Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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

*

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

*

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

*

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’.

*

(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.

*

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

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

Future chat

May 20, 2015

(c) 2015 Max Nathan

I’ve been busy working on a bunch of projects recently, but will be escaping the office to do a couple of talks over the summer. Each very different …

*

On 7 July I’m chairing an LSE lecture by Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK. We’ll be talking about the extraordinary growth of London’s digital economy, and where these sectors could take us next.

I’ve just completed a long piece on London’s digital evolutions for the Centre for London think tank’s new London Essays imprint, so I’m looking forward to this one. Emma and I met Gerard recently and were impressed by his openness. It should be a great session. Details are here.

*

On 23 July I’m in New Zealand at the ‘Pathways, Circuits and Crossroads’ conference on the economics of immigration and diversity, which is organised by the University of Waikato, Massey University and Motu. I’m very grateful to Jacques Poot and Dave Maré for inviting me over. They’re just beginning a major programme of work on immigration and diversity in NZ, and I’m hoping we can kick off some interesting collaborations when I’m in town. More details of that event when I have them.

If you’re around for either of these, come and say hello!

Spaces of Evidence seminar, 26 September

June 27, 2014

(c) richard serra / max nathan

I’m speaking at Goldsmiths in September, at one of the ESRC Spaces of Evidence seminars which will look at different types of economic evidence, their characteristics and limitations, and their uses in policy-making.

Will Davies, the organiser, has put together a nice lineup including Angus Deaton (Princeton), Suzy Moat (Warwick), Martin Giraudeau (LSE), Tiago Mata (UCL), Zsuzsanna Vargha (Leicester) and Vera Ehrenstein (Goldsmiths).

Here’s the blurb:

Economics and economists have a long history of providing a scientific basis or justification for public policy decisions. Concepts derived from welfare economics, such as ‘market failure’, have provided a language through which politicians and government officials can understand where and why the state might (and might not) intervene in market processes. The efficiency of potential regulation can be tested through the use of models, based on neo-classical assumptions.

However, events such as the financial crisis have thrown a renewed scepticism upon the capacity of orthodox economic theories to adequately model situations. At the same time, a new empiricism has emerged, which makes a bold appeal to data and field trials, which are purportedly less cluttered by normative assumptions about causality and probability. ‘Big Data’ and randomised controlled trials are at the forefront of new efforts to probe economic activity, in search of policies which ‘work’. The distinction between ‘model’ and ‘reality’ is abandoned, and the economy becomes treated as a zone of experimentation and data-mining, such that behavioural patterns can be discerned.

The seminar will explore the implications of these new directions in economic evidence, and ask what they mean for the authority of public policy, how they reconfigure expertise, and what types of epistemological and political assumptions they conceal.

It’s open to all, but you’ll need to register. Full details are here.

New articles published in Economic Geography, European Urban and Regional Studies

April 29, 2014

(c) Max Nathan 2011

Since last summer I’ve been pretty focused on helping get the What Works Centre off the ground, so I’m posting these two articles rather late in the day.

The first is online at European Urban and Regional Studies. It’s my over-ambitious attempt to build a framework for thinking about the economic impacts of diversity in cities, drawing on my own work as well as the growing international literature. Specifically, I critique and try to move beyond Richard Florida’s thinking on these issues.

Here’s the abstract:

In recent years, most European countries have experienced substantial demographic changes and rising cultural diversity. Understanding the social and economic impacts of these shifts is a major challenge for policymakers. Richard Florida’s ideas have provided a popular – and pervasive – framework for doing so. This paper assess Florida’s legacy and sets out a ‘post-Florida’ framework for ‘technology, talent and tolerance’ research. The paper first traces the development of Florida’s ideas. ‘Florida 1.0’, encapsulated by the Three Ts framework, has performed badly in practice. There are problems in bringing causality to the fundamental relationships, and in consistently replicating the results in other countries. ‘Florida 2.0’, though suggests that Creative Class metrics have value as alternative measures of human capital. This create space for a post-Florida agenda based on economic micro-foundations. I argue that the growing body of ‘economics of diversity’ research meets these conditions, and review theory and empirics. Urban ‘diversity shocks’ shift the size and composition of populations and workforces, with impacts operating via labour markets, and through wider production and consumption networks. While short-term labour market effects are small, over time low-value industrial sectors may become migrant-dependent. Diversity may help raise productivity and wages through innovation, entrepreneurship, market access and trade channels. Bigger, more diverse cities help generate hybridised goods and services, but may also raise local costs through crowding. All of this presents new challenges for policymakers, who need to manage diversity’s net effects, and address both economic costs and benefits.

