The FT on the future of the city

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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):

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sCu-ImkaxNwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=fal

Sex and the ‘normal’ city

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Edinburgh, where I live, has just published some remarkable new statistics. (http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/10548/edinburgh_by_numbers_2013_14) This bastion of social propriety actually isn’t very proper at all. Of all households in this city of half a million measured in the survey, just 3% could be described as a conventional family unit, that is two adults with one or more children. That’s right: three percent of the total. Single parent households accounted for 9%. By far the largest proportion (41%) of households consisted of a single adult living alone. The remainder was taken up by adults living together in various combinations.

Edinburgh is an exaggerated case. If ‘normality’ is defined by two adults together with kids, then Manhattan is about 10% more ‘normal’ than the Scottish capital. But Edinburgh’s experience does parallel that of cities in the rest of the industrialised world. They are getting older and greyer, and more people are choosing to live alone.

So what? Well stats like these contrast abruptly with the nature of the built environment itself. Edinburgh is strongly defined by four-floor tenement buildings constructed between roughly 1820 and 1920, and home construction in the city in private and public sectors, continues to take a lead from the tenement form. What’s interesting in this context is that it defines the city in terms of the normative family. In effect, the tenement is the normative family in stone. So there are clearly defined private and public spaces, rooms clearly intended as bedrooms for a married pair, smaller rooms for children, public rooms to be kept for ‘best’ (traditionally for receiving the minister of the local church) and so on. The built image of the city doesn’t any longer represent its lived reality.

Arguably this doesn’t matter. Our housing has been remarkably good at adapting: in Britain’s university towns, middle-class Victorian family homes have proved ideal for groups of cohabiting students. These buildings won’t last forever, however, and neither will the social trends that currently sustain them. Sooner or later, we’ll have to build in our own image again.

In terms of sex, all this is important. Compared to previous generations, we can expect extremely long lives, and increasingly healthy ones. Because they’re long, we can also expect increasing degrees of sexual complexity; only a small part of our overall lives is going to be lived out in what might be termed normative surroundings. And there is increasing recognition that permanent monogamy is unrealistic (we may, most of us, still believe in monogamy, but the statistics suggest we act otherwise). So – shouldn’t we start to imagine different ways of building for life? In Sex and Buildings I describe a series of attempts to make buildings that better represented our sexual lives as lived. They mostly failed, sometimes spectacularly so. That shouldn’t put us off, however. We will have to build again sometime, and better to do so realistically, with our eyes open, than to insist on nostalgic fantasy.

For me, the ideal would be some sort of co-housing, the best-known example being Sættedammen in Denmark, established in 1967 (founding creed: ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. I didn’t write about co-housing in Sex and Buildings, but on reflection it seems to occupy the right space between the wilder forms of intentional community, and market-dominated individualism. It doesn’t explicitly challenge sexual norms. However, by providing shared facilities (childcare, gyms, swimming pools, saunas, party rooms) it provides time and space to play, starting to address the deficits that inhibit our sexual lives (sex ‘loves to waste time’ in the words of the psychologist Esther Perel). The odd thing is that we already strongly value co-housing, albeit in an occasional and time-limited form. University students live like this, and as adults, we do the same thing on holiday; both forms seem to provide a better environment to explore and develop primary relationships including sexual ones. Now if we can accept that some of our lives, why not the rest of the time?

The Creative City. It’s War.

0041-1THE USE OF ‘WAR’ TO DESCRIBE CITY LIFE IS A CULTURAL STUDIES CLICHE. In City of Quartz (1990) Mike Davis famously described Los Angeles as ‘militarized’, thinking of the bum-proof benches of downtown, and signs on suburban lawns warning of ‘armed response’ to intrusion. Teresa Caldeira’s account of São Paulo, City of Walls (2001) did something similar for the Brazilian metropolis, describing a city so conditioned by fear of crime that it might as well be at war. I’ve used the metaphor of warfare plenty of times myself, for example in my own accounts of Brazilian cities, which noted the tendency of local journalists to describe them as being in a state of de facto civil war. In that piece, I referred to a much-quoted statistic: during the four-year siege of Sarajevo 1992-6, more people of were killed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly a city at peace. War is a cliche, however, and an increasingly inaccurate one in these terms. LA, New York, São Paulo, Rio (etc. etc.) have become immeasurably safer since everyone started talking about how dangerous they were. And while Baghdad kills 50 or so people per day in a state of genuine warfare, it is frankly unethical to even use the term in relation to what are safe and wealthy places.

