The London Society aims to provide a platform for the debate on how London ought to develop and to go with our theme of ‘change’ in 2021, we will have a strand of articles on the blog called “Change: Opinions” – polemical pieces that make a case for a radically changing some aspect of the status quo or of received wisdom.
Dr Deborah Talbot is a journalist and researcher specialising in urban and rural development and sustainability. She has written several books including Regulating the Night: Race, Culture and Exclusion in the Night-time Economy, and 'Who The Hell is Jane Jacobs?', a book which sets out to highlight her original ideas and perceptive - looking first at who she was as a person, where and how she lived, and how her ferocious intellect led her to unchartered frontiers of thought. Deborah has also published articles on transport, housing, urban economies, the rural creative and artisanal economy and sustainability in publications such as CityMetric, Forbes, and Monocle.
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With talking heads predicting a mass exodus of people and businesses out of ‘global’ cities after the pandemic is over, we can be forgiven to think the future is not urban. But is it more about the dispersal of the ‘urban’, and what does that mean for creativity and innovation?
There is a definite allure to the idea of returning to the old, pre-pandemic normal in the corridors of power. Boris Johnson, in a speech at the end of February 2021, rejected the idea that remote working would become the new normal. “In a few short months,” he said, “if all goes to plan, we in the UK are going to be reopening our economy. And then, believe me, the British people will be consumed once again with their desire for the genuine face-to-face meeting that makes all the difference to the deal or whatever it is.”
At the height of the first lockdown, 49.2% of UK adults were working from home, according to the ONS. By the autumn, the figure was half that, as the UK encouraged people to go back to the office and then changed their minds. Reports suggest that the majority of employees prefer working from home, though do miss socialising opportunities. An ONS survey of UK businesses showed that 67% of businesses plan to scrap home working post-pandemic. However, yet another survey showed that 74% plan to maintain a level of homeworking. Several global companies like Twitter, BP and Google have announced either temporary or permanent remote working - leading to speculation about disinvestment in their glittering city centre corporate palaces.
A hybrid model seems likely, which offers opportunities for people to consider less proximal living arrangements. PwC’s predictive research revealed that London’s population may drop, mid- and post-pandemic, for the first time in 30 years. And even if commentators are declaring themselves bored of countryside walks, the pandemic-inspired necessity for bigger houses and green spaces at least give many pause for thought. Within our current urban housing market, those commodities simply aren’t on offer unless you are very wealthy - land values and architecture simply doesn’t allow for it.
The pandemic has exposed the fragility of cities, and certain aspects of the urban experience of the pandemic – food supply, disease transmission, sanitation, health services, public spaces and parks to name a few – became literal human security issues. Why does this matter? Because in many ways (not all positive), cities have become the foundation of our rather spectacular wealth. While that wealth isn’t evenly shared, that is more the fault of politics than anything structural about cities.
Density, diversity and innovation
It’s worth revisiting Jane Jacobs, American urbanist and activist. She argued that the human connections facilitated by cities accounted for their creativity, innovation and economic dynamism. It was the sheer volume of diverse and skilled people in close, dense proximity, sharing ideas in unpredictable encounters, that accounted for the economic growth of cities. It’s an idea that has been confirmed time and again. This productivity principle, as economics professor Enrico Moretti carefully documented, explains why today, some cities attract all the tech companies and why small cities, towns, and rural areas are a place of lingering decline. It’s because you need geographical concentration and diversity to innovate. And the London-based Centre for Cities explored the idea that in the UK, towns and rural areas that had a close proximity to cities did better than those that did not.
Has that changed? Well, we don’t know. But one thing Jane Jacobs could not have factored in was the role technology would potential play in transforming the structure of our everyday lives. With the right infrastructure (and it is a serious question why an economically rich nation like the UK does not have universal coverage of high-speed broadband and hardware), it is possible to work remotely while still remaining connected. In many ways, technology has expanded our field of connections in the pandemic rather than narrowing them (I think nothing of hopping on a Zoom call with someone in Canada these days!).
Through remote working, opportunities have opened up to the disabled, carers and parents, particularly women. Employers are freed from the geographical boundaries of the talent search. Highly skilled and paid people living in small cities, small towns and rural locations enhance the wealth of what academic Andrés Rodríguez-Pose calls the “places that don’t matter”.
Proximity is not simply about place
Is it simply a different way of thinking about proximity? Think Star Trek: Picard, the latest iteration of sci fi classic. In one episode, Picard visits Will Riker at his rural home on an undeveloped planet, a traditional wooden homestead with clay pizza ovens, yet also brimming with twenty-fourth century technology. Unimaginably remote and rural, yet connected to a diverse and complex universe.
There is nothing inevitable about urban concentration. The modern city came about fairly recently, historically speaking, driven in the West by the industrial revolution and the need to gather workers in factories regulated by time. And recent rapid concentration of populations in global cities speak to the financialisation of transnational companies in the affluent West and, says urban economics academic Alexandra Panman, the consequence a of poor conditions in rural areas and inadequate transport links pushing people into cities in the global South. Hardly something to celebrate.
Today, the changing nature of work, technology, climate change, and the likelihood of novel viruses caused by disruptions to fragile ecosystems seem likely to push us in another direction. But a nagging issue remains. If these trends capture in a brief way some of the forces shaping our world, then how should we organise work to balance distance with creative connectivity?
Remote working is popular for those with the right jobs. But we all recognise it has the downside of isolation and mental stress – hardly conducive to productivity and innovation. Is there a third option? Ideas so far mooted is a mix of home and office working. And there has seemingly been a rush of speculation that companies will seek new configurations of collective working – flexible workspaces, suburban satellite offices and coworking among them. Desana, which recently launched Cityworks, says suburban and rural coworking is a concept whose time has come.
To look at the issue another way, while ‘restorationists’ argue that physical presence in an office stimulates ideas and creativity, long working hours also restricts the culturally connective gene pool. Conversely, people in different professions, specialisms and social status, often working from home or coworking spaces and mixing in the locality, may spark more innovation than traditional office work and the revival of local services. The key is also to permit flexible working so people aren’t chained to their home desks from dawn ‘till dusk.
In many ways, this imagining of how things could look echoes ideas of urban dispersal talked about by Naji Makarem, Lecturer in the Political Economy of Development at Bartlett, University College London. He says we are looking at the “urbanisation of more places”, a decentralisation still connected to, and feeding from, large cities. Technology facilitates this, allowing “people and firms outside the urban core greater access to urban interaction and consequently productivity and innovation.” And, says Makarem, technology potentially facilitates the global-connectivity of a diversity of people and places into “shared visions and understandings”. Of course, when we talk about the urbanisation of more places, to me it is more of a place of the imagination and culture than the built environment.
Dystopian urbans and reimagining the future
The caveat remains in the vagaries of politics. Take Brexit. While the Brexit vote was driven by English small towns and rural areas, the surprise lump of coal in the pudding might end up being the creation of city-states in the UK squeezing out the rest. Charter Cities, dressed up as ‘free ports’ in Chancellor Sunak’s 2021 budget according to some credible voices, are independent states within a state, complete with their own laws and rules of governance. They are zones of free enterprise – low tax, low regulation, low democracy and potentially high on money laundering and smuggling. Such a vision delivers prosperity for cities, and indeed for the elite few in those cities, not nation-states, and potentially leaves many regions with traditional democratic values and structures lagging behind.
We always think of the city, suburb and village as distinct places. But with the dispersal of workspaces to city centre offices, cross-fertilising remote hubs and isolated endeavours in forest settings, our ways of working may become a flexible continuum of urbans. It is a future that is ours to dream, though we may have to fight for it.