Two outstanding pieces of journalism from the Financial Times recently, both on the future of the city (that’s ‘city’, uncapitalised, as it were). First was Edward Luce , ‘The future of the American city’, on 7 June. (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4e857a96-ce40-11e2-a13e-00144feab7de.html#slide0) His argument, in short, is that after decades of decline, the American city is now in the ascendency. Cities represent poles of economic and population growth, where not so long ago they were basket cases, consuming, rather than producing resources. Some of those cases remain – Detroit, for example – but they have become the exception rather than the rule. Second was Simon Kuper’s ‘Priced out of Paris’, on 14 June (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/a096d1d0-d2ec-11e2-aac2-00144feab7de.html#axzz2WSWUgrtq) Kuper wrote something similar, but focused on the European experience, and particularly what it feels like to be excluded from the city to which you feel you have a right. Neither Luce nor Kuper say anything especially new, but they say it with unusual clarity. They point to a series of emerging crises in the world’s most developed cities: crises around property values and rights to the city.
What is perhaps clearer than before (and why the FT has taken an interest) is the extent to which the middle classes now fear exclusion from the city. The poor have always lived precariously in cities; that sense of precarity now infiltrates the relatively well-off. Both pieces describe that emergent insecurity very well.
Of course, what we’re seeing is nothing new. This astonishing concentration of wealth is what cities do. And once they’ve done that, they tend to suffer some or other form of market correction – cities have always been bubbles, and bubbles, at some point always burst. It is on the one hand a wonder to behold, especially if you experienced the violence done to the industrial city in the 70s and 80s. The impossibility of imagining a future for the British city at that time was my subject in the book The Anxious City in 2004: at that time, any urban development seemed miraculous. On the other hand, the violence done to the working class city now seems to be directed at the middle class city, the suburban city that only a few years ago seemed unassailable. That city is the home of the FT as much as the City of London. No wonder they’re worried.
Richard J Williams, The Anxious City (Routledge, 2004):