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.
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.
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.
In a recent article I refer to ‘Jane Washing’, [http://www.shareable.net/blog/why-startup-urbanism-will-fail-us] as a way of describing how many people who are focussed on the development of the new city, adopt the appearance of Jane Jacobs without learning the true lessons of her ideas. I wonder if the name stands up to scrutiny, and can be usefully adopted as a way of identify an increasing practise, rhetoric, imagery, and so on, that circles around so many debates on the city – from place-making, realty publicity, planning propaganda to community building.
To return to the source. In ‘Death…’ Jacobs writes one of the most vibrant and thrilling portraits of urban life: the view from the doorstep at 555 Hudson Street, West Village, across the course of an ordinary day. Here she observes how trust and a social complexity that defines one kind of urban community permeates relationships and the general temperature of the street:
‘never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations . . . Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its moorings to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son in law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s supervisor depositing her chunky three year old with a toy mandolin on the stoop.
And so it continues… with the lunch time crowd; the early evening games of the local teenagers, ‘a time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottle tops and plastic cowboys’. Until the end of the day when all that was left was the muffled sounds of parties, singing, the distant siren of the police car. She sums it up with this simple conclusion: ‘Something is always going on, the ballet is never at a halt, but the general effect is peaceful and the general tenor is leisurely. People who know well such animate city streets will know how it is.’
This is the kind of emergent urbanism that is simulated in the developer’s videos that are used to advertise all new projects. It is seen in the pixelated couples and children that fill up the supposed public space that will be, displayed in their perfect interactions.
Originally I was looking at Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project and how the re-creation of the one down at heel old centre of the city as the co-working capital of the world, was just another way of talking about the violence of gentrification. In his original dream, Hsieh wanted to do more than just build a company town, he wanted to create a city based on costumer service ethos. This is the kind of marketing clap-trap that says things like ‘Move fast, and break things’.
This liturgy of disruption was based on the notion that creativity is based on unexpected coming together- the serendipity of the street corner. This, however, was reduced to a meaningless calculus of ‘collisionability’. Note, again the violence in the language. While giving the impression of being a city for laid-back cereal eaters who wanted to hang out and do great stuff, it offered inequality.
This is ‘Jane Washing’: While taking on the image of the street ballet it forgets another of Jacob’s key notions about what makes a neighbourhood, as she notes: ‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’ It is not just what you do, but how you do it, and for whom it is done.
We urbanist should take some of the blame for this slippage. In our celebration of ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ we often forget where it came from. It is too often forgotten in the hagiographic portrait of Jacobs that proliferate so much writing about the city today that she wrote in anger. The power of ‘The Death . . .’, is not its reassuring portrait of neighbourhood life, but in its wrath. It is a political book that takes on the most powerful forces in New York, Robert Moses, the city postwar ‘Master Planner’ and refuses to give an inch. Jacob’s description of the street ballet was a stinging rebuke to Moses’s plans to demolish parts of Greenwich Village to accommodate the LOMEX, Lower Manhattan Expressway. This was a protest that Jacobs believed in, to the extent that after one public hearing where she held the stage and organised a walk out, she was arrested for disturbing the peace. In the Post on the next day, it was reported that she ‘couldn’t be arrested for a better cause.’
This is why we can sometimes be fooled by ideas like ‘the co-working capital of the World’ because it sounds right. This is also true of the Bloomberg mantra ‘Building like Moses, with Jacobs in mind’ with the hope that lessons had finally been learnt, and the circled squared. Of course, that project ended in up-zoning, rampant inequality and the kind of luxury concentration camps growing up around Hudson Yards.
Perhaps the most clear example of Jane Washing in London is the Garden Bridge. Explore the recent planning images used for the planning application process that has recently been accept by the GLA, and Mayor Boris Johnson. The designs show an oasis in the centre of the city. Couples wander through the eternal springtime. It is never congested – there are few children, it is a place of young couples. There is time for contemplation. it is always morning, a new day. The perspective is always towards the east, and towards the financial capital which glistens.
