Trouble at t’Mall

IMG_0353Something’s up with cities, as recent articles in The Economist and the FT attest. In the rich world, for decades we’ve held the notion of cities as basket cases to be endured rather than enjoyed. Few really believed in regeneration, if pushed: tidying up old docks and factories was, most of us believed, a cosmetic exercise. Our future was inexorably suburban. That set of beliefs held true until about a decade ago, underlined by relentlessly gloomy demographics, nlot just for celebrated basket cases like Detroit (61% population loss), but otherwise wealthy and successful places like London (-25% from its peak). We read Joel Garreau on the exurbs and imagined, mostly with trepidation, a Californian future. Cities were what the  developing world did – they weren’t for us.

Well, all that seems to have changed. The last set of population statistics for the UK were remarkable for what they said about cities. Greater London we knew had got bigger, but what was a surprise was how quickly it had regained its peak size. Down to 6.5 million in the 1980s, it was back up to 8.5 or so, 30% growth in 20 years. Even more startling in some way were the figures for such perennially shrinking cities are Liverpool (now up 5%), or most amazingly of all, Manchester (up 25%), with accompanying gains for their hinterlands. Across the Atlantic, as Gallagher has recently argued, the same trends are much in evidence. Washington DC hums with life these days in a way inconceivable a decade back. And in al these places, real estate values indicate a shift back to the  central city, and the decline of suburbia. However you do the maths, there is only one conclusion: cities are back.

In a funny way, no-one saw this coming. In fact the professional literature around regeneration is miserable. You can’t research the area without developing a deep sense of gloom. Academics invariably focus on the bad news; builders worry about money; policians argue incessantly about the benefits. Hardly anyone seems to believe it when push comes to shove. They should. The ‘project’ of regeneration, whether it’s through Richard Rogers’s advocacy in London, or Mike Bloomberg’s in New York, has been on its own terms, more often than not, a huge success. Cities have returned in a big way, dense, busy and vertical, just as their advocates wanted.

That success brings with it some old – basically 19th century – problems. In 2004 I speculated about this in The Anxious City, looking at Richard Rogers’s envisioning of London. It seemed (still) unattainable; it also seemed a transparently bourgeois city. Surely we would see through this (admittedly seductive) play of urban surfaces? Surely we would see it for the fantasy that it is? Well apparently not, for it’s come to pass not only in London, but New York and Washington, and with it, the embodiment in stone and glass of a most astonishing set of inequalities. The urbanist’s rhetoric from Richard Rogers to Richard Florida to Charles Landry is of equality and democracy. The built reality – just look at London – is anything but.

This leaves suburbia hanging. Suburbia will always be with us, but like the inner cities of the late 60s and early 70s, it may well become the locus of dissolution and decay. That might be good for urban innovators – we could conceivably see an exodus of poor, but creative youngsters to Metroland in search of space and time and relative freedom from the market. But those people, so prized by Florida and Landry, may choose to leapfrog the city altogether, and abandon it to the rich. Who knows. But cities have irrevocably changed this past decade, and we will have to deal with the consequences.

Sources:

D.K., ‘Mapping Gentrification: The Great Inversion’, Economist (9 September 2013) http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2013/09/mapping-gentrification

Gapper, J., ‘America’s Heart is in the City Once Again’, Financial Times (8 September 2013) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0e8cc084-1652-11e3-a57d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2fF0L7D9Y

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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