Posts Tagged ‘liveability’

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.

 

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.]

On yer Boris Bike

August 25, 2010

Who actually uses Boris Bikes? Commuters, civil servants and city types. Who doesn’t? Shoppers and posh people. That’s the story so far, as suggested by data from the London Cycle Hire Explorerflagged in Londonist, and recycled in Wednesday’s Evening Standard.

The Explorer app is simple but powerful: it shows the 10 most and least popular docking stations across the capital. Obviously it’s early days, and usage will change (see below). And I’m just eyeballing the data – no fancy analysis here. First impressions:

1) Commuters are the main users – the most popular spots are mainly around the major stations – Waterloo (354 bikes yesterday), King’s Cross (305), London Bridge (256) and Liverpool Street (226). This is why TfL already wants to spend another £81m on new bikes and docking stations.

2) Biking to meetings and running errands also seem popular – viz heavy daytime (and lunchtime) use during the week in Covent Garden, (196) Strand (189) and Fitzrovia (187).

3) Weekend biking is on – judging by the past week at least, there’s no obvious drop-off on Saturdays or Sundays in the most popular spots. That suggests some tourists might be venturing out too.

4) There’s a bit of an East/West divide – six of the least popular docking stations are in West London, mainly Kensington (28 bikes) and Chelsea (25-29). I would have expected some use around Paddington and White City, but perhaps the Westway is putting people off. Support for scary road theory comes from other cold spots around Elephant and New Kent Road (26 each).

5) Alternatively, bike use is low in well-off neighbourhoods where residents prefer to drive, such as Kensington and Chelsea, Bayswater (27) and St John’s Wood (20). Or where serious shopping is going on (all of the above).  Obviously that’s just postcode stereotyping, but still – I bet there’s something in it.

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The open data is incredibly helpful, and not just for urbanists. At one level the bike scheme is a gigantic social experiment – give people new tools for getting around the city, step back and see what happens.

There are useful parallels here with new technologies, especially portable gear like mobile phones. The lesson from these is that technology changes us, but we change it too, and unpredictably. In the jargon, use is endogenous to the user.  Texting is the classic example of user-driven innovation for mobiles: open platforms like Android are doing something similar for smartphones.

A lot of this happens through experimenting and messing about, and this is already happening with blue bikes – via mashups like the Explorer, or Barley-ish attempts at stunt riding. More interesting stuff is bubbling up at this user forum.

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In turn, that suggests Boris Bike dynamics might look very different in a year’s time. So far, riders are currently making 19,000 journeys per day, not put off by bikes variously described as ‘like flying Ryanair’ (Jon Snow) and ‘like driving a tractor’ (anonymous friend).

That number could rocket up when Pay as You Go rates are introduced, and the early adopters are joined by loads of tourists and casual users. We could see new hotspots around St James’ Park, Baker Street and Tower Hill. And even bike snobs like me might get round to trying the thing …

Getting ahead in the countryside

July 7, 2010

The big city’s the place to find fame and fortune, wouldn’t you think? Not according to the Commission for Rural Communities, whose new report claims ‘rural areas have more entrepreneurs’. This seems odd – aren’t cities supposed to help ideas flow, with banks to lend money, and customers to sell to?

All the evidence suggests innovation is heavily urbanised, for example. So what on earth’s been going on in the British countryside? Is the fresh air good for the brain?

The report’s here. It’s nearly 200 pages long, so to save you reading it I’ve done some digging. The relevant findings are:

1) A survey of bank lending finds that in 2008 and 2009, rural areas had more start-ups per working-age population than urban areas (p131)

2) GEM survey data for 2004-2008 finds higher rates of ‘entrepreneurship activity’ in rural areas than urban areas. Strikingly, the survey suggests rural entrepreneurship rates are ‘as high as inner London’ (p133).

The report uses good definitions of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, based on this DEFRA typology. But there are questions about which rural areas we’re talking about – more on that in a moment.

Let’s start with start-ups. First, there’s not much urban-rural difference in business birth rates – 13.9 per thousand people in rural areas, 12.7 in urban areas. Second, in absolute terms there are far more start-ups in cities than the countryside – hardly surprising since c.80% of the English population live in urban areas.

Third, there’s noise in the data – the survey in question covers 93% of all bank lending, which is pretty good, but doesn’t adjust for the rest. If 80% of those loans were to city firms, a reasonable assumption, the urban-rural difference is less than one percentage point.

‘Entrepreneurship’ is a slightly more nebulous concept, and it turns out the GEM data needs a big pinch of salt. For one thing, the survey is based on just 43,000 firms across the UK – which might risk sampling error if you’re looking at small rural areas.

