I appeared on Radio 4’s Moral Maze this week as one of the witnesses giving evidence to the panel of guests. I confess I struggle to listen to this programme as it gives air time to some panellists who…[seeks polite way to say this]…whose moral frameworks do not align with my own. I’ll leave it at that. But this time they all reigned it in a little and appearing on the show was good fun.
The topic was the future of the city. In light of the current pandemic, the death of the high street, and the acceleration of remote working, should we all be abandoning cities for smaller towns and countryside living? My answer was a resounding ‘no’. In fact, quite the opposite. I argued that if we are to address some of the major crises of our time: climate change, the ageing population, economic disruption, then we need more of us to be living in cities, not fewer.
Cities against Climate Change
This may sound counter-intuitive but you are likely to have a much lower carbon footprint living in Central London than you would living in the middle of the countryside. One might be literally greener but the city is far and away the more environmentally friendly choice.
Why? For a start, your home is likely to be newer and better insulated – not least because there are likely to be other homes above and below it. The infrastructure and the tarmac around you stores heat, keeping temperatures in cities 1-3° warmer than the countryside, further reducing your investment in heating.
When you travel in a city, the amenities are much closer by and you have a much greater chance of being able to travel by public transport. Getting to work, the shops, the pub, or a museum, you will expend a lot less energy.
Cities against ageing
The collapse in our birth rate means that our population is ageing even faster than we thought. In the UK we have been offsetting some of this trend through immigration. That is going to be a challenge in the face of Brexit and a weak economy. We need to find solutions to caring for our ageing population with a declining tax base. One of the ways to do that is to keep people self-sufficient for longer, and when they do need care, enable us to care for them more cost-effectively.
Cities are the ideal place to do this. In a city, all the amenities can be close by. Public transport should enable people to get to whatever they need without access to a car or private transport service. If they do need door to door travel, taxis are relatively cheap.
When people do need care, having them grouped in a city means care workers can get to them more easily and emit less carbon in the process.
Cities for the Economy
Cities are the cheapest place to serve citizens with utilities. The closer together people are, the more cost effective it is to provide water, waste services, electricity and connectivity. This is why many rural parts of the country still run on oil deliveries and septic tanks and have crap broadband.
Cities are also cheaper places to provide a wider variety of public services, at least on a per-capita basis. Put a park or museum in and it might immediately be accessible by hundreds of thousands of people. Likewise schools and hospitals.
In tough times for the economy, as we are facing now, this becomes important.
If we are to escape the economic doldrums, the dense nature of a city is also important. Densely-packed cities have higher economic productivity – especially when they are well connected with public transport. The bandwidth of being there, face to face, has value. As does the proximity of other creative souls, suppliers, partners and entrepreneurs.
Change the city to save it
None if this is to say that we should preserve cities as they are. Cities thrive on change and our cities need radical change if they are to be the vehicle to address the economic, ageing, and environmental crises facing us. They need new housing. They need better infrastructure for transport, energy, and water. We need to radically rethink our high streets as places of convergence not a retail monoculture.
We need to adapt our cities to changing working patterns, building for a steady flow of people around the city not artificial peaks in morning and evening. We need to begin turning parking spaces over to living as we invest in car alternatives and (eventually) autonomous vehicles make city-centre parking largely unnecessary. We need to think about other ways to re-use space that might formerly have been offices, factories, or shops. Like farming, perhaps.
We need to think about affordability, ensuring that city centres don’t become a monoculture of another kind. We need to bring people of all ages back to the city centre to live, and we need to make it attractive and affordable for them to do so. City centres need to be clean, green, and safe.
Not just cities
I am not advocating for everyone to live in a city. Nor am I arguing for any type of coerced relocation as we may have seen in the past. We are going to need and want people living and working across the country for the foreseeable future.
I am also not arguing for further economic centralisation around London. The UK’s other great cities all have roles to play in tackling the challenges we face and we will fail to tackle them if we don’t focus investment there as much as anywhere.
But cities, and specifically large, densely-populated cities, evolved to meet today’s needs, are a critical part of the answer to today’s crises.