I’m a member of the city economics team at...
Smog, crime, cramped living… For much of the twentieth century it was accepted wisdom that while cities could be tolerated for work, a more pleasant life lay in the suburbs or better yet, the countryside. But in the twenty-first century this idea has been upended, and given way to a wide embrace of urbanism, perhaps consigning the aspiration to a rural idyll to the history books. I believe the challenge is now to ensure the benefits of city living are felt equitably and sustainably.
Many, including Harvard economist Professor Ed Glaeser have researched the changing perceptions of city living. Professor Glaeser’s work examines the idea that city dwellers were once less happy than rural populations and merely endured cities, sacrificing a little happiness for higher wages. The conclusion is that now both groups are as happy as each other. It cannot be long before city dwellers have the upper hand.
Indeed, following decades of investment in cultural facilities, the development of appealing public spaces, improved school performance, and high quality health provision, city living has become the model for a life well-spent. City life is valued for the quality of life opportunities it offers, not just the economic ones. Gentrification and sharing economy businesses like Uber and AirBnB are opening up and revitalising areas of cities that had previously been neglected by tourists and visitors, and putting spending money into the hands of local residents. Economic growth and urbanisation continues to bring a variety of new investment into many cities. Even air pollution and unwanted noise, which have long been drawbacks to city living, are likely to be mitigated by the move towards electric vehicles in the future.
It seems that high density living can lead to – rather than frustrate - a high quality of life. The enthusiasm for city living brings with it diverse implications for policy makers. With increasing popularity comes in-migration, which means cities need to increase their investment in infrastructure, and maintain focus on important ‘quality of life’ factors like community facilities.
Cities like Seoul and Medellin are already demonstrating imaginative initiatives to reconnect neighbourhoods previously negatively affected by motorways, replacing them with homes, public parks and leisure areas. In London too, plans exist for the regeneration of Hammersmith by moving traffic into tunnels. These efforts implicitly recognise that instead of driving in and out of cities, enclosed in cars, we want to walk, cycle and enjoy cities as experiences in themselves. And as the population ages, the idea of cities being purely a place for younger people begins to ebb. Policy-makers will need to ensure cities’ facilities are available to people of all ages.
This golden age stems substantially from a virtuous circle of in-migration, private and public sector investment. Worse living standards, as indicated by higher violent crime levels, lower levels of educational achievement and (arguably) fewer leisure and culture opportunities are now more often found in smaller towns – rather than the large cities. These locations have often suffered from the long-term effects of de-industrialisation, and a change in the geography of trading relationships, leaving them with a legacy of partially obsolete infrastructure and skills, which makes them less attractive to private sector investors.
The challenge for politicians and community leaders in these areas is to find ways to incentivize new industries to locate there – and to incentivize the populace, especially the innovators and the educated - to remain, and to be joined by others. Hope can be drawn from the investment and new start-ups appearing in locations such as Detroit – which was previously a prime example of the effects of post-industrial decline.
At the macro-level, it will become increasingly important that countries ensure certain locations don’t get left behind, leading to divisive perceptions of ‘them and us’. If our cities have never had it so good, our challenge must now be to build on those strengths. We should allow other places to learn from the success, and to ensure that our cities – and our towns - continue to be designed and run with quality of life, and not just wealth generation, at the forefront.