The full piece is here. There’s no pre-print available, but you can access this paper in the IZA Journal of Migration which covers some of the same ground.

*

The second piece is out in Economic Geography, and is co-authored with Neil Lee. This is an empirical study testing links between firm-level demographics, innovation and entrepreneurship. We use a recent sample of London businesses, and uncover some small but robust diversity effects.

Here’s the abstract:

A growing body of research is making links between diversity and the economic performance of cities and regions. Most of the underlying mechanisms take place within firms, but only a handful of organization-level studies have been conducted. We contribute to this underexplored literature by using a unique sample of 7,600 firms to investigate links among cultural diversity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and sales strategies in London businesses between 2005 and 2007. London is one of the world’s major cities, with a rich cultural diversity that is widely seen as a social and economic asset. Our data allowed us to distinguish owner/partner and wider workforce characteristics, identify migrant/minority-headed firms, and differentiate firms along multiple dimensions. The results, which are robust to most challenges, suggest a small but significant “diversity bonus” for all types of London firms. First, companies with diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations than are those with homogeneous “top teams.” Second, diversity is particularly important for reaching international markets and serving London’s cosmopolitan population. Third, migrant status has positive links to entrepreneurship. Overall, the results provide some support for claims that diversity is an economic asset, as well as a social benefit.

The full piece is here, and a pre-print version is here.

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.

*

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!

*

‘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.

Policy-based evidence making

March 25, 2013

(c) BBC 2013Heads up: on 30th May I’ll be in Warwick to help give an advanced training session on  ‘Knowledge for Policy, Knowledge of Policy’, organised by the university’s Centre for Interdiscplinary Methodologies.

Evidence-based policymaking was a central trope of New Labour’s time in office.  The idea’s gone in deep: the Coalition is regularly taken to task for ideological policymaking – perhaps one reason  why the Cabinet Office has just announced a major network of ‘What Works’ Centres.

One immediate objection to evidence-driven policy is that evidence doesn’t tell you what you ought to do.  Political values and judgements – even ‘ideology’ – have their place, especially if the alternative is the apolitical solutionism that Evgeny Morozov has been taking to pieces recently.

There’s also an important role for an experimental state which builds an evidence base where none exists.  Sometimes this is pretty uncontroversial, as in the small nudges being tried out by the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team. It’s tougher to make the case in bigger areas of policy – such as devolution to local govt and communities, which has  never been seriously tried in the UK, where the risks of failure are massive, and where there are limits to what we can learn from abroad.  Here, the need for careful piloting is running up against Ministerial enthusiasm for transformational change.

*

What does this mean for researchers, especially academics? It’s important to have a clear sense of the policymaking process,  especially the invisible work which goes on between formal consultations and policy events; how policymakers treat different  kinds of evidence and actors in those processes, and the shifting positions of academics and think tanks in the ideas market.

I’ve co-founded a think tank, worked in central government and am now working in academia, so I’ll be bringing some of  these experiences to the seminar.  Also speaking will be Dave O’Brien (City University) and Will Davies (Warwick), who’s organising the session.  Both have similarly heterodox experiences, so it should be a fascinating day … see this post by Will, for instance.

Details here.

That’s not my name

January 30, 2013

(c) wired / architecture 00

Last week I was at LSE for a seminar on place and neighbourhood branding, ably organised by CityDiplo. Also on the panel were Suzi Hall (LSE Cities) and Ian Stephens (Saffron). It was a great evening, with a sharp and highly engaged audience.

I ran through some new work on the politics of naming in East London’s digital economy, and how the competing brands of Silicon Roundabout and Tech City are playing out on the ground (which I’m writing with Emma Vandore and Georgina Voss).

Suzi gave a great run-down of her work on ordinary streets and vernacular spaces in South London, and Ian delivered a nice overview of official branding strategies for Nine Elms.

The CityDiplo team have now put up a podcast of the session. Presentations should follow shortly.

