Archive for June, 2009

Finding suburbia

June 28, 2009

photo by Martin Godwin

How much of Britain is suburban? I’ve been doing some thinking about this for a book the Smith Institute and the Homes and Communities Agency are publishing in a few weeks’ time.

It’s not just an academic question. We want spatial policy to reflect the reality of where people live – and want to live. But if current lifestyles aren’t sustainable, we need to be able to promote realistic behaviour change.

The UK’s small but determined suburban lobby suggests that 80% of Britons live in ‘suburbia’, and therefore Government needs to abandon its obsession with cities. Others, notably the Urban Task Force, point out that around 80% of Britain is urban, and argue that high-density lifestyles are the only sustainable option for the future.

Over the past decade, Government policy has oscillated between these points of view – big city urbanism on the one hand, and an increasingly suburbanite housing strategies on the other.  That is probably about to change. Any new Conservative government is likely to be much more instinctively pro-suburb – Boris’ relentless focus on Outer London is a flavour of things to come.

All the more reason to get a proper understanding of British suburbia, then. So how suburban are we?

The best way to approach this is to think of the UK in functional terms: a system of urban and rural areas; within that, cities, towns and villages; and within that, a range of neighbourhoods – from city centres out to hamlets.

In population terms, Britain is an urban nation. The best data (from Defra and ONS) puts around 73% households in urban areas. Cities have the lion’s share of this: over 46% of households are in ‘major urban’ or ‘large urban’ areas. Other official research gives the 56 biggest English cities around 50% of the population.

At neighbourhood level, however, Britain is suburban. The best available figures [pdf] suggest around 84% of the English live in ‘suburban’ wards of some kind. These are the numbers routinely used by the suburban lobby. They are now a bit old, but are confirmed by more recent geodemographic data from Experian. Their MOSAIC  classifications suggest around 78% of households live somewhere in suburbia.

So there we have it: if the UK is urban country – a nation of towns and cities – it is also largely a nation of suburban neighbourhoods. In economic terms, cities are where the action is: the largest English cities have over two thirds of the country’s jobs. But in terms of community, we are suburbanites: the most popular house types in the UK are the semi and the bungalow.

That suggests that the Urban Task Force vision of ‘Barcelona in Britain’ fits pretty badly with the reality of most people’s lives. UTF boss Lord Rogers knows this. But as he also points out, neither the environment or the economy can support low-density car-driven lifestyles forever.

This implies that suburban strategy-making needs three main elements. First, it has to recognise the complementary roles of urban places (especially cities) and suburban neighbourhoods. (In that sense, explicit ‘strategies for suburbs’ are probably a bad idea). Second, as far as possible we need to bring the suburbs to the city – for example, terraces and townhouses are a good way to build popular forms at relatively high densities. And third, we need to make suburban lifestyles greener – through greener cars, localising energy generation, feed-in tariffs and so on. ‘The Good Life’ may turn out to be closer to the good life than we thought …

The world according to Brûlé

June 14, 2009


This weekend’s FT has a fascinating feature by Tyler Brûlé on the world’s most liveable cities. Brule is possibly the world’s most high-maintenance man – he edits current affairs / style mag Monocle, set up Wallpaper* and details his globe-crossing exploits in his regular FT column.

It’s easy to mock – see this insightful piece on Kim Jong-Il’s terrible dress sense – but the amount of glossy ads in his magazines suggests he’s on to something.

So, what does Brûlé have to say about good places to live? Monocle’s Index of 25 ‘Most Liveable Cities’ is pretty distinctive. Zurich comes out top, followed by Copenhagen, Tokyo, Munich and Helsinki. Paris is eighth, Sydney 13th, Barcelona 15th. There are lots of esoteric choices – Auckland, Fukuoka, Kyoto. And surprisingly, there’s no sign of any British or US cities at all (except for Honolulu).

Brûlé doesn’t say exactly how all this was done. But he does say that his team spent as much time looking at quality of life issues – levels of tolerance and openness, local media standards and cultural vitality – as standard economic and social performance measures, like wages and quality of public services. He also points out that other liveability surveys by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Mercer give similar results (although EIU and Mercer‘s cost of living surveys also rank these cities as very expensive).

City leaders tend to worry about these kind of rankings. Should they? I think there are a few points worth making here.

