The Triumph of the City?

Like most others with a passing interest in placemaking residing in a London postcode, I spent a couple of hours last week listening to the rather animated thoughts of academic Ed Glaeser, who ran the gamut of think tanks and even a packed out LSE lecture theatre in the name of launching his book The Triumph of the City.  Unusually for the latest author to namedrop (even Boris Johnson is a fan, we were told), Glaeser hails from the somewhat drab intellectual backwater of local government studies.

It was interesting to hear Glaeser hold forth on both his signature argument (that we shouldn’t ‘throw good money after bad’ in trying to revive failing and shrinking cities but instead help their inhabitants) but also, in response to one audience question, where he diverges from his fellow urban policy guru Richard Florida.

Florida, as you may recall, pitched up on these shores in 2003 with his must-read text The Rise of the Creative Class and a handy UK peg on which to base his theories through a rather funky ‘Boho Britain’ creativity index which acted as the first of many ranking tables on the attractiveness of UK urban areas.  The audience for the launch of that, held at RICS off Parliament Square, probably overlapped.

The apogee of the 40 UK cities considered for the index was Manchester, which excelled under all three criteria of gay-friendliness, patent applications per head and ethnic diversity, and while the full 40 were never revealed, Bristol managed a respectable 5th ahead of Brighton, and Coventry trounced Edinburgh with its ranking of 8th ‘most bohemian city in the UK’.

Once you’ve stopped sniggering, it’s probably illustrative to note that the index was co-published by Demos, but a few years after its excitable ‘Cool Britannia’ phase.  In any case, Glaeser countered that the more ‘rockstar’ academic Florida was too obsessed with ’27 year olds in cafes wearing roll-necked sweaters, reading Proust’ and that wherever you achieve high concentrations of graduates then diversity and culture will naturally follow without the need to engender either.  Florida has since acquitted himself from the worst of the criticisms levelled against him with his Great Reset book on the role of urban economies following the crash.

Though the main thrust of Glaeser’s numerous talks last week were concentrated on celebrating the triumph of the city (or at least the triumph of agglomeration of ideas and distribution), he was keen to remind audiences that urbanism indeed carried its flipsides and that we ‘shouldn’t sugar-coat the downsides of density’.

2003 was also the year the first volume of Crap Towns hit bookstores in the UK, though as texts on urban attractiveness go it’s not one considered fashionable to name-drop.  I can even recall Labour local government ministers of the time fuming at its existence in their speeches, joining the ranks of easily provoked local newspapers editors (half of whom probably don’t exist now).

Crap Towns was put together by The Idler, which isn’t the newsletter of a Daily Mail-baiting support group for back to work interview avoidance, but a more bohemian concern enjoying the patronage of Damien Hirst among others.  The notion of Goldsmiths types sniggering at grey concrete shopping centres in Basildon and Skelmersdale might rankle many, but there’s something to be said for the fact that such books, regardless of their intended audience, are at least assembled from a vernacular appreciation of what Glaeser considered as the flipside to urbanism.

This isn’t so much the much talked about ‘right to the city’ but rather the ‘right to the shitty’, or moreover, the right to at least be able participate in the framing of the narrative which guides and actualises places and the experience of living in them, however successful or unsuccessful they find themselves.  For cities to triumph, we have to at least consider what residual effect this has had on those left behind and not deny them the right to articulate that in whatever form, even if the resulting message isn’t as sexy as a packed out lecture theatre full of LSE urbanists.


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