Future chat

February 23, 2012

I’m giving a couple of seminars in the next few weeks.

First up, on 5th March, I’m at LSE London talking about cultural diversity and the London economy. This will draw on some of my PHD research on the economics of diversity. It turns out diversity and co-ethnic networks are good for London businesses; the broader effects of immigration on labour markets more mixed. I’ll talk about these results and the policy lessons. Details here.

Next, on 7 March I’ll be giving a talk on Tech City at UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning. I’ll be discussing emerging findings from a project on the East London technology cluster, which I’m leading at the Centre for London. Only a few people are looking at this stuff, so I’m excited to be working on it. I’ll be looking at international experience, what the numbers tell us, and feeding back some of our conversations with local firms. Details here.

If you’re around, come and say hello!

Liquid City

October 13, 2011

A quick debrief from last night’s Liquid City debate, ably put together by Future Human. I was on the panel, alongside Eric van der Kleij from Tech City UK and Andrew Carter of Centre for Cities.  It was a really helpful session for me, with a super-engaged audience full of good ideas and sharp questions.

Unvarnished notes follow.

*

Strategy

‘Tech City’ is nice shorthand for London’s rapidly-growing tech scene, especially its nexus around Old St. What can policymakers do to help it along, if anything?

Eric set out his four main tasks:

1 / Stop Government messing things up

2 / Help big firms to come

3 / Help small firms to grow, e.g. through access to finance

4 / Promote ‘talent’.

Still quite vague, but the focus on micropolicies is wise. International evidence gives no clear steer on what Government’s role, and standard cluster policies have a very patchy record.  Rather than just ‘building Silicon Valley in the UK’, strategy needs a distinctive London flavour.

The Olympic Park

It’s still not clear to me how the Olympic Park fits in – except as a big space nearby that will need filling post-Games. Officials hope that tech firms priced out of Silicon Roundabout might come to the Park. This feels optimistic , and  rather goes against the intention not to masterplan the cluster.

More promising is the idea that the Park can morph into a campus for big firms like Cisco. Siemens have announced something similar in the nearby Royal Docks.

Big firms, small firms

What might global firms like Google and Facebook might do for, or to, Shoreditch? Eric was clear that big firms should be ‘good neighbours’, citing Google’s upcoming hub and Cisco offer of free telepresence as examples. Ministers are ‘encouraging’ them to set up R&D  facilities here, but of course can make no promises. Someone suggested using Section 106 agreements to leverage, say, incubators, as a condition of setting up shop here – an idea worth looking at.

The room was divided about the competitive threat posed by big arrivals. A few people worried about small firms being ‘eaten’ by bigger ones. But for most companies in the Bay Area, being bought by Facebook is a dream outcome.  More important is that the local ecosystem keeps producing new firms and new ideas. Which brings me to …

Gentrification

As Silicon Roundabout gets more popular, it will get pricier, and some firms will get pushed out. This is part of the  neighbourhood change cycle. For small companies it’s of course disruptive, though London is big enough to allow new hot neighbourhoods to form. Policy can help by providing some cheap space, and avoiding any needless property shakeups. The area’s ‘soft infrastructure’ – cafes, bars and public spaces – also helps people get their creative work done. Keeping the feel is as important as keeping physical space available.

Failure

The UK needs to change its attitude to business failure, and develop a more positive view of serial entrepreneurship. This is partly a legal issue – bankruptcy rules in California are more relaxed than here. It’s partly attitudinal – US VCs actively look for entrepreneurs who’ve tried out a few ideas and learnt from their mistakes.

More broadly, we need to remember that Tech City is a long game. A lot of the innovation hotspots mentioned – in the US, Finland and Israel, for example – took decades to mature.

Human capital

We can accelerate innovation by helping smart people cluster together. But current immigration policy will hurt London’s ability to keep international talent. The Entrepreneur Visa, which requires £50k of backup funding per application, isn’t terribly helpful. Equally, London needs to get better at growing its own skilled people – improving education and training systems, and opening up routes into the industry are both forward priorities.

London’s cultural diversity is a big plus. My research (here and here) suggests that diversity helps push up innovation.  However, Silicon Valley’s heavy dependence on international migrants is a cautionary tale – diversity has done a lot for the Valley, but firms are often at the mercy of DC immigration politics.

%d bloggers like this: