As we have climbed higher up the hierarchy of place, we have undermined advances that we fought for
It was an erudite panel, debating how to create affordable housing at speed.
The conversation covered topics both important and familiar: affordability, viability, investment, quality and urgency. Yet there was one difference: I was not in London, but listening to the discussion via simultaneous translation, for it was all about Mexico City.
I had been invited to speak at a conference about public private partnerships. This ‘Foro Urbano 2018’ was the third presented by the organisers, CoRe. This year’s theme – the ‘Short Distance City’ – was a chance to talk about opening up Mexico’s vast metropolitan area (the most populous in the Western hemisphere at over 21 million people) to accessible and sustainable transport. It also cleverly combined fundamental (and not unrelated) questions on providing better opportunities for its people – in jobs, housing and routes out of poverty.
CoRe had an interesting beginning. It grew out of one company’s desire to take a more ‘human-scale’ approach to a major city-centre development site, an ambition that was being frustrated by a real estate partner who did not share this vision. So, when Antonio del Valle, president of conglomerate Kaluz, met Jan Gehl he invited him to the city to present, in the hope that the silver-tongued wizard of people-centred urbanism could persuade his business partner to see the light.
Alas it was not to be, so he flipped the Kaluz share, and instead established CoRe, as well as backing a fresh property enterprise, ReUrbano, which describes itself as an agent for social change. By investing in mixed-use schemes, the young creative team are breathing new life into historic city centre sites. Crucially, they pride themselves on thinking well beyond the red line, supporting walkable neighbourhoods and local businesses, as well as pouring their energy into the efforts of CoRe, as it champions a better way of life for all Chilangos – the colloquial term for local residents.
Some of the issues that CoRe champions are common problems, so they are keen to learn from experience from cities further along in some of the solutions. Another speaker, Daniel Hernandez, laid out the story behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing programme; which necessitated a huge shift in thinking in New York, as well as the trampling of silos.
The importance of removing silos was also at the heart of my message. Telling the story of London’s change over the past 20 or so years, the organisers were keen to understand the role of public-private partnerships that helped drive that change. I was proud to tell our story, and especially, explain the role of Central London Partnership (CLP), which I ran for 11 years.
From lobbying for the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square, importing the Business Improvement District (BID) movement to the UK or nurturing Legible London into existence, CLP brought fresh thinking about London, pointing the way for a host of changes to make London more successful and liveable. Moreover, it was achieved through building a shared vision and collaboration between the public and private sector, establishing the modus operandi of partnership working that continues today as a positive force in shaping our capital.
“Great things continue to happen in London, but we have inadvertently become complacent about continuing positive change”
CLP’s agenda was broad, but at its core was the certainty that London had to become a better place for people, a city that we wanted it to be, not had to be. Indeed, for CLP, improving the quality of life and experience in London streets and public spaces was the best way to ensure its economic prosperity. Our work went on to be echoed at a national level by the Labour government’s Urban Renaissance.
Over the intervening two decades, there has been heroic progress towards retrofitting the needs of people, unravelling many of the elements of the late 20th century and our preoccupation with planning around vehicles.
And yet, as we have climbed ever higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in terms of ‘place’ and our experience of city living, achieving urban renaissance, we have not paid sufficient attention to the subtle shifts, the negative factors, and the unintended consequence of social, demographic, technological and economic changes.
From over-crowded transport, a deepening housing crisis and a rise in street homelessness, Brexit to Grenfell, Uber and the gig economy, there has been a gradual undermining of some of the advances we have fought for, alongside the values and assets that have made London so successful.
Great things continue to happen in London, but we have inadvertently become complacent about continuing positive change. In doing so, we have returned to some of the conditions we set out to resolve 20 years ago. With new challenges. In the face of this, I believe we need to better understand how we shape a London that responds to its current position and change. We need to examine what is required now to achieve a city, whether it is static or growing, to steward good, and equitable, growth and change. We want attractive places to be, and live, that accommodate our diverse lives and livelihoods, incomes and abilities. We want good jobs, and schools and social infrastructure, in a city that functions well.
To help achieve that, we need to understand how our city both is now, and will change in the next decade and beyond, anticipating as far as possible the shape of change and its impact on our built environment and growth. We need to explore how this supports Londoners to shape equitable, liveable places, and how people embrace, not fear or distrust, the impact of a 21st century city that is evolving at a pace.
In the late 1990s, shaping quality of life meant creating more walkable streets, better public realm and enjoying a continental European coffee culture – or what Jan Gehl calls “public life”.
Twenty years on since I delivered CLP’s first action plan, which catalysed innovation and many positive changes, quality of life has a greater, deeper urgency, far and away beyond York stone paving, fountains and a flat white coffee. I am exploring what this means through ‘London 3.0’, an enquiry into what the next iteration of ‘good looks like’ for London, to achieve what we desire for our city and our communities, in a way that harnesses what we value. I will write more about this in the coming months in this column, as contributing editor for The Developer.
Back in Mexico, my new Chilango pals are starting from a more complicated position: of significant poverty, scale and inherent corruption and crime. Yet they are steadfastly doing what they can do, focusing down on specific neighbourhoods and issues where they can make a difference, laying the path for positive change.