Regeneration on a human scale is at the heart of property developer Argent’s vision for London’s King’s Cross. Why can’t we do neighborhoods like this somewhere in Saskatoon?
Cities around the world are coming to the same conclusion: they’d be better off with far fewer cars. So what’s behind this seismic shift in our urban lifestyles? Stephen Moss goes on an epic (car-free) journey to find out
Vesco, the politician responsible for sustainable transport in Lyon, played a leading role in introducing the city’s Vélo’v bike-sharing scheme a decade ago. It has since been replicated in cities all over the world. Now, though, he is convinced that digital technology has changed the rules of the game, and will make possible the move away from cars that was unimaginable when Vélo’v launched in May 2005. “Digital information is the fuel of mobility,” he says. “Some transport sociologists say that information about mobility is 50% of mobility. The car will become an accessory to the smartphone.”
Vesco is nothing if not an evangelist. “Sharing is the new paradigm of urban mobility. Tomorrow, you will judge a city according to what it is adding to sharing. The more that we have people sharing transportation modes, public space, information and new services, the more attractive the city will be.”
The Vélo’v scheme is being extended, car clubs that use electric vehicles are being encouraged, and what Vesco calls a “collaborative platform” has been built to encourage ride-sharing by matching drivers with people seeking lifts. There is, he says, no longer any need for residents of Lyon to own a car. And he practises what he preaches – he doesn’t own one himself.
The number of cars entering the city has fallen by 20% over the past decade, without even a congestion-charging scheme (Vesco says it would impose a disproportionate burden on the less well-off, who tend to drive higher-polluting vehicles). And even though Lyon’s population is expected to rise by more than 10% over the next decade, he is targeting a further 20% drop in car use. The car parks that used to run alongside the banks of Lyon’s two rivers have already been removed, and human parks opened in their place. Vesco says someone returning to Lyon for the first time in a decade would barely recognise the city.
Birmingham, which vies with Manchester for the title of England’s second city, has been following the experience of Lyon and other European cities closely, and is now embarking on its own 20-year plan called Birmingham Connected, to reduce dependence on cars. For a city so associated in the public mind with car manufacturing, this is quite a step. The initiative is being driven by the veteran leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, who talks airily about imposing a three-dimensional transport plan on the two-dimensional geography of the city: “French and German cities all have an infrastructure which has a far better understanding of how you need to map the city with layers of travel.”
“Multi-modal” and “interconnectivity” are now the words on every urban planner’s lips. In Munich, says Bore, planners told him that the city dwellers of the future would no longer need cars. Bikes and more efficient public transport would be the norm; for occasional trips out of the city, they could hire a car or join a car club that facilitated inter-city travel. The statistic everyone trots out is that your car sits outside, idle and depreciating, for 96% of its life. There has to be a more efficient way to provide for the average of seven hours a week when you want it.
In London, England only 15% of people commute using a car. There are different ways to build a city than the way Saskatoon is doing it. The rest of the world is going one way and we are headed the other way.
â€œIt may well be the case that democracy and capitalism, which at moments in their youth were allies, cannot live together once both have come of age.â€ So wrote the historian EH Tawney in 1938.
Tawneyâ€™s prescient quote could well apply to London today, where the â€œBoris Boomâ€ is overseeing a version of extreme capitalism that is privatising vast swaths of the capital. Publicity so far has focused on the 250 planned skyscrapers, but at least as important is the fact that all this new development will be privately owned and privately controlled. Nine Elms in South London, for example, an enormous, 195-hectare private estate that will be home to the new ultra-high security American embassy, is typical of this new wave of privatisation. So is Londonâ€™s Olympic Park, which is private in as much as all the new communities within it, such as the Olympic Village, are also privately owned.
But does this mean that London â€“ boosted by the receipts of quantitative easing, a lax tax regime and foreign oligarch money â€“ is becoming the most private city in the world?
It is notoriously difficult to quantify and map the privatisation of space and place.Dubai, which must lay claim to being one of the most privatised cities in the world, is defined by its newness â€“ and it is this newness which is generally an indicator of how private a place is likely to be. This is because todayâ€™s dominant economic model is reflected by high-security, privatised plazas which house shopping areas, conference centres and luxury apartments in an environment less reminiscent of the public realm than an airport lounge.
How does it happen?
In general, the privatisation of public space in the west accompanied the traumatic transition from an industrial economy to one based on financial services, shopping, entertainment and â€œknowledgeâ€. This model began in 1970s America, where downtown waterfront areas that were former industrial heartlands were redeveloped into entertainment complexes: Baltimoreâ€™s Inner Harbour, described by the Urban Land Institute as â€œthe model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopmentâ€, is the prime example.
