1986, starting a long process which finished on 2002, though with important effects for both the place and the city at present.

The changes in the Spitalfields market have echoes in the radical transformation of the Greater London in the last 40 years, changing from an economy based in industrialization to a new one related to services (Hammet, 2003).  Forman (1989) argues that despite the proximity of Spitalfields with the city centre of London, there had always been a social barrier between these areas which begun to change with the rise of the speculative model of cities’ development, changing Spitalfields from a non desirable to a profitable area from both public and private interest. In this context, the political alternation of power at national level increased the speed of changes under the conservative period in the 1980s, wherein the market role began to influences the policy-making, affecting the planning system as well (Fainstein 2001, Hammet, 2003).

First stage of regeneration: A physical development approach

The market-led decisions of this period and the high demand for services provoked a sharp increase in needs for new office buildings. Considering the relaxation of the regulatory role of planning, adding the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the central government had enough power to set a pro-growth agenda over local government decisions (Forman, 1989). The interest to redevelop the Spitalfields market lay in needs for growth beyond the city ‘business district’ boundaries. Both the pressure of elite groups and the pro-growth context settled the scenario in which The Corporation of the City of London, owner of the land, issued a tender document to redevelop the market in 1987 (Fainstein, 2001, p 141). Finally the proposal of the Spitalfields development Group (SDG), a consortium of developers, was selected.

The proposal consisted in the removal of the market and the building of a large-scale offices and retail complex. However, during the process of planning permission, pressures for conservationist groups (Spitalfields Historic Building Trust), expressed their concern about the project impact, though still expecting the improvement of the area, surrounded by the Georgian architecture heritage, through the relocation of the market (Jacobs, 1999). The Bengali community and Labour politicians strongly opposed to the proposal considering the consequences associated to the impact of the local economy and gentrification caused by the new use of the area (Fainstein, 1994). As a response of those pressures the project was redesigned, basically calming down the middle- and upper-class concerns about the place ‘aesthetics’. The SDG plans began, and in 1991, the market was finally relocated (the economist, 2001).

The regeneration of the Spitalfields market came into a dynamic of negotiations in which the local government finally agreed with the SDG proposal, in a deal where SDG besides paying the removal of the market, they added the transfers of 127 properties within the site to housing associations, besides resources spending from contributions for charity and job training compromises (Fainstein, 1994).

At that moment, the decision-making process was mainly driven by private interests associated on one hand by middle-class and upper-class groups who made the initial pressure for relocate the market and the redesign of the proposal. On the other hand, the property developers and the land owners which aims were basically to take advantage of the city centre growth phenomenon, becoming the Spitalfields Market in an attractive land to these purposes. In addition, the context provided by the state policies, supporting market interest leaving the local authorities with fewer chances to influence, except for the planning permissions, increased the interest on the land. The civil society had been less relevant despite their opposition to the redevelopment, where the outcomes did not vary in a wide sense from the planned, apart from some social benefits negotiated.

Second stage of regeneration: a social approach? the role of community engagement

The economic downturn in the early 1990s froze the attempts to allocate office and retail projects in the old market site, even when the planning permission were approved in 1992 by the borough Council. Under that context, two main situations occurred (Fainstein, 2001): firstly, the SDG attempted to sell part of the land and with lack of success, hence it was the City of London Corporation which obtained the land, involving significant monetary losses for the consortium. Secondly, the SDG decided to develop part of the remained land within the market with new ‘interim uses’. After that, the original development plan was modified, triggering different configurations of power relations among the involves actors.

According to Fainstein (2001) the absent of any major development gave way to new small scale enterprises which together with regeneration initiatives as City Challenge, and its continuation, the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) through the program Cityside, start to produce changes in the place, beyond the initial physical approach. This kind of investment, based on the Thatcher’s entrepreneurial model (Shaw et al. 2004) provided flexible funding for specific areas through competition for bids. Those initiatives encouraged negotiations among local government, the private sector and communities in local decision-making, working in physical improvements, diversification and skilled development for labor programmes, fostering small business for local communities and promoting attractive places for visitors.

