The word “urbanism” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century. But it’s only in recent years that the term has become fashionable. Indeed, it has spawned a new type of professional: the “urbanist.” Defined by the OED as “an expert in urban life or urban areas,” such figures occupy a proliferation of roles in policymaking and academia—roles that have accompanied the boom in regeneration and property development that has characterised cities since the 1990s, especially in the US and the UK.
Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, the authors of The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, are prime examples of this breed. Katz is a specialist in “global urbanisation” at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, which boasts former Federal Reserve Chairs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke among its fellows. Katz, who in the 1990s was chief of staff to the US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has been instrumental in shaping American—and British—urban policy.
The cliché is that policies that start life in the US arrive in Britain some 10 to 15 years later. But the New Localism, as Katz and Nowak call it, is a rare example of a trend that has moved in the opposite direction, drawing on David Cameron’s ill-fated “Big Society.”
In reality the New Localism is a mixture of American and British ideas. Robert Putnam’s networks of “social capital”; Whitehall’s Business Improvement Districts; and Richard Florida’s contentious book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida argued that knowledge-workers (in design, technology, education, arts and entertainment) who cluster in hip downtown locations are the spur for economic growth.
The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism
by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak (Brookings Institution, £21.95
“Network governance,” “place-making,” the “entrepreneurial city,” “extracting value”: these are the Katz and Nowak buzz phrases of choice. Singled out for praise is the vast private development at King’s Cross in London—an “innovation cluster” that has attracted a Google office, an art college and high-end bars and restaurants.
What seems strange is that a book aiming to address the rise of populism rehashes policies that have fuelled that very same populism. Predictably, the authors reject “inflammatory” ideological rhetoric in favour of something called “network governance,” which relies on the participation of business and institutional partners—rather than actual voters—as a pathway to “pragmatic thinking and commonsense discourse.” What they don’t take account of is the resentment of so many citizens who have been excluded from such processes. Innovation clusters are all very well, but what about the people priced out of newly fashionable areas who don’t buy into (or can’t afford to) the cult of urbanism?
“Innovation clusters are all very well, but what about the people priced out of newly-fashionable areas?”
The credo put forward by Katz and Nowak resurrects 1990s ideas around “place-making,” where run-down former industrial and inner-city areas are regenerated. This increases commercial value, which in turn attracts developers—a supposedly virtuous circle where investment benefits both wealthy incomers and those who already live there. The lived reality, of course, is gentrification—in which existing communities are priced out of an area and displaced.
Even Florida, the high priest of urbanist theories, seems to have recanted somewhat. His latest book, The New Urban Crisis, laments the extreme levels of gentrification and inequality that have come about in cities from San Francisco to Vancouver, not to mention London. And yet while Katz and Nowak acknowledge that often “yesterday’s artists’ lofts become tomorrow’s investment banker’s condos,” and accept that housing affordability is an issue, their book doesn’t address housing in any detail. Remarkably, they deem it to be a federal responsibility and as such a subject they can simply ignore.
The New Urban Crisis: Gentrification, Housing Bubbles, Growing Inequality, and What We Can Do About it
by Richard Florida (Oneworld, £20)
Thank God, then, for Richard Sennett. He combines practical experience of policymaking with solid intellectual credentials stretching back 40 years. Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City takes a very different view to The New Localism, suggesting that the city will always be messy and disordered, and that its essence lies in how it allows encounters with all kinds of difference. Sennett condemns the Google offices (“Googleplexi”) springing up in cities around the world as “a new kind of ghetto”—similar to South Korea’s “stupefying smart city” in Songdo near Seoul, which is boringly easy to live in. Bill Gates coined the term “friction-free” to describe user-friendly technology; but, Sennett argues, space and place should be full of friction.
“The city will always be messy and disordered—its essence lies in how it allows encounters with difference”
In the silent open-plan spaces of the Googleplex, with its pool tables, low sofas and scripted “casual collisions,” there are no encounters with resistance—just pleasure on demand in a hermetically sealed environment. The consequence is that essential skills of “prehension”—the ability to anticipate risk—which thrive in the “open city” are being lost in the “closed city” high-security, privatised environments that aim to remove every possible danger.
