Archive for June, 2011

What’s the point of Outer London?

June 30, 2011

I left today’s LSE/Demos Outer London seminar scratching my head. What is ‘Outer London’ for? It doesn’t make much sense – except as a voting bloc. Given we’re less than a year from Mayoral elections, though, perhaps that’s the point.

Here are some brief thoughts from the day. (Disclosure: I’m affiliated with Demos’ new Centre for London, but these views are my own.)

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There are different ways of thinking about cities. Planners focus on systems and zones. Economists think about markets, and clusters of people and firms. Sociologists look at communities, neighbourhoods and relationships. In practice, we need all of these lenses to understand real world places.

London has many distinctive features. For now let’s pick two. First, it’s a ‘city of villages’ – over time, the capital has emerged from dozens of small centres merging in a single urban mass. Second, it’s a mega-city-region. London’s economic system spills over political boundaries and across much of Southern England.

Given this, drawing lines around bits of London is a bit of an arbitrary exercise. Using official definitions of ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ London to make policy is actively unhelpful. 

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This became very clear during the morning. Demos’ Paul Hildreth took a classic systems approach, tracing links between Outer London and the rest. But his slides demonstrated just how hard this is to do. Data on people flows, industry mix, residence types and productivity all show how interconnected the London system is. 60% of Londoners live in the outer Boroughs, but most don’t stay there: commutes within Outer London make up less than a third of total journeys. 

Alan Mace from LSE London took a communities angle, presenting some very rich data on three outer boroughs. These showed some classic suburban features – stable populations and a strong sense of belonging. But it’s not clear these neighbourhoods are distinctively different from inner suburbs like parts of Hackney or Islington – or that similar to other outer communities. In the Q&A, it became obvious how heterogenous ‘Outer London’ neighbourhoods actually are.

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 As Scottish law would say, Outer London is ‘not proven’ – either as an economic space or a state of mind. But it does work in political terms.

Boris won the 2008 Mayoral election largely on the basis of outer boroughs’ votes. Ken, learning from past mistakes, began his 2012 comeback bid in Croydon. No surprise that Boris is re-launching the Outer London Commission less than a year before the vote, with £10m to spend on Outer London town centres before May (and £40m after).

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What does this mean for policy? The political imperative means Outer London features heavily in the new London Plan, which launches on 11 July. Economic and social realities mean there are tensions in the Plan’s overall strategy, and in the gap between policymaking and impact on the ground.

On strategy, the Plan has a welcome focus on thinking across ‘mega-London’, and identifies high-growth development hotspots across the capital. But it then goes on to set out a number of Outer London-specific policies on the economy, transport and quality of life.

On impacts, OLC chair Will McKee rightly said at the seminar that planners can’t turn market forces around, and need to work opportunistically within the business cycle. So given the deep trends taking retail off high streets and onto the internet, what can the OLC’s £50m town centre fund actually do? It is unlikely to have more than a marginal effect on retail employment. Better, as Mary Portas suggests, to take a hard look at how shopping behaviour is changing – then intervene where sensible to help high streets adapt. 

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Outer London is driven by electoral realities, more than economic or social truths. Let’s hope the next Mayor, whoever they are, recognises which of these is the best basis for policy in the capital.

Megacities: the real story

June 6, 2011

We finally watched Andrew Marr’s Megacities last night. It’s a great piece of spectacular urbanism – endless cityscapes, vast crowds, skyscrapers, huge numbers, expansive metaphors. But it’s also quite badly wrong about what our urban future is going to look like. Let me explain.

The series has two basic premises. One, the world’s population is now majority urban. Two, we’ll be living in megacities – places with 10m people or more.

The first of these is very likely true. For urbanists it’s not an especially new fact, first appearing in this 2003 UN-Habitat report.

The second is part true at best. Megacities are telegenic, but most of the world’s population won’t be living in them

Sure, the number of megacities is rising – from two in 1950, three in 1975 to 19 in 2007. By 2025, the UN predicts  there’ll be 27. But the number of ‘large cities’ – five to 10m people – is already bigger, and growing faster. In 2007 there were 30: the UN suggests there’ll be at least 48 by 2025. More importantly, half the world’s urban population live in much smaller cities, of around 500,000 people. These may be the most common of all.

In fifteen years’ time, then, we’ll see far more Liverpools (around 400,000 people) and Londons (8m people) than Tokyos (26m people).

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Paradoxically, the biggest urban settlements are now hard to recognise as cities at all. Across the world cities are merging into mega-regions: notably China’s Pearl River Delta, the US Eastern seaboard, even the Greater South East.

Some of the numbers here are difficult to take in. An estimated 120m people live in the Pearl River Delta, the largest urban zone on the planet – China is now planning to merge nine cities in the Delta to create a single sprawl of 42m people. The Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe region may comprise 60m people by 2015, almost the entire population of the UK.

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All this may suggest that urbanisation is accelerating. In fact the opposite is true. Globally, cities grew fastest in the 1950s and early 60s: growth rates have been slowing ever since, from 4.1 percent to 2.5 percent today, and a predicted 1.8 percent by 2030. Developing countries are also on the same downward trend.  

Urbanisation runs in parallel with economic development, and so as developing countries industrialise, their urban systems tend towards steady state. Of course there is a lot of city by city variation. For example, the UN predicts Dhaka will keep growing – from 15.9m in 2007 to 22.8m in 2025. But Lagos, which has grown from less than half a million people in 1950 to over 13m in 2007, is predicted to reach just 16m in the next fifteen years.    

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Megacities makes much of the growth of urban slums. Again, the picture is complex. Over the past decade the share of urban slum dwellers has fallen from 39 to 32 percent, due to economic growth and policy interventions. But as people are flowing into cities faster than infrastructure can keep up, the absolute number of people in informal settlements is growing, and will keep growing.  

Marr stays the night in a Dhaka slum, discovering it’s quite like any other suburban neighbourhood – dirt streets and tin shacks aside. Marr echoes Stewart Brand, celebrating slum dwellers’ entrepreneurialism and inventiveness. Ed Glaeser describes slum neighbourhoods as ‘private energy, public failure’: the development challenges of poor public health, chaotic infrastructure and urbanised poverty remain considerable.

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Finally, we need to factor in the geography of climate change. Many megacities are coastal, and will be threatened by rising sea levels. Many will also be increasingly water-stressed in the years to come.

In his excellent book The New North, Laurence Smith explores the economic rise of the NORCS – cooler, resource-rich regions stretching across Canada, Scandinavia and parts of the US, Russia and China. He predicts new ‘hydrocarbon cities’ appearing across Canada and Russia, and new mega-regions like Cascadia – spanning Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and parts of NorCal.

Megacities are a great symbol of the global urban shift. But our urban future is going to be much richer and more complex than this.

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