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September 28, 2015 / Leo Hollis

Russian edition of CITIES ARE GOOD FOR YOU

Here is a Google translate version of the review of my books that I found here:


In September, the publishing house Strelka Press published a book by the British historian and urbanist Leo Hollis “Cities Are Good for You The genius of the metropolis. ” What more is said about the benefits and harms of cities, why simple models work everywhere except in Russia, and why citizens better to just leave it alone, in his review of the book said Stanislav Lviv.

In 2011, residents of cities in the world has become more than the others. You can probably say “more rural”, but the very meaning of the word “rural”, especially in Russian, so blur by 2011, which is not very clear how they now operate. This means that starting a completely new life, in which we, the citizens, are in a winning position. In the book, Leo Hollis, of which today we cited the report of the United Nations Population Fund 2007, which clearly states that “the best recipe for a life without sound needs are still – to grow up in the city.”

The main occupation of the author of the book “Cities in your favor” in the world is called the “urban history» (urbanhistory), and in Russia, where this discipline somehow did not work out – of “historical urban issues.” Hollis has written two books about London – “The Stones of London: The Story of twelve buildings” and “Phoenix: the people who created the modern London”, one of Paris and one for children – about England. “Cities Are Good For You,” which finally came out in Russian, is an attempt to summarize the extensive body of information on the city, which the author had to revise, and share the result with the reader.

The resulting book is a pleasant exception to the general background of popular science books about cities, published in the last ten years some preposterous amounts. Firstly, Hollis – a historian and he, unlike some urban planners really familiar with the subject. Second, he writes well – despite the fact that the book has high density of information, it does not seem difficult, even a person who does not familiar with the subject. Along the way, Hollis explains complicated things fairly simple language.

Third, this whole book. Modern urban studies is a difficult relationship with politics, critical theory, the ideology of one kind or another. And for this reason, many contemporary works on the city is a patchwork quilt: the authors or try to assume a more or less utilitarian considerations and combine poorly combined with each other recommendations or construct large areas of silence. Hollis is extremely consistent. At the heart of the book is a set of ideas known to us from the famous book by Jane Jacobs: authoritarian practices like Le Corbusier and the “high modernism” – a road to nowhere. A living city, where people like to live, grow and develop organically, much like biocenosis. It is the fruit of joint efforts by people who live in it for generations, not government measures, or even architects.

Hollis, in fact, speaks of spontaneous order, but never uses this term, preferring “self-organized complexity.” He sees the confirmation of the ideas of Jacobs in the later works of Mathematics and Physics Warren Weaver Jeffrey West, found that “if the city increased tenfold, it is certain indicators are rising compared with the starting level in seventeen times.” According to scientists, this refers to the economic strength of the city, its energy efficiency, even in the crime rate and morbidity. Oddly enough, the same law and subject to a creative activity: “Wages, income, domestic product, the volume of bank deposits, the degree of innovation, estimated the number of new patents and employment in the creative sectors – all this shows superlinear increase with an increase in the size of the city.”

All this – the effect of increasing the complexity of the system, rather than simply scaling it. It seems to be a simple position should be a lot of conclusions, sometimes unexpected, sometimes optimistic, sometimes – not. For example, the well-known comparison of Moscow with a vacuum cleaner, pulling people from the province and economic resources, it becomes clear: it is a process with positive feedback, colloquially formulated by how “money likes money.” If there is one country in the conurbation, substantially exceeds the size and level of complexity of the others, redistribute flows in favor of the other becomes more difficult. In addition, it is obvious that this kind of urbanization increases property and other inequalities. City all presently working as an amplifier, but enhances it all: good and bad.

However, things are not so bad: if people do not get in the way they arrange their lives so that they were good, not bad. Therefore, the author says, “the city is able to cure their own sores, but it can happen only from below.” In other words, we look really liberal in the truest sense of the word. Hollis believes that the key to solving social problems lies within society, and that such a solution can not be imposed upon him by those who know the right recipe of prosperity or happiness. Quite a large part of the book takes the criticism of the authoritarian approach – and to society in general, and to the cities. The object of this criticism are a variety of projects – from the “Radiant City” by Le Corbusier to Dubai and Beijing.

“Creativity – says Hollis – does not arise from a vacuum, of the official photo of the collective and state initiatives. No project was a success if he went contrary to the features of this place. The idea that economic revolution is taking place as soon build a business park and a good road to the airport, naive and fell into that trap a lot of cities that have embarked on the path of “creative” re-branding “.