More seriously, GEM actually measures something called ‘total early-stage entrepreneurial activity’ – which is a weighted index including ‘nascent business activity’. This could include things like writing a business plan, but not actually doing anything with it. (I’ve also no idea how the Index is built because GEM doesn’t say.)

In the CRC small print, GEM concedes it’s tracking ‘propensity to be entrepreneurial’, rather than *actual* entrepreneurs. It’s hardly convincing.

So, case not proven – on the basis of these numbers. However, let’s suspend disbelief and assume there is a new generation of rural whizz-kids. What might explain this?

It could be a lifecycle effect – people downsize or move their families out of the city, starting new businesses in the countryside. Migration data suggests there could be something in this – young single people move into cities, older people with partners and children move out. Other studies suggest people gain skills and learning in cities, taking these with them when they leave.

There could also be a technology effect. The CRC’s start-up figures suggests that most loans go to business services like accountancy and consulting, a lot of which can be done by phone or online (anecdata – my accountant operates out of deepest East Sussex).

That implies a third point – many of rural areas are actually around the edges of big urban areas. In the jargon, they’re ‘peri-urban’ – pleasant, leafy communities with decent schools and public services, and good links into the urban core. Not surprisingly, these neighbourhoods tend to come near the top of ‘best place to live’ surveys.

In turn, that suggests some final lessons. Don’t overspin your data. The city and country have more in common than you might imagine. And ultimately, enterprise is less about place than about people.

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.

Geography and social justice

May 20, 2010

This is the first of two posts on ‘shrinking cities’, or as civil servants might put it, ‘places with a long history of economic underperformance’. In the UK, this means cities like Hull or Stoke-on-Trent with low average incomes and higher-than-average deprivation rates; abroad, places like Leipzig, Cleveland or Detroit.

The politics of improving life for people in under-performing places is extremely sensitive, as Policy Exchange discovered when they appeared to suggest moving people out of ‘failing’ Northern cities. Recently there’s been more interest, via LSE’s ‘Phoenix Cities’ book, Julien Temple’s ‘Requiem for Detroit?’ and from the Centre for Cities (see Dermot’s helpful summary, and my thoughts from last summer).

Why now? First, during the 2000s a lot of economic development funding went into cities. But this has not always improved residents’ overall welfare. As the business cycle turns, city leaders are looking for new ways forward. Second, there’s now less regeneration money around. Between 2011 and 2015, central government departments like CLG may face 20-25% spending cuts. So Whitehall policymakers are looking hard at if, where and how to spend.

At the recent AAG Conference in Washington DC, Michael Storper offered some helpful thoughts on all of this.

Spatial disparities exist, Storper argues, because there are benefits of clustering economic activity, and these persist over time. Agglomeration economies help explain why cities exist, and why they still matter. Theory and real world experience also suggest that long term convergence is unlikely.

So agglomeration leads to disparities between places. At the same time, increasing returns to skills lead to disparities between people. And because higher-skilled people tend to sort into more successful cities, we often get poorer people concentrated in poorer places.

The question for policymakers is what, if anything, we should do about this? Storper outlines three responses.

We could aim for ‘spatial equity’, compensating people and places who lose out. This feels appealing – but what does it really mean? Is holding successful places back fair to their residents? And how do we actually equalise outcomes? Even the UK’s very centralised public services haven’t got rid of postcode lotteries.

Another view is that we invest in poorer places. This is the traditional regeneration perspective. Structural economic change has long term impacts that markets won’t deal with – physical decay, poverty, crime. And there are efficiency costs to this – not least higher spending on benefits. Area-based policies tackle these externalities, get markets working again and places back on their feet.

This has been pretty much the UK approach for the past two decades. It’s given many cities a public makeover – and has made them nicer places to live. But most evidence suggests that improving places doesn’t easily translate into improving outcomes for people. Trickle-down regeneration works about as well as trickle-down economics.

People can move, and it’s hard to assess area-based initiatives if some recipients leave the area. ‘Regeneration thinking’ also doesn’t say how to balance limited resources between helping poor places recover, and helping growing places do better. CLG’s Regeneration Framework has a go, but isn’t completely convincing.

A third view comes from urban economics, especially Ed Glaeser (and now, Richard Florida). In its simplest form, this says we should focus on people, not places. People are mobile; investing in their mobility and human capital improves their economic prospects. Investing in immobile places does not, especially as convergence is unlikely.