Londonâ€™s Docklands, once the hub of the UKâ€™s shipbuilding industry, became a centre for privatised financial services districts such as Canary Wharf, gated developments and private campuses such as the Excel, the enormous conference centre where the potential to â€œlock downâ€ the site ensures it is well suited to host such events as the Defence and Security Equipment International Exhibition.
War very often leads to heavily privatised areas, too. In downtown Beirut, the rebuilding of the city centre provided the opportunity for Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman and the former prime minister, to form Solidere, a company that has remodelled a 200-hectare area of the city centre.
Jerold S Kayden at Harvard has coined the term Pops (â€œprivately owned public spaceâ€) for these types of places, and found that there are 503 in New York City alone. One of the highest profile is Manhattanâ€™s latest tourist attraction, the High Line, which also appears to be the model for Londonâ€™s contentious Garden Bridge â€“ an urban â€œparkâ€ that bans all sorts of activities, closes for corporate events, does not allow political protest and requires groups of more than eight people to book ahead.
Indeed, the key question in determining how â€œprivateâ€ a city might be could be about access, rather than ownership. Zucotti Park, another Pops in New York, was for many months the venue for the Occupy Wall Street protests. Contrast that with Londonâ€™s Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, where Occupy was quickly evicted when the owners took out an injunction. Political activity has been almost entirely squeezed out of Londonâ€™s square mile, and Occupy had no choice but to camp outside St Paulâ€™s Cathedral, on the only genuinely public space left in the city.
So while it may be impossible to name a city or a place as the â€œmost privateâ€ in the world, what we can say is that societies with high levels of inequality are also those where the privatisation of the public realm and life behind gates increasingly defines the urban fabric. In Britain and North America, where democracy remains the system by which we define ourselves, the spread of this kind of city space is extremely problematic, as it suggests that Tawney was right. While our leaders preach democracy, the increasingly private architecture of our cities is telling a more honest story.
London is gloriously un-plannable and horribly unplanned. From the Romans to the Romanians, the immigrant tribes who now call themselves English have been drawn to our uniquely cosmopolitan capital. This heterogeneous cultural mixture may help to explain the lack of appetite for plan-led â€œimprovementsâ€ or urban reshaping. There is no common cultural foundation upon which to create a formal grand plan.
On my bedroom wall hangs an artistâ€™s perspective of the plan Wren touted for the City after the Great Fire of 1666, fleshed out with buildings of classical design, looking like a beaux arts continental city. It is the first thing I see when I wake every morning and provides a constant reminder of the dangers of â€œmaster-planningâ€. If Wren, or any other planner, had had their way London would have ended up like Paris, Bath or Milton Keynes â€“ architecturally inspired, but difficult to adapt to changing and unforeseeable future needs. Paris is formally planned, lacking in cultural diversity and inward-looking â€“ no one can become a Parisian. London is unplanned, culturally diverse and a world business centre â€“ anyone can become a Londoner.
Of course un-planning only takes you so far as the author continues. Â Without planning (more specifically, land use restrictions), your entire city will suffer.
But while gloriously un-plannable the capital needs to be loved if we want to avoid the phenomenon of â€œlights-out Londonâ€, with homes just used as boxes for spare cash. It cannot survive without careful management and subtle control. Left to untrammelled market forces it will become an unstoppable nuclear reaction. George Osborne has claimed our dizzying house price inflation as his miracle of â€œeconomic growthâ€. Long gone are the days when planning was the bag of a politician of intellectual calibre, such as Michael Heseltine.
He goes on
Workers and residents want comfortable accommodation near the ground, with attractive spaces and facilities close at hand. Manhattan, the City and Canary Wharf can justify building office towers because their land area is constrained and demand for commercial space high. Office towers can be built in tight, sustainable clusters. This minimises their environmental impact and maximises their economic advantage â€“ if they are serviced by a high-capacity public transport system.
The same does not hold true for housing. The highest density residential neighbourhood in London is Chelsea, which is gloriously free of towers. In the 1970s, the Greater London Council created some of the highest density housing estates. These six- to eight-floor redbrick developments were built around the edges of their site, leaving attractive central gardens. Lillington Gardens, in Vauxhall Bridge Road, is a fine example, beautifully maintained and highly popular with its residents.
