Winning an award

UCL is giving me a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of its annual awards for “Public Engagement”. The award takes place at 1830h on Tuesday 28th January 2014 when this post should become visible.  They don’t have acceptance speeches at these ceremonies so this is the closest I can get.

I have mixed feelings about this award, and indeed about the whole “Public Engagement” project. But mainly I’m pleased.

I want to thank all the people I have worked and campaigned with over the years – from George McRobie and the Save Covent Garden and Tolmers Square campaigns in the 70s through all 25 years of the King’s Cross Railway Lands Group  from 1987 onwards, and especially to thank Richard Lee, Sharon Hayward, Robin Brown and many others in the Just Space network in this century. At last I think we have found a useful kind of organisation and structure. The fashionable cliché would be resilient infrastructure. Thanks to everyone in the international network INURA which we founded two decades ago to internationalise this solidarity. I also want to thank my partner Sue Hirst and my family for putting up with my absence at so many evening and weekend meetings. And finally Prof Peter Marcuse, far away in Columbia University in New York, for being the model for engaged academics in schools of planning.

The struggle to get the planning system used by citizens to control their own city and protect their own rights to occupy it is becoming harder and harder.  We are up against formidable forces:

  • The, seemingly ‘natural’, power of the market to hand our land (and everything we have built on it) over to whatever corporation or investor or individual has the most money to bid for it—to capital, roughly;
  • The tendency for professions – including even planning – to serve whatever interests are strongest, hiding their skills and knowledge behind impenetrable jargon and condescending graciously to non-professionals.
  • The pressures in universities to serve—or at least not to antagonise—governments and funding bodies in research and teaching: pressures which soften and weaken what should be the principal source of independent critique of what is happening in the society. And for university staffs the relentless pressure to publish papers in refereed journals which almost no-one in the wider society (or even in the professions) can ever read because of the paywalls.

In this potentially depressing context it is endlessly satisfying to find that there are citizens who come together to co-operate and support each other, to outwit and out-argue professionals and local politicians in defence of their city, their housing and the rights of communities to sustain themselves—in situ if they choose. And it’s not just defensive—though in these dark times defence of our surviving fragments of democracy is important. It’s trying to keep alive that sense that any city could be a wonderful place governed by its citizens.

Do citizen campaigns on planning issues achieve anything? Yes.  London is undoubtedly a much better city as result, though recently we have achieved much less in specific policy change than some journalists like Henry Porter would like to think. But the main justification for all this action is that retrograde developments and mayoral policies which further oppress citizens and subordinate them to capital must not be unopposed.  We often feel like the characters in Fahrenheit 451.

It’s profoundly cheering when students and the occasional colleague turn out to be motivated towards emancipatory action and are keen to develop the skills needed to work in and with communities, helping to put the university at the service of the society in a creative way.  This became very clear in the last 2 years when the university community mobilised itself to support residents on the Carpenters’ Estate in Newham against being displaced. That’s a battle still going on, even though it’s now clear that it will not be UCL which replaces them if they are displaced. Will the mayoral development corporation be any better than Newham Council?

Thus the shift towards “public engagement” in universities – which often strikes me as inexplicable or as whitewash – has for us been very valuable.  It has offered little pots of money and, above all, it has given a kind of legitimacy to what should all along have been a primary function of the university. It is cheering that this year we have nearly 50 UCL students volunteering to help and to learn in this “engagement” and may even (re-)insert some democratic attitudes and skills into the mainstream training of built environment professionals. I have a supportive head of department at the moment, Nick Gallent, who has helped with all this.

It makes me laugh and cry because throughout my university career people have been saying to me that, if I carry on doing what they regard as political and agitational work, I’d never get promotion.  They were right about that but it’s nice at the age of 71 to get an award for it all.

Thank you to the committee. Thank you Provost.

The award letter is attached if you want to see it: Provost to Edwards, Michael 14 01 21

And an afterthought: thanks to UCL alumnus Tim Berners-Lee who, with many others, gave us the web and the internet without which we could do much less, and who is still sticking up for it as commons in the face of massive pressures from business, not to mention GCHQ and the NSA.


