I am an urban planner and designer working in...
On June 5th the Swiss have the opportunity to vote on the principles of adopting the idea of a Universal/Unconditional Basic Income (UBI), granting each citizen a fixed sum every month, independent of living in Basel or rural Uri (places with highest and lowest GDP).
I think a geographically independent UBI could be the answer for decentralisation and regeneration alike the whole world over.
The proponents of UBI argue that this is the only way that a welfare state can provide dignified support to all its citizens, without the costly (for the state) and humiliating (for the individual) process to prove the need for support such as the Hartz IV system in Germany for example. In one clean swoop, supporters argue, UBI would also make choices of lifestyle less dependent on financial considerations, and could help us with many developed world issues such as childcare, care for the elderly and the impending loss of millions of jobs. Indeed there are arguments that UBI could give rise to economic growth as the risk factor in becoming an entrepreneur or innovator is almost entirely negated.
I believe however that there is another enormous benefit that UBI could bring in a cities context – it could slow and maybe reverse the movement of people away from areas with struggling local economies. Cities like Paris, Munich and San Francisco are bursting at the seams and their infrastructures are struggling to keep up with the new residents attracted by their success. As economic powerhouses of their respective nations many cities attract internal and external migration not only causing issues for infrastructure and resources in the target cities, but also issues in the origin cities, as the brain drain undermines economic growth and dwindling populations undermine infrastructure and government services to be maintained.
In the UK, who lack a real polycentric network of major cities, government has long employed a planning policy of decentralisation of services, more recently paired with a devolution of powers. The relocation of public jobs away from London, such as the Government Communications Headquarters to Cheltenham and swathes of the BBC to Salford, is an attempt to release some pressures from the South East, whilst at the same time injecting regeneration power into struggling postindustrial cities (as well as saving on operating cost along the way).
One of the key arguments for the current development of the UK’s High Speed 2 project is indeed the regenerative potential it has for Birmingham and other cities along its route. The opportunity for London to be de-pressurised by the HS2 valve is deemed feasible by this massive and needed transport investment, and the city of Lille stands as a testament to the potential success of such strategies. And considering that empty houses are an issue in many cities north of the Watford Gap (as they are in the former Eastern Germany and the Rustbelt) rather than astronomic property prices in London (Stuttgart and Washington) such investments are justified. But could UBI be a more effective and deep reaching driver than top down decentralisation from this ‘build it and they will go’ approach?
Second tier cities like Detroit, Hull and Chemnitz would become instantly more of an attractive proposition for people to move to if they had UBI guaranteeing an income, and providing a better lifestyle compared to New York, London and Munich where costs are high. The effect of cheap rents in gentrifying urban areas of booming cities is well understood and has its issues. But for cities and entire regions that are slowly fading, UBI could be the alternative to white elephant public spending.
UBI will remain a divisive concept and potential implementation will be marred with issues for sure, but I believe it could play a much more sustainable role in achieving decentralisation and regeneration alike.