A residential development in Central London is now likely to make four to six times more profit than an office scheme. Without planning control, much-needed offices have given way to piles of â€œsafe-deposit boxesâ€ rising across the capital. These towers, many of dubious architectural quality, are sold off-plan to the worldâ€™s â€œuber-richâ€, as a repository for their spare and suspect capital. The purchasers are attracted by Londonâ€™s rocketing residential prices, born of our unusual fixation on home-ownership. But many chose not to live here.
Rented housing is a much more efficient use of scarce urban land, because people only rent what they need. Londonâ€™s house price inflation is also being fuelled by that â€œbuy-to-letâ€ property boom, which has aggravated the situation by reducing the security of tenants. We need an expanded, professionally managed, residential rental sector with dependable tenant security if we are to have any chance of addressing Londonâ€™s housing crisis. This would provide equal scope for development investors and the construction industry but also provide Londoners with what they need â€“ not just a global financial laundry cum bank vault.
The Treasury now controls the policies, delighting in the destruction of the last tools of planning. The Use Classes Order has been neutered to let offices, and soon shops, be turned into homes without planning permission. Rather than stimulating the reuse of empty buildings, this measure has seen the rapid disappearance of much-needed office accommodation in prime locations. Without land-use control, planners are powerless.
Racine had everything a west London restaurant could ask for: beaming reviews, great cooking and an enviable location opposite the V&A on the Brompton Road. For 12 years it served immaculate French standards to discerning diners and from the outside it looked like an institution to last a century.
But two weeks ago owner Henry Harris announced that Racine had moutarded its last lapin and would close. Quâ€™est-ce qui sâ€™est passÃ©?
â€œIt was inevitable. The site had become unsustainable,â€ says Harris. â€œA rent renewal was the catalyst, but the main cause was the shrinking residential population in what should be a saturated area. My original clients, who were 50 or 60 when we opened, were that bit older. Some of them couldnâ€™t afford to eat out as often after the recession, but others saw what their houses were worth and decided to realise that asset. They were replaced by non-doms who didnâ€™t live there. In some apartment blocks 20% were unoccupied â€“ one in five of my potential client base. It makes a big difference. In the block behind the restaurant it even became easier to park. You never expect to hear that in Knightsbridge.â€
Racine is the latest victim of what some have called â€œlights-out Londonâ€ where absentee owners push up property prices without contributing to the local economy. When Racine opened in 2002 the average price of a Knightsbridge home was Â£745,000; now it is Â£3.4m. There are an estimated 22,000 empty properties in London, partly a consequence of the cityâ€™s status as what the novelist William Gibson has called â€œthe natural home of a sometimes slightly dodgy flight capitalâ€. As Racineâ€™s story shows, some businesses are feeling the effects.
Absenteeism as a problem is peculiar to the smudge of â€œsuper-primeâ€ London around Harrods (although there are pockets elsewhere, such as Highgate). In a survey by the Empty Homes Agency last year, Kensington and Chelsea was found to have had a 40% annual increase in empty properties, the only area in southern England to show such an increase. Other boroughs on the list were mainly in poor parts of the north and north-west. The idea of the most expensive homes sitting empty is provocative in a city where any kind of property ownership is increasingly out of reach and politicians are moving to act.
Writing in the Independent, Tessa Jowell, who hopes to be Labourâ€™s candidate in the capitalâ€™s mayoral contest next year, called empty homes a â€œscandalâ€ and promised punitive taxes for their owners if she is elected. â€œToday in London hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in temporary accommodation, on social housing waiting lists, or years of saving short of buying their first home. At the same time the global super-rich buy London homes like they are gold bars, as assets to appreciate rather than homes in which to live â€¦ Absentee owners should live in the house they own or sell up â€“ or face uncapped charges until they do. No dodges or clever schemes to get round that.â€
The run on real estate has had indirect consequences, too. Some long-term residents, finding themselves in quiet areas, have themselves left in a kind of self-reinforcing loop. Businesses have been priced out of their offices, taking the lucrative expenses-lunch crowd with them.
â€œWe had customers who worked in investment or banking firms nearby who would come in once a week for the old-school, â€˜letâ€™s enjoy the afternoonâ€™ kind of lunch,â€ says Harris. â€œBut they have moved â€“ a short distance down the Kingâ€™s Road you can get good offices for a fraction of the price per square foot. I know one architect who moved to Holborn â€“ you wouldnâ€™t have thought it would be cheaper near the City. The lunch trade was probably half what it was five years ago. A friend says itâ€™s like a ghost town.â€
Natasha has been on the streets for four years in London, England
The coalition government and Labour withdraw their support for a new runway at Heathrow, an airport that is already running at 98% capacity. As the Economist sees it.
