Archive for the 'architecture' Category

Urban incubators, inequality and innovation

November 3, 2017

inc

The growth of shared, flexible urban workspaces for startups and SMEs is now a striking, and very visible feature of British cities.

Over the past decade or so, startups and small firms in retail, manufacturing, arts, the cultural industries and the digital economy have been making creative use and re-use of urban spaces — through newish practices such as co-working and pop-ups, as well as reconfiguring older forms such as high street units and industrial estates.

We can see these new practices across the city — in centres and in peripheries, in economically vibrant neighbourhoods and more deprived places. Since 2007, for example, there’s been a particular explosion of co-working, incubator and accelerator provision in London: in 2014 there were at least 132 spaces, 50% of which had arrived since 2012. Today there are at least 156 co-working spaces alone.

This colourful and rapidly-changing landscape raises a lot of questions for researchers and policymakers.

Now read on …

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Citizen Jane

May 8, 2017

Like a boss.

We went to see the new Jane Jacobs documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. It’s pretty good, with plenty both for Jacobs fans and those who don’t know her work. It pulls in some big-name contributors, including Saskia Sassen, Michael Sorkin, Mindy Fullilove, Mike Davis (!) and Geoffrey West (*). But it also – perhaps unintentionally – shows up some of the limits of Jacobs’ thinking as it applies to today’s cities. Here’s a review of sorts.

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The film has two particular strong points. The first is the precis of Jacobs’ most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Director Matt Tyrnauer nicely summarise the key ideas: cities as organised complexity; street life as a ‘dance’ of uses and users; the rebellion against modernist city planning, cities for the car, and high rise living; the importance of ‘eyes on the street’, mixed uses, old and new buildings, and short blocks – concepts now hard coded into masterplans and design standards in cities across the world. Crucially, these ideas developed over many years’ close observation of New York streets and neighbourhoods, and through test runs in Jacobs’ journalism: her first book arrived in the world fully formed and ready for use.

 

 

The film’s other big plus is its retelling of the epic struggle between Jacobs and city planner Robert Moses in 1950s and 60s New York. With minimal resources, Jacobs somehow turned around Moses’ big money plans to bulldoze and run roads through Washington Square Park, the West Village and ultimately Lower Manhattan itself. These are perhaps the most gripping parts of the picture. Moses is a monstrous figure – see also Robert Caro’s 900-page biography, summarised here by Jackson Lears – while Jacobs is revealed to be a total badass.

Machine politics, corruption and the abuse of power run up against agile and well-networked social activism: we see Jacobs wearing a ‘Mailer for Mayor’ badge, organising a series of brilliant publicity stunts and photo opportunities, and roping in Susan Sontag, Margaret Mead and Eleanor Roosevelt to help out.

 

 

The gender dynamics are striking. Moses summons an army of besuited male planners, and notoriously dismisses Jacobs’ female-led network as ‘just a bunch of mothers’: fatally underestimating his opponents, but also, as a talking head points out, ’you’d only say that if you thought people didn’t matter at all’. Jacobs’ publisher sends Moses a copy of Death and Life: he returns it in a terse note (‘Sell this junk to someone else’); Lewis Mumford dismisses the book as ‘Mother Jacobs’ Home Recipes’.

The filmmakers link Jacobs’ tactics and successes to other 1960s social struggles: feminism, the environmental movement, civil rights. There’s an important point here about shared repertoires of protest tactics. It’s also true that Jacobs was both a feminist and an environmentalist. But I needed a bit more convincing that the bigger links really held together.

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The racism in US post-war urban planning is still shocking to see. James Baldwin appears in the film to point out that ‘urban renewal means negro removal’, with housing projects and highways used as tools of segregation. The minority urban poor were pushed into badly designed blocks at the city’s edge, just as in France the following decade – with similarly grim results for the victims.

The film starts to connect these practices to Moses’ development model, which raised land values in redeveloped zones, and leveraged huge federal budgets. I was left wanting to know more about the political economy: was this racial redlining? Patronage politics? Or some toxic mixture of the two?

The Cross-Bronx Expressway (1948-72) is perhaps one of the most notorious Moses schemes, literally cutting the neighbourhood in half and blighting lifechances for years afterwards. As Mike Davis points out, it’s ‘perhaps the single most damaging urban development in US history’. Jacobs was active in New York at the time, and the film is curiously silent about this. Was she involved in opposing this? If not, why not? Did she try and fail? (Was her model of protest anchored in the neighbourhoods she knew? Did construction help spur her into action elsewhere in the city?)

