London’s Glamorous (and Tumultuous) Public Spaces
I was eager to visit London because it is so like my home city, New York. Both are international financial capitals, whose local economies are profoundly shaped by what has become their dominant sector. And both have long been home to ethnically and culturally diverse populations, whose experience of their cities’ twenty-first century economic transformation varies markedly along lines of class and race, and is reflected as well in the spaces where people live, work, and travel. London and New York are both so vast that each contains a multitude of smaller cities, towns, and villages, many of which might be barely recognizable to those who inhabit their carefully-tended cores.
Like other global cities, London and New York have each invested heavily in enhancements of public spaces, transit, and amenities intended to attract a footloose, sophisticated workforce and the companies that employ it. De-industrialized waterfronts have become places for elites to live, work, and play, with new parks and streetscapes, often funded and managed by public-private partnerships. Each city has emphasized architectural and urban design in public and private projects. Each has made investments that have renewed and expanded the vast transit systems on which they depend, reversing decades of neglect. In London, glam urbanism began with Canary Wharf, and extended to the south bank of the Thames, where public realm investments have leveraged high-end private development.
London’s improvements to transit infrastructure dwarf New York’s rail mega-projects; though much of the actual investment has come from the national government. The expansion of high-speed rail, including the Channel Tunnel connection to the continent, as well as integration of national rail lines with regional systems, has strengthened London’s economic and cultural position within Europe. Leaders justify intra-city mega-projects such as CrossRail on economic competitiveness grounds; renovations of the major rail terminals, like the stunning makeover of St. Pancras, have helped to lure business travelers away from London’s choked airports.
London’s glamorization of its historic center and waterfront mirrors strategies pursued by New York and by other global competitors in pursuit of high-end workers and industries. What differentiates cities is the choices their leaders have made about the public spaces important to the much larger workforce that may have fewer choices, but on whom urban life depends. East London has long lagged behind the rest of the city in health, prosperity, and quality of life – but today, a decade’s worth of public realm investments catalyzed by the 2012 Olympics is beginning to show real results.
London’s Olympic bid, conceived early in “Red Ken” Livingstone’s first term as mayor, was built from its inception around the social, economic, and physical regeneration of East London. Leveraging from the national government the massive investment required to remediate centuries worth of industrial pollution, to reconfigure infrastructure, including high-voltage electrical lines that rendered thousands of acres uninhabitable, and to close gaps in the transit system, demanded the powerful unifying rationale of the Olympic vision. The bid was fashioned around not only the six weeks of the Games, but around the legacy the project would leave.
The city operationalized the vision by establishing entities with integrated but distinct mandates. The Olympic Delivery Authority was responsible for developing the athletic venues themselves (including developing a business plan for the long-term operation of each permanent venue after the Games.) The Olympic Legacy Company was created to oversee the development of the infrastructure and public spaces that would remain after the games, including the 20-year buildout of five new neighborhoods, incorporating 8,000 housing units and millions of square feet of commercial space.
The construction of the Olympic Park itself created a 500-acre enclave whose boundaries were impenetrable during the 5-year construction period (as well as during and after the Games; the North Park will be the first section to re-open to the public, in summer 2013.) But the Legacy Company ensured that public space improvements in the six surrounding host boroughs were in place before the mega-construction project began.
The Olympic entities worked with already-established executive agencies within the Greater London Authority including Transport for London, and Design for London, the team responsible for integrating planning and design strategies across London’s 32 boroughs.
Design for London’s portfolio also includes improvements to London’s 600 high streets, the retail corridors that anchor the scores of villages and towns that Greater London comprises. Those corridors account for over half of all jobs outside of London’s commercial and financial core, and many have struggled to compete with malls and chain stores within and outside of the city. Design for London has aimed to implement modest and durable improvements that have de-cluttered commercial areas and contributed to what DfL’s head, Mark Brearley calls their “sense of good offer.”
The riots of summer 2011 woke up Londoners to the state of many Outer London communities; the conflagration that began with a police shooting of a young man in Tottenham spread to scores of commercial areas in London and beyond, ultimately resulting in 5 deaths and £200 million in property damage. In response, Mayor Boris Johnson committed £70 million to long-term improvements in the most affected areas. An additional £50 million has been awarded for locally-initiated projects aimed at increasing the attractiveness and economic competitiveness of local high streets. While no one in or outside of government expects that good design alone will overcome the sense of economic and social exclusion deepened by a stubborn recession, the £120 million commitment represented by the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund and the Outer London Fund demonstrates a recognition – by what in British terms is a conservative mayoral administration – that the gulf in economic opportunity and quality of life between London’s rich and poor areas must be addressed.
The London Plan, updated after Johnson succeeded Ken Livingstone, reaffirms the city’s commitment to “achieving socio-economic convergence between the Host Boroughs and the rest of London over the period to 2030,” and commits it as well to publishing an annual report on progress toward specific goals including increased educational attainment, reduced child poverty, increased life expectancy, and more.
Though progress may be uneven, it is hard to imagine a U.S. mayor – of any political affiliation – even using the word “convergence,” much less making its achievement the measure of his or her accomplishments.
Staff in Hackney Town Hall, seat of one of the Olympic host boroughs, keep a copy of Charles Booth’s 1889 Poverty Map of London on their office wall; it’s an inspiration and a goad, reminding them of the depth and persistence of inequality in their city. They admitted that as the Games approached, expectations for substantial job growth and gains for local business were not being met. Local shopkeepers were grumbling that the International Olympic Committee was vigorously enforcing rules prohibiting anyone but its corporate sponsors from using the word “Olympic” in any commercial promotion. Stratford’s old-school shopping centre was dwarfed, and drained, by the Westfield mega-mall that opened in 2011. So much for retail spin-off.
Activists outside of government are keeping the pressure on. London Citizens, a coalition of local groups trained in U.S.-style community organizing, waged a campaign that forced the London Olympics contractors, subcontractors, and vendors to pay all workers a London Living Wage – defined as the hourly rate required for a Londoner to provide for a family’s basic needs with earnings from a 40-hour week – now £8.55 per hour (the UK-wide minimum wage is £5.93 per hour.) London Citizens is now working to extend the Living Wage to workers in other low-wage sectors. During my visit, I sat in on a planning meeting for the group’s CitySafe Campaign, a plan to reduce gang violence among London youth. The campaign is focused on local high streets, where young leaders recruit local shopkeepers to identify their stores as Safe Havens for young people fearing or fleeing from attacks.
London Citizens’ work is a reminder that a city’s public spaces are a fabric woven not only of transit lines and streetscapes, but from a web of social and economic relationships that can be strained by inequality, or strengthened by shared commitments to fairness and inclusion.
2012 Urban and Regional Policy fellow Joan Byron, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development in New York, recently completed field visits to London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Her research focused on the ways in which city leaders have improved the public realm –parks and other urban green spaces – to attract residents, workers and companies, and the ways in which those improvements can reduce (or exacerbate) socio-economic inequality in urban communities. Now that she has concluded her European tour, which included site visits and interviews with architects, planners, community leaders, and policy makers, she will be integrating her findings into her work in disadvantaged communities in New York through the Pratt Center.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.