The same approach allows Hollis see the potential hidden in the project Scott Burnham related to “economic sharing”, as well as the informal economy, which Hollis, quoting the journalist Robert Neuwirth writes that it is “the economy ingenuity, improvisation and relying on its own power economics “do it yourself” or DIY (Do It Yourself), without accounting, registration and regulation, with payment in cash and often evasion of income tax. ” Hollis says that in this economy today “employs 1.8 billion people around the world, and by 2020 it will cover two-thirds of all workers.”

In fact, when a couple of years ago, the vice-premier of the Russian government’s Olga Golodets told us that in Russia 38 million people of the 86 million “is not clear where the busy than busy as busy,” it was a question about what he says Hollis. From the point of view of the Russian government, these people say, “pose a threat to society.” But generally speaking, Hollis is right: the current situation in this economy dampens the burden on the social security system, and even if its participants do not pay taxes, they create a public good – goods and services, not to mention the effective demand. In the book, the story understands now taking place in relation to the scale of urbanization in the Third World: the informal economy creates a transition zone, which allows new citizens to adapt to a new lifestyle. It is important that Hollis optimism has its limits: we can not say that he sees reality in pink. In the book he provides details and examples of London, and the slums of Mumbai, and that happens very rarely, he does not shy away from discussing issues traditionally left part of the agenda: income inequality, lefevrovskoe “right to the city” and the need for public spaces.

However, in this book, it is conceptually coherent detected a certain flaw. For work that Hollis calls the self-organizing complexity, requires a very high level of trust in society, it is called social capital. It is clear that the condition is not running anywhere, and at some point, the author asks: “Are we able to design a trust, how to build and simulate other forms of behavior in the city?” Hollis is not that does not see the problematic nature of this “we”. The book begins by describing several architectural projects like the Reichstag and London City Hall, designed to reduce the distance between citizens and government, the author expresses reasonable doubts that the spatial forms created new social dispositions. “The spirit of the city – he writes – is not extravagant public buildings or architectural innovations designed to act as intermediaries in the inner relations. Personality and character of the city formed a plurality of communication and relationships of people gathered on its territory. ”

Hollis offers not “build models of behavior,” and give them a place, assuming that the appropriate model in the community are already present. And it is to some extent of the rights, but we all know a fantastic company with a low level of mutual trust, in which the model described in the book, and if work is not so good. And quite a significant increase in the number of public spaces as if Moscow does not yet led to increased levels of self-organization and solidarity. The question arises: how exactly all of what Hollis says, should appear in the annex to Russia? Almost at the very beginning of the book it states that “almost all the cities of the world arose not by the will of kings founding or capricious gods, and thanks to the geographical and other circumstances.” But even this is not about us. As he wrote more Klyuchevskii Basil, “the majority of new cities and towns of the Moscow State did not arise as a result of the economic needs of the country, but due to reasons of State, by order of the Government.” Hollis makes the assumption that the crystallization process can encourage mutual trust, and then due to natural human inclinations, he will go by itself, you only need to create the conditions. It would be nice to see how these considerations apply to the reality in which we live – Russian readers of this book.

In the “city of good for you,” a lot of entertaining and instructive stories, one of which I want to bring the end. Hollis tells the story of the artist Stefan Sagmeister installation established in Amsterdam – one of the most liberal cities in the world. We are talking about a street collage of 250,000 coins laid out across the street in the form of the inscription “Obsession spoils my life, but it helps to work.” Artist and curator of the “intention to ensure free access to the collage that people interact with it on your own, – if some coin disappear, then so be it. The police, however, looked at the situation differently, and within 12 hours after the opening of the exhibition was declared the theft. By early morning the police had swept cents bags, organizers said that by doing so they “provide security” installation. ” The moral here is that the proposed Hollis approach would require, in addition to localization, more and answer the question: how to teach the police – to start at least in Amsterdam – to distinguish spontaneous order from disorder. There is no sense that there exists a right answer here and so, at times.

Let us hope that we – in the city, and the city “helps us to show our best qualities: in it we begin to trust each other and to think not only about themselves, become part of a large and complex whole.” Well, at least partly.

September 21, 2015 / Leo Hollis

Dear Saddiq Khan: an Open Letter


Dear Saddiq Khan

Congratulations on gaining the Labour nomination for the London Mayor. It couldn’t be a more important time to rethink the role of Mayor of London as well as the nature and identity of the city itself. London is undoubtedly one of the greatest cities in the world – on this we can agree with Boris Johnson – but despite this being MY city, the place where I was born, and the city in which I wish to raise my own children, London is cruel, brutish and unequal place.