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If the film is sometimes in danger of reifying Jacobs’ older ideas, it also misses out some of her newer thinking. That’s a shame: The Economy of Cities (1969) is a foundational text in urban economics, with important ideas about how cities help innovation to happen, long term growth and urban resilience. Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985), which posits cities over nation-states as the key unit of development, feels ahead of its time. And her environmental work – which I know less well – also looks increasingly prescient.

The film also skips some chances to reassess that legacy. Jacobs was a progressive and a futurist – but not a fan of big government. Her anti-planning stance has made her popular with the libertarian right: it’s the antithesis not just of the government cynicism that produced Pruitt-Igoe and Ronan Point, but also the state-funded optimism that gave us the LCC and Park Hill.

Sure, the Lower Manhattan Expressway would have been a concrete stake through the city’s heart. But I dare you not to look at the renderings and at least wonder what a Brutalist icon it would have made.

 

 

Some of the limitations in Jacobs’ vision become clearer in the second half of the film, which lays up Jacobs’ neighbourhood prescriptions against urbanisation outside the West. As Saskia Sassen puts it, the pace and style of urbanisation in the urban cores of China and India are ‘Moses on steroids’ . ‘How can we apply Jane Jacobs’ thinking to these cities?’, asks another contributor.

Good question. The film drops some hints: successful urbanisation can’t shut out the public realm; cheaply-built towers are a terrible false economy; existing urban settlements, however visually shabby or informal, embody their own ‘dances’ and should be valued by planners, not bulldozed away (see Stewart Brand for more on this).

Nevertheless, the film can’t escape the conclusion that Death and Life … has plenty of say about preserving old neighbourhoods in old cities, but rather less about building new ones:  Jacobs’ New York was losing population, as their heavy industry began to be globalised away; the cities of the BRICS are growing at speed. Equally, today’s New York is struggling with an affordable housing crisis; other US cities are still feeling the aftershocks of de-industrialisation.

As Jacobs put it in 1958: ‘the best way to plan a downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them.’ Today’s urban crises need urgent solutions, and significantly, by her death in 2006, Jacobs didn’t seem so interested in these issues: as her last interviews show, she had moved on to other things.

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The film is a great appreciation of Jane Jacobs’ finest hour. Her elegant and radical thinking was inevitably a product of its time. But bettering our contemporary cities may require both a re-tooling of Jacobs’ ideas, and new thinking from other voices.

Jane Jacobs: City Limits

May 18, 2016

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

City Limits is a lovely 1971 film about Jane Jacobs. You can watch the whole thing here; it’s about 30 mins long. Directed by Laurence Hyde for the Canadian National Film Board, the documentary features Jacobs talking through her ideas, interspersed with some terrific footage of Toronto, New York, London and other cities around the world. I’m indebted to Martin Dittus for digging it out of the NFB archives.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The 30-minute film is worth watching for many reasons. For starters, Jacobs herself appears in much of it – sat in a park, shopping in a market, buying a newspaper, and at one point clambering into a helicopter to survey Toronto from above.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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At the same time, the film is a great summary of Jacobs’ big ideas about how urban neighbourhoods – and cities – work, when they succeed and when they fail. Jacobs is a superb writer, but she never spells it out for you. The film does, and in the author’s own words:

A city is an organism, and a very complex  one, and an ever changing one.  I would like us to see cities as ecologies – because that’s what they are. As surely as the ecologies of the natural world. The ecology of a city is of the same order of complexity as the ecology of a woodland. And this is what proper city planning ought to be directed to.  

This is the essence of a crucial chapter buried in the back of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: ‘The Kind of Problem a City Is’ (page 558 in my edition). It’s the research design for the book: it’s also Jacobs’ whole way of doing urbanism.

jacobs34 jacobs21 jacobs16(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Watching the film reminds me how prescient Jacobs was. There’s a surprising sequence on cultural diversity, which Jacobs presents both as an amenity, and as a channel of innovation:

Foreign districts introduce extra dimensions into a city. They often introduce new kinds of food, new customs, new music, even new kinds of clothing. And they’re a lot of fun for people who aren’t familiar with those customs, foods and so on. … that’s the way things spread in cities. And from cities to other places.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

