Rethinking cities in 2015 – food for thought on devolution!

The start of January 2015 brought a series of sweeping ideas

Rethinking cities in 2015 – food for thought on devolution!

This week, the first of proper focused work, has brought a number of interesting and challenging thoughts published a little bit everywhere – but very interesting for any large city:
1. The OECD published new research on the impact of environmental policies on national productivity. Also quoted in a much shorter article in The Economist, titled Green Tape. Both institutions are not exactly known as green militants… yet the argument states that, contrary to common political discourse, there is no real correlation between stringency of environmental regulations and economic success. Think about it – we all have direct experience that laws on environmentally friendly cars has driven innovation and we all changed our cars in the process… One door closes and another opens.
Armed with this new ‘common sense’ – can we think of new ways to boost innovation and improve the environment of our cities?

2. Another challenging thought came on Thursday 8 when Jacques Peretti presented his documentary on ‘The Super Rich and Us’. His key point was that any deliberate policy to attract the super-rich to England (and London in particular) has not made people (‘us’) more prosperous – but has boosted GDP figures, window dressing the weaknesses in the real economy and well-being of people. He argued that wealth has not ‘trickled down’ from the richer 1%... if anything it has ‘trickled up’ by making life harder for everyone else.

I will be looking forward to hear more in the next weeks… but once again: we need prosperous cities, and therefore we must focus on the city we (‘us’ – the ‘everyone else’) need and desire – and the super-rich will follow!

3. The World Bank Future Development Forecast 2015 makes two exciting statements: that 2015 will be a defining year for new urban technologies (electric, but also driverless vehicles? Smart city applications? Intelligent resilience planning?) and it will be the year in which there will be a peak of working age population (at 66%) probably followed by demographic stagnation and then decline.
Wow! This will herald dramatic change… we will live in a moment of transition when we still have to cater for the old and the new: build roads for the old cars and buses, and prepare for new agile, flexible and efficient automated cars which will change the way we move. We will have to address the shocking lack of primary schools in London, but consider at the same time the swell of labour force and the necessary extension of working life. Why sacrifice the Green Belts just now? Why ignore the demographic balance (even temporary) potentially brought by immigration? Why not thinking longer term?

The Scottish referendum on independence last September (which rejected independence as long as more freedom to manage itself was granted) has given way to research and political debates on devolution of powers to English cities or city-regions. The call is for taxes raised locally to be also made available locally. This way London will have a richer administration and be freer to decide how to compete better on the world stage. The idea is only valid if cities that are not dependent on the super-rich become better off, with the same freedoms and their poorer administrations.

The jury is out on the financial and fiscal front, but this week’s reports surely say that cities will become more diverse, as they need to plan for different environmental challenges, different distributions of wealth and different demographics – each will need their own unique set of answers.
In a globalised world, cities will become unique…. And so will their residents.

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Director at URBAN Silence

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