Once the economy gained momentum again, part of the wholesale market had already changed its use, with the allocations stalls for craftsmanship, sports, and ethnic food, filling the land and consolidating the place as “one of the most thriving indoor spaces in London” (The economist, 2001). With this new scenario, the SDG was forced to rethink its development strategy. Considering the popularity of the new use which provided 1000 local jobs, mainly local residents (Fainstein, 2001), the civil society gains enough power even to reach the courts and provoke in 2000 the SDG decision to withdraw the original planning permission for a renewed submission (The Guardian, 2001a).

Finally, after 14 years the SDG new proposal designed by the architect Norman Foster obtained in 2002 the definitive planning permission (BBC, 2003). However, the outcome was totally different from the original design, and the proposal was related towards more discreet offices, and concerns about public spaces with narrow connections to the current market (The Guardian, 2001b). In the new context with the creation of the Greater London Authority (GLA) which also supported the proposal consistent with its aims to set London in a world context (Evening Standard, 2002), Spitalfields and its relation with Brick Lane were consolidated as one of the most thriving leisure hubs of the city.

This second stage of the power relationships changed to the extent that the civil society organized through local coalitions such as Spitalfields Market Under Threat (The independent, 2002) was able to exert pressure over a process mostly dominated by private interest. It seems clear that the broad economic context and the ‘unexpected’ decisions of the landowner triggered the transformation and consolidation in the use of the market. However the community’s capacity to understand the scenario and take the opportunity to become major players was essential to influence in the decision-making process.


As it was explained the Spitalfields market regeneration lay in two stages, split by the economic downturn. In the early period, the power relations identified between elite groups might be identified as a coalition in terms of its composition and agenda setting, which aims were basically growth development. The actors within the governing coalition brought in the resources needed for the agenda fulfillment. The private sector represented in the SDG provides de investment on the land, whilst the local power was represented by the City of London Corporation as owner of the land and the Tower Hamlets Council which despite its poor influence in the process, contributed with resources associated to planning regulation. Other actor that emerged was indirectly the conservationist groups that exerted pressure for develop the land in a ‘more aesthetic way’ to enjoy its potential profitability.

However, unlike the case of the U.S., the strong influence of the national government which sets the rules for a new market-led scenario, is a key factor in the complexity of the decision-making process in Spitalfields, especially in that period where local governments were ‘by-passed’, in order to deliver fast private-led development in UK. This is an important factor to analyze the case through the lens of urban regime, rather than for instance, the growth machine. The growth machine is strongly linked to elite’s pressures at the local level, meanwhile in the Spitalfields case the central government influence must be included to understand the informal arrangements related to the regeneration of the area. Harding (1996) argues that the urban regime it is more flexible and adaptable than growth machine theory to different cross-national contexts, hence the power relationships of Spitalfields under a regime coalition could be fixed in a more accurate manner.

Stone (1993) defines four typologies of regimes: (1) Maintenance Regimes, (2) Development Regimes. (3), Middle class progressive regimes and (4) Regimes devoted to lower class opportunity expansion. Among them,  it could be argue that ‘Development regimes’ has mayor similarities with the case in the first period. This typology is understood as a voluntary process of coalition-building “concerned primarily with changing land use in order to promote growth or counter decline” (p 19), mainly driven by elites isolated from popular control, fostering the change of social and economic patterns within the place.

The second stage, after the economic downturn included a new influential actor, the civil society who despite being fighting to protect the market place in the entire process, the effective influence started to appear in this period. With the renovated market use, sustained in parallel with processes of regeneration based in both physical and social outcomes through state promoted partnerships (City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget), the area reached unpredicted strength forcing the private interest to consider seriously the communities’ claims. At this stage,  the coalition tended to change its actors configurations, where positions of empowered organized residents and the consolidation of local commercial stalls alongside with the process of ethnic regeneration in Brick Lane provided a new resource for the coalition: the diversity through the local development of the area.

Aligned with, Ward (1997) provides a pertinent analysis of the link between the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) and the presence of a regime. It is argued the existence of factors that conform a coalition area framed by institutional selective incentives (resources through competition), encouraging actors to be related among them to engage in the decision-making process. The case of Spitalfields reflects how the coalition established a new and ‘feasible’ agenda, another regime feature, under the rules of the state financing programmes. Thus, it seems that the agenda setting through SRB “is feeding into existing arrangement” (Ward, 1997, p 1503) predetermined by the long-term economic growth focus.