The language both politicians used shows how keen they are to move the focus of British aviation policy away from Heathrow’s third runway. But I fear they are too optimistic, especially given the absence of viable, fundable alternatives. The reasons for not building a runway are valid, but for the time being a politician has to embrace them when discussing improvements at Heathrow.
The third runway remains the elephant in the aviation-policy room. So while in her speech Ms Greening also referred to other efforts her department would be making at Heathrow, these sounded like so much window-dressing. Talk of improving â€œresilienceâ€â€”so that the next time bad weather comes, the airport responds more effectivelyâ€”is unlikely to impress British business. The easiest way to improve resilience at an airport operating at 98% capacity would be to build some slack into the system. The creation of another runway would certainly help achieve this, as Ms Greening is no doubt fully aware, while also helping boost the British economy (according to a new report). The debate, therefore, remains very much alive.
The question is will more and more air travel start looking for a hub that is easier to get in and out of.
One of the questions from the London riots was: Can it happen here?
It does. North Americans have been rioting for a long time. Detroit has had two major race riots in 25 years. Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta have all been home to violent unrest. New York was home to the most violent riot in North American history way back in 1863.
Each riot is different but most have their roots in a sense of injustice and inequality combined with a temporary disregard for the rule of law.
In London, there are two competing narratives about what is happening. The left is concentrating on the root causes: Racism, high unemployment and skyrocketing education costs, which have made post-secondary education too expensive for those who need it the most.
From the right, Prime Minister David Cameron is blaming the youth and their parents. He sees 11-yearolds running amok on the streets, people looting, police being hurt and random people being dragged out of their cars and beaten to death as a law-and-order issue.
They are both right. London isn’t an easy city to live in. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world.
The 2008 global recession convinced the government to bail out the banks, putting the United Kingdom deep into debt. This combined with slow economic growth and job losses. Cameron brought in an austerity program soon after the recession that included deep cuts into the social safety net and the public service.
This created a situation with a high cost of living, high unemployment – especially among youth – and cutbacks to public housing, education and youth centres significantly reduced feelings of hope for youth among the lower economic classes.
We have always known that escaping poverty starts with education. The problem is that in many impoverished areas the education system here and abroad doesn’t work for some children for a variety of reasons, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, uncaring parents, bad teachers, siblings or parents who encourage bad decisions, substance abuse, or all of these.
The option of working a low-paying job with irregular hours doesn’t appeal to kids already lost to crime.
Gangs and crime offer more freedom and the perception to make more money.
It’s a perception, however. As the book Freakonomics illustrates, many gangs are classic pyramid schemes.
The book studies a Chicago gang that offers shockingly low pay for the soldiers on the street corners while the guys at the top make all of the money.
Gang members would make more money working part time in retail and have a lot less chance of getting shot. Sadly, they stay on the corner, accepting a life of violence and death in exchange for hope and acceptance from other gang members.
There has also been a breakdown of family and societal structures. For centuries people had close ties with their family, spiritual ties to the church, and a connection with their neighbours. Neighbourhood ties have deteriorated over the last couple of decades, the church has followed the money to the suburbs and family structures continue to deteriorate.
Leading up to the Watts and Detroit riots, there was wide-scale use of racial profiling by police. In Los Angeles, being in the wrong neighbourhood after dark could get one arrested or beaten by the police. In parts of London, minorities are 30 times more likely to be stopped by police than are whites.
Growing up in Saskatoon, the only times I have been stopped by the police have been in response to a traffic violation where I was in the wrong. I may not have appreciated the ticket, but it wasn’t due to the colour of my skin. I tend to place a high value on the integrity of police officers around here, but if I was a minority and was stopped 30 times more than whites in my neighbourhood, my trust in many Canadian institutions would be shaken.
As for the family ties, one can’t read the stories of an 11-year-old looting in London or a preteen girl prostituting herself in Saskatoon and not ask, "Where is the parent?"
It’s a mess and sadly for London it isn’t a problem that will be fixed with incarceration or eviction from public housing. It’s a symptom of some much larger problems that need to be fixed in many communities. The one thing the riots in London, and the street gangs in Saskatoon or anywhere else show, youth can only handle so much and when those limits are reached, they will respond how youth have always responded: By making really bad short-sighted choices.