On the one hand the city is named by estate agents and banks as an alpha plus plus city, second only to New York. This is a magnet for foreign investment, place to make healthy profits without too many questions and then have unenviable choice of ways of spending it. There are plenty of statistics that show that London is a honey trap for the world’s 1%, and that this is transforming the form and the everyday running of the city.

The recently published map by Private Eye that showed every leasehold and freehold deal done in the UK by offshore company between 2005 and 2014: makes for chastening exploration.   

For Boris, like Mayor Bloomberg in New York, attracting the rich was considered the best way to raise up the rest of the city. The metropolis would help itself from the top down. But this has been a failure – and you must not repeat the same urban myth-making. Instead of city making, this process has created an unfair and fragile city. In the last decade or so our home has become closed off, thus increasingly uncivil and – perhaps most dangerous – less sustainable.

London is certainly a great world city, but it is currently not great for everyone. Walk around this place we both call home and you can find the dreams of the city are transcribed across the constructors’ hoardings that encircle London’s building sites. These words turn the bricks, steel and glass that are emerging out from the guts of the earth, into unobtainable aspirations. They foretell of a home that shuts away all the travails of the metropolis, enveloped in luxurious comfort (because you are worth it); or a new office space that promises to be a crucible of Midas-like fortunes. They picture a future un-teathered from the complexities of the present.  

Where Kingsway meets Holborn, we are told to ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’. On Bishopsgate, on the east side of the financial centre, the ‘Unsquare Mile’ promises to be ‘flexible, creative work space.’ On the Isle of Dogs, we are told ‘It will feel like Venice and work like New York’. Hackney Square announces itself with a picture of two hipsters – the man with the requisite waxed moustache: ‘This is the Definition of Urban Living’. (What they are selling is a new development where once stood the Queen Elizabeth’s Children’s Hospital). And my favourite, the revolutionary workspace on the City Road: ‘White Collar Factory’.

Such dreams are, of course, a sleight of hand; they are a three card monte that shuffles in front our our eyes our desire for a place that we feel we deserve, the calculation that the ground beneath our feet is being measured, priced and sold, and the truth that the city that we call home is becoming ever more a place of inequality, risk and exclusion. Our common places have become complicated financial instruments, packaged up, priced and marketed; often without us even noticing until it is too late.

Most discussion of the future London are informed by the belief that, in order for the metropolis to be revived, it must be privatised; that the old, the unproductive, must be replaced, pushed out, in order to make way for the new and the economically productive. Every corner of the city, every moment of the day, must be made to be as profitable as possible. And according to the mantra of the free market, private ownership is the best route to add value, to make a space productive once more.  

Privatisation is proffered as the solution for how to improve quality of life. You can not open a newspaper without a story about the next calamity in the housing crisis, or how we are becoming more unequal, yet these are signals of a much deeper problem. London is living through a period of rapid enclosure: the spaces where we live our everyday lives are being measured, given a value, and sold to the highest bidder. This process of financialisation and privatisation turns a universal common wealth into a portfolio of assets, to be traded in a global market. This process has seeped into every corner of the city. It defines who is allowed to be part of the metropolis; it affects our relationships with each other, the places where we come together: home, work, public spaces and the corners that we hope to keep private.

In the end, the damage of this rampant enclosure is not to the fabric of the city but, more urgently, to us.

Growing inequality – unlike what Boris said – does not inspire innovation, but rather has a devastating impact on health, and the loss of trust that makes a city work. As the spaces of the city becomes divided, enclosed and privatised, so this has a damaging effect on how we live together. The loss of public space where we can come together, we lose the chance to become citizens, and this also have an effect on our creativity.  

These things are all connected by one question – that you must ask yourself as you start your campaign: who is London for? This is the key question as rich foreigners continue to invest in London real estate and never visit while at the same time thousands of families are forced to move out of the city by the very councils that were created to protect them. In April this was announced that 50,000 families had been sent out of the city since 2011. For others, the cost of living is becoming impossible as rents continue to rise as private landowners take more and more of the city.

Who is London For? This question sets out a commitment to a certain idea of the city? It forces us to consider the question of belonging – as a home, a social community, a place of potential flourishing, a set of behaviours that define citizenship. We must consider:

  • A place that is open to all.
  • A space of common wealth: a place that can be shared by all, for all.
  • a more social urbanism: where the city is designed and planned around people who live there rather than the other way around.

From this vital question, we can then consider the values that we believe make up a fairer city: equality, trust and sustainability.

