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What makes a good city?

Through our London Futures review, we’re examining the state of London today and considering possible futures for the city. In this blog, Rob looks at the attributes that make a good city.

Three decades ago London was in the doldrums. It had lost almost two million inhabitants since World War Two. It had next to no city government and was widely perceived to have lost its way.  Since then London has improved in many ways. In fact, by many measures it is now one of the world’s leading cities. But beneath this story of success lie persistent problems: inequality, homelessness, a housing crisis, racism and more.

And now with coronavirus, Brexit, a changing international order, the climate emergency and a national government set on ‘levelling up’ the country, London is at a crossroads. So it’s time to zoom out and rethink what kind of London we want. Working with organisations and networks across the capital our London Futures review sets out to do just this.

In our upcoming first report from the review we analyse London’s recent past, exploring trends, and current global pressures. We begin though by stepping back from the sea of data and evidence, to consider which aspects of city living we value most. In short: what makes a good city? Reaching some conclusions on this will help us decide what future London we should aim for.

Cities may be, according to Harvard’s Professor Ed Glaeser, “mankind’s greatest invention”, yet cities vary greatly in what they offer. Some look worth imitating and desirable to live in, others less so, and each individual will have a different blend of values that drive those views. There is a whole industry that attempts to compare cities, identify drivers of economic growth, and gauge quality of life, from the all-encompassing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through to niche indices, like the Green Space Index, that focus on a narrow set of measures.

The broader the framework, the more tensions and trade-offs they highlight. Is more prosperity and growth a good goal in itself, or should we be more concerned about where that wealth goes, how it is spread, or how it is generated? What level of power, and in what form, should citizens hold to shape the destinies of their places? Is a dense city better than a sprawling one? What priority should tackling climate change, or responding to changing migration patterns have?

Even our own views can be contradictory. All frameworks have their logical flaws. But they can help us understand and explore what really matters to us. So, we have developed a list of 10 features of good cities to inform the London Futures review. These attributes provide a lens on city life and we think they will help guide the debate we want to elicit about London’s future, even though some are in conflict or tension with others.

10 attributes of good cities (in no particular order)

  1. Security and resilience. Core to our wellbeing, both physical and mental. Cities, clusters of people, owe their origins to the need for collective security. And our collective resilience is our ability to withstand adverse circumstances, e.g. terror attacks, epidemics, or extreme weather.
  2. Health. Improvements like life expectancy, absence of disease, and child and maternal mortality are benchmarks for development. The role of mental health in our quality of life is also significant.
  3. Democracy, governance and public services. Citizens should share in decision making. Contests for space and the proximity of people sharpen the need for good governance in cities. Public services are vital too – from sewers and street lighting through to more complex services such as education.
  4. Liberty. Acting without unreasonable constraint, and freedom from oppressive restrictions.  Without liberty citizenship is undermined. Citizens need the ability to make choices that shape their lives and futures. Important too is freedom of expression – not only to hold the powerful to account, but also to create life-enriching culture.
  5. Prosperity​ and jobs. Arguably the main goal of modern public policy. Prosperity generates capital, investment, jobs and future wealth. But untrammelled production can degrade the natural world, biodiversity, and our protective atmosphere; inequality can also have severe social costs.
  6. Diversity and cohesion.The intermingling of cultures, values, languages and perspectives provides a wellspring for new ideas and innovation. Diversity can also generate friction, but where cohesion trumps division, it is a strength.
  7. Connectivity and mobility. Being able to connect (both physically and digitally) increases potential customers, collaborators, cultural exchange, flow of ideas, innovation, and the labour pool.
  8. Environmental sustainability​.The defining challenge of the current century and a critical global responsibility, especially in the case of greenhouse gas emissions. Talent and capital now increasingly shun places and organisations that ignore global, and local environmental responsibilities. But restrictions can impinge on liberty.
  9. Quality of place and amenities​. Most cities have a wide range in terms of quality of places. Some streets, squares, highways and thoroughfares are much loved and imitated. Others less so. The components of what really makes for popular streets and neighbourhoods, or vibrant and successful business districts, is a still developing discipline.
  10. Fairness. Has many aspects: justice; absence of discrimination; access to opportunity and social mobility; and more equal distribution of income, wealth and power.

The first report of the London Futures review looks at London’s performance over recent decades, and assesses where this has been strong, what has gone less well, and starts to suggest some of the possible futures that the capital might have.

Which future we choose should be driven by the value we place on different aspects of city life. How we resolve, or accept, the tensions and competitions across them, should shape the London we want to see, to live in, and the city we leave behind for future generations.

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Rob Whitehead is Director of Strategic Projects at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.