Friday, 16 August 2019

"We don't like cities, oh no. We love 'em"

One of the concerns emerging from Onward's research into the 'politics of belonging' was a concern about cities:
71% of people think that “more people living in cities has made society worse”
We could, of course, explore what exactly we mean by city here but the sentiment is an important one given that, as Onward showed in earlier research, we don't want new homes built outside the city. At the heart of the sentiment is that people really do yearn for community and, rightly or wrongly, consider that the city does not provide for such neighbourliness.

Despite this finding people continue to move into cities and the larger the city the more attractive it is to the migrant.
The United Nations in 2009 and the International Organization for Migration in 2015 both estimated that around 3 million people are moving to cities every week. Approximately 54% of people worldwide now live in cities, up from 30% in 1950. Sources estimate this will grow to 2/3 of world population in the next 15-30 years. More than half of urban dwellers live in the 1,022 cities with greater than 500,000 inhabitants.
The reasons for this migration are primarily economic - the city is where the work is so you go to the work - but there are also a collection of amenity and social factors that perhaps get less attention. I had an unresolved conversation a while ago with former ASI research director, Sam Bowman about whether the wider amenity value of a place is factored into housing costs (there's more fun stuff in a city meaning that the value from the rent is greater). There are more social and business opportunities in a city making it more appealing as a place to live.

The problem is that this doesn't explain the disconnection between what people say they want (essentially suburbia) and what they actually buy (city living). There is probably a 'life stage' factor in all this with younger people and wealthy 'empty nesters' populating a largely child free city while those with families choose the suburbs but it also reflects how suburbia not only lacks the city's amenities but also lacks affordable places to live. In times past suburbs, even well-connected suburbs, were cheaper than the city (they were also cleaner and smog-free) but the virtual halt on expansion changed this pattern.

The policy challenge is, I suspect, less about housing than it is about the connectedness of housing to the city amenities and associated agglomeration effects. When we look at transport infrastructure we spend too much time calling for multi-billion investments connecting city to city rather than creating a more intensive network within a large urban area. When you have that connectedness (as London has) it is ridiculous to then have restrictions on development within easy access of that network (which London also has). Elsewhere the situation differs either because of dispersed populations or because of topography, fragmented political geography and underinvestment (Transpennine England is a good example here) - there is no network and without it less agglomeration effect and less successful cities.

The other part of the policy challenge relates back to people thinking living in cities makes society worse, to the lack of social capital in dense urban places, and to the transience of environments dominated by private rented property. Plus, of course, the persistent problem of affordability. The odd thing is that in a previous age we considered that as a principal means of providing housing, private renting was exploitative and we replaced it via municipal housing and the encouragement of home ownership. Today many urbanists seem to favour renting as an approach praising its flexibility and, of course, affordability.

Suburbia was our historical compromise between the city and the countryside - many of the amenities of the city and access to its agglomeration effect while maintaining a sense of space and an idea of community. We need to recognise that strategies to prevent the expansion of cities - for reasons of cohesion, environmental protection and snobbery - have contributed to a significant problem. Right now most of the land needed to accommodate expanding cities is non-urban and at the margins of the exiting built area. We are actively preventing development here - this needs to change. At the same time we need to look at strategies aimed at making the city itself more liveable - experimenting with flat pack housing and sky gardens or building more child-friendly environments within developments.

None of this precludes the need for more development land at the city margin or the requirement to spend money on the networks needed to integrate new development into the wider city but we need to get away from the rigidity of current plan-driven development models. We need to recognise that families need private outdoor space (and parks, while great, don't meet this need) and that cities do too little to make families welcome. This matters because families stay put for a substantial time - the demands of children (schools, childcare support and the activities of growing up) tend to keep people in one place for a long time, something that would allow for denser urban areas to develop the sense of community that transient singles really don't provide.

How our urban environments develop, whether or not we shape them in the manner of suburbia or as rabbit hutches for tomorrow's peons, is one of the big policy questions but sadly one mostly pushed aside by dominant obsessions with slaying perceived environmental demons. The decline in community is as big a problem as climate change yet we seem not to be thinking about how to restore trust, how to create stable neighbourhoods and how to get this without throwing out the social and economic advantages of the city.


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