Without a consideration of this social urbanism we can not really start to think – and rethink – the way the city runs: housing, transit, innovation and work, health and policing. It will help us understand how technology might be used to make the city more efficient rather than falling for the unthinking seductions of the smart city, or the internet of things. Undoubtedly, these innovations will change the city but they do not make up the city: we do.

In your campaign, start here. It will not provide every answer but it offers an idea of the city that can be good for us all. Thus we must always keep the key question: who is London for.

September 21, 2015 / Leo Hollis

London Vernacular


(This article appeared in Icon Magazine, September 2015)

Getting off the train at Stratford, you are offered two very distinctive versions of the newly regenerated neighbourhood. Head southwards, take the bridge that crosses over the tracks and within five minutes you reach the Carpenter Estate, a collection of council houses, organised around three 1967 tower blocks. The estate has been earmarked for demolition and today looks the worse for wear. The streets have been decanted of people in order to make room for new housing. The locals have not gone without a fight, arguing that the fabric of the traditional streets of brick houses is sound and that this place can still be home to a thriving community.

Return to the station and make one’s way through the bustle of Westfields towards the new housing areas within the Queen Elizabeth Park; here one finds a different story. This is the fastest growing housing development in the capital. By 2030 there will be homes for over 10,000 people. Each area has been renamed to infuse the once industrial ground into a buccolic idyll: East Village, Chobham Manor, Sweetwater, Pudding Mill. Much attention has been taken on the fabric of the new housing, according to the marketing material ‘contemporary homes taking lessons from London’s traditional Georgian and Victorian squares and terraces, looking out over parklands and waterways’.

Both places – the discarded Carpenters Estate and the new Olympolis developments – are expressions of London Vernacular. While one is criticised for being unfit for purpose, the other is raised as the answer to the modern Londoner’s desires for sophisticated design, public planning and convenient urban living. Why are they being treated so differently?

In the recent pamphlet from Urban Design London, ‘A New London Housing Vernacular’, authors David Birkbeck and Julian Hart, identify a change that has occurred in the last 5 years, wiping the colour and variety from the faces of the capital’s recent new developments. There are subtle additions and features: more homes on the ground floor with their own front doors, as well as less shared access space for the other residents. The elevations are predominantly faced with brickwork, punched with featureless, recessed windows. If there are balconies, they are also recessed and in brick. There is often semi-public private space in front of the building, but designed as shrub beds rather than a garden or play areas: green, planted non-space.

One of the principles of this new vernacular was a return to the Georgian syntax of the London street. This was partly dictated by City Hall. While Ken Livingstone encouraged increased density and large developments, Mayor Johnson was concerned that the drive for numbers reduced quality. This culminated in the 2009 London Housing Guide, that co-incided with the housing based credit crunch that swiftly double-downed into the Great Recession. The Guide emphasised the honest typography of traditional 19th century street, replacing the colour splash facades, barcodes, and wave feature roof with a restrained, almost blank face, ordered fenestration, and a parapet that often topping the recessed penthouse.

Was this a return to more simple or honest times – where new developments take on the utilitarian signature of interwar council housing? Perhaps, but also remember these were buildings created by developers, and as a result the London Vernacular is an expression of their reading of the market. What are they telling us about the future of the city?

Most clear is the importance of the reduction of risk, of sales, as well as design and construction. These new blocks are easier, and often cheaper, to build. This is an important factor as land prices continue to soar. These are buildings that offer satisfactions on the computer screen, the brickwork picked out in pixels, as well as in the marketing brochure. From the outside, it is impossible to say how the interior is organised: the size of the units, the number of bedrooms, therefore avoiding the embarrassments of luxury, in contrast to the flashy non-dom investment empty towers elsewhere in the city. Some of the flats might even be affordable housing, but you can’t tell from the outside.

The New London Vernacular is dictated by the developers to mitigate risk, rather than offer the ‘hard working Londoner’ the home of their dreams. Rather than appeal to homely desires of the buyer, its prioritised the developer’s ability frictionlessly to shift product. And this gets to the heart of the paradox of the neoliberal city. This doctrine suggests that the London of the 21st century is being redeveloped according to principles that offers the consumer infinite choice, but in fact we are offered acres of the same. As political economist William Davies noted when he walked around Stratford in 2014, it is not arbitrary that while the Carpenters Estate is deigned ‘inefficient’, its modern incarnation – new, regenerated East Village- fills the windows of the estate agents, marked as a good investment.
This is not laziness in the normal sense of the word. There is nothing lazy about the developer’s pursuit of a design that mitigates risk in pursuit of a 20% return for their investors. But their goals are longer aligned with those who have to live there afterwards. Rather, the developers display a sloth that Dante revealed in the fourth terrace of Purgatory: the moral laziness found in the failure of will or courage to pursue virtue. Rather than ‘city-making’, the idea of rebuilding the city, the New Jerusalem that inspired the Carpenters Estate (however flawed and unachieved), we are being sold the small beer of place-making, a short term strategy with narrow horizons.  London deserves more than that.  

