The future for Cities

by John Reiners

I attended an enjoyable discussion yesterday evening on the future for cities, hosted by the Monacle magazine (it can be viewed here). The discussion was mostly about London, but apart from a few topics (like the impact of Brexit), most of the discussion and recommendations could apply to any major city. The panel set out to be provocative – here are some of the ideas that got me thinking.

  • A distinction was made between growing cities, which are young and economically dynamic and heritage/built cities which are a magnet for property investors and tourists. It’s possible for both to co-exist in the same city, as they do in London (but I can’t imagine there aren’t consequences).
  • Cities need to house a mixed population. London’s success is largely down to being able to attract a young global population of hard working twenty-somethings by offering a party city, though this is threatened by the lack of affordable property. What’s needed is a healthy supply of professionally managed rented property. But cities are also highly attractive to elderly, retired people, who sustain the local economy and many of the cultural attractions.
  • Cities need to be designed to serve the people living and working there. There was all round admiration for the established ideas of US planner Jane Jacobs and the concept of mixed communities of residential, commercial and workspace.
  • There were interesting thoughts on how cities adapt to the changing economy. I talked to someone in the break about the rapid growth of dynamic, shared workspaces in New York and London. These are conscious efforts to encourage more collaborative working but it doesn’t always work as planned. He explained that Londoners don’t mingle with strangers as freely as New Yorkers.
  • Technology will be transformative – for example self driving cars. But there was scepticism about top down, integrated smart city visions that could be subject to cyber attack. The panel preferred more organic solutions, accessed via citizens’ mobile phones.
  • City transport systems, based on the hub and spoke design, though built in the nineteenth century to serve a very different economy and lifestyles, are actually suitable for the 21st century, as they are more sustainable and support the clustering of economic activity in city centres.

The sold-out, enthusiastic audience, from a range of backgrounds was evidence of how many people care deeply about this subject. In London, as in many cities, we are seeing dramatic changes in our cityscape, not all of them universally welcomed. From the discussions afterwards people seemed proud of their city but concerned for the future and keen to help shape it in any way they could.

John Reiners is Oxford Economics Managing Editor, EMEA. He manages research programs on a wide range of topics, including digital economy. He also follows emerging trends, like smart and sustainable cities. He can be contacted at jreiners@oxfordeconomics.com