To me, this feels like the right starting point for policy. This view is also increasingly fashionable in UK policy circles, and partly explains the bad press traditional regeneration has been getting. But as Storper points out, it’s more complicated than it looks to implement. There are three big policy points.  

First, it’s not clear everyone is truly ‘mobile’. People are free to move; but less skilled people have less information or resources to migrate between cities. Policy interventions might improve mobility, although we don’t have strong evidence here – increasing choice in the social housing system could help, also expanding housing supply in more successful places. Research and experiments should look to fill this gap.

Second, it implies we maximise economic welfare. But we know people think beyond money. Some local responses to Policy Exchange’s report reveal people happy to live in ‘failing’ Newcastle and Liverpool – because they like being there. At an LSE screening, critics of Julien Temple’s film similarly pointed out that nearly a million people still live in ‘failed’ Detroit.

Urban economists explain this in terms of spatial equilibrium. People sort by economic prospects, and prefer different kinds of communities. Low wages get traded off against low cost of living and/or better amenities. In spatial equilibrium local labour, housing and ‘quality of life’ markets all clear, so that real wages equalise across all places. Ongoing SERC research finds some UK evidence for this.

The spatial equilibrium approach implies we don’t need to worry so much about disparities in nominal income. But in some poorer places, especially given mobility barriers, we may want to adopt measures (better quality housing, tackling crime) which will improve residents’ wider wellbeing – and thus raise real incomes.

Finally, national politics and local delivery are both critical. The UK is generally less tolerant of inequality than the US. Our politics is steeped in notions of fair play and universal standards: we’re a long way from accepting apparently large income disparities on the basis of hard-to-explain equilibrium concepts.

British over-centralisation also makes it politically difficult to do anything about managing decline: London policy apparatchiks seem to be telling other cities what to do (which they are). This is one reason why the Housing Market Renewal programme has often been so painful, why Policy Exchange got in trouble, and why the Coalition’s emphasis on localism is important. In future, devolution and actually doing managed decline need to go hand in hand. I’ll explore these ideas further in the next post, and take a look at some international experiences along the way.

Ground control

August 11, 2009

market forces yeah?

I’ve finally got around to reading Anna Minton’s excellent new book on space, fear and happiness in British cities.

For a self-proclaimed polemic on the urban renaissance that puts the boot into just about everybody, it’s generated an amazing amount of agreement. At the ICA recently Anna, Liz Peace (Head of the British Property Federation), Nigel Coates (RCA) and Daniel Moylan (Deputy Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council) barely exchanged a cross word.

This is testament to the book itself. Minton takes aim at the privatisation of the urban public realm. She attacke the ‘pseudo-public space’ of big shopping centres like Liverpool One and the ‘pseudo-private space’ of Business Improvement Districts. Landlords increasingly run the public realm for profit, she claims. Instead of functioning spaces we have sterile deserts: Minton quotes one city centre manager who actually talks about ‘importing vitality’. Worse, pervasive CCTV and an obsession with safety actually make us feel less safe and more unhappy. Privatising public space ends up damaging everyday life.

What is to be done? Councils should open up ‘shared space’ at street level (as Kensington and Chelsea have done successfully), should allow flexible uses of abandoned buildings and urban places, and need to play a stronger ledership role. Meanwhile Whitehall should re-engineer our risk and litigation systems (in Sweden, if you cross the road and a car hits you it’s the driver’s fault) and review compulsory purchase rules.

Most of this is dead on target. The clue’s in the name, I think – public space can be managed like a commodity, but ultimately it belongs to us. We should have rights to it as citizens, not selective access as consumers. Private sector management of public spaces has to reflect this. Equally, shopping centres that look like streets will inevitably get treated as public property. Trying to police this out is clearly counterproductive.

I’m less convinced by some of the detail, though. Anna mainly relies on a few high-profile examples, and admits she can’t quantify the privatisation of public space. She then claims ‘a huge shift in land ownership has taken place’. But then we don’t know if this is true. And are design and space management really driving fear – rather than, say, media coverage of crime?

Does the recession allow us to rethink urban space, as Anna suggests? Perhaps. The HCA’s emerging regeneration strategy puts the public sector in the driving seat, masterplanning and – crucially – controlling land sales. But there’s almost no money: over 80 councils are competing for just 12 Accelerated Development Zone pilots and HCA budgets are tight. Fundamentally, authorities in deprived areas may have little leverage over developers – who can always walk away.

And the book is weak on the dynamics of urban change. Anna wants fluid cities which evolve and surprise. But sometimes she also wants to block change she doesn’t like. It’s hard to have it both ways.