August 20, 2015 / Leo Hollis

TEDx Ghent talk: Who is The City For?

July 14, 2015 / Leo Hollis

The Problem with Protected Views

Oxford is under threat. In recent months, the council has been responding to widespread concerns that the city of “dreaming spires” was about to be swamped by a rash of tall new buildings. As a result, alongside English Heritage and other agencies, the council has devised policies that create a series of protected views, triangular sections that cut across the map in order to preserve the vertical skyline of the city.

A selection of city panoramas from particular points of historic or local interest have been protected, taking in not just individual historical buildings but also the topography, the city as a landscape of natural features, variegated heights and forms, combining into a pleasing image. As the interim report for the Oxford Views study says, this harmony is constantly in jeopardy, facing “the continuing challenges of building within the city to meet the demands of a modern society.”

What is the right shape for a city? This is a question that underpins the policy of protected views today. Since the 1960s, different city governments have looked at the preservation of views as a way of controlling the shape, in particular the vertical outline, of cities. How tall should a building be and where should it fit in? Are skyscrapers only for downtown? What kind of building – office, monument, apartment block – should be allowed to rise into the sky? What can it obscure and what must it not overshadow? Like with the green belt, devised in the 1930s to limit the outward expansion of the city in the face of railways and the car, today we face a crisis of verticality.

Protected views are a fluid combination of concerns relating to the transformation of the city. For some, cities are changing too fast and in the wrong places. They are losing their character and being replaced by an ubitquitous glass and steel architecture that offers no sense of location. Tall towers are replacing the human scale of the city’s heritage. We are destroying the role of topography, ignoring and overpowering that natural surrounding that gives the city a sense of place. Protected views are ways of managing change: restricting growth in some parts, ring-fencing and preserving the significant aspects. It prioritises the ocular encounter with the city. The metropolis must “look” right to be right.

Vancouver was one of the first cities to organise its preservation policy in the late 1980s according to a series of “view corridors” that took in the balance between a rising downtown, the port and waterways and the North Shore mountains in the background.

At the same time, there was public concern about the “Manhattanisation” of the financial district of San Francisco that many people thought would damage the “city pattern”. This was developed into a general plan passed into law in 1995, including the preservation of “major views whenever it is feasible, with special attention to the characteristic views of open space and water that reflect the natural setting of the city and give a colourful and refreshing contrast to man’s development.”

A similar commitment to preserving London’s heritage with the development of “sightlines” was included in the 2004 London plan, published by mayor Ken Livingstone, and based around the aspects and panorama that include historical sites such as St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Westminster Palace.

This makes a certain amount of sense at first impression. Who could disagree with the idea that the view from Parliament Hill towards the dome of St Paul’s is not one of the delights of London’s skyline? Or that the shape of the shoreline from the castle ground is a wonder to encounter, having made the steep climb up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh? But there are a number of assumptions about what the city is, and what it should be, that are often lost in the presentation.

For example, are protected views the best way to preserve the heritage of the city? The 2006 Street View study conducted by Edinburgh city council noted some places were “fundamental” to the city, and key views were “precious” and even “sacrosanct” in providing a “sense of the city”. Nine significant locations were then identified, with a series of views from multiple angles drawn on to the map and a calculation for the “sky space” around the sites in order to allow its view to remain unhindered. In addition, 22 landscape areas were highlighted for special consideration.

In the end, however, the map of the city is so criss-crossed with view cones that it makes development difficult. How can we be sure that this does not turn the city into a museum?

The San Francisco general plan was created in horror at the rapid mushrooming of alien towers in the financial district

Such restrictions can be creative, encouraging planner and architect to think about their designs fitting into the grain of the place, in conversation with their surroundings rather than standing alone in the landscape. However, there are other strains that put pressure on the existing fabric of the city and raise questions about the efficacy of protected views.

