Lies, Damned Lies…and Cities

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A short post about cities and statistics:

Cities are remarkably hard to define. You would think otherwise, given the amount of data we have at our disposal. There are few cities on earth that have not been comprehensively mapped and photographed. But certain problems of definition remain: even in a single context, let’s say the United Kingdom, the definition of a city’s limits might vary from one case to another; we often compare apples with oranges. I was reminded this in recent coverage of a survey which measured the relative ‘vibrancy’ of different UK cities. I didn’t think much of the survey (it was a ‘fucking bag of bollocks’ according to the architectural journalist Ian Martin). One reason I didn’t was that its definitions varied according to city. So ‘London’ was, strictly speaking, the Greater London metropolitan region, with a population of 7.5 million or so. Its ‘Manchester’ was the political city, which is to say, a constituent part of a much larger urban region. Its 510,000 population makes it more like a big London borough. In this particular case, smallness played to Manchester’s advantage, and it came it top. For this exiled Mancunian, of course that’s good news, but I still recognise it as a flawed comparison.

I explored the problem a little more in a class today. I showed the group a list of population figures, all of which define ‘Manchester’ correctly:

‘Old City’ (1800 boundary)                                          25,000
Political boundary city 2013                                       510,000
Urban core, including Salford and Trafford            1,200,000
Greater Manchester, political boundary, 2013       2,600,000
Postcode city including all GM codes                     3,000,000 (estimate)
Travel-to-work city                                                  3,500,000 (estimate)
MUFC supporters worldwide, 2012 estimate      659,000,000

Manchester City fans will want to discount the MUFC stat immediately, which is fair enough. It does however give an indication of the potential importance of a non-resident population, all of who, arguably have an interest in what goes on in the city. Anyway, put that figure aside. We still have a remarkable discrepancy between the core city population of 25,000 (up from a historic low of 250 in the 1990), and what is arguably the ‘real’ city, the travel-to-work city of 3.5 million. It’s a differential factor of 140. Even if we were to take the ‘low’ figure as the 2013 political city, 510,000, we’re still looking at a factor of 7.

Manchester’s far from alone in its discrepant representations. Buenos Aires seems to suffer a similar problem. Is it a European-scale large city of 3 million? Or an emerging-market megalopolis of 16 million? Well, both, and neither. It just depends who is speaking and what they are trying to prove. That is the lesson for all of us, and all cities.

NOTES:

Vibrancy survey by Experian, reported in FT (9 October 2013)  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2bc0e682-2f50-11e3-ae87-00144feab7de.html#axzz2iSUwJSb1

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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?