This innovation argument is the big idea from The Economy of Cities. ‘Jacobian externalities’ are knowledge spillovers across sectors: these are self-reinforcing, and help cities become resilient to economic shocks. What I hadn’t previously spotted was that Jacobs sees *cultural* and *economic* diversity as so closely intertwined.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

Jacobs also makes some subtle points about mobility and technology. She came to prominence in New York opposing Robert Moses’ megaschemes for urban motorways and ‘sum clearance’:  not surprisingly, then, much of the film is concerned with congestion and pollution. But Jacobs has a much more profound argument:

People worry that there’s too much progress – in fact it’s just the opposite. … Automobiles don’t represent     progress any more – they’re pretty old …

There’s no solution in saying people should live close to their work and shouldn’t travel. People change their  jobs, goods have to move. So the problem is mobility – but the automobile isn’t providing much of an answer.

In other words: the car-based city is old thinking. The future is mass transit, bikes, and mobility as a service, enabled by technology. Scroll forward to 2016, and that future is taking shape all around us.

In 1971, however, this meant ‘Dial-a-Bus’ [link7] – a prehistoric Uber Pool, summoned to your house by landline and whisking you and fellow commuters to the local train station.

(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Jacobs was a thinker and an activist, not a consultant. It’s not as easy as it looks to derive practical guidance from her work – not least because she is the original full-field urbanist, drawing together history, built form, economics, social structure and culture into her analysis. Watching the film is a salutary reminder of this; it also emphasises how much Jacobs’ work draws on close observation of specific places she knows well.

Death and Life … tends to be distilled into four urban design tropes: high density, short city blocks, mixed use, old buildings. Result: every 1990s block of flats with space for a shop at the bottom (but VAT rules that incentivise developers to knock down old buildings). That’s clearly not enough to make a street or neighbourhood ‘work’, if it has no relation to the demographics and socio-economic life around it. The film is a neat reminder that we shouldn’t reduce Jacobs to design code box-ticking. But it also highlights just how tricky it is to roll her ideas into generalised practice. ‘What should a city be like?’ asked Reason in 2001. Jacobs’ answer: ‘it should be like itself’.

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(c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

The film also highlights how much Jacobs’ thinking about urbanism is a product of its time. All around her cities were losing people to the suburbs, and losing old urban grain to modernist, car-centric city form. Many neighbourhoods were emptying out. In London and New York today, all of that has flipped around: populations are growing, high-value activity is back, and we have an urgent crisis of housing and cheap space.

Ed Glaeser famously has a go at Jacobs in The Triumph of the City, arguing that preserving old buildings simply chokes off the supply of bigger, newer ones, and the subsequent gentrification pushes out the artists and mixed communities she sought to preserve. I’m not sure that’s completely fair: she was dealing with a different era’s problems. But it also seems that she had fairly little to say about today’s urban crises. That is the message from of this 2003 Brick interview, conducted three years before Jacobs’ death. She’s asked whether today’s cities are in better shape. She replies:

In some ways there’re worse and in some ways better. The things that are worse I don’t think are so much focused or anchored in cities as they are in our North American culture as a whole … I think that things are getting better for cities in that there’s not the great ruthless wiping away of their most interesting areas that took place in the past … however, I think the urban sprawl outside of cities has gotten much worse.

In the Reason interview she goes a little further, citing Portland, Seattle and San Francisco as ‘attractive places … where good things are being done.’ The interviewer asks about gentrification and rising prices. She bats away the question.

By this point her  writing had also moved on to other issues:  the nature of work, economic ecosystems. Clearly, she wasn’t much interested in going back to the street.

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It’s early morning, and the city is beginning to dance. The camera follows Jacobs as she crosses a busy street. A man walking beside her notices the camera and gazes in increasing curiousity at our heroine, trying to place her. Unable to do so, he wanders away. Lost in thought, she disappears into the crowd.

jacobs9 jacobs8 jacobs10 (c) 1971 Laurence Hyde / NFB

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Here’s the link to the film again.

 

First-Person Flaneur

November 1, 2015

 

(c) 2015 Laurence Lek

 

Bonus Levels is a series of beautifully realised recreations of London locations, re-imagined as Ballardian dreamscapes, elements of an impossible city. In After Us, creator Lawrence Lek describes his work as ‘architecture as site-specific simulation’, in which existing parts of the cityscape and its institutions are ‘reconfigured and subverted’ by some apocalyptic or economic shock. I think this can help us think about real-world urban change too. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

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In ‘Dalston, Mon Amour’, some familiar landmarks of the Kingsland Road – the Rio Cinema, Gillett Square and once on-trend Efes Bar are rendered empty and open to the elements after a biblical weather event. Terraformed by desert and water, Renais’ film plays in the background as the sky darkens.

