Posts Tagged ‘space’

My new book

May 23, 2014

I have a book out: Urban Economics and Urban Policy, written with Henry Overman and Paul Cheshire, and published by Edward Elgar.

In a nutshell, it’s ‘economic urbanism’. We bring together last two decades of work by economists and economic geographers on urban issues, and distill some high-level lessons for policymakers. We look at trends in city growth and change, spatial disparities and urban housing/labour markets, as well as evaluating a range of urban policies.

The focus is on the UK, and especially work done at LSE’s Spatial Economics Research Centre since 2008. You can read the first chapter here.

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The book began as a kind of greatest hits compilation for SERC, but has morphed into a broader attempt to show what economists (and economic geographers like me) can bring to cities and urban analysis.

Economics’ influence on urban policy has historically been very limited: urban thinking has been dominated by architects, planners and governance types.

In part, this is because economists haven’t been very interested in space until recently. As Paul pointed out at the book’s launch, economics 101 classes mention the three factors of production – capital, labour and land – after which land is rarely (if ever) discussed again. That has only really begun to change in the last decade or so, with the very obvious death of ‘death of distance’ arguments, and people like Paul Krugman and Ed Glaeser making their influence felt in the profession. (Ed kindly wrote the foreword for our book.)

It’s also because spatial economic concepts and techniques are fiddly and difficult to explain. Dealing with spatial autocorrelation is rarely as glamorous or compelling as iconic buildings or big political personalities. Evan Davies did economic geographers everywhere a great service with the Mind the Gap series, which did a bravura job of distilling agglomeration, knowledge spillovers and path-dependence into everyday language.

And of course lessons from spatial economics aren’t always ones policymakers want to hear. Urban systems tend to build in spatial differences, and these inequalities are self-reinforcing and hard for policy to reverse. Many urban policies are effective, but many popular ones – such as Enterprise Zones or cluster programmes – often don’t have much impact.

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In turn, that highlights both the advantages and limitations in the economic urbanist’s approach. City leaders should take economic ideas and analysis seriously, especially when making decisions about housing, planning or development. The book is an attempt to put economic thinking back in the room. But we can’t reduce cities to purely economic processes: as objects or systems, they are too complex and chaotic for that. And as Max Weber says:

… The explanation of everything by economic causes alone is never exhaustive in any sense whatsoever, not in even in the … economic sphere itself. In principle, a banking history of a nation which adduces only economic motives for explanatory purposes is naturally just as unacceptable as an explanation of the Sistine Madonna as a consequence of the social-economic basis of the culture of the epoch in which it was created. 

That logic also applies to policy choices. In practice we often have to trade off economic, social and environmental goals – when planning new roads or houses, for instance. Citizens’ welfare is rather wider than economic welfare, and we should avoid collapsing the first into the second.

Given those complexities, economists need to be mindful of real-world priorities and politics when giving policy advice. (As do others – Richard Rogers’ reductionist readings of Jane Jacobs have not been very helpful in the UK, for example.) The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which I’m helping to run, is one attempt to translate quantitative academic analysis from a range of fields into feasible, pragmatic policy ideas.

As an economic geographer, co-authoring a book with two economists proper is a rewarding experience – and a challenging one. The three of us didn’t agree on everything: as you can imagine, my views on regeneration, brownfield development and place-based policies are more optimistic than some of my co-authors. In the book we carefully flag who led on each chapter, and which work is genuinely joint.

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I hope all that’s encouraged you to take a further look. The hardback is painfully expensive, as academic books always are. The ebook edition is quite a lot cheaper. Either way, order it from the EE website and use the code CHES35 to get yourselves a 35% discount. Happy reading!

The Terminal Beach

January 5, 2012

Orford Ness is one of the most extraordinary places in England. A spit of land on the Suffolk Coast near Aldeburgh, it was used as an experimental weapons testing site in both world wars and during the Cold War.

It’s now a National Trust nature reserve and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. However, it still holds traces of its mysterious former life.

Old military bunkers and pagoda-like blast chambers dot the landscape. From viewing towers, vast diagrams are visible on the ground, purpose unknown. Parts of the spit are still off-limits.

Reuben and I visited the site in October with our cameras. You can see some of the photographs on Flickr. The full set of pictures are in this lovely microsite.

