Planners don't understand how real families live

June 19, 2003

Policies like the London Plan, which are designed to shape the cities of the future, are based on outdated assumptions about the way people live and work, according to research funded by the Economic & Social Research Council.

"There is a great deal of talk about 'joined-up thinking' about transport, housing and other policies," says project leader Dr Helen Jarvis, "but in practice householders are having to fire-fight in a climate where planners and policymakers are not up to date."

The research, which was conducted at the University of Newcastle, looked at 100 working families in the UK and the USA to find out how decisions concerning work, employment, housing, transport, childcare, technology and gender relations affect the way they co-ordinate their daily lives. In each of the five case studies - in San Francisco, London, Edinburgh, Seattle and Portland - relatively affluent populations are trying to balance the demands of life and work in cities that have cultivated high-value knowledge economies since the 1970s.

In each of these cities, more than one good income is needed to enter the housing market or to simply maintain living standards. In San Francisco, for example, in 60% of couples with children both parents work - usually more than 40 hours a week. In order to cope with home and family duties, parents employ a range of domestic helpers and spend increasing amounts of time travelling in order to co-ordinate family activities. "We saw some families where there were five colour-coded calendars on the wall," says Helen Jarvis.

The research found that time saved by ordering shopping on the internet, ready-made food and other savings from technology tends to be used up in intensive leisure time: chaperoning children to an ever-expanding number of after school activities. "This defeats the intentions of planners to rationalise daily movement," says Helen Jarvis.

Planners in many countries are anxious to repopulate inner city areas on the assumption that local access to jobs, housing, shops and education will create a more sustainable environment. However, the project found that people seldom live where they would choose in an ideal world.

For instance, compromises are often made because parents want to be within reach of a "good" school. Another factor is the general unwillingness for two income families to relocate. Instead, many choose to live in a mid-way hub location from which both careers may develop. Parents are far more likely to increase their daily travelling time to accommodate individual changes in schools, jobs or social activities than to consider moving house.

In both Edinburgh and San Francisco, for example, there is a daily cross-flow of traffic in which a heavy convoy of workers travel in from the suburbs to work in the city centre while many of those who live in the city commute to Silicon Valley or the science park in the suburbs. "People don't choose where to live because they want to harmonise jobs, housing and transport," says Dr Jarvis. "They decide on a place of residence because it fits their lifestyle and family ideals. But paradoxically in each of these 'successful' cities a strong anti-growth and anti-car feeling is accompanied by a continued reliance on private motorised transport and a treadmill of energy consuming practices."
For further details:
Contact Dr Helen Jarvis, tel: 0191-222-6959, email:
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds, ESRC, tel: 01793-413119/413122

1. Helen Jarvis is at School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, University of Newcastle, Daysh Building, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
2 The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at
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