From the typologies of regimes, it seems that the ‘development regime continued at that stage, though might be possible to identify partially some features of a ‘middle class progressive regime’, in terms of major involvement of the community (some groups), and also major level of accountability, adding the development regime “the organizational capacity to inform, mobilize, and involve the citizenry” (Stone, 1993, p 20). Nevertheless, from the case of Spitalfields, remain questions about the degree of effective involvement of communities in the coalition, are they effectively included in the governing coalition? Or rather are temporal actors which emerge to face actions against them, for instance from the risk of displacement?


The power relations around the Spitalfields market regeneration provides proximities with the idea of coalition building of urban regimes, through its public-private formal and informal arrangements for growth. The case of Spitalfields showed that although some relevant changes in the configuration of the coalitions, mainly produced by circumstantial economic constraints, the main agenda remained stable across different alternations of power in the government, both local and national level. However, coalitions are developed essentially at the local level, and once the agenda is defined, are flexible in relation with the interested parts as well as the nature of their relations. Hence it might be possible, despite strong national framework influences as in the case of UK, move towards more democratic and participatory arrangements locally.

Urban regimes comes from the base of political economy (Stone, 2005) and according to Fainstein (2001) regime theory is situated as a synthesis of the structuralist and liberal pluralistic understanding of power. Hence, being recognized the control of capital as the key expression of power, it also recognized “the logic (of capitalism) is itself fabricated through human activity, including resistance by other groups to capitalist aims” (Fainstein, 2001, p16)

Resources are relevant to exert power and to have effective representativeness in the coalition, but also reflects an expression of the inequalities in the society. The second stage of the Spitalfields regeneration showed how the part of the community could obtain tools and gain levels of power throughout the process, being at least from a position of resistance, part of the decision-making. This experience provided some evidence about the relevance of community engagement as a manner to move towards more just developments. However, profound political changes and new institutional arrangements, including those related to planning are still needed for build effectively representative coalitions and democratic spaces of decisions.

[1] Problem-solving does not means that urban regime agendas are focused only in short-terms goals. Stone (2005) clarifies from his book in Atlanta’s regime, that what he calls as selective material incentives in the city redevelopment, responds and depends on long-terms objective and agenda setting.


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Let’s admit it: Britain is now a developing country

by Aditya Chakrabortty via The Guardian

Elite economic debate boils down to this: a man in a tie stands at a dispatch box and reads out some numbers for the years ahead, along with a few micro-measures he’ll take to improve those projections. His opposite number scoffs at the forecasts and promises his tweaks would be far superior. For a few hours, perhaps even a couple of days, afterwards, commentators discuss What It All Means. Last Thursday’s autumn statement from George Osborne  was merely the latest enactment of this twice-yearly ritual, and I bet you’ve already forgotten it. Compare his forecasts and fossicking with our fundamental problems. Start with last week’s Pisa educational yardsticks , which show British teenagers trailing their Vietnamese counterparts at science, and behind the Macanese at maths.

Or look at this year’s World Economic Forum  (WEF) competitiveness survey of 148 countries, which ranks British roads below Chile’s, and our ground-transport system worse than that of Barbados. Whether Blair or Brown or Cameron, successive prime ministers and their chancellors pretend that progress is largely a matter of trims and tweaks – of capping business rates and funding the A14 to Felixstowe. Yet those Treasury supplementary tables and fan charts are no match for the mass of inconvenient facts provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development , the WEF or simply by going for a wander. Sift through the evidence and a different picture emerges: Britain’s economy is no longer zooming along unchallenged in the fast lane, but an increasingly clapped-out motor regularly overtaken by Asian Tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan. Gender equality? The WEF ranks us behind Nicaragua and Lesotho.