Still, that is what I am going to do. In my last post, I mentioned Richard E. Caves’s Creative Industries (2000) in relation to the sociability, or otherwise, of the creative city. The  intense, but intermittent, sociability of the creative city is in fact that of a condition of emergency. As Rebecca Solnit has written lately (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009) natural disasters destroy communities, but also  produce  marvellous new ones. The more I thought about them, the more Caves’s core principles suggested such a condition of emergency. ‘Nobody Knows’, the ‘Motley Crew’, ‘Time Flies’ (and the rest) invoke an exceptional state of being. The future is unknown and unknowable, threats are permanent, change is ever-present, the project (movie, exhibition, artwork, performance, book, campaign) routinely demands the impossible. Time is  essential; everything must be now. The resources required are immense: it must store materials, skills and ideas in anticipation of a future that may never occur. It is subject to high levels of security and secrecy. Its workers are mobile and rootless, and live in de facto camps, separated and sometimes secured from the city proper. And each project – for which read ‘campaign’ – demands absolute commitment. Desertion is death.

Caves doesn’t describe the creative city in quite these terms, but the implication is there to  be had. And at the time he was writing, there were plenty of other writers invoking a sense of emergency in contemporary life: the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ is a perfect example.

On the ground, there are real figures of this metaphorical war. Superficially, many of the most creative cities have also been literal ruins at some stage of their development, caused, often enough by conflict (Berlin, London and Manchester bore until recently the literal scars of war). Artists have always been drawn to the ruined parts of cities for economic reasons, but they have also long cultivated an aesthetic of ruination – and resisted attempts to clean up. The creative city and the ruined city often seem to overlap.

However there’s more to this metaphorical war than ruins. Caves says a lot about LA and the movie industry, and if you know that city, you know how reminiscent its great studio complexes are of military encampments or munitions factories: sprawling, secure complexes, surrounded by high walls, blind to the outside world. And inside, they’re populated by transient gangs working secretly to impossible deadlines, for campaigns that become apparent only when they’re in progress. Making movies is uncannily like going to war. It’s no accident that war has been such a natural movie genre. And it’s arguably no accident that LA’s other main activity, at least until the 1980s, was armaments.

If the creative city is also metaphorically a city at war, is it right? The creative city undoubtedly suits those with the wits and education to take advantage of it, and weather its vicissitudes. I have thought of myself in that category often enough. But how does the creative city suit the weak, the sick, the very young? How does it work for anyone thinking beyond the next pitch?

Picture: Still from Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Saboteur’ (1942). Exploding munitions factory created on a Warner Bros studio lot.

THE CREATIVE CITY: A CORRECTION

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Since posting, Paul Morley published this piece on the Salford and Media City, which is connected. Most accounts of Media City have been unfavourable – sometimes simple snobbery, sometimes a failure to understand the landscape and its history.This discussion is more nuanced, and well worth reading. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f5cc1646-c90b-11e2-9d2a-00144feab7de.html#axzz2VEXeJU4s

We hear a lot about the creative city these days. For city managers in the industrialised world, creativity is the way to go, meaning a rebalancing of urban economies away from manufacturing, and even financial services, towards advertising, the arts, culture, web design and so on. The chief advocate of the creative city is Richard Florida, a most entrepreneurially-minded sociologist. Florida is everywhere, and his concepts have been accepted by city leaders the world over. Good for him. His work, however, is predictive and future-oriented; there remains a notable deficit in the literature of the creative city as built, the ‘real’ creative city.