A few weeks ago, I stood at the top of San Francisco’s Dolores Park, looking back across the city towards downtown. The city flows, undulating across the landscape, with clusters of three- and four-storey houses, offices and the odd church tower breaking the surface, until it crests with the rising heights of the warehouses and factory buildings – now converted into lofts and startup offices, such as the Twitter offices on Market St, in SoMa, the municipal buildings that huddle around the Civic Centre, and, in the background, the shining towers of the financial district. The buildings follow the curves of the hills and the valleys.

This landscape was the result of time and changing planning policies, as well as a contested idea of what the “city pattern” should be. The San Francisco general plan itself was created in horror at the rapid growth of the downtown, the mushrooming of alien towers in the financial district. But now the crisis is not of new office and retail spaces, but housing. As our cities grow, where do we fit everyone?

During my visit, the main topic of debate was gentrification: how young, educated workers – often earning huge amounts in jobs in nearby Silicon Valley – were moving into downtown neighbourhoods, displacing the local communities. You can see that the Mission neighbourhood has already changed from a predominantly Mexican one to artisan coffee shops, interior decorating parlours and bike workshops. The same is happening in every major city of the world.

Without building more housing, the city will squeeze out those who can least afford it: and the best way to build with the necessary kind of density in mind is upwards. In the face of this escalating demand for housing, the mayor Ed Lee, a former housing campaigner from Chinatown, proposed 30,000 new units by 2020. In other places, changing policy in height restrictions has become par for the course.

In 2010, Vancouver voted to raise the height of the city outside the view cones from 600ft to 700ft, and in every subsequent year has conducted height reviews to allow for taller buildings in exchange for investment in social projects. In the same year, Paris relaxed its maximum height to 590ft. In 2014, President Obama signed an amendment to Washington DC’s 1910 Height Act that allowed for the building of penthouses to existing tall buildings in the district.

If the height of a building is itself a moving target, is the policy of protected views perhaps less useful than imagined? As the example of London proves, this policy has done very little to curb development, and has, perhaps, even made the rash of new luxury housing towers that have erupted across the city more blighted. In particular it has shown that the policy of protected views is as much to do with political machinations of mayors, planners and developers as it is a vision of what the city of the future should look like.

The city’s strategic view policy was first proposed in mayor Livingstone’s 2005 London plan, with a list of 26 views. Notably, this was the year after the completion of 30 St Mary’s Axe, the Gherkin, that heralded the vertical turn in London planning. The policy was intended to preserve some of the low level but historically significant aspects of the city; both places and scenes. Since then we have suffered an outbreak of towers that symbolise not just a rising up of the city, but a new strategy of investment and development that has very little interest in the past, instead turning the metropolis into a landbank.

Planning for the policy started long before the idea of a mayor of London was even mooted. A view management guide was first issued by the Major government in 1991, which hoped to define the nation as a place of warm beer and the village green. This was handed over to City Hall when it was invented in 2000. Livingstone saw the policy as a way of managing development rather than restricting it.

In his first review, he reduced the viewing cones from 440m to 210m, while rules governing the views along the Thames were relaxed. Tellingly, the document notes that the mayor and local planning officers should “normally refuse” all developments within the view cones, of course allowing a trap door out of the policy altogether. Mayor Johnson, while claiming to see London as a horizontal city, has found it useful, on occasion, to put his personal rubber stamp upon a project to see it go through.

This makes the whole policy a value judgement by those in positions of power. Take, for example, the identity of the London skyline itself that was questioned in 2011 by the chief planning officer of the City of London, Peter Rees. He pointed out: “London doesn’t have a skyline, it’s had a series of chance events which, apart from St Paul’s, isn’t very distinctive.” What better argument against the preservation of the city skyline than saying it never existed in the first place?

Thus, when we see development flourishing in places such as Vauxhall, Victoria and Southwark, we can no longer be sure that it abides either by the London View Management Framework [LVMF] or by some form of political expediency. It is also clear that, as these large schemes continue to rise, public consultation and involvement is becoming increasingly pushed away and ignored. For City Hall, Londoners are not necessarily the first customer that needs to be looked after.

The policy of protected views is clearly, more often than not, a short term political opportunity rather than a philosophy of urban planning. The truth is that a policy that appeared to find purchase in the 1980s and 1990s, driven by a fear of an empty downtown, no longer makes any sense. Instead, what the policy has done is to see the city from a distance, and, as a result, the people who actually live and work there appear very small; often invisible.

So Oxford should not believe that they will save the city of spires just by creating view cones that traverse the city. Rather, the city needs to develop a programme for growth that takes into account not just the architecture but also the people that live their everyday lives between these monuments.

