Archive for June, 2010

City in a box, unboxed

June 10, 2010

Excitement online and in the twittersphere about the Cisco ‘city in a box’ being built in Songdo, South Korea. There seems to be a bit of a utopian city meme at the moment – instant cities,  floating cities and Paul Romer’s Charter Cities (which I discussed a while back). Last week’s Economist even showcased a whole series of prototype ‘cities for 2030’.

As the Economist piece points out, there’s something slightly odd about these kind of exercises. Cities tend to emerge and evolve organically, even chaotically, rather than being built from scratch: and their residents and users tend to be resistant to masterplanning.

A closer look at Cisco’s instant city actually confirms all this quite neatly. First, it’s not a city, it’s a business district – albeit one that could house up to 1m people. Second, it’s neither new or self-contained. Instead, it’s a bolt-on to an existing city, Incheon, the 3rd biggest in S Korea.

This kind of CBD megaproject has been done before – in Canary Wharf, for example, which works pretty well as a financial service cluster, if not as a functioning community. (With a working population of around 90,000 people, it’s over ten times smaller than Songdo.)

I can see the potential for this kind of plug-in planning in China in particular, given the pace of urbanisation there. The developer at Songdo reckons there’s a market for at least 20 more in China and across South East Asia. That’s plausible if the demographics and national economies hold up. But ‘build it and they will come’ is an inherently risky strategy – just look at Dubai.

I’d also love to see Cisco try this in a small, highly urbanised Global North country like the UK. Our biggest urban planning challenges in years to come is going to be greening the cities and buildings we’ve got. The eco-towns initiative doesn’t tackle this, and the programme is basically marginal.

But in growing places, there’s potentially an important role for high-tech, resource-efficient urban extensions – around Greater London, Manchester, York, Cambridge or Brighton, say. The problem will be the total lack of public funds to help actual building. Perhaps Cisco can step up to the Big Society plate and donate one?

ps. I’m now finally on Twitter – find me here.

pps. We’re now on holiday for a bit. Blogging returns in July.

Shrink to fit

June 3, 2010

My last post talked about the principles of dealing with shrinking cities. This one concentrates on the practice. In DC a few weeks back, I had an informal chat on shrinkage with some of the Brookings Metro team (helpfully organised by Dermot, whose writeup is here).

For me, there were four big points from the discussion:

First, US cities are mainly ‘shrunk’, not ‘shrinking’. With a more mobile population, and severe contraction in the 1980s and 2000s, people voted with their feet. In the UK the picture’s mixed: historical data suggests that Liverpool’s population has fallen by over 300,000 since the 1960s, while Stoke’s has only dropped by 25,000.

That means the challenges are different. In the US, the big issues are repairing the physical fabric for remaining residents, and pooling jurisdictions so local tax bases can cover cash for public services. In the UK, tasks include promoting individual mobility, raising human capital and doing physical repair.

Second, the US approach is bottom up, not top down. This is partly historical: people have bad memories of government Urban Renewal programmes in the 1960s, which had a disproportionate impact on African-American communities. It’s largely institutional – the US system gives cities strong local leaders, typically Mayors, who in cities like Youngstown (est pop 73,000) and Flint (113,000) have led the public conversation and put forward new strategies.

The Obama administration has dipped a toe in the water, talking about ‘auto regions’ like Detroit, and ‘cities in transition’, but none of this has yet translated into action. By contrast, UK efforts like HMR have been Whitehall-led initiatives, essentially aimed at ‘doing something about those inner cities’.

Third, US programmes are less radical, and more micro, than you might imagine. In practice, policymakers focus on struggling neighbourhoods, more than whole cities. Empty houses and land are bought up, and there is selective demolition and rebuilding. Often areas are simply returned to meadows, or turned into parks and bikeways. Rather than actually ‘shrinking the city’, the aim is to improve the city that’s left – making it nicer and greener.

In the UK, however, many  HMR pilots have tried to use housing market remodelling to stimulate area population and economic growth. Adding net housing when populations are shrinking does not feel wise.

Finally, finance differs. In the UK, Whitehall provides upfront funding to HMR, which leverages private sector borrowing – a funding model that’s now collapsed.  By contrast, US improvements are often funded via county-wide property taxes or fixes like TIF – as I’ve pointed out, tools that UK city leaders don’t yet have at their disposal.

Closer to home, Leipzig’s story is instructive too. The second-largest city in Eastern Germany, it lost 100,000 people after re-unification (20% of its current population). In 2000 an expert commission on the city was established, led by Leipzig’s Mayor. The resulting strategy involved some demolition and remodelling of inner urban housing, plus a range of quality of life measures (e.g. allowing artists to take over derelict properties).

Leipzig’s population is about the same size as Greater Manchester, so the city also developed its market potential, with a modernised train station and airport. Overall, it has stopped shrinkage: the population has stablised, and there has been slight employment growth (largely driven by high-tech manufacturing investment, such as a new BMW plant).

Lessons

So what are the lessons for the UK? First, cities – not Whitehall – need to be in control of policy and process, proposing ideas and getting local buy-in. Often, the pitch will need to be about a better, greener place to live – not ‘renewal’ or ‘shrinkage’.

Second, the policy mix should combine place elements (remodelling neighbourhoods) with people elements (improving skills, helping residential mobility). My post last year suggested ‘removing overcapacity in local housing; improving the local environment (which could include some US-style ‘greening’); levelling VAT rates on refurb and new build; developing local skills, access to employment and transport links to stronger labour markets; new funding tools; and some honest repositioning’.

That still feels about right. Although compared with Flint and Youngstown, big cities like Liverpool have far larger domestic markets, and thus potential for further jobs growth. Leipzig’s story suggests there’s a role for demand-side measures in bigger places: Liverpool’s recent economic and population growth confirms this.

The proposed Decentralisation Bill therefore looks quite promising. Big city Mayors and Local Economic Partnerships, more open local planning, and proposals to build local social action are all useful; uniform local incentives for housebuilding less so. More seriously, local leaders will still lack the financial tools to deliver the kind of programmes carried out in the US and in Europe. The forthcoming review of local government finance should look to broaden councils’ toolkit, and widen their tax-raising base.

One final point. CLG and bodies like the HCA have critical system designer and enabler functions, supporting and advising local leaders and communities – if not dictating to them. Whitehall will need to lead on promoting any ‘right to move’ in the social housing system; and will still be providing direct funds for skills and education. Despite the Secretary of State‘s emphasis on ‘localism, localism, localism’ ‘localisation, localisation and  localisation’ (thanks Grant!), I suspect central government will still end up with useful roles to play.

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