First, let’s remember what we’re trying to do. All of this is – very loosely – trying to achieve what urban economists call ‘spatial equilibrium’. This is where people and firms sort themselves across space, trading off economic, social and environmental pros and cons so that everyone finds their best place to be.

That means we need to be pretty careful about a simple ‘league table’ approach. Indexes are usually commercial products aimed at specific users. In Monocle’s case it’s globe-trotting cosmocrats [pdf] with Japanese friends; for Cushman Wakefield’s Cities Monitor [pdf] it’s, developers and property investors; for the Economist and Mercer, CEOs. So policymakers – who have to think beyond single interest groups – should approach with caution.

Second, actually measuring the ‘real cost of living’ is very hard to do. No-one has the definitive answer. I’ve been helping on a SERC project looking at these issues – the best work is from the US, where government economists have access to price data on thousands of items at very local level (like this paper by Bettina Aten). But even here, the researchers don’t go near the kind of soft measures Monocle is using.

Third, we need to remember that this is all about tradeoffs. In spatial equilibrium, actors are balancing economic, social and physical welfare. The main sources of urban growth and vitality– critical mass, big labour markets and ideas flow – tend to have a flipside, namely congestion, pollution and expense.

For that reason, the most liveable cities – where people might want to be – aren’t necessarily the ones where people need to be. This is why it feels odd that places like London, NYC, Hong Kong and Los Angeles don’t rank higher on the ‘liveability’ rankings. In these global cities the pull of place is very strong. As Jared Diamond points out, in many ways cities like LA are terrible places to live, but millions of people still choose to be there.

Monocle readers may well live in one place and work in another – so this matters less to them. Tellingly, Brûlé eventually reveals that having tried Zurich for a few months, he moved back to much less ‘liveable’ London. His compromise is to be based in the UK and flit between Zurich (winter), Copenhagen (summer) and Tokyo (business trips). Nice work if you can get it!

Which way is up?

June 1, 2009

face the wall

In my day job – well, one of them – we’re spending time thinking about how the recession is playing out in different places, and how cities will look in years to come. It’s not easy to find useful tools for working through this.  The most promising of the lot looks like Carlota Perez, the on-trend Venezuelan economist whose ideas about long term change are increasingly hot (as far as socio-econo-technological systems analysis can ever actually be hot).

At ippr this evening Perez laid out her ideas, which sum up pretty much like this. First, we’ve been here before. The crisis we’re in is internal to capitalism, and is one of many big waves of change.  Second, these ‘revolutions’ are trackable, arriving every 40-60 years. New technologies arrive in an ‘installation period’, accompanied by a financial bubble (in this case, the dotcom boom). Third, casino finance precipitates a crisis, after which more activist policies can lead us into a period of long term growth (the ‘deployment period’, or ‘golden age’).

Essentially, Perez thinks that the future is already here. It will be a remix of the present, with industries like nanotech, biotech, greentech and social media coming to the fore. Human capital and open innovation will become ever more important. Policymakers need to refloat the financial system, then regulate the casino and use activist sectoral policies and pro-skills programmes to push forward growth.

Impressive stuff which stood up to some difficult questions – including Samuel Brittan suggesting this was all *very* short term (‘What about the Dark Ages?’). It also looks like a thumbs up for Lord Mandelson’s industrial activism – which itself feels like a policy remix of New Labour’s late-90s encounter with endogenous growth theory.

So what kind of spatial remix is heading our way? There’s good news and bad news for cities. Perez suggested to me that we think about sectors and location decisions. If she’s right, finance is going to be less important. So places like London and Leeds may need to diversify. Perez also argues that  TNC location decisions matter a lot. Firms will look for places with good natural resources, connectivity and a strong skills base. As Richard Florida suggests elsewhere, that means today’s leaders will probably stay ahead – big cities and knowledge centres will be OK, smaller ex-industrial centres less so.

So far, so familiar. But there are big unresolved questions about clusters and investment: should city leaders still compete for hot firms? The most recent UK evidence suggests urban productivity is driven by critical mass, economic diversity and human capital more than specific key sectors. If Perez is right, those sectors are going to change anyway. That implies city bosses might be better off going back to basics – sorry – rather than all chasing after a nanotech future which could never arrive.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. As my supervisor would probably say, more research is required

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