But how can we overcome our resistance to disorder? Sennett’s powerful argument draws on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1951 essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” to try and combat our fear of the other. The freedom and loneliness of city life creates the notion of neighbours as strangers. Our indifference to difference is at the heart of his vision of the successful city. At the same time, the places that are the least diverse—like Heidegger’s Freiburg in the 1930s, when the philosopher made his fateful turn towards Nazism—are also least able to tolerate difference.
Building and Dwelling is a long, complex and in parts brilliant book that is essential reading for all students of the city. It takes in every serious thinker on the subject: from Georg Simmel to Marx, Hannah Arendt and Lewis Mumford—not to mention Sennett’s old friend Jane Jacobs, who in the 1960s successfully protested against plans for an expressway through Greenwich Village. But just as with The New Localism—and in common with much writing on urbanism—there is surprisingly little about housing.
Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City
by Richard Sennett (Allen Lane, £25)
That is addressed by John Boughton, whose blog Municipal Dreams is required reading and has now become a book. It’s unlikely that Boughton would call himself an urbanist. For him, housing affordability has exposed the flaws in the prevailing models celebrated in The New Localism.
His book Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Social Housing provides a comprehensive history of Britain’s council estates. For most of its history, council housing was not considered poor housing at all, but aspirational. As housing minister, Nye Bevan told the House of Commons in 1946 that if council estates were only intended for the poor, they would become “castrated communities” and that the “segregation of the income groups” was “a wholly evil thing.” The 1949 Housing Act removed the stipulation that council housing should only be for the working class.
“What did for council housing wasn’t modernist architecture but Margaret Thatcher”
Boughton also challenges the well-worn narrative that it was top-down modernism that caused the decline of council housing. According to this version of events, it was the failures in mass system building in the 1960s—symbolised by the collapse of the east London tower block Ronan Point in 1968, and the corruption scandals between councils and the monopoly housebuilders—that signalled the beginning of the end. But some of Britain’s best council housing was built in the 1970s: Dawson’s Heights, Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens in south London; north London’s Branch Hill; the Alexandra Road Estate and Ralph Erskine’s Byker in Newcastle. By this time, Boughton argues, councils had learnt from their mistakes and were building high-quality housing designed by the best architects of the day. In 1978 a third of England’s population lived in council housing, the majority of whom were in work.
What did for council housing wasn’t modernist architecture, in other words, but Margaret Thatcher’s “housing revolution.”
The shift away from building and maintaining council homes and towards relying on a much more expensive private rented sector, paid for through housing benefit, produced both the decline of estates and an exponential rise in the housing benefit bill. (It currently stands at £27bn per year.) The sale through Right to Buy of two million council homes in England between 1980 and the present day has destroyed the remaining stock of social housing. A third of social housing tenants now rent privately, while “allocations” policies increasingly mean that only vulnerable individuals or families are eligible for what’s left. This couldn’t be further from what Bevan’s original vision. (Scotland and Wales have now legislated to abolish Right to Buy.)
Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing
by John Boughton (Verso, £18.99)
Council housing—which morphed into a linguistically confusing mix of “social” and “affordable” housing as it was outsourced and privatised—has been a substantial part of housing policy for more than a century. There can be no doubt that its decline over the last 30 years is the single biggest cause of the housing crisis.
There are many versions of what constitutes “local”: the vision of localism put forward in these books could not be more different, from Boughton’s local government municipalism to the place-making of the New Localism. What we lack is a structural economic and political blueprint underpinning what might give rise to a version of Richard Sennett’s open city, which would include genuinely affordable housing.
This could emerge through a renewal of local democratic processes in tandem with local economic revival and participatory democracy. Few people wish to live with an ever-worsening housing crisis, while surrounded by the cranes and construction of luxury apartment complexes. But while many local communities crave democratic revival—see the successful left-wing campaign against Haringey council’s proposed public-private partnership with house-builder Lendlease—the policies shaping our cities remain rooted in the past. The consequence of this democratic deficit is the new populism that now threatens the established order of our political system.