Can cities be too successful?

london skyline
CC BY 2.0 A walkie talkie, a cheese grater and a gherkin/ Lloyd Alter

In London, the Mayor boasts: “London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutans. It is their natural habitat.” Meanwhile, Rowan Moore writes in the Guardian:

At the same time, to use a commonly heard phrase, the city is eating itself. Most obviously, its provision of housing is failing to keep up with its popularity, with effects on price that breed bizarre reactions at the top end of the market and misery at the bottom. Thousands are being forced to leave London because their local authorities can’t find them homes and people on middle incomes can’t acquire a place where anyone would want to raise a family.

Among those leaving is Cory Doctorow, author and co-founder of BoingBoing. He is packing up his family and moving to Los Angeles:

The short version is that we want to live in a city that's a livable place to work, where we can raise our family, and where we can run our respective small businesses. But London is a city whose two priorities are being a playground for corrupt global elites who turn neighbourhoods into soulless collections of empty safe-deposit boxes in the sky, and encouraging the feckless criminality of the finance industry. These two facts are not unrelated.

Doctorow doesn't think this is just a property bubble like is happening in other cities.

I've lived in lots of cities that were going through bubbles. Hell, I lived in San Francisco in the late 1990s. But this is different: the bubble here isn't because people are doing (allegedly) exciting things in the city's environs. The bubble here is driven by the place itself. Every single place where people do stuff, or live, is being torn down, to make room for chains and luxury blocks—and nothing much else.

Cranes and Rainbow over Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I am not so sure that it is specific to London. Rowan Moore notes that in London, there is "an outrageous inequality in the government’s attitude to austerity"- people who are lucky enough to have money, houses and cars get all the benefits and everyone else gets cut back. In Toronto, wide swathes of the city's historic texture is being demolished for condos, and half a billion dollars is being spent to prop up an elevated highway for suburban commuters while social services and transit are being cut. The conservative Prime Minister of Canada and Mayor of Toronto are all for austerity for everyone but the conservative suburban voter/ driver and everyone else can fall off the subway platform. Also like London, Toronto is suffering from a new banality of its streetscapes as small retailers and restaurants are squeezed out of the marketplace and we get a corporate monoculture.

Vancouver towers/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Vancouver, the housing crisis is so bad that even the South China Morning Post is calling it "a world-class freak show."

It's not just about success, it is also about governance. . Kaid Benfield points to an article by Scott Doyon of Placeshakers on the issue of affordability in successful cities. My emphasis:

Success also makes struggle harder to see. When everyone in a community is hurting, no one disputes or dismisses that fact. But once a community achieves a certain level of comfort, shared difficulty becomes a minority condition. Which makes looking the other way a whole lot easier.

As communities become more successful (by typical industry measures), it not only becomes more difficult to establish what constitutes a win, it becomes more difficult to establish what constitutes a problem. Shared vision becomes harder to achieve as people, increasingly divided, apply the same ideological lens to local issues that they apply to national ones. Left vs. Right becomes just another way we find to factionalize.

Years ago, we knew how to deal with this problem of inequality and division; our governments taxed the rich and built social housing. But from Canberra to London to Washington to Ottawa, people have voted with their wallets and elected governments that don't believe in such things. As Scott Doyon notes, it's all ideological. The problem is coming up with an alternative; I am reminded of an article that George Monbiot wrote in 2007, complaining about growth and success at the time:

Governments love growth because it excuses them from dealing with inequality. As Henry Wallich, a governor of the US Federal Reserve, once pointed out in defending the current economic model, “growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable”. Growth is a political sedative, snuffing out protest, permitting governments to avoid confrontation with the rich, preventing the construction of a just and sustainable economy.

He titled his article Bring on the Recession. We should be careful what we wish for.

Tags: Cities | London | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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