In most cases, it is fair to say, there are few criticism of the actual design, composed by Thomas Hetherwick’s studio and ARUP. Rather the problem can be found not in the ‘what’ but the ‘why’? and the ‘Who?’ Who is the bridge for. Even before it is built it has set out the rules of who belongs and who does’t as if the definition of its citizenship is as important as its structure.
It is a place of couples and families, but not groups. Any number over eight needs to get permission before arrival. This might mean some kind of ticketing. It will be shut between midnight and 6am. there are rules for bikes, too, and clearly if they are planning for 300,000 on a busy Saturday and only 2,500 can be on it at any one time – this will neither look like the pictures nor feel like a free, and open space. In fact while give the image of being a green and embracing environment, it will result in only a very fragile place.
These are not free spaces. They are not public spaces. They have nothing in common with Jacob’s observations of what makes a city work. In fact, these places accelerate inequality, and exacerbate difference. ‘Jane washing’ is a form of disguised exclusion because it makes those who are not welcome disappear. They are the things that are broken in the velocity of disruption, and crushed by the violence of collisionability.
As a young man I began walking around my home city in the same spirit as might a new arrival entering London for the first time. I spent weekends on foot, uncovering the stories of the past, first weaving together the historical narratives found in the monuments and architectural wonders; then finding others stories, less well-known, that offered new stories and threads.
Walking the streets led me to think about the history of the place, the people who once were here, and what they left behind. The city seems to reveal itself in geological strata, but this is a rough and uneven layering: Roman, Tudor, the dark capital of the Enlightenment, the industrial metropolis, the modern megacity. At moments, time collapses and the past reveals themselves in the street pattern, a monument, a connection across centuries. Today, the city is the place where I live but also who I am. London is now a part of my identity, twisting through my DNA like an invisible third spiral of a helix.
But it is no longer London’s places that draw me back to the city every time I leave it. Cities are made out of people, not buildings, and it is in the crowds that one learns the most about London. A city, this city, is an unfolding narrative that is forever expanding, crowd-sourced, and freely edited by anyone who cares to do so.
Rather than looking for a single explanation, or a unique function, we must therefore consider the city as the interaction of different, albeit defined, parts. Instead of seeing London as a still point, a solitary moment, we should see it as a flow of bodies, goods, ideas, fixed structures and unreliable time. And, perhaps, somewhere in that fluidity we can find the soul of the place.
Thus the city offers itself up in different ways: for an economist London is a money machine; for an architect, it is the place where flesh meets stone; for an immigrant it is the hope of home; for a free runner it is an assault course to be conquered. The city is busy with diverse activity, bumping into each other, interweaving. This is the London that I found when I first went out into the city many years ago. It is the face of the metropolis that is forever changing: open, inclusive and alive.
The city is made of places where people come together, where the tributaries of the human city flow into each other, causing, whirls, eddies and counter currents. These common spaces of London are too often ignored and, as a result, are undervalued. But they have powerful effects on those who come here. The public spaces of the city are where we interact and learn how to be with each other: this need not be the grand, official spaces of the city, but can be found on any neighbourly street.
This is an urban complexity that has taken many years to evolve. More often than not we take it for granted, but unlike many of the ways that Big Data quantifies the city, this is a quality that cannot be counted, or reduced to number. Nevertheless we are all too aware of its absence once it has disappeared. This vital complexity cannot be built, or planned into the design of a place but comes when that place is used and is integrated seamlessly into people’s everyday lives. It cannot be defined by contract, but is a place where some aspect of common ownership has been negotiated by action. This spirit can not be given a price or be sold.
These are urgent lessons, for some parts of London are coming to resemble a ghost house, such as the empty residences found in Mayfair and Belgravia. Here the super rich have invested in the market, creating a land bank of grand terraces and squares. Thus the house – and the city – is no longer a home but an asset to be traded. The ghost house is the spectre that haunts more than the streets and neighbourhoods in which they sit, but the whole metropolis.
This calamity is the result of London’s popularity. In this year’s edition of Knight Frank’s annual report on wealth management, The Wealth Report, London was ranked number one in their global cities index. How it got there was through being the most important city for the world’s ultra high net worth individuals, a position the city is expected to hold for the next decade. An accolade to some, but to me this is a threat: without action we could create a city that it closed, exclusive and dead.