July 14, 2015 / Leo Hollis

The Losers in the Northern Powerhouse

In October 2013, the Economist suggested that, rather than third-tier cities such as Hull, Huddersfield and Wolverhampton continuing to be subsidised, they should be allowed to decline. Rather than creating “enterprise zones”, ploughing pupil premiums into decaying schools or investing in infrastructure projects, the government should support the people who want to find jobs elsewhere, most likely at the fringes of the big cities already emerging from the recession.

This was not the story that was being presented at last week’s launch of chancellor George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” project, but it is difficult not to see it as the inevitable conclusion of this new drive to revive and renew the north. Undoubtedly there will be those who benefit from this devolution of powers to individual cities unlocking hidden potential and new wealth. But it will also widen the gaps between those who can jump on the bandwagon, and those who can’t. This metropolitan revolution will further starve those secondary cities and towns most affected by the long decline of industry and the recession.

Some may find it baffling that the Tories would hand power away from Westminster to cities that only last week committed themselves to Labour – but it makes a certain sense. The general election made clear the stark contrast between an urban red and rural blue as much as it highlighted nationalist divisions. Either way, everyone can agree that London is too powerful. Yet the problem is not that London is too big, but that the other cities – starved of resources since the centralising 80s – are too small. Devolution must act as a pull, rather than a push.

The northern powerhouse idea is part of a wider urban change that can be seen to be influencing policy across the major nations. It follows the philosophy promoted by the US academic Benjamin Barber and the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Katz that national government has had its day, and a mayor, at city level, is best placed to react to the situation on the ground, providing the local politics needed to get things done. The future is urban, and cities are doing it for themselves. These ideas are good for boosting those cities that can connect themselves to the global economic network; it offers nothing for those that can’t.

Thus, Greater Manchester looks set to prosper. In exchange for fiscal powers, the city will take control of transport, and other public services – policing, skills, housing, enterprise zones. From February, the city took control of its £6bn health budget. According to the Core Cities group that includes Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds and Liverpool, this process of devolution could deliver an additional £222bn and 1.6m jobs – the equivalent of the total economy of Denmark.

This is going to happen. Already a minister, James Wharton, has been named to take charge of the northern powerhouse initiative, while Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who ran the city growth commission at the RSA last year, has been awarded the role of commercial secretary to the Treasury. I sincerely hope that they can get this right. A level of metropolitan devolution is not just a good idea but an inevitable one: cities need to have control over how they grow both economically and as places – planning the future, developing skills and enterprise.

But we cannot ignore the context in which these powers are being redistributed. The election results gave the government a ringing endorsement for austerity and a free hand to apply deeper cuts. Devolution is not just the opportunity to localise economic growth, but also to parcel out the pain. So, what else is going on here?

Devolution will make London and the south-east stronger and even richer. The Tories have long been convinced that the capital subsidises the rest of the country: in 2012 it was estimated that £1 in every £5 earned in London was spent outside of the city. The truth is more complicated – there are more public works in London and the south-east than anywhere else – but the impression remains that bankers’ taxes pay for Benefits Street. Devolution reduces this flow northward, as each city has to find its own revenue.

Second, it will break up the last remnants of the national welfare state. This will shatter the NHS into local hubs, each with its own budget and administration. Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham was quick to see this as another form of privatisation. Similarly schools and skills are being handed to an increasingly commercialised local regime. Do we expect these groups to work in harmony or to become competitive over decreasing resources? What if the city cannot afford to pay its bills? How does a city borrow to fund large-scale projects, such as housing?

Osborne’s rose-tinted image shows the development of an urban mega-region: the agglomeration of metropolitan centres linked together by large public infrastructural projects. This will allow one to live in Leeds but be at a meeting in Manchester in 40 minutes. Last year Jim O’Neill suggested a way of creating “Manpool” out of the two major cities of the north-west, and a “Sunderpool” for the north-east. But it will take more than rail track to unite the north; Yorkshire already has much to say about the prioritising of Manchester as the nominal capital of the north.

And what of those places that will need a bit more help to enjoy the benefits of this metropolitan revolution. The north is not one place, seen only in contrast to the south. It is an uneven territory within its own boundaries. There will be winners in this new era but there will also be plenty of losers: communities that are still struggling in the face of wanton austerity and a bleak economic outlook. These are often places with compounded problems of skills shortage, health deficit and a lack of jobs. For cities and towns like this, becoming part of the “northern powerhouse” might just make things tougher – and even spell their extinction.