One writer to take it seriously is Richard E. Caves, a Harvard law professor with longstanding interests in copyright. His book The Creative Industries – although published a decade ago – is a compelling, and still rare, analysis of the creative city as it exists and functions, rather than as a fantasy yet to be built. Caves’s argument revolves around a set of principles, which he says, describe unique behaviours of those working in the creative industries. These include (1) ‘nobody knows’ – no-one has the least idea of the likely success of a creative product, with no predictable connection between the capital investment in a project and its likely profitability; (2) the ‘motley crew’ – the necessity for an extremely diverse set of skills to realise projects, most likely supplied by a flexible, self-employed labour force; (3) ‘time flies’, the principle that once underway, a creative project will require absolute subservience to its timetable; (4) ‘art for arts’ sake’, in other words the principle that the actors in creative enterprises are not motivated solely by financial gain, and in many cases will work for the sake of the work itself. The sociologist Sharon Zukin described something similar, the AMP or Artistic Mode of Production, in her celebrated book Loft Living. Caves’s book is underwritten by the detailed knowledge of two cities, LA, focused on the experience of the movie industry, and New York, with a concentration on the art scene, at (I would note) a moment of great transition.

Caves’s principles, if we accept them, have severe implications for the nature of the creative city, indeed the city in general. It is widely assumed that the creative city is intensely sociable. The theme of sociability runs all the way through Florida’s work, for example. Creative types are by their nature gregarious, we are led to believe, and visibly so. They spend all day in cafes, yacking away to each other, tweeting their friends, making deals. That image is widely, and popularly understood; it drives real estate markets, provides fodder for TV, informs fashions in food and clothing and gadgets. It’s immensely popular with city politicians and managers too, for obvious reasons.

But it’s misleading. Caves’s principles imply a city that is far more anti-social than you might expect. Firstly, the creative industries are hopelessly profligate (‘nobody knows’), so they have en enormous amount invested in storage of all kinds. Materials, talent, ideas – most of which, most of the time remain unused, but must be kept available. Storage means space rather than sociability. Secondly, creative workers by and large are not working together, but as individuals who come together on a project-by-project basis (the ‘motley crew’). They’re subject to fits of intense socialisation to get business, but their work, most of the time, is not sociable. Thirdly, ‘time flies’: the creative city sublimates everything to the ‘now’ of the project, cutting across the normal time and space of city. It makes people subservient to the project, not the community. And so on. In summary, if you buy Caves, you buy into a world view that is arguably as anti-urban as it is urban. I don’t present this as a criticism at all, merely an observation. We have choices, after all.

Here is an example of why I think Caves’s analysis is right, namely the large, impressive media complex in Salford, Manchester, MediaCityUK, opened in 2012 and home for a substantial portion of BBC activity. You arrive at MCUK by newly-built light rail at a public plaza defined by glass buildings. There are outdoor TV screens everywhere; coffee and food abound; there are constant ‘events’ of one kind or another. It’s a relentlessly sociable place, almost exactly as the developers imagined. They must be delighted, and rightly so. Walk a few hundred metres to the north, however, and the sense of civilised urbanity falls away, and you find yourself in a warehouse zone, all blank walls and razor wire, seemingly uninhibited. Before MCUK, it was perhaps the definitive landscape of this part of Manchester. Many of the journalistic accounts of MCUK have focused on this disjunction, as if it were a fault. Yet on closer analysis, MCUK merely describes in built form the nature of the creative city. It’s sociable, but only intermittently so. The vast majority of its revenue-producing business comes from things beyond public view. Those warehouses look abandoned, but they house production facilities, sound stages, sets and props, as well as a huge range of informal workspaces. MCUK’s plaza is the public performance, as it were, of the creative city. The real work happens elsewhere.

MCUK was a purpose-built facility, a set piece. In form it reiterates the landscape of arguably the world’s first creative city. It’s an industrial-looking sprawl, dotted with pockets of frantic socialisation. The movie industry, which defines so much of the city, made it like that. The studios are epic in scale, but necessarily inward-looking and anti-social; their public faces, like the attractions on Hollywood Blvd., are designed, quite purposely, to direct attention away from their real business. So it is with all the other motors of the creative city. Far from being drivers of sociability, these businesses are, for most of the people involved in them, most of the time, deeply anti-social. That’s not, as I say, a criticism. But it’s worth pointing out that if sociable cities are a priority, then ‘creativity’ may not be the way to achieve it.

Richard E. Caves, The Creative Industries: Contracts Between Art and Commerce (Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard UP, 2002)

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2004)

Sharon Zukin, Loft Living (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989)