London is caught between these two identities: the complex, human city versus the ghost house. These two different faces of the city are in a fluid tension, each offering an image of what the city could be, and whom the city might be for.
[this article originally appeared in the new Journal for the London Society: Join now! http://www.londonsociety.org.uk/
There are plenty of talks this month.
On 16th September, I will be responding to the brilliant Adam Greenfield, Mellon Fellow at LSE Cities, on his latest research into smart cities: http://lsecities.net/media/objects/events/a-city-worth-fighting-for
On 17th September, I am talking on the top floor of the Shard, about the changing landscape of London; talking with Roma Agrawal, who engineered the top floor: https://billetto.co.uk/events/54189
On 18th September, I will be on a boat on the Thames, as part of the Totally thames festival, talking with the designers of the proposal ‘Garden Bridge': http://totallythames.org/events/info/a-bridge-for-london
On 26th September, as part of the Battle of Ideas festival, I will be debating with Alastair Donald from Future Cities Project on whether ‘Cities are Good for Us?’ http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/2014/session_detail/9074
In 1958, three years before her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote an article called “Downtown Is for People.” In it she noted:
The street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights. It is the major point of transaction and communication. Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.
Jacobs feared that this chaotic but human landscape was under threat, lost forever in the rationalizing schemes of planners who desired order rather than life. The message has maintained its power, growing in urgency, so that today Jacobs has become the touchstone to whom all urbanists must pay homage. One of the accidents of this process is that her anger has become neutralized into a road map of acceptable truths. Her wrath has been reduced into unthreatening bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation.
Today, the same threats to Downtown are not as obvious as in 1958, but they are still there. The war against the big developers and master plans has been, in the main, won; but that does not necessarily mean we can be complacent. Now it seems that the main enemies of Jacobs’ Hudson Street Ballet are not knocking down neighborhoods and replacing them with highways. Instead, they speak the language of community to disguise their plans to make a killing. The Jacobs name is now frequently used by developers, urbanists, governments — and, more recently, technology startups — as a short-hand to signal metropolitan pleasures, when the true purpose can be something more venal. It has become increasingly prevalent to “Jane-wash” a project with the promise of bike lanes, placemaking, and walkability.
Case in point: In 2009, the CEO of Zappos.com, Tony Hsieh, invested $200 million of his own money in 55 acres — 20 blocks — in Downtown Las Vegas. Here, he planned to build the “coworking capital of the world” using his calculation for why cities are such extraordinary centers of innovation.
Hsieh’s plan, according to Wired, “was to spend much of his own personal fortune to transform this supposedly lifeless area about a mile north of the neon blitz of the Strip into an entrepreneurial tech nirvana.” For Slate, this gamble aimed to produce “a seemingly paradoxical utopia: a new Silicon Valley just blocks from the Las Vegas strip.” The name of Hsieh’s urban elixir is “collisionability” and is based on the idea that innovation, economic growth, and nothing less than the future springs from people bumping into each other.
Hsieh’s equation proposes that a place that encourages such encounters must surely be a creative place; and a place that increases the probability of collisions through design or planning is demonstrably super-innovative. In this living thought experiment, a good city space has an average density of around 100 people per acre. In addition, it is estimated that each resident should then be in Downtown Vegas for three to four hours a day. As a result, individual citizens should create about 1,000 “collisionable hours” a year.
But Hsieh’s creative mathematics are not just about size of population crashing into each other, but the urban space in which they are encouraged to collide. Using the calculation above, therefore, one can reach 100,000 collisions per acre per year. This can be measured even more precisely to 2.3 “collisionable hours” per square foot per year.
Thus the whole complex, social conundrum of the city is reduced to a number, and an utterly spurious one at that. And on such shallow foundations are set the hopes of “Startup Urbanism.” Here, one can find the seemingly perfect combination of compassionate urban regeneration and the progressive mantras of Silicon Valley capitalism.