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â€œSure, Vancouver is beautiful,â€ says Kotkin, â€œbut itâ€™s also unaffordable unless youâ€™re on an expense account and your company is paying your rent.â€ Burdett agrees: â€œEconomically all these cities at the top of the polls are also in the top league.â€ In fact, it can often be exactly the juxtaposition of wealth and relative poverty that makes a city vibrant, the collision between the two worlds. Where parts of big cities have declined, through the collapse of industries or the fears about immigration that led to what urbanists have termed the â€œdonut effectâ€ (in which white populations flee to the suburbs, leaving minorities in the centres), there is space to be filled by artists and architects, by poorer immigrants arriving with a drive to make money and by the proliferation of food outlets, studios and galleries. These, in turn, attract the wealthy back to the centre, at first to consume, and then to gentrify. Whether in New Yorkâ€™s SoHo, Chelsea or Brooklyn, in Berlinâ€™s Mitte or Londonâ€™s Shoreditch, Hoxton and now Peckham, it is at these moments of radical change that cities begin to show potential for real transformation of lives, or for the creation of new ideas, culture, cuisine and wealth. Once gentrification has occurred, bohemians may whinge about being priced out, as they always have done but, in a big enough city they are able to move on and find the next spot.
I also learned that I need to stop complaining about the Study Stone Centre Building. Itâ€™s ugliness is good for Saskatoon.
There is one criterion which throws up shockingly counter-intuitive results â€“ beauty. On this criterion alone, almost any Tuscan hill town, perhaps Venice, perhaps Paris, would come out on top, yet none of these are there. Most of the beauty in the cities which occupy the tops of the leagues seem to ghettoise their beauty outside the city. They have convenient escapes, though the most beautiful and enjoyable â€“ Rio, San Francisco and others â€“ are curiously absent from the lists. The problem is that beauty doesnâ€™t do you any good at all. Itâ€™s not a factor for the efficient, mid-sized chart toppers â€“ though places such as Zurich certainly have their lovely bits. But it also damages your chances of making it into the disaffected megacities mentioned at the start of this article. The most beautiful cities become monuments to their own elegance, immobile and unchangeable. They cannot accommodate the kind of dynamic change and churn that keeps cities alive. In London, New York and Berlin, it is their very ugliness which keeps them flexible.
Venice rose from mudflats in the middle of a lagoon which forms the largest wetland in the Mediterranean. One of the world’s most endangered cities, it has been subject to increasing flooding due to sinking land â€” but also to rising sea levels.
It’s known as "aqua alta" â€” high water â€” and it brings city life to a standstill for several hours. Big boats can’t go under low-hanging bridges, and water seeps into buildings through the sewage system. Venetians have not lived on the ground floor for decades.
Sophisticated technology is now being used for what has become a full-scale emergency. At one of the three inlets that lead from the sea into the lagoon, a massive mechanical hammer is driving a steel and concrete piling into the lagoon bed. Elena Zambardi works for the consortium safeguarding Venice and says the use of pilings was invented by the visionaries who founded the city 1,300 years ago.
"Under the Salute bridge or Rialto Bridge," for example, "there are piles, wooden piles to consolidate the subsoil," she says.
The project acronym is MOSE, which is also the Italian word for Moses, recalling the biblical parting of the sea.
Once completed in 2014, there will be 78 large, mobile flood gates at the three inlets. When not in use, they will sit on the lagoon bed. When a high tide is forecast, Zambardi says, the gates will rise and shut off the sea from the lagoon.
But the project, which is 54 percent completed, has been hounded by controversy and, critics say, may already be outdated.
The IPCC â€” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change â€” has forecast a sea level rise by the end of this century of between 18 and 59 centimeters. But scientists caution it could be even higher.
So a billion dollars for Venice and if the scientific forecasts are correct, this wonâ€™t be enough. How many other cities are going to have start their own battles of the sea. According to the Wall Street Journal, New York is at risk and so are many other cities along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. There are already mobile bulwarks that safeguard London, Rotterdam, and St. Petersburg, While I keep hearing politicians lament the amount of money the Kyoto Accord was going to cost their economies, how much money will it cost to renovate and rebuild the St. Lawrence Seaway or keep Vancouver and Victoria to flood out.
World-wide, cities in 40 countries depend on dikes or seawalls. The seaside of the Netherlands is protected by storm surge barriers big enough to be seen from space. In Venice, Italy, engineers are completing a $7 billion barrier to block high tides that flood the city 100 times a year. In New Orleans, construction crews have started a $700 million barrier to help prevent hurricane floods. In California, it could cost $14 billion to protect 1,100 miles of vulnerable urban coastline with reinforced sea walls and $1.4 billion a year to maintain them and of course the longer we wait, the more expensive the solution will become and that is just for coastal communities. When you factor in the cost on the rest of the country, you realize the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action.