3. Living for the City

(credits to Ed Cox for the amazing image of London docks pre redevelopment)

One of the most written about shifts supposedly catalysed by the pandemic is the looming urban flight of the professional classes. Mastheads from Politico to The Guardian and The Telegraph have recently run variants on the theme of the escape to nature with a particular focus, as is often the case, on London. There are a number of reasons why this is overly-simplistic and is unlikely to be the case. The partial uncoupling of ‘city–as-economic-unit’ from ‘city-as-physical-social-network’ will make London a more vibrant, more textured and perhaps less unequal place.

For many, London is a necessary evil. The lure of work, particularly ‘middle class’ professional jobs means that many people cram in for the economic opportunity that would rather be in towns or villages. I have known many people, grudging residents of London – not Londoners – who while away unhappy years never taking much advantage of world-class clubbing, or free ballet performances, 10-quid West-End show tickets or just a walk along the Thames. Now this ‘white collar proletariat’ has a chance to unshackle itself from those chains.

Of course, there is more to the city than it’s professional classes. But their departure will accelerate geographical diffusion of  the skilled service sectors – the baristas, barmen and brewers that keep London sane. We can already see vegan Deli’s in outer London suburbs; expect some of these London emigres to take their taprooms with them; urban tastes will mix with the de-hipsterfication of ‘nice things’ – no one wants bad coffee – finally ending the perceived urban monopoly on 11 pound pints and beard oil (anyone ever notice how self-consciously male so much of this stuff is?). This is nothing new; this was Brighton in the 90s, and more latterly places like Margate. Don’t be surprised if towns with great train links for 2 days a week in the office, great city centre housing stock and good quality schools such as Bedford or Basingstoke or smaller spots in the stockbroker belt like Oxted start to attract a younger, pre-family demographic in their late 20s, and with them, their cafes and sourdough bakeries, sitting comfortably alongside existing traditional (non-ironic) butchers and hardware ‘levelling up’ the locavore scene in these places. Less genteel  (‘edgy’) spots such as Gravesend or other Medway towns could provide alternative options for early-career workers, looking to make the most of first-job wages as they plan their next move.

Don’t however, expect this exodus to be one-way. As pressure is lifted from the city with the departure of the ‘have to be heres’ and their financial muscle, there is more scope for the ‘want to be heres’ to come. With reduction of office space and the pruning of the white collar work, there is a chance, with the right incentives to make the city more diverse. Artists, musicians and all those who benefit from cultural agglomeration effects of the city will have more scope to return; the kind of people that in the past acted as an accidental ‘thin edge of the wedge’ for scavenging property developers and ended up displaced by the cultural capital created by their own success.

As someone raised a Londoner, clutching an old paper travel card, who remembers 50p bus fares and the opening of the Tate, taking myself on the train to school (in South London, real London, there was and is no Tube) I am hopeful. I am looking forward to a more passionate and engaged London, where those who previously priced the willing out, buy themselves an exit instead. What I am hopeful for is a city with fewer residents who resent being here and more space to breath, financially, culturally and socially for those of us who choose to make it home.

The City as Social Network

The Internet is going to save us all.

Or some would have us believe…

Urban life is increasingly being defined by technology. But then again it always has. The exurban sprawl of the great American (non) cities built for the motorcar. The civic monuments to capital of the North if England, secular cathedrals to the dark satanic mills. Defining tools have shaped our environment, built it, formed it, transformed it and deformed it.

There are two defining features of our current Urban environment, the Internet and surveillance culture (isn’t that one featured? Ed. (Snowden). Between them, they are killing the city as we know it.

The city is the original social network. Economic realities drove most of the last 13,000 years of civilisations push towards urban living, particularly during the worlds industrialisation and after, but what it created as well as a concentrated workforce for the factories was the first social networks. The move to cities created zones of free exchange, where information travelled as fast as the speed of sound. It widened gene pools, allowing people to find partners that weren’t their cousins. It brought wider competition, co-operation and collaboration, creating new ideas, inventions and intrigues. Urbanisation started revolutions and undermined religions. Driving all this is one key idea, the thought in which the power of cities lie- it is the reason that despite the pollution, the lack of space and the expense people flock to them- Serendipity.

The concentration of so much difference creates a space for the unexpected- rubbing along so closely with a panoply of other creates sparks. It is the connective tissue that links the Roman Forum and Greek Agora to Speakers Corner and Leicester Square. And it is this same cord that is being cut while we sit glued to our smartphones.

Web evangelists will tell us that the world is shrinking and that we are now all connected- one global village. Social networking gives us the proximity of the polis with global reach. We exchange ideas tout tweet with Lagos and La Paz. But both us and our neighbours are narcissists, recycling the same stale thoughts in an intellectual echo-chamber with all the fresh theoretical air of plane cabin at the end of a long-haul flight. Those we friend or follow are on the most part flattering reflections of pieces of ourselves- rather than holding a mirror to the world, we hold one to ourselves. Same school, or same university or same political affiliation or hobby, the wider our reach the narrower our encounters- as paralysed by choice we return again and again to the same 2 news sources, or the same 3 blogs or the same 5 sites. The links that get shared with us come from those who share our privileges (or lack thereof) and also share our prejudices

The internet is an inferior alternative to the city as a truly powerful social network- it is a useful auxiliary, but lacks that one thing that the built urban environment has- Serendipity.

