Reconceiving the city

Reconsider what the city is. Cities in the 21st century are smartly connected cities, ones that can marshal the energy of their entire community. The legal, physical, economic and perceptual constructs of the city will differ, as will images. Most big cities are city or metropolitan regions but are governed as smaller entities, at times even as if they were only towns. This set-up can create fierce parochialisms and turf wars which make it hard to deal coherently with issues like public transport, housing or inward investment strategy. This is why there are city amalgamations worldwide. For instance Toronto moved to metro-governance in 1998 and the major British cities are defining themselves as city regions. Town thinking and city thinking are different. The balance between locality and wider areas needs to be continually renegotiated; there is no iron law. Over time, cities reshuffle boundaries to maximize overview with the need for very local detail: to make decisions of international importance or to cut down a tree.

The core communication challenge is to be close to the voter and to find a means by which there is enough involvement of the individual citizen, through a variety of participative means within a structure that allows the bigger picture issues to be dealt with. Yet, in the end, the decision must be a judgement on what sustains both wealth creation capacity and social harmonies.

Consider a common worldwide phenomenon. Take Memphis, where independently incorporated cities in the outer suburban belt like Germantown and Bartlett leapfrog over the core and suburbs, demanding infrastructure so they connect with the city. Physically it shatters Memphis' integrity and shape, creating wide funnels along which strip stores proliferate. Built to attract the better paid, it drains Memphis of its tax base. This is a triple whammy. Memphis has to maintain its services on a lower income base, the city loses its mix of rich and poor, and the outer suburbanites exploit the bits of Memphis they like, such as using the cultural facilities, while making little or no financial contribution to its maintenance. Only a metropolitan approach can solve this.

Take Espoo as an instance of strategic planning difficulties. Espoo is a high-tech area where the original headquarters of Nokia were based and is, to all intents, part of Helsinki. When Helsinki completed its metro in 1982 it wanted to extend to Espoo. Espoo resisted, essentially for power reasons, and this created traffic problems in Helsinki. For 20 years they argued and only recently has Espoo relented.

Finding the resolution, the will to operate well, is key. Bristol in Britain is an important city of 400,000 and has a metropolitan catchment area of around 600,000. When metropolitan councils first arrived in the early 1970s, the change did not touch Bristol, although it was an obvious candidate. Instead, in 1974 it became a district within an even larger region, Avon, thus reducing its status, even though it was the driver of the city region. Bristol then operated like a doughnut, with pockets of extreme disadvantage within a larger, richer conurbation. Organizationally, it took a long time to get Avon to work; but then it was taken apart again in 1997 and Bristol was boxed into too narrow boundaries as part of a network of four local authorities, Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset,

North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Indeed some boundaries run right through the city of Bristol. This creates tension and bad decision-making and led to the recent tramway proposal being aborted.

Birmingham is the largest city in Europe without a metro. It drives the West Midlands region of Britain - a region of about 5.5 million people. But the proud cities of Wolverhampton, Walsall, Coventry and a mass of smaller ones fear its power. If they worked together they could probably persuade central government to release resources. Perhaps more importantly, the centralized, controlling British system does not allow Birmingham to borrow resources from international financial markets to create a metro on its own. This means that Birmingham remains stuck in traffic jams; that its poorer populations are locked into specific areas; and that the city remains under-connected, disadvantaging areas like the ethnically diverse Handsworth or Sparkbrook. These would be far more vibrant hubs otherwise.

The British regeneration success stories appear to happen in spite of obstacles and lack of power. The current level of centralization is holding cities back. Without revenue-raising powers, how can a city have a vision? Within Europe, Britain has one of the lowest levels of locally raised taxation.28 Contrast this with the astonishing revival of Spanish cities like Valencia, Bilbao, Barcelona, Malaga and Seville. Their local control over resources and the ability to raise their own taxes is one of the highest in Europe and is acknowledged as a driver of their vision for themselves.

Metropolitan areas should be viewed as an interlocking asset where the centre feeds north, south, east and west - and they, in turn, feed the centre. When you look at the supply chains and economic dynamics, the mutual interdependences are crystal clear, as are the flows of services. It is important, too, to overcome stereotypes that affect investment potential. Stereotypes do not help good strategy. For example, one of the largest concentrations of PhD graduates in Australia work in north Adelaide, around Playford. Yet because of image issues, that area is perceived as part of the problem rather than home to some of the nation's most dynamic knowledge-intensive industries.

Taking an eagle's eye view of most cities as a governance structure, we see a decision-making spaghetti as you overlay one jurisdiction over the next: local, regional, national or federal politics and water, education and health boards. They do not align. Decision-making is not geared to seeing metropolitan areas as integrated wholes. But the fates of the centres matter to outer-lying areas. They are bound together like Siamese twins. Having local councils is crucial as long as there is a mechanism which ensures that the wider picture is considered. Take Adelaide again: What is Walkerville, a council with 8000 voters, to a Parisian, Burnside to a Roman or Marion to someone from Shanghai? They are just Adelaide. On the international stage Adelaide is the overarching identifier.

A metropolitan governance arrangement makes sense despite the downsides. Many cities struggle with the dilemma. Dublin is too big for Ireland, so the government resists the creation of a Greater Dublin authority, but Dublin is too small for Europe to operate effectively as a major European city.

Yet the city needs a boundary. Cities work well when they have boundaries, barriers and borders. Too few cities address the question 'When will it ever end?' and take a stand on the boundary. The assumption should be for a boundary that only on rare occasions is redefined. The justification to move ever outwards, from Istanbul to Canberra, often comes from the development industry, which claims 'none of our children will ever be able to buy their own house' as the cheap land has historically been on the edges. Boundaries, as distinct from endless sprawl, help define and give places stronger identity; this is why in our own surveys of the ideal city, the classic bounded cities of Italy usually come on top. It also forces cities to compact in selectively, so creating the critical mass for public transport hubs or more lively activity to occur. This in turn has a beneficial downstream effect.

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