This is a video of the presentation, thanks to the taker:
This is from the UCL web site:


A wonderful string of messages comes in from Bob Colenutt (Oxford), Patrice Riemens (Amsterdam), Narendra Pachkhede, Mike Raco, Claudia dall’Igna (São Paulo), Steve Marshall, Jessica Ferm, Barbara Rahder (Toronto), Frank Moulaert (Leuven), John Tomaney (London/Newcastle), Costanza La Mantia (Johannesburg), Pushpa Arabindoo, Sonia Freire Trigo, Duncan Bowie (Westminster), Catalina Turcu, Joon Park (Seoul), Murray Fraser, Robin Hickman, Paula Morais, Fiona Davies, Yasminah Beebejaum, Andrej Holm (Berlin), Thomas Neumark, Trenton Oldfield, Euan McDonald (la Trobe), Mark Saunders/Spectacle, Ministarstvoprostora (Belgrade), Penny Dixie, Laura Vaughan, Lilli Geißendorfer, James O’Leary, Sonia Arbaci, Juliana Borowczyk Martins

and a few I can’t resist quoting:

I remember the first seminar you gave us in London in 1997. It was unforgettable. In the 5 years I was in the LSE, one of the best two, I can say. (The other was D. Massey, by the way)  I was definitely inspired by you as an academic closely related with the social movements, and moreover, prioritizing  the social movements to academic production. On the other hand, it is great to see that there are still institutions such as UCL rewarding criminal* activities rather than developing partnerships with Deutsche Bank and such:)  It is an honor for me that you were in my viva… best wishes, Murat Cemal Yalçintan, Istanbul
[*and he then explained: Actually our prime minister continues to campaign against us and what we do by giving support to the neighbourhoods (that are to be renewed) is often called criminal activity by him. Thus, academics who give support to the communities are the new criminals around here.

On 30.01.2014 15:18, INURA Common Office wrote: Michael! Career Achievement Award, and the career is not only at the UCL, but much beyond! You inspired and brought together endlessly many people and inura, thanks for that too! Congrats!

I feel also that this award is really deserved. What an example of a good relation between research and action Micheal gave us!  And I have to add that Micheal was a key person for the birth of INURA and its development. For me, and for many others, he was the one who introduced me to the group many years ago. Many thanks Michael!  love, Marvi (Maggio – Florence)

we are proud of you!!!! sitting with orhan in vienna now Pelin Tan / Orhan Esen (Istanbul)

artuklu mimarl?k @mimarlikartuklu:  kentplanc?/aktivist, INURA üyesi Prof.Michael Edwards ya?am boyu kamusal angajman ödülünü ald? ? ? ?@michaellondonsf?

Congratulations..You deserve far more many awards from your department and obvously the biggest being the love, admiration ands gratitude from your students!!! Love Pavlos Delladetsima (Athens)

I have  read your blog entry about the award and I am moved by your words: Thank you, warmly.  Love, Laura Collini (Berlin)

Bravo Michael for public engagement award – one for career-long great teaching would be fitting too. Ziona Strelitz (london)

Good to see lifetime commitment of my old and excellent planning lecturer @michaellondonsf being acknowledged Roger White (Aberdeen)

The wonderful, inspiring @michaellondonsf wins award for making London planning accountable to citizens. Well done! ?Libby Porter (

Congratulations on the Lifetime Achievement Award – well earned. I think that your lectures were the most formative that I attended at UCL.  All the best,  Leslie Struthers,  MPhil 1972
Thank you for letting me know via the JSEP network, that you won an award on 28 Jan for public engagement etc. I congratulate you, and convey that it is thoroughly deserved. From my perspective, as a delegate to Sharon’s London Tenants Fed for only about 3 years, that I have benefitted enormously from all your seminars/conferences. I have had the opportunity to be expertly informed and genuinely encouraged by people like yourself, Michael Parkes, Robin Brown, & Richard Lee; I think the organisation of the conferences has been extremely helpful. I remember one trying to link academics with community organisers, and one with a knowledgeable senior Friends of the Earth spokesman. I always am full of wonder learning from people like Michael Ball, Duncan Bowie (my fellow Labour Housing Group), Dave (the Haringey Open Space campaigner.) When you speak, expressing your social convictions, which I share, enlightens the audience and provides a direction for our visions. I think your efforts to share your commitment in the world of planning has inspired many ordinary people to rightly get involved in the process. I salute you! Best wishes, Richard Chute.

Author: Editors


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