I’m reading a book called Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser, and it’s got big love for the urban. While it skips over some of its most interesting lines of enquiry, I still recommend taking a look at it if you have any interest at all in cities. It has got me thinking about what it is that city’s exist for, what makes a good one and who benefits the most. With billionaires seeking to buy up swathes of seemingly recession proof London properties and housing benefits cuts pushing people out of the central zones, this has been in the news (and on my mind) more than usual. Glaeser makes the case that by absorbing mammoth fixed costs – mainly in infrastructure – cities benefit everyone in them, not just the rich. For example, a regional theatre costs a bucket to maintain and will always be skirting on the edge of existence, whereas one in London can sustain many through sheer numbers. There always plenty of bums to get on seats.
Broadly, I agree with this but more important to the life of a good city is a the balance of people in it. To have bums of all colours and backgrounds. I have spent a total of 8 hours in Paris, so I’m aware I’m perhaps not allowed to pass judgement on it, but while it was a very beautiful city, it felt a bit like a museum to me. To live in relatively central Paris has become absurdly pricey, and most of the city’s poorer residents are concentrated in the banlieus. It is a city to be seen, or seen in if you’re respectable enough, otherwise get out. This applies not just to the economics of residency, but also to the insanely bureaucratic planning laws that are meant to keep the place looking all pretty. Conversely, London feels like a place to be lived in. Sure, it has a haphazard skyline, and plenty of ugly tower blocks rubbing up against Georgian town houses, but that mix keeps it vibrant.
So I worry that London is going to become a city embalmed by money, just as Paris has been by a fierce sense of history; it will be fixed and while on first appearance it will look just as exciting as ever, really it will be a display piece. All that scurrying and suffering of small level commerce, arts and every day existence that sustained that former vitality will slow to a halt and what will be left to say except “ooh, isn’t that nice?”