On the surface, the Downtown Project appears to be a serious commitment to the Jacobs’ “ballet of the street.” It presents all the latest notions of the city as a sustainable, walkable, spontaneously creative space built out of the existing city. Inspired by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser’s free-market urbanist bible, The Triumph of the City, it takes the hacker ethos, the latest academic research, complexity theory and places them in the real world. If you go by what the mass media says, this is a bold move, a bet on the powers of the city.
But can one re-imagine the dynamics of the city in the same way one thinks about a tech startup? The rhetoric of Startup Urbanism offer a new vocabulary that foregrounds disruption, open source, and connectedness as values that can be transposed from the Internet straight onto the organization of our cities streets. It supposes that, if you can get the code right, the script will run without glitches. However, such technological solutionism is simplistic, naïve at best, and, more likely, dangerously short-sighted.
The city is not a startup. It is not a market than needs to be disrupted in order to stimulate competition and growth. The city is not a platform that can be hacked. Despite the optimistic talk, it is an old language that is being spoken here: Startup Urbanism is gentrification by another name.
Las Vegas is a fascinating test case for this new form of urban thinking. In a PowerPoint presentation given at the Techonomy conference in 2013, this philosophy is summed up in three essential alliterations: collisions, community, and co-learning — which, in turn, inevitably lead to “happiness, luckiness, innovation, and productivity.” In this vision, Downtown is more than a place where people meet, but an accelerator for “the most community-focused large city in the world.” And, in this figuration, the business of urbanism is transformed into “utopia delivery system” that can be packaged and sold, guaranteeing repeatable success.
In this way, Hsieh is not just investing in property, but hacking together an urban algorithm that can be used anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, the fact that Hsieh owns so much of the real estate in Downtown Las Vegas should raise questions. While the mainstream press generally sees Hsieh’s investment as bold, or even faintly humanitarian, he could just as easily be using the company he leads to inflate the value of the land he personally owns around Zappos’ campus. It looks to me like a scheme, albeit an extremely clever one, for Hsieh to make a huge personal killing by using Zappos to influence the local real estate market.
Furthermore, downtown Las Vegas is being developed like a startup. Hsieh’s project began in 2009 when Zappos moved its customer service department from San Francisco to Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas. Here, Hsieh continued perfecting Zappos’ corporate culture in the belief that if you got the company culture right, then great customer service would follow. In 2013, in a move that couldn’t symbolize Startup Urbanism more, Hsieh moved Zappos’ headquarters into the old Las Vegas City Hall. Now, Zappos’ company culture is spreading from the call center into the streets of Downtown.
Renovations have turned the old urban fabric into coworking hubs and sharing spaces. The whole place is being set up with WiFi. There is an outdoor mall constructed from shipping containers. There are plans for a cultural center, an exhibition and concert space, as well as a new, private charter schools and educational facilities with the most cutting-edge teaching resources.
The parks are starting to bloom and restaurants are popping up. And the message is starting to get out that Downtown is a place for entrepreneurs to start and grow their companies. Companies such as Zirtual and Tech Cocktail have launched from Downtown while the Chinese business OrderwithMe, that originally wanted to locate in Silicon Valley, changed their minds after two days with Hsieh. Today, The Downtown Project’s VegasTechFund has invested in 42 startups that have come to Vegas. Eventually, they want to attract 100,000 people to Downtown.
In this optimistic commitment to economic growth, Downtown faces the same issues that San Francisco and many of the other cities around the world that are racing to become tech and creative hubs. One side of the story highlights how cities have benefitted from success, creativity, and urban regeneration, but this obscures another narrative. In the Bay Area, the stories of rapidly rising rents, evictions, and protests against Google buses have become international news. Beyond the headlines, San Francisco, which Mayor Lee promotes as the innovation capital of the world, is also, not coincidentally, the inequality capital of the U.S. It now has the fastest-growing wealth gap in the U.S. and the highest housing cost.
These figures put into perspective the promises of the creative classes heralded by Richard Florida in his The Rise of the Creative Class that has informed so much urban policy in the decade since it was published. Florida, himself, was forced to examine the stark evidence of the impact of the last decade of gentrification under the guise of regeneration and hip urbanism. And he has had to admit that the creative class is actually part of the problem:
On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations.