When Liverpool One was built, the independent Quiggins Centre was demolished – sure, the building should have been saved, but the new L1 is clearly an improvement on what was there before. And is the creative core of Shoreditch really ‘under threat’ from rich incomers? Parts of the neighbourhood are changing. But the artists are simply moving up the road to Dalston and Hackney Wick. As a whole, London’s creative community is as active as ever. We do know that cheap workspace and social infrastructure – like restaurants, bars and clubs – can help support creative activity. But we can’t – and shouldn’t – be using these tools to freeze neighbourhoods in time. Cities are too rich and complex to be pinned down in this way.

Read all about it

July 17, 2009

Photograph by Alexandra Wolkowicz

New book chapter alert …

During the 2006 Liverpool Biennial, light and sound artist Hans Peter Kuhn projected a gigantic question mark over the Wirral suburbs (above). Everybody hated it. But in fact it’s an (accidental) artistic masterstroke asking the big questions about suburbia. What is it? What is it for? And if there are problems in suburban areas – and parts of Wirral are pretty deprived – how can we fix them?

The Smith Institute, the  Homes and Communities Agency and CABE have just published a new collection of essays that aims to answer these questions. Housing and Growth in Suburbia is edited by Peter Hall and includes contributions by Nick Falk, Vesna Goldsworthy, Yolande Barnes, Will McKee, Sarah Ganventa, Jim Bennett and Ben Kochan, as well as yours truly.

My chapter, ‘Fixing Broken Suburbs’, looks at suburban deprivation and the prospects for renewal through the downturn and beyond. It’s worth reading this alongside Jim’s essay on ‘suburban renaissance’, which sets out some of the HCA’s early strategic thinking.

For the moment you can download the whole collection here.

Update: Tristram Hunt – who chaired the launch event last week – has done a nice piece on suburbia in today’s Observer.

Flat earth thinking

July 12, 2009

nyc skyline

It’s intuitive that the architecture and layout of a city make a difference to our everyday lives: how easy it is to get about, and whether it feels like a nice place to live. In 1961 Jane Jacobs laid out the template for mixed-use neighbourhoods. We now know that well-designed buildings and public spaces contribute to wellbeing and social capital.

But what are the economic impacts of ‘quality of place’? Last week CABE and the RDAs organised a seminar to try and find out. The morning session had excellent presentations from my colleague Ben Rogers at CLG, Jim Bennett at the Homes and Communities Agency and Paul Hildreth from SURF. More on these in a moment.

Does ‘quality of place’ have anything to do with urban economic performance? Many superstar cities are bad places to live – like Hong Kong, LA or much of Silicon Valley. Equally, when cities like Liverpool and Manchester lost up to half their manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s unlikely that poor design values were to blame.

But these cities’ recovery in the 1990s was clearly helped by the remodelling of their city centres. This has attracted investors and new residents – although it’s been no substitute for good fundamentals. The ‘place offer’ is part of the story here – but how much?

The evidence tells us that human capital, innovation by firms, urban critical mass and economic diversity have the single biggest impacts on cities’ economic performance. And they are linked: cities make innovation easier, and have bigger, more diverse labour markets. The physical environment helps all this along (and lack of decent housing raises the local cost of living). But the evidence does not suggest it’s an active driver of growth.

‘Quality of place’-based regeneration also has winners and losers. Investing in design can help raise local house prices. This is good news for land and property owners – but not if you’re renting and get priced out, or if your home is demolished and replaced by somewhere more expensive. These are real risks in some Housing Market Renewal areas. Pathfinders are needing to deal with the problem by offering guaranteed homes, or cheap finance to buy a new one.

Fundamentally, I think the jury is still out on quality of place. Its importance often comes down to definition. CLG define quality of place as ‘built environment environment factors affecting life chances’. This involves only a small set of policy levers – design, planning, construction, space management.

By contrast, Paul defined quality of place as ‘what makes places work’ – ideas flow, infrastructure, big markets, skills, business-to-business links and so on. At a stretch, we could label this ‘quality of place’. But we now have an official definition that is much tighter.

Paul also highlights a bigger challenge, which is to get Government as a whole to improve its spatial awareness. Thomas Friedman was wrong: the world is spiky, not flat. Now that the Nobel Prize in Economics has gone to Paul Krugman, for his work explaining why place matters, it’s increasingly hard to pretend that it doesn’t.

But many Whitehall departments still take a flat earth view. There is little understanding of what makes different places work. Too many services are still delivered in silos, with little joining up. There is good evidence that investing in city-regions could help achieve national goals.  And more urgently, it is already clear that the recession is having very different effects in different areas. That underlines the need to junk flat-earth perspectives.

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