 

(c) 2015 Laurence Lek

 

You can certainly treat this work as satirical – hipster touchstones crumbled into dust – and Lek is clear that this is part of the point. The use of video game aesthetics is also nice, although as Lek points out, ‘the player begins when the game is already over’: it’s first-person flaneur. The game framing also exacerbates the dreamlike quality of each episode – background sounds pan around, and there are sudden changes in perspective or time of day.

There’s also a deeper, uncanny power to it. Places we knew and hold dear, transformed into dreamspaces. As Adam points out, Vermilion Sands, The Sprawl or De Chirico are never far away. But also – for some viewers – their own memories are reconfigured. As Lek argues, the more time you spend in each episode, the more meaning your own mind layers over it.

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I experienced a real-world retelling of my own world a few months back, in farcical form, as a group of us were taken on a guided tour of ’Silicon Roundabout and Tech City’. The tour had felt like a good idea as part of a new paper we’ve been writing on the East London tech scene: in practice it involved much psychodrama.

As the tour went on, for example, I was alarmed to find that the guide’s spiel included numerous factoids taken from my own research, fed back in slightly distorted form. Even worse, as we left Old St roundabout we were taken to the Foundry, a now-deceased bar and venue my friends and I spent much time in during years gone by, and which was shut down amid much protest. The guide described it as an ‘important cultural institution throughout the 90s and some of the 00s’: opening up a chasm of lost time in the process. The site now houses the Hoxton Pastry Union, an almost comically resonant symbol of the changes the neighbourhood has since gone through.

Sharing this moment with friends afterwards, it became clear what a powerful charge it packed.

 

 

A more formal way to think about Lek’s project is a series of spatial imaginaries, Bob Jessop’s term for the mental maps we all use to get purchase on everyday life. More formally, Jessop means imaginaries to act as mapping systems or ‘fixes’ that allow agents to navigate otherwise impossibly complex late capitalism.

Imaginaries – like Silicon Roundabout / Tech City itself – are necessarily partial, pushing some elements to the fore and ignoring others. They are thus ripe for the kind of reconfiguring and questioning Lek engages in.

Part of the paper I’m working on looks at Here East, the vast Olympic Broadcast and Media Centre which is being rapidly transformed into a new, maker-focused neighbourhood. On a recent visit the site was still under construction, but we got a clear sense of the developers’ vision.

 

(c) 2015 Max Nathan

 

Notice how the rebrand involves both a new name, a new industrial niche, and a spatial repositioning of the site, away from Stratford and into Hackney, specifically the artist-centric milieu of Hackney Wick which sits just over the canal.

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I was happy to see that Bonus Levels has also engaged with this territory. ‘Delirious New Wick’ is a hysterical rebuild of E9 and the Olympic Park, in which the Games’ iconic structures float above the park and are accessed through teleporters. A gorgeous Burial soundtrack runs in the background as we float high above the city, before descending onto the ruins of the Westfield mall, now partially submerged in an Arthurian Lake. It is heady, brilliant stuff.

The world according to Brûlé, part 2

June 18, 2013

(c) Fischli & Weiss

Tyler Brûlé is in trouble again. Monocle have published their annual ‘global quality of life’ index, and as editor he has received a good deal of flak from FT readers for his latest column. Some people dislike his choices; others his methodology; others his attitude. That’s understandable: ‘For readers in Chicago, yet again your appalling homicide rate knocked you out of the running’, says Tyler at one point.

I’ve got some sympathy with attempts to rank cities against each other – after all, everyone loves a league table. But it’s very hard to do this in a way that has much general meaning – especially if, like Tyler, you’re a high-maintenance frequent flyer who rarely seems to be anywhere for more than a few days.

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Here’s what I said a while back:

First, let’s remember what we’re trying to do with city rankings. 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.

… Indexes are usually commercial products aimed at specific users. In Monocle’s case it’s globe-trotting cosmocrats  with Japanese friends; for Cushman Wakefield’s Cities Monitor 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!

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‘Poor Tyler Brûlé, condemned to orbit the earth like some kind of 21st century Flying Dutchman‘, says one FT detractor . Ouch! I guess he can take some comfort from being the star of his own, uncannily accurate parody site. And, of course, persuading people to keep paying for his business class chat.