Investment by business? The Economist thinks we are struggling to keep up with Mali. Let me put it more broadly, Britain is a rich country accruing many of the stereotypical bad habits of a developing country. I began thinking about this last week, while reporting on graphene , the wonder material discovered by Manchester scientists and held up by cabinet ministers as part of our new high-tech future. Graphene is also the point at which Treasury dreaminess is harshly interrupted by the reality of our national de-development. Briefly, the story goes like this: Osborne funnelled a few tens of millions into research on the substance. It’s the kind of public-sector kickstart that might work in a manufacturing economy such as Germany – but which in Britain, with its hollowed-out industry and busted supply chains, has proved the equivalent of pouring money down a hole. One university physicist described how this was part of a familiar pattern of generating innovations for the rest of the world to capitalise on, then sighed: “One day, we’ll stop thinking of ourselves as a major economic power, and realise we’re more like South Korea in the early 60s.” South Korea, by way of comparison, has already put in over 20 times as many graphene patents as the country that discovered it. How can any nation that came up with the BBC and the NHS be considered in the same breath as India or China? Let me refer you to one of the first lines of The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor , in which a wise old man warns International Monetary Fund  officials and foreign dignatories: “India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” Stop thinking of development as a process that only goes in one direction, or which affects a nation’s people equally, and it becomes much easier to see how Britain is going backwards.

Even banana republics have cash: it just ends up in the hands of a very few people – ask the bank managers of Switzerland or the hotel concierges of Paris. In Britain, we have become used to having our resources skimmed off by a small cadre of the international elite, who often don’t feel obliged to leave much behind for our tax officials. An Africa specialist could look at the City and recognise in it a 21st-century version of a resource curse: something generating oodles of money for a tiny group of people, often foreign, yet whose demands distort the rest of the economy. Sure, Britain has iPads and broadband – but it also has oversubscribed foodbanks.

And the concept of the working poor that has dominated political debate since the crash is also something straight out of development textbooks.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen defined development as “the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency”. Yet when it comes to social mobility, Britain now has the worst record of all advanced countries – and will soon be overtaken by the newly rich countries of east Asia. And it’s when wealth is concentrated in too few hands that the forces of law and order get used as a militia for the elite – and peaceful dissent gets stamped upon. That’s why police are now a presence on our business-friendly university campuses; it also explains why Theresa May had the front to try to deport Trenton Oldfield for disrupting a student rowing competition (sorry, the Boat Race). This isn’t a sub-Rhodesian moan about Britain going to the dogs. But as my colleague Larry Elliott said in his most recent book, Going South, the sooner we puncture our own complacency at having created a rich economy for the few, and think of ourselves as in dire need of a proper economic development plan, the better. Otherwise, we’re well set to corner the world market in pig semen . The United Kingdom of spoink.

Naomi Klein: How science is telling us all to revolt

Waste land: large-scale irrigation strips nutrients from the soil, scars the landscape and could alter climatic conditions beyond repair. Image: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London, Pivot Irrigation #11 High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA (2011)

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco. This year’s conference had some big-name participants, from Ed Stone of Nasa’s Voyager project, explaining a new milestone on the path to interstellar space, to the film-maker James Cameron, discussing his adventures in deep-sea submersibles.

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012,Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Some scientists need no convincing. The godfather of modern climate science, James Hansen, is a formidable activist, having been arrested some half-dozen times for resisting mountain-top removal coal mining and tar sands pipelines (he even left his job at Nasa this year in part to have more time for campaigning). Two years ago, when I was arrested outside the White House at a mass action against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, one of the 166 people in cuffs that day was a glaciologist named Jason Box, a world-renowned expert on Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

“I couldn’t maintain my self-respect if I didn’t go,” Box said at the time, adding that “just voting doesn’t seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also.”

This is laudable, but what Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Leading the pack of these new scientific revolutionaries is one of Britain’s top climate experts, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one of the UK’s premier climate research institutions. Addressing everyone from the Department for International Development to Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, he lays out a rigorous road map for emissions reduction, one that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a target that most governments have determined would stave off catastrophe.

But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous . . . Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.

Anderson and Bows inform us that the often-cited long-term mitigation target – an 80 per cent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2050 – has been selected purely for reasons of political expediency and has “no scientific basis”. That’s because climate impacts come not just from what we emit today and tomorrow, but from the cumulative emissions that build up in the atmosphere over time. And they warn that by focusing on targets three and a half decades into the future – rather than on what we can do to cut carbon sharply and immediately – there is a serious risk that we will allow our emissions to continue to soar for years to come, thereby blowing through far too much of our 2° “carbon budget” and putting ourselves in an impossible position later in the century.