Tech City at City Hall

December 7, 2011

I gave evidence to the London Assembly Economy, Culture and Sport Committee  on Tech City yesterday.  On the panel with me were Eric van der Kleij (Tech City UK), Kulveer Ranger from the Mayor’s Office, Theo Bertram (Google), Georg Ell (Yammer) and Jeff Lynn (Seedrs).

You can see the 90s-style ‘webcast’ here. There’s some entertaining political gunfighting between Kulveer Ranger and some of the Labour members for the first 20 minutes, and then a good hour of discussion after that.

Happy viewing!

Megacities: the real story

June 6, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lie down and be counted

January 10, 2011

A new year’s present for you all. I’ve got a new (old) mix out on the Broken20 label, a spin-off from the all-conquering Numbers empire. The mix is part of Broken20’s series of podcasts (here’s the iTunes feed) which is well worth signing up to.

Click here to download the mix. Blurb and tracklisting below.

Thanks again to Broken20 and to Rauridh for putting this out.

Happy listening!

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I put this mix together in summer 2005. It was originally designed for playing on Sunday afternoons at the Foundry, East London, where slow sound system ran sporadic listening sessions from 2003 to 2009.

I took a fairly loose-limbed approach in assembling the thing. There’s a lot of the new weird america and free-folk / psyche stuff my friends and I were listening to at the time, alongside some field recordings, lo-fi stuff, electronics, outish rock, John Fahey and Can. Heroically, I included pretty much the full 18 minutes of ‘Augmn’ which seemed like a good idea at the time. You’ll have to judge for yourselves.

The mix was recorded on three portable cd players to minidisc. One take, no edits or post-production.

http://www.slowsoundsystem.net

Chris Watson – The Crossroads (Touch)
Growing – Primitive Associations / Great Mass Above (Kranky)
Rafael Toral – We Are Getting Closer (Touch)
Masaki Batoh – Benthos (Drag City)
Janek Schaeffer – Love Song (Room40)
Black Dice – Skeleton (Fat Cat)
Can – Augmn (Spoon / Mute)
Kammerflimmer Kollektief – Unstet (für Jeffrey Lee Pierce) (Staubgold)
Beta Band – The Monolith (Regal Recording)
Jackie-O-Motherfucker – Lost Stone (ATP / Ecstatic Peace)
John Fahey – Untitled With Rain (Revenant)
Saya, Takashi Ueno, Koji Shibuya & John Chantler – Mizumitaida (Fat Cat demo)
Motion – Dispersal Patterns (Motion)
Motion – Outlev (Motion)
So – j (Thrill Jockey)
Chris Watson – The Crossroads (reprise) (Touch)

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.

What’s the point of science parks?

November 7, 2010

Last week David Cameron launched ‘East London Tech City, which he hopes will become ‘one of the world’s great technology centres’. Could it work? Up to a point, according to research from LSE. Science parks can pay off, although it’s unlikely they’ll create the next Silicon Valley.

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Theoretically, we shouldn’t need science parks at all. In spatial economics models, firms sort across space to optimal locations. In practice, this doesn’t always happen. Planning restrictions limit space; businesses may lack the funds to move; and some firms will head to prestigious addresses, rather than the most productive.

So policies that try to cluster firms together might be a good idea. Theory and evidence suggest businesses benefit from co-location. Big labour markets, a rich mix of input-output linkages and knowledge spillovers help firms become more innovative – and more productive. In turn, this helps explain why cities form and grow.

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So, can science parks can replicate these dynamics? Christian Helmers, a research economist at SERC, is trying to find out. There are now at least 85 parks in the UK, with over 76,000 workers on site. Helmers looks at two: Cambridge Science Park, the UK’s first and most prestigious, and the St John’s Innovation Centre next door.

Christian is interested in whether science parks drive up firm’s innovative activity. So he tests whether co-location raises patenting rates. He finds it does. He also looks at what types of firms tend to gain. Controlling for various other factors, he finds that inside the park, firms of the same industry tend to patent more. Science parks can pay off.

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What does this mean for policy? Christian suggests policymakers should promote specialised science parks, dedicated to single industries. I think there are some wider lessons here too – not all of which are good news for East London.

1) Lifecycle – Helmers finds no significant effect of firm age on patenting – that is, start-ups don’t particularly benefit from being in science parks. This echoes other work which suggests that economically diverse cities act as ‘nurseries’ for young firms – basically offering a big pool of ideas, suppliers and people. In turn, it suggests that unless they’re in big cities, incubators might not be effective.