This is not a Gateway

May 13, 2013

(c) Terry Farrell and Partners

I was in the Economist last week talking about the Thames Gateway. As New Labour’s flagship regeneration programme, the Gateway has not surprisingly been dropped by the Coalition. It hasn’t vanished completely though. Later this year, the Centre for London is publishing a collection of pieces on prospects for the area (for a flavour see this post and discussion). What we might call ‘Gateway Thinking’ also periodically reappears, for example in legacy planning for the Olympics, and in the proposed  Thames Estuary Airport.  And the place retains a strong hold over a certain kind of urbanist, especially in the dystopian excursioneering pioneered by Iain Sinclair and Laura Oldfield Ford.

I spent some time working on Gateway policy while in DCLG, and all of this got me looking back through old notes and papers. Some rough thoughts follow.

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First, the Gateway concept now feels madly ambitious – especially compared to today’s minimalist development environment. Remember that the 70km Gateway was one of four ‘growth areas’ set out in the 2003 Sustainable Communities Plan.  The Plan proposed around  550,000 new homes in these zones by 2016 (42,000 a year, when current annual housing starts for the whole country are now around 98,000), and envisaged ‘delivery’ of  430,000 additional jobs.

In practice, the other three growth areas – Milton Keynes, Ashford, and the ‘Peterborough-Stansted-Cambridge’ corridor – involve building in popular areas where developers are happy to operate. The Gateway was always going to be a much more challenging environment.

Second, there was (and is) a strong social argument for public investment along the Thames Estuary. Some communities along the river are deeply deprived , with residents held back by low incomes, low skills and thin local labour markets.  However, the economic case is rather weaker. It was never clear whether the Gateway programme was intended  as a response to economic pressures in the Greater South East (in particular, high house prices and low building), or a much bolder attempt to restructure the deeper regional economy. Neither was it clear why these communities merited public spending ahead of (say) those in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds.

The Greater South East economic ‘system’ is heavily weighted towards the North and West of London, where there is a polycentric system of smaller cities (Milton Keynes, Oxford, Cambridge, Reading) around the capital. East of London, towns and cities tend to be smaller and local economies are heavily commuter-powered.

As the Economist notes, parts of London’s economy have been moving Eastwards for years. But the Gateway attempts to shift the entire urban system  towards the East – and to shift activity away from commuting towards self-contained communities. The evidence tells us that urban economies are highly path-dependent (e.g. here, here and here), and  that this kind of rebalancing takes decades if it happens at all. By contrast, the Gateway strategy promised 160,000 net new homes and 180,000 net new jobs over 15 years.

Third, this terraforming aspect is integral to the Gateway’s staying power. As a classic grand projet, the programme was highly appealing to a certain kind of politician (Michael Heseltine, John Prescott, Gordon Brown) and urban planner (Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell). Brown actually raised the jobs target to 225,000 in 2007, just as the credit crunch was kicking in.

Such visioning also gets in the way of getting things done. An obvious but important example: the Gateway isn’t a single zone, but a collection of very disparate communities. This matters. Treating the Gateway as a kind of continuous policy space made for convenient shorthand in speeches, but obscures the huge differences between key economic sites like Canary Wharf and Shellhaven, versus smaller towns like Thurrock, and struggling former resorts like Southend.  Arguably, it also made it harder to think about economic development, since policy had to be retrofitted into a high-level planning concept rather than based on local circumstances.

Fourth, Gateway delivery systems were pretty badly designed. Governance somehow managed to be both too top-down, as explained above, and not dirigiste enough at a local level. Notably, detailed policy development was generally left to Urban Development Corporations, who lacked a democratic mandate, had no statutory powers and held no assets. By contrast, New Town Development Corporations could set long term planning goals, and leverage a substantial public land portfolio. The trade-off was the lack of accountability, but land holdings eventually transferred to local authorities.

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None of this is to call time on the policy or the area. As I said earlier, the kind of deep structure change envisaged by Heseltine and others take decades to take shape. Developments like the London Gateway Port are potentially transformational, and London’s eastern boroughs will continue to evolve. By starting with economic fundamentals rather than grand planning, and placing help for individuals alongside physical regeneration,  a simpler, more effective approach might begin to emerge.

[apologies to TINAG for stealing the title.]

Olympic Economics

September 14, 2012

Back in the spring – remember? – a lot of people were getting annoyed by the Olympics.