As a result, the entry of highly mobile creative workers in neighborhoods almost always comes at the expense of the existing communities. By locating his campus inside the city rather than at the fringes, Hsieh was hoping to get a double whammy of innovation and creativity that comes from combining Silicon Valley work style with open urbanism. However, in Downtown Las Vegas, it appears that, in order to build the new center, the old community had to be “disappeared.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that local opposition to changes has mostly been ignored. For the poorer residents who lived there, this has resulted in rising real estate prices and the closure of local stores. As shopkeeper Hassan Massoumi exclaimed after he lost his store when the lease was not renewed, “My wife and I came here when no one else would. For 10 years, we worked seven days a week — not one day of vacation. Then one day, Tony Hsieh’s people tell us to get out of there.”
And for those that remain: Does everyone have to buy their daily food from the Downtown 3rd Farmers’ Market? Much has been made of the private schools and nurseries such as the 9th that use revolutionary educational techniques, but these cost up to $12,000 a year. It is telling that little is said about the parents who can’t afford these rates. Despite the marketing, this is the opposite of a diverse neighborhood in the making. Like so many examples of gentrification, these are the subtle mechanisms that sort out the unwanted from the desirable.
Another example of this dark side of Startup Urbanism can be found in London’s Tech City, which shows that governments make the same mistakes as private corporations. Launched in November 2010 by Prime Minister David Cameron in the Shoreditch district, Tech City was heralded as the European hub for tech innovation. The neighborhood was already popular among artists, designers, and startups — attracted by low rent and proximity to the City — but it was hoped that this initiative would make it a world-class business district.
However, in the years since the launch, Tech City has produced the opposite of what it hoped. “Silicon Roundabout” has now become popular among big corporations: Google, Cisco, McKinsey, and Intel have all invested here. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for a hungry, new startup to get desk space (nevermind artists). Tech City is driving out the very lifeblood that makes it an interesting and creative place. And, as a recent piece in Wired UK declared, it is also driving inequality.
These stories of “regeneration” — Las Vegas, San Francisco, and London — raise a number of questions about what, and who, the city is for. Like Tech City, the Downtown Project promises to be world class: the “Coworking Capital of the World.” It is keen to present itself as more than a one-industry town. The investment fund is meant to attract fashion, tech, education, music studios, food, and drink. These different groups will hopefully come together and feed off the atmosphere of creativity.
This is where the idea of “collisionability” is so potent. Hsieh’s algorithm is, of course, poppycock. The relationship between the development of good ideas and urban density is not a simple equation. But something else is being sold to us. While Silicon Valley urbanism turns the office into the city (Google’s Googleplex), in Las Vegas, Hsieh’s Start-up Urbanism turns the whole city into an office. Here, everyone is allowed to bump into each other (now that the old community has gone), but only the right kind of collisions are encouraged — the ones that promise profit. According to the Downtown story, every serendipitous “collision” has an underlying business purpose. A new company, a great app, a revolutionary marketing plan can emerge from every jump to the sidewalk.
It is clear that this is a community defined, and dominated, by work. When the office has no walls, work creeps into every corner of the city, and the mantra of “collisionability” seeks to exploit the business potential of every urban nook. There is no place where one is allowed to be unproductive. “Coworking” is, therefore, one of those words that needs to be approached with caution. Dismantling the walls of the traditional office space can be liberating and highly creative, but it can also deliver insecurity, division, and constant work. As community and business collapse into each other, does this leave any space in the city outside the marketplace? Is there anything except work, customer service, and the rules of 24/7 Capitalism?
The final slide in Tony Hsieh’s PowerPoint presentations reads:
is a story that never stops unfolding.
But the city is not a company; community is not a brand; citizenship cannot be mistaken for consumption. While Zappos claims that it can deliver happiness when they deliver shoes to your door, the same philosophy cannot — and should not — necessarily be translated to the city. This kind of thinking reduces the city to an algorithm, or customer service mantra, that is expected to produce the same predictable output repeatedly. It is just this kind of urbanism that we should be critical of when we think about the future of cities. A sharing city is one that is open to all, not the few. This can be achieved by working together, not coworking. The city is more than just office space, but a place to discover and nurture the values that make it more than the sum of its parts.