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December 10, 2013 / Leo Hollis

The post recession city: some ideas ‘Metropolitan Revolution’ and ‘The Happy City’

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the metropolis – often criticised as the source of the problem – is being heralded as the incubators of the revival. In the UK, recent figures show that while the economy grew during this year, most of this has been restricted to cities, with London taking 47% of all national growth since 2007. In the US, there is a similar picture, despite scenes of urban failure such as the bankruptcy of Detroit. Where once we considered cities to be the problem, now they appear to be the only solution we have.

Today, economists applaud the creative potential of urban living to inspire profit; architects, technologist and environmentalists agree that the city is the most sustainable way to organise future societies in the face of climate change. As a result a burgeoning market in collecting urban data has emerged – monitoring everything from congestion levels, energy use as well as productivity – as well as one divining what the future city will do for these gathered masses. Talking up the city is officially good for business.

You can tell things are looking up because in London they are talking house prices again; almost relishing the simulated horror mixed with pride that comes with the news that the city has become a land bank for the world’s super rich. In the smartest neighbourhoods the landlords are starting to talk about ‘dark houses’, empty investment properties used only a few weeks a year. In Mayor Johnson’s new Draft Housing Strategy, it is noted that 80% of all housing stock in the city is currently affordable solely to the top 20%. This statistic is unaffected by the plans announced last month for the 74-story Hertsmere Tower in Docklands were announced offering 714 luxury apartments, the most expensive clocking in at over £10 million.

However, the rhetoric of the consultants, prophets and pollers is sometimes difficult to blend with the city on our front doorsteps. It is here after all that the winner-takes-all world system reveals its indifference. While Mayor Johnson has given the green light to the £800 million Hertsmere project, there are 23,000 on the waiting list for affordable and social houses in the local Tower Hamlets council. The developers have agreed to contribute £1 million to social housing – far away from the site – and £4 million to Crossrail. In a recent London Poverty Survey, 28% now live under the poverty line throughout London as a whole. Can the city be such a place of optimism when it is home to such inequality? In the vacuum that inevitably occurs, the metropolis has to look after itself.

This is what Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley suggest in their new book THE METROPOLITAN REVOLUTION will come from the development of metropolitan innovation centres that will then link nationally to create a new order of entrepreneurial networks. These seem like good lessons for successful cities like New York and Houston to learn, but how does this help Detroit? Katz says that the seeds of the revival are already sprouting as Downtown becomes attractive to the creative classes. But how long does everyone else have to wait for a decent chance to share in this revival? He claims his revolution is ‘bottom up’ but it remains resolutely ‘trickle down’.

Of these concerns, Charles Montgomery wants us to appreciate the ways that the city can make us happy in THE HAPPY CITY. A journalist who joined the BWM Guggenheim Lab in Manhattan to conduct a series of psychological tests and experiments on how people feel about the city, Montgomery believes in the power of place-making: how design of the built environment can improve our urban lives. His particular animus is sprawl, and how our current dependency on the car robs us of the human elements of civic life.

The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes from studies and experiments that look into how the minutiae of everyday life has an impact on our well-being. He tells us that we like to be together, but also cherish our privacy; how the way public spaces are designed has an impact our sense of well-being; that good public transport allows the city to grow and can also be a force for equality. Bike schemes don’t just get us out of the car, but also make us fitter, improve the quality of the air, and creates a sense of ownership.

It is easy, however, to mistake Montgomery’s well-meaning ideal for Main Street, Disneyland, or Seaside, Florida, the New Urbanist utopia used as the set for ‘The Truman Show’ with its low-density housing, smiling citizenry, and transit delivered by historic tram system. Despite the engrossing psychological experiments and descriptions of effective place making from around the world, I was never certain what the happiness of the city actually was: was it for the individual, the property owner, or everyone? Perhaps it is the wrong question altogether.

Montgomery suggests that we can redesign the city through careful study of ‘the firing synapses of our brain, the chemistry of our blood and the statistical heft of our collective choices and opinions’. But reducing the city to what our oxytocin levels tell us that we need is absurd. Despite his talk of trust, sharing and proximity, Montgomery does not answer how to build this citadel; rather, he concludes that the market itself defines the best design: ‘the geometry of profit also created the near perfect scale for happy living.’ Montgomery may feel that he is presenting a distinct city to Katz, but they are the same vision of the market driven metropolis, albeit with different mood lighting.

Undoubtedly cities are going to be the stage upon which the twenty-first century drama will be played; However, while thinking about economic revival and the power of technology to create a more efficient place, how to design places that make us more happy, we must spend as much time thinking about how these projects impact not just on those who will benefit from it, but also those who miss out. For a city that is not for all, is not for anyone.

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