Future of cities launch

Speech by Sir Mark Walport at the Foundation for Science and Technology conference on cities of the future.

Professor Sir Mark Walport

While in New York recently, I visited the Tenement Museum. I strongly recommend the museum to anyone who is interested in city life and in the history of cities. There I chanced upon a book by Jane Jacobs, entitled ‘The death and the life of great American cities’, published originally in 1961. I can see from the body language of many people in the audience that this is a book that is well known to you. It certainly transformed my flight back to the UK.

I could use my entire time here in providing quotes from this remarkable book, but I’ll just give you a small selection to whet your appetite. She was a social scientist and an extraordinarily acute observer of cities.

She wrote:

To understand cities we have to deal, outright, with combinations or mixtures of uses, not separate uses, as the central phenomenon. The diversity, of whatever kind, that is generated by cities, rests on the fact that in the cities so many people are close together and among them contain so many different tastes, skills, needs, supplies and bees-in-their-bonnets.

It is a beautifully written book and her prescription is really quite detailed. She continued:

To generate diversity, the district must serve more than 1 primary function, preferably more than 2. These must ensure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes but who are able to use many facilities in common.

She comments on block size, too.

Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

In some ways it’s obvious, but it’s only obvious when an astute observer points it out to you. Another very important point she made was that;

There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in cases of people who are there because of residence.

She makes the point that one shouldn’t equate high density of population with overcrowding. Her prescription is really to mix work and play - to mix housing and services. This book was a very strong criticism of the city planners of the time and she argued:

One must not yield to a temptation to neatly and tidily zone cities into different functional units.

There is an immense amount of work on cities being carried out at the moment: and indeed, there has been for a very long time. Tonight we’re going to add to that work because the Government Office of Science is taking this opportunity to launch a new major project on the future of cities.

The changing urban world

Working from the UNICEF urban population map, and projecting forward through the years, you can see that an extraordinary proportion of the world’s population will be living in urbanised environments. To focus on Europe, nearly all of it will be urbanised by 2050. The implications for the UK are clear - this is an important challenge.

What is a city?

Yet what is a city? It is tempting to say that we know one when we see one. Cities are often characterised by a strong sense of identity - ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. But increase the commuting distance from any city and they can draw in nearly all of the surrounding population in terms of work. That then leads to some interesting questions. What, for example, would High Speed 2 (HS2) do in terms of city footprints as people move around between home and city, or between one city and another?

The physical boundaries may be constrained by geographical features - a river, a coast - but often the boundaries are rather more amorphous. Cities may be defined in terms of population size, which may include the hinterland. Cities within a country and beyond are linked by transport systems which also have to be included in our understanding of them.

More than infrastructure

In thinking about cities of the future, we need to consider issues of poverty and wealth, of culture and diversity. We need to consider crime, demographics, questions of identity and belonging, which are important elements in how people think about cities. Governance and legal designations of cities are also relevant.

London is a very substantial component of the UK. You don’t need to be a statistician to see that London is out-performing the rest of the UK economically. One of the big challenges for this country is that our large cities lag behind London in terms of their performance but, more importantly, lag behind their European rivals in terms of levels of GDP per capita achieved.

Let me read another quote, in this case from Rousseau, which was published in ‘Emile’ in 1762. He wrote;

It is the cities which exhaust the state and are the cause of its weakness. The wealth which they produce is a sham wealth. There is much money and few goods.

They say the city of Paris is worth a whole province to the King of France. For my own part I believe it costs him more than several provinces. I believe that Paris is fed by the provinces in more senses than one and that the greater part of their revenues is poured into that town and stays there without ever returning to the people or to the King. It is inconceivable that in this age of calculators there is no one to see that France would be much more powerful if Paris were destroyed.

I should emphasise that I am not making a political point with that quote. It’s also worth noting that ‘Emile’ was very rapidly banned in Paris and Geneva - indeed a warrant was issued for its burning - although that was mainly because it was considered to be blasphemous.

Future challenges and opportunities

Demography underpins so much of what is needed when one thinks of policy questions. It certainly underpins a lot of what is needed in studying and understanding cities.

The Foresight programme is currently doing a study on the changing demography of the UK. This involves input from across government but particularly Jil Matheson, the National Statistician. The study underpins much of the wider Foresight work, for example, on how to cope with aging populations, but also with youth.

The programme is dealing with important questions about economic competitiveness and growth, about governance, about technology, about the impacts of climate change and our built and natural infrastructure.

But the tasks for the Foresight project on cities are to identify the key enablers of success for different cities and determine the most important decisions in preparing for the future.

Foresight - future of cities project

Turning to the project itself; our sponsor minister is Greg Clark, Minister for Cities and Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The chair of the lead expert group is Sir Alan Wilson, who will be well known to many in the audience. We’ve also been talking to Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

Foresight projects look forward, they are intended to have policy impact and, as so much of public policy is delivered via cities (they are the centres of innovation and growth), it will take a cross-government, interdisciplinary approach and will, of course, build on existing work. The aim is to provide a broad understanding of the challenges and the opportunities that UK cities will face in the future.

It will also seek to learn from and integrate the findings of other countries. As British urban planners, architects, designers, are hugely in demand around the world, cities represent an important export opportunity for the British economy. Yet to take maximum advantage of this potential it is important to ensure that that we learn as much as we can from others.

I want to finish with another quotation from an essay by Theodore Roosevelt:

We cannot afford merely to sit down and deplore the evils of city life as inevitable when cities are constantly growing, both absolutely and relatively. We must set ourselves vigorously about the task of improving them and this task is now well begun.

That was true in 1895 when he wrote it and it is certainly true now.

Thank you for your attention.

Published 19 June 2013