2) Mix and scale – Christian’s research basically tells us that at small scale, similarity matters – firms gain from having others like them around. (In the jargon, science parks exhibit ‘Marshall-Arrow-Romer’ externalities.) But at city scale, the opposite seems to be the case. Economic diversity matters. Jane Jacobs first suggested knowledge spillovers across industries – recent work by Duranton and Puga and a team at SERC empirically confirms this . So we shouldn’t expect science parks to drive cities.

3) Expectations – Silicon Valley is not a valley – it’s a city-region. By contrast, science parks are tiny. Taken together, Cambridge Science Park and the St John’s Centre cover around 2m square feet. At a conservative estimate, Silicon Valley covers 1300 square miles. To put point 2) another way, no science park (or Silicon Roundabout) is going to be the next South Bay.

4) Surroundings – some of Christian’s results have to be driven by what’s outside the science park – in this case, Cambridge University and the Cambridge high-tech cluster. All the firms in the park benefit from high quality research and a big pool of skilled workers. The East London park will have to draw on the whole of London’s innovation system if it’s to benefit its tenants. The London location will clearly help. But as Vivek points out here and here, high-tech growth is fundamentally about people and culture – not property.

The secret life of Shepperton

September 29, 2010

Some new art stuff.

First up, Mat and I have finally completed our photo essay on Shepperton, where JG Ballard spent most of his adult life. We’ve combined our pictures with text from Ballard’s own novels, autobiography, interviews and other text about the town and its history. In the process we’ve shamelessly taken inspiration from Patrick Keiller, Chris Marker, Iain Sinclair and many others. We hope they, and you, like it.

A shorter version of the essay appeared in Shadows Have Shadows, a limited-run newspaper published earlier this year by the mysterious SFHAA. It’s a nice collection of pieces on street-level urbanism – spanning London, San Francisco, Caracas, fictional cities and cities of the future. The paper itself is an A4 object of beauty, produced with the help of Newspaper Club. Sadly there’s only 100 copies, but you can also read it online here.

Finally, here are my pictures of the astonishing Red Sand sea forts, which I visited with Reuben a few weeks back. More about the forts and how to reach them at the Project RedSand website.

Now, back to the PhD …

The magic roundabout

February 12, 2010

Ah, the perils of place branding. Wired have re-upped their ‘Silicon Roundabout’ story, highlighting the cluster of tech and new media firms around the Old Street / City Road junction in East London (thanks to Eric and Mat for pointing me to it).

The magazine reckons there are now about 85 firms in the neighbourhood, including Dopplr, last.fm and moo.com (who make my lovely business cards). That’s exponential growth since Matt Bidduplh’s original 2008 map. Along the way it’s picked up a Wikipedia entry, props in the FT and a (slightly self-conscious) support group.

 There’s only one problem here. Almost none of the firms are *actually on the roundabout*, or even near it. Look at Wired’s picture again. These companies are almost all down the road in, er, Shoreditch – or in one case, way out in Bethnal Green.

Obviously ‘Silicon Roundabout’ is a good meme (here I am writing about it, after all). And it means people don’t have to say they work in Barley-esque Shoreditch. But it fails completely as a descriptor for a real cluster, or even a spot on the map. It’s also nothing like Silicon Valley, which is a continuous sprawl stretching halfway across the Bay Area, including several cities along the way. Silicon Roundabout is  Trumpton to the South Bay’s Sim City. But that’s another story.

New stuff

December 20, 2009

A couple of new things from me. First, UCL Urban Lab and Figaropravda have just published ‘The Architecture of Financial Crisis’, papers from a recent workshop on cities, urban economics, design and the crash. Chapters from me, Peter Hall, Matthew Gandy Davida Hamilton et al.  It’s all masterminded by Louis Moreno. PDFs should be here.

Second, a new paper on cultural diversity and innovation by me and Neil Lee. We do some number-crunching on firms in London, and find a small but significant ‘diversity advantage’: firms with a richer mix of owners / staff seem to innovate more.

This paper will be coming out in January in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Knowledge-Based Development, but you can download it here for a while.

The research is part a bigger piece of work I’ve been doing here at Berkeley. I’ll be presenting the new findings in April at the AAG 2010 conference in Washington DC, if any of you are around for that.

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