Which is why Anderson and Bows argue that, if the governments of developed countries are serious about hitting the agreed upon international target of keeping warming below 2° Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle (basically that the countries that have been spewing carbon for the better part of two centuries need to cut before the countries where more than a billion people still don’t have electricity), then the reductions need to be a lot deeper, and they need to come a lot sooner.

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the 2° target (which, they and many others warn, already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now. But Anderson and Bows go further, pointing out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 per cent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 per cent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of roughly 5 per cent over a period of ten years). They did not happen after Wall Street crashed in 2008 (wealthy countries experienced about a 7 per cent drop between 2008 and 2009, but their CO2 emissions rebounded with gusto in 2010 and emissions in China and India had continued to rise). Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012 essay that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature Climate Change, Anderson and Bows laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity. On this it is worth quoting the pair at length:

 . . . in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In other words, in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research. By August 2013, Anderson was willing to be even more blunt, writing that the boat had sailed on gradual change. “Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” (his emphasis).

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of even their own research. Most of them were just quietly doing their work measuring ice cores, running global climate models and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as the Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that they “were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order”.

But there are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science. It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists. In Britain, this strategy is becoming more overt, with Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writing recently that scientists should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong” and should express their views “by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

If you want to know where this leads, check out what’s happening in Canada, where I live. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has done such an effective job of gagging scientists and shutting down critical research projects that, in July 2012, a couple thousand scientists and supporters held a mock-funeral on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, mourning “the death of evidence”. Their placards said, “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth”.

But the truth is getting out anyway. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes. And increasing numbers of us are responding accordingly: blockading fracking activity in Balcombe; interfering with Arctic drilling preparations in Russian waters (at tremendous personal cost); taking tar sands operators to court for violating indigenous sovereignty; and countless other acts of resistance large and small. In Brad Werner’s computer model, this is the “friction” needed to slow down the forces of destabilisation; the great climate campaigner Bill McKibben calls it the “antibodies” rising up to fight the planet’s “spiking fever”.

It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less f**ked.

Naomi Klein, the author of “The Shock Doctrine” and “No Logo”, is working on a book and a film about the revolutionary power of climate change. You call follow her on twitter @naomiaklein

Map: How the world’s countries compare on income inequality based on The Palma Ratio [via: Washington Post]

Bluer countries have better income equality. Redder countries are more unequal. Data: CGDev, DIIS (Max Fisher / Washington Post)

Bluer countries have better income equality. Redder countries are more unequal. Data: CGDev, DIIS. (Max Fisher/The Washington Post)

The way we measure income inequality is changing. After years of relying on a complicated metric called the Gini coefficient, some economists argue that we should adopt the Palma ratio, which measures the gap between the rich and the poor in a society. My colleague Dylan Matthews explains how the Palma works and why it might be superior (more on that below).

In the map up top, I’ve illustrated the latest data on income inequality around the world, as measured by the Palma. The results are pretty revealing. Bluer countries have greater income equality, according to the metric, meaning that there’s less of a gap between the rich and the poor. Redder countries have more income inequality, meaning that there’s a wider gap. Purple countries are about in the middle — that includes the United States, which is the most unequal of any developed country measured.

The countries that come out looking best include, no surprise, the usual suspects of Northern Europe. Interestingly, Eastern Europe scores quite highly as well, as do some post-Soviet countries in Central Asia. Perhaps that’s a legacy of Soviet-era social programs meant to flatten class divides. But it’s also a reminder that, while economic equality is great, it’s not synonymous with a healthy economy. Some countries are economically equal because everyone is well-off, as in Denmark, and some because most everyone is equally poor.

The countries with the highest income inequality are, by far, those of Latin America and the southern tip of Africa. These countries have been seeing economic growth over the past few decades, but much of the wealth ends up funneling into the top stratospheres of society. This problem tends to be self-reinforcing: The rich are able to secure better education and political access, making it easier for them to stay rich and tougher for everyone else to get a share of the pie.

The United States doesn’t come out of this comparison looking great. It’s ranked 44th out of 86 countries, well below every other developed society measured. It’s one spot below Nigeria, which has some of the worst political corruption in the world and in 2012 saw nationwide protests over perceived income inequality. The United States’ Palma ratio ranks it just beneath Nigeria but above Russia and Turkey — all countries that have experienced heavy political unrest in recent years.