At the same time, Serendipity is being removed from our cities. Gated communities, CCTV and privatized public space are undermining what made cities so powerful while we settle for an inferior alternative. Local pubs close and we pick partners based on their proclivities through Match.com rather than locking eyes across the bar. New developments gate nervous yuppies into identikit flats in Canary Wharf, fenced off from the deprived wards of the Isle of Dogs and Poplar. CCTV culture makes us wary of strangers on a street at night, whereas human company in fact means safety. We have never lived in a safer time, yet perceptions of criminality has been increasing steadily- those with the highest security dwellings are the most fearful and believe it has worsened the most. New ‘quarters’ create branded zones in towns which give the illusion of public space, but manned by high profile logo-ed security guards, these areas are blanded, with the high-viz brigade moving on anyone who doesn’t conform to the profile that that fits their area’s image. The chance of the unexpected is being systematically removed from the built environment at a time when we need it most. Cities have never been less genuinely creative or more lonely.

We pay a vast premium to live in these cities, yet so many of us choose to shut ourselves off from so much of what they offer, staying within the comfort zone of an inferior alternative, rather than using it as an auxillary it to agitate for public space, mixed zoning, social housing.

Stagnating Cities and Rotten Apples

It was great to be in New York again, the last time I was there, it was only for 48 hours, coming down from Boston to meet a friend who had come up from DC for the weekend, blasting through town in taxis from party to club to brunch to bar. It was the ideal way to see the place, we had the living room of a friend’s hotel suite and use of a rooftop swimming pool, and everything seemed to happen in a ‘New York Minute’. This visit was a little longer and left me a little more time to contemplate the city.

It is an incredible place, one whose every street corner feels like a paean to bustling industry, the American dream, the great hope of immigrants to the new world, a shining beacon of the West and its fight and victory against the grey conformity of the Soviet alternative. Buildings as tall as mountains line every corner and a busy optimism that seems to urge in its actions the very inscription that is borne by the Lady who guards the harbour. It’s a city whose symbols are world famous, Liberty herself, the Empire state building, Times Square; a city that has been immortalised in song. But all these qualities support the sneaking suspicion as you walk round the place, the niggling feeling that after being the Beacon of the West, and symbol of Victory and the unipolar moment, that this is a city that has started huddling round its own myths, a place that has become reflexive, concentrating on its own legends rather than its impending obsolescence. By concentrating on what made it great, it is, ironically speeding up its own decline, underlining its position as what Steve Grant terms, ‘20th Century-land’. As Amsterdam embodies the 18th and Paris the 19th, so New York may be choosing to become an artefact for the 20th. The leitmotif of New York for the 21st? The destruction of the World Trade Centre buildings, the beginning of a very different reality. Strangely, the city now feels like a pale imitation of Shanghai, which itself was, whether consciously or not, originally aping the Big Apple.

I would argue that London, having had to accept the decline of ‘the West’ much earlier, with the collapse of empire and the inflated sense of ego it had historically provided coupled with the poverty that lay everywhere in the ruins of the Blitz, became a city, albeit through a very difficult half century, that is characterised by change and regeneration. The only place I have been that feels more fluid, more dynamic, is Berlin. Accepting that it was not longer the centre of the world allowed London to become a world class city. I am not saying that this is a process that New York will not go through- the signs of a dialectic around this are there in the Village, along the Highline, (though I would argue not in the hipster hangouts of Williamsburg) but there is a danger that if they concentrate on what was great, they may be in danger of not allowing that evolution. This isn’t helped by residents who move to the city because of these myths, some fictionalised ideal-type of ‘New York ‘and the ‘New Yorker ‘that they become, believing that on arrival their life must be transformed into a Jay McInerney novel (or for that matter, whichever other author and his myth-perpetuation that you have decided to buy into).

From a career perspective, I feel as though it is a developmental gateway through which at some point I must pass- a year or two in an agency out there, but I have other reservations about the city- limited social mobility through the knock-on effect of the lack of both health-care and access to culture (20 dollars for a museum!) and that public monuments are created by private men- Trump, Rockefeller, Whitney, Frick, Vanderbilt. (Yes, I know, Tate, before you call me out on it)

So to remain great, do not simply venerate what was great, those laurels will decay and so will those who rest on them.

In San Francisco, I was talking to a friend who has been involved in architectural projects for Apple. Designing an Apple store in Houston, the company has been adamant that the architects stick to the template for Apple Store designs- the light, airy, signature glass boxes that have characterised their retail experience. In the middle of the Texan desert. The store manager has apparently quipped that for every one iPad on the shop floor, they have three others that they cycle it with because they overheat and have to be swapped out and allowed to fully cool and recharge. It is an unpleasant retail experience and and unpleasant work environment – exactly the opposite end result to that which was intended by the stores design. When the process, rather than the result for the end-user becomes more important, you move from being innovative to being dogmatic. Just as apple’s closed system easy usability made it great, people now expect that usability with a greater level of customisation and use. What made it great is in danger of becoming a liability. But maybe dogma is okay if you are the Catholic Church of technology. Simply perpetuating what made you great in the past is no indicator of future success or relevance, for a city or for a brand.