July 14, 2015 / Leo Hollis

The Problem with Cities and Crowdfunding

Earlier this week, another project achieved its funding target on Kickstarter – the Thames Baths, an innovative plan by a team of young British architects to bring swimming back to the Thames. Inspired by similar projects in Paris, Berlin and Copenhagen, the project raised £125,000 for its first big stage, crossing the line with four days to go on the back of endorsements from Tracey Emin and David Walliams to New London Architecture and the Outdoor Swimming Society.

The “baths” in question will be a floating lido, filled with gently heated Thames water, on a pontoon that rises and falls with the tide and is connected to the shore. It will contain a 25-metre lap pool, and a smaller training pool for all types of swimmers. The water will be naturally filtered, simultaneously working to purify the Thames and mitigating fears of “Bermondsey belly”.

It is refreshing to see a new public space being suggested for the heart of the city. In recent years, so much of London has been divided into places that give the impression of being public, but carry heavy corporate sponsorship, constant surveillance and discreet policies of exclusion that decide who is welcome and who is not. From “poor doors” to Paternoster Square and the gated stretches of the supposedly public Thames Pathway, this exclusion is subtle. I like to call it “Jane-washing”: plans that give the appearance of following the creed of urbanist Jane Jacobs (who celebrated the relationship between place and community) but without any commitment to genuine free movement of people. At best, it produces an eerie, business-park cleanliness, fringed by neatly curated shrubbery; at worst, empty, sterile places where no one wants to be.

The Thames Baths (if it goes ahead) is important as a new public space, and was also crowdfunded by over 1,200 individuals in pledges from £1 to £5,000, rather than being created by private investors or corporate interests. The team pledges to keep the Baths a public facility, and has set up the project as a Community Interest Company (CIC) to ensure that all the money is legally reserved for the social goals of the project. Nevertheless, there will be deals and negotiations as it moves closer to its goal, and it is highly likely that the team will seek private investment to see it to completion.

One of the team, architect Chris Romer-Lee, is a friend of mine, and I look forward to the first time that I can dive into the Thames water without fearing for my health and safety. Nonetheless, the use of crowdfunding for large urban projects concerns me. Since Joseph Pulitzer raised $100,000 for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, there have always been campaigns for gathering funds for public projects, from church funds to local fetes – and recently Britain has seen a number of successful campaigns to crowdfund both essential and more light-hearted projects.

On Saturday, The Line will open: a sculpture walk through east London, from the O2 to the Olympic Park, following the Lea Valley, with pieces from artists such as Anthony Gormley, Damien Hirst and Bill Viola placed along the way. Having raised £140,000 from charities and private donations, the project is intended to revive a neglected part of the city. But it is difficult to see it outside the context of the regeneration program for Canning Town, one of the poorest boroughs in London, and the housing bonanza that occurred in Stratford around the 2012 games. Good intentions or no, The Line might become part of a larger process of gentrification in the East End.

The same crowdfunding platform on which The Line struck gold, Spacehive, has specialised in funding a range of urban projects, including raising £792,000 for the Glyncoch Community Centre. It has spun off a series of local programmes, such as the Camden Hive – which promotes 11 projects, from a mushroom farm to restoring a local spire – and the #MakeMCR project in Manchester, which works with the city council and other civic and commercial partners to discover local innovation.

Do these online platforms offer a good alternative to traditional civic planning and investment? In many occasions, it might appear so. The success of crowdfunding can give the impression that such schemes replace the obligation of local government to provide for its constituents. This is wrong-headed, to be sure, but is already happening: Belsize Community Library, for example, is being threatened with closure unless it can find a lifeline with local fundraising.

Then there’s the question of whether these projects give preferential treatment to people who have a spare £50 to pitch in. The Thames Baths has not offered investors any special swimming lanes, for example, but Kickstarter encourages preferential treatment through its tiers of donation.

Nor does crowdfunding present a reliable line of aid. The Invisible City, a series of tree houses in Regent’s Park, failed to get funding despite the support of celebrities such as Helena Bonham Carter – an example that shows that projects need communities as much as funds.

One alternative that could combine the community strengths of crowdfunding with the less exciting, but equally important, responsibilities of government to provide public services for citizens is participatory budgeting. This sets aside a certain percentage of City Hall’s funds for projects that are voted on by citizens. Recently, in Paris, 5% of City Hall investment budget was put to a poll, which was won by a series of “garden walls”; there was lots of interest, too, in developing public space for music and for recycling projects.

In London, we remain dependent on councils, the mayor and corporations for funding. I suspect that if Boris Johnson were to put the Thames Baths to a referendum against the Garden Bridge, which has already secured public funding with no public consultation, it would be a very tight vote.


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