The data offer a reminder that the United States might enjoy greater economic equality than much of the world, but it is at the bottom end of the developed world. And the Palma ratio actually shows the United States in a more positive light than does the Gini coefficient, which ranks it even lower. To get a better sense of how the United States compares to the rest of the world, here’s a map that shows all other countries just relative to the United States. Blue countries are more equal than the United States, red countries are more unequal:

Blue countries have better income inequality than the U.S., red countries worse. Data: CGDev, DIIS (Max Fisher / Washington Post)

Blue countries have better income inequality than the U.S., red countries worse. Data: CGDev, DIIS. (Max Fisher/The Washington Post)

Here’s the story with the Palma ratio, which gave us these data. Two economists with the Center for Global Development, Alex Cobham and Andy Sumner of King’s College London, make the case for the Palma in a recent paper. They explain that it’s much more elegant than the Gini coefficient and better suited at comparing the rich and the poor. The Palma simply compares the richest 10 percent of people with the poorest 40 percent. Their report provides the data mapped out above, supplemented with some numbers from the Danish Institute of International Studies.

If you want to know more about The Palma Ration, please check this paper:




Riots and protests in Colombia demanding for farmers rights

More information about social movements in Colombia from The Guardian:

Demonstrators and riot policemen near Bogota Colombia

Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá,
Thursday 29 August 2013 16.19 BST

Demonstrators banging on pots in support of farmers at the entrance of La Calera near Bogotá. Photograph: Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Colombia’s largest cities were braced on Thursday for marches by students and labour unions in support of a growing nationwide strike by miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers and potato farmers protesting against everything from high fuel prices to free trade agreements that farmers say have them on the brink of bankruptcy.

The protests began on 19 August, with demonstrators joining striking miners,to block some of the country’s main highways using tree branches, rocks and burning tyres. At least one protester and one policeman have died in the demonstrations, dozens have been injured and more than 150 have been arrested.

The protests spread to the cities where residents banged pots in solidarity with the farmers after president Juan Manuel Santos, in a failed effort to downplay the importance of the strikes, said the “supposed national farmers’ strike does not exist”.

Forced to apologise for the statement, he sent out high-level officials to begin negotiating separately with the different sectors. “We recognise that the farmers’ protests respond to real needs and problems. We are listening to them and offering solutions,” Santos said on Wednesday night.

Farmers complain that agricultural imports allowed under free trade agreements with the US, the EU, Canada and other nations are undercutting their livelihoods.

Strike leaders said solutions offered – eliminating import tariffs on fertilisers, easing agricultural credit and triggering protective safeguards allowed under the free trade agreement for sensitive sectors – were not enough. “Talks continue,” strike leaders said on Wednesday, but called on farmers to continue protests.

Thursday’s marches are planned for Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and other mid-sized cities. With access to cities from the countryside disrupted, the price of some staple foods has nearly doubled. Gloria Galindo, a mother of three who lives in Bosa, a working-class district of Bogotá, said she sympathised with the protesters but that the roadblocks were hurting her family’s wallet. “Vegetable prices have shot through the roof,” she said.

Officials have accused leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is in talks with the government to end nearly 50 years of war, of infiltrating the strikes. Strike leaders have denied the claims.

Rural development was the first point of agreement between the Farc and the government in the peace process. But the current protests show that Colombia’s conflicts are not limited to an armed insurgency and will not necessarily be resolved at the negotiating table in Havana, according to Alejandro Reyes, an adviser to the government on land issues. “When we get to a post-conflict stage there will be an enormous social conflict to deal with,” he said.

Conflict Over Natural Resources in Cities [via: Polis]

resource: polis: Conflict Over Natural Resources in Cities.

When thinking of conflicts over natural resources, we tend to think of rural resources:oil in South Sudan, deforestation in Bolivia, dam building in the Brazilian Amazon,blood diamonds in Angola. In the United States, one might recall the Spotted Owl or, more recently, the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline campaign.

Natural resources permeate cities as well. They include street trees, parks, beaches, rivers and creeks. As Alex Schafran reminds us, it’s important to remember the urbanwhen thinking of the protests in Turkey. Likewise, we shouldn’t forget the urban in conflicts over resources.