For Londoners, Dan Hancox wrote, “it’s as if someone else is throwing a party in our house, with a huge entry fee, and we’re all locked in the basement.” Roll forward to September and it feels as if a gigantic, city-wide, four-week bender has finally petered out. Everyone had a good time, and nobody fired any missiles.

As the weather turns, though, more sober assessments of the Games are appearing. The Centre for Cities has published a careful five-point legacy plan. And the Economist Intelligence Unit has put out Legacy 2012, a collection of essays on the summer’s economic and social repercussions.

You can download it here. I’ve got the lead piece, written pre-Games, which (post-Games) now seems a bit grumpy.

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Here are the headlines, and some reflections with the benefit of hindsight:

First, the direct economic benefits of 2012 to London are pretty small. This is the overwhelming message from the economic evidence, and the experience of past Games. Predictions of a hit to local retail and tourism also turned out to be correct.

Second, the major hard gain is the physical regeneration of the Olympic site. We can argue about whether winning the Games ‘created’ this, or just accelerated it. But some Londoners (homeowners, certainly) got more out of it than others.

It’s telling that the Centre for Cities suggests a ‘separate’ employment and skills strategy is needed for East London – so what positive effect did the Games have on local people’s employment chances?

Third, the indirect economic effects on the UK may be pretty big – as they have been for Korea, China and Spain. Hosting the Olympics is a massively powerful policy signal, and the Games are a platform from which to tell a story about the UK’s place in the world.

Work by Rose and Spiegel, published in the Economic Journal, suggests that on average, Olympic host countries get a whopping 20% trade boost. (Amazingly, even losing bidders pick up some positive trade effect.) The host city stands in for the nation at Games time, so that London effectively was the UK for foreign viewers. Boris clearly understood this before David Cameron.

More prescient than he knew, Tony Blair is fumbling for the political economy argument in this Vanity Fair interview (thanks to Will Davies for the spot):

For a country like Britain, it’s a great thing for us to have the Olympics here. We can afford to do the Olympics. We’re Britain. We’re not some Third World country.

For countries like Korea and China the story is ‘we’re arrived’. For Britain, perhaps – ‘we’ve still got it’?

So perhaps we’ve all been looking in the wrong place. If the message is the legacy, the biggest economic impacts of 2012 may be the long term boost to British soft power.

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The other takeaway  is that economists vastly under-estimated the intangible benefits from the Games. Pre-Games analysis suggested the ‘willingness to pay’ was dwarfed by the £9.3bn budget, but our medal hauls in both Games have clearly changed the calculus.

Perhaps we should have spotted this coming – Goldman Sachs suggest that host countries typically win 54% more medals than usual. That sporting success doesn’t come for free, as Will points out here. But Team GB’s glorious performances are likely worth several billions in – fleeting? – goodwill.

The economics of skyscrapers

August 22, 2011

Why do firms pay more for space in skyscrapers? I’ve posted some answers on LSE’s Spatial Economics Research Centre blog. Drawing on new research by the SERC community, I look at the balance between agglomeration effects (people working in tall buildings are more productive) and reputation effects (managers like prestigious addresses).

The research findings suggest both effects are in play – particularly for very tall buildings like The Shard. That has important implications for planning the skyscape of London and other UK cities.

Now read on

Facetime limited

December 5, 2010

What’s on sale here? Will Davies and I both have been puzzling over this ad on the Tube. Will’s worried about the politics of ‘facetime’, but I think there’s a more basic problem.

I can see the point of putting this ad up in (say) Barrow-in-Furness, or in the middle of the countryside. But if ‘facetime’ is the commodity, why offer Londoners access to 400 million people, when they can reach several times that number in the capital itself?

I would have thought that Birmingham’s comparative advantage in ‘facetime’ (or dynamic agglomeration-derived proximity benefits, to be precise) has to be usability, not quantity.

Core cities like Birmingham offer a good balance between size, speed and access. For the businesses targeted here, Brum has pretty good infrastructure, amenities and markets – but is also easy to navigate. Isn’t that the selling point?

London might be a megacity, but it also has to be one of the least usable and most frustrating places in the UK to travel around – as anyone stuck on underground reading this ad would realise …

Fortresses of Insanity

November 14, 2010

Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s biggest papers, has published some of my sea forts pictures, and run a fascinating backstory (in German) about life on board. Enough said. See it here.

You can also find out more about the forts, including how to visit, at the Project Redsand website.

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