Protesters under the canopy of sycamore trees in Gezi Park. Source: Adam David Morton

Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club, argues that efforts to preserve the sycamores in Gezi Park illuminate regimes of access to and control over natural resources in Turkey. He adds that trees become “a tangible symbol of the common space which autocrats claim to serve, but actually destroy.” Andy Revkin riffed on Carl’s piece at Dot Earth, and Naomi Sachs riffed on Andy’s at the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

At local ecologist, I reviewed several local (NYC) conflicts over natural resources: Rudy Giuliani vs community gardens, the Sexton NYU 2031 Plan vs Greenwich Village, and Major League Soccer (MLS) vs Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, though the latter may soon be MLS vs the Bronx.

In a political ecology course I took at UC Berkeley, the professor asked us to consider how the “materiality of a resource” influences conflicts over its management. In cities, a spatial characteristic of many resources is boundedness. A park, for example, has definite material boundaries. If someone builds on it, they change the boundaries in significant ways. They diminish public access. They change the way benefits are derived, and by whom.

Privatization of public resources — from Istanbul to NYC — diverts their benefits to the few who can afford them. When this takes place undemocratically, it is an injustice to be fought with the collective strength of many.

Georgia Silvera Seamans is an urban forester and founder of local ecology. More of her writing can be found at local ecologist.

Colombia’s internally displaced people caught in corridor of instability

Colombia’s internally displaced people caught in corridor of instability

Despite progressive policies, battles over territory and drug trafficking mean the number of IDPs is increasing

MDG : Colombia : IDP Rosalba Dura in Norte de Santander

Colombia has 4.7 million internally displaced people, according to government figures. Above: Rosalba Duran and her family. Photograph: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN

Rosalba Duran and her family of 11 live in a single-room hut on a patch of government-owned land on the outskirts of El Tarra in the northern province of Norte de Santander, Colombia.

Eight months ago, she had a house in town and her husband a job at a nearby fish farm. But the home in which they had lived for 25 years was next to an army checkpoint that had come under repeated fire by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerillas.

The Durans felt they had no choice but to move to this miserable stretch of mosquito-infested land, without running water, miles from the nearest schools. They are officially part of the roughly 5 million, or one in 10 Colombians, displaced by the conflict waged by the Farc, its revolutionary cousin, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and successive governments since 1964, originally over land reform and social justice.

Norte de Santander, bordering Venezuela, forms part of a corridor of instability stretching across the mountainous northern part of the country to the province of Choco on the Pacific coast.

The prominent graffiti extolling the Farc and ELN throughout these Andean towns, even a banner across the road in one setting the speed limit and levying a fine on those that disobey, underlines this is a contested region, despite ongoing peace talks in Cuba between the Farc and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.

The mayor of El Tarra, Jota Mario Arenas, is honest about the difficulties he faces in trying to walk the line between the guerillas and the country’s capital, Bogotá, in a town in which the insurgents wield tremendous influence. Central government feels distant here, soldiers nervously patrol the streets, potential targets for the mines and improvised explosive devices increasingly employed by the Farc and ELN. The only doctor at the health post quit recently – the rumour was that he had been threatened.

Clashes over coca eradication

Since June, the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander has been in turmoil, with clashes between farmers and the army over the government’s periodic coca eradication programme. Farmers say it will deprive them of a livelihood, as no alternative crops are established before the coca is uprooted, while the government accuses the Farc of provoking the unrest and a strategy of confinement – the closure of roads in the area that locks up local communities, affecting their access to supplies.

“I do what I can,” Arenas told IRIN. But it was clear his political survival depends on not rocking the boat in what has historically been a major coca-growing region, where smuggling – petrol from Venezuela included – is routine, a vacuna or unofficial tax, is added to virtually every purchase, and the state struggles to provide services, security and the opportunities that would allow young men to resist taking sides in the conflict.

But it was to the local authorities that the Duran family turned to for help. Although land was provided, it was only 200 metres from an oil pipeline that the guerillas had tried three times to blow up. When IRIN visited, the Durans had received two payments, amounting to $1,100 (£725), and were expecting a third and final instalment from the Victims’ Support Unit. “This is not enough for so many,” Rosalba said.

According to the government’s figures, Colombia has 4.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), based on monitoring that started in 2000. NGOs, which begin their count from 1985, put the number at 5.7 million.

For the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), the significant point is that the numbers are increasing. “There were more people displaced in the first quarter of this year than over the same period last year. Although they’re talking peace in Havana, there are still growing numbers of IDPs, more people affected by mines than in Afghanistan, and a reduction in humanitarian funding,” Ocha’s head of office, Gerard Gómez, told IRIN.

The IDP system

Colombia’s IDP policy looks progressive, strengthened by Santos and key court rulings. It recognises their rights, including to emergency assistance, social support and land restitution. “Unfortunately many of these rights are routinely violated,” assistant director for policy at the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Mary Small wrote. “In general, programmes for IDPs do not cover all IDPs, are uneven in quality, end too soon and are underfunded.”

“They are great laws, but the problem is implementation,” Gabriel Rojas of the NGO CODHES (in Spanish) said. How IDPs are registered – and the trust required in the authorities to include your name – is one area. Until a constitutional court verdict earlier this year, the law did not recognise the casualties of the expanding violence of the rightwing former paramilitaries known as Bacrim, which will increase the demands and costs of the programme.

The shortfalls of the system also include a crisis of protection, where IDPs pushing for rights to land restitution have been attacked, especially by paramilitaries in league with the new landowners; bureaucratic undercapacity worsened by the tangle of the various programmes; and the basic problem of implementing care and support in the middle of a conflict where the government has incomplete control of the country.

Military pressure has pushed the Farc and ELN into hard-to-reach areas like El Tarra, or along the underdeveloped Pacific coast, and an eastern axis covering Arauca, Casanare, Vichada, Meta and Guaviare. Many of these disputed regions are drug-producing, mineral-rich or straddle lucrative smuggling routes. It is terrain shared with the Bacrim, elements of the former death squads, which, after demobilisation in the mid-2000s, re-emerged as rich, networked and ever-ruthless mafias. Along with the guerillas, they have a mutual interest in maintaining the state at arms length and their stake in the illicit economy.

“For the overlapping armed groups of guerillas, neo-paramilitaries, narco-traffickers, and organised crime, the war has splintered into a fight for control of land for large-scale agriculture and ranching, the drug trade, illegal mining and, at the Venezuelan border, the movement of gasoline,” Small said. “As the war has become de-ideologised, all armed groups rely on the strategic use of terror to control communities and silence opposition.”

African-Colombians, indigenes most affected

The violence employed by the guerillas, Bacrim and the military gives Colombia the world’s largest population of IDPs. It is to a great extent a rural crisis, in which African-Colombians and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. Although constituting just 14% of society, they comprised an estimated 83% of those driven from their homes in 2010, according to a Global Humanitarian Assistance report (pdf).

The majority of displacements involve a steady trickle of individuals or families moving to the cities. But major upheavals – of 50 or more people – are on the rise. Notorious gangs like Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos were responsible for the majority of these displacements in 2011, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Intra-urban displacement is also a growing phenomenon, with vulnerable IDPs shuttling between poor and unsafe neighbourhoods controlled by drug-dealing gangs. “They don’t want to leave the cities because at least they have access to services,” Rojas said.

In the remote ore-rich regions, gold, coltan and tungsten is replacing coca as the main revenue generator for armed groups, with only an estimated 14% of the gold produced in Colombia mined legally, according to Ocha. Communities farming the land are in the way, so large-scale forced dispossession is occurring. It can be at the barrel of a gun, a coerced sale at rock-bottom prices or a land grab legalised by a crooked notary.

Colombia’s long history of strong regions, weak central government and astonishing levels of violence by various groups of armed young men, suggests the crisis may not end with the formal demobilisation of the Farc, should the Havana talks reach a settlement.

Colombia is a middle-income country and in many respects has the trappings of a modern economy. But, according to Gómez: “In a country where you have [lucrative] drugs, gold and extortion, you might get a peace agreement today, but in the coming years there could well still be violence.”

• This article was amended on 14 August 2013. In the original, the writer referred to Mary Small as a Central America migration researcher. This has now been corrected. The quote from Small in paragraph 12 has also been amended.