In the preceding chapters we have seen that London has been a global city for many centuries. Perhaps more than most cities, it has been open to and enriched by the many encounters that have resulted. This layering and coexistence of people, ideas and cultures is the essence of London today – and is reflected across its architecture, language, and identity.
The city’s early success as a trade hub, as well as the seat of royal and subsequently state power, drove its growth. The Industrial Revolution and Britain’s domination by force of other peoples and lands provided the fuel for London’s confirmation as a global financial centre. But its genius sprang from the mingling of people of all stripes and nationalities in London’s streets and coffee shops. It was here that new industries, particularly service industries such as insurance capital markets, were born. Powered by this innovative melting pot, London had become, by the middle of the 19th century, the pre-eminent city on the planet. But two world wars and the dismantling of the British Empire reduced the power and influence of both the UK and London. Between 1945 and 1991 London declined in both population and relative global importance.
In the 1990s, however, the end of the Cold War, the expansion and deepening of the European Union, and liberal reforms elsewhere led to period of rapid acceleration in trade and openness. Aided by domestic business deregulation, London rode this wave of globalisation and reestablished itself as a global centre for capital and culture. London was reborn and rebadged as a “world city”.
London today is more integrated with the rest of the world than at any point in the past. New influences emerge and seep in faster than ever – and the ideas and creations of Londoners, in their turn, flow outwards and help shape the world of tomorrow.
What can city benchmarks tell us?
There are over 600 comparative city benchmark studies around the world, spanning objective performance indicators, composite analyses, and surveys. More ways to measure and compare cities exist than ever before, led by intergovernmental organisations, global companies, think tanks and new data providers. Benchmarks can do more than just provide an international perspective on how London is doing. They shape the intuitions and decisions of businesses and investors, and their public visibility means they inform the choices of a mobile workforce, as well as the appetites of global travellers and entrepreneurs. They also help to monitor comparative rates of progress, spot gaps, and check how the city brands fare against the “product”.
City benchmarking is an established practice but not an exact or agreed science. The coverage and robustness of existing city benchmarks varies greatly. Each has specific motives, methodological strengths and shortcomings. There are still gaps in terms of the transparency of data, and many benchmarks have been weighted more towards the priorities of mobile and high-income populations than of long-term residents. But benchmarks have become more balanced in recent years. They now offer more coverage of the needs of residents, entrepreneurs and small business – and they are more eager to compare the “real” metropolitan city rather than just the high-profile activity inside city centres.
London’s global standing today
Overall, and despite Brexit and COVID-19, London is still the world’s number one city across the full set of performance and perception measures used to compare cities. London is open to talent, attractive to investors, rich in high-growth and high-value businesses, improving its infrastructure, staging inspiring global events and wielding its “soft power” across the globe. 107
Since 2016, London’s accumulated advantages mean it is still in the top tier of established world cities. But competition is growing from more places, and in more ways. London’s global standing has been pulled down by doubts about the city’s future business environment, affordability, resilience, and the strength of the ”social contract” between citizens, business and government.
COVID-19 also appears to be altering the equation of what the world looks for in a successful city, and how cities are appraised and compared. There is renewed attention on the leading cities’ public health systems, their economic and fiscal agility, and the competence and consistency ofnational government support. London’s enduring fundamentals and mature specialisations continue to shine through in the global benchmarks, but new strategies and interventions may be needed to re-establish momentum in London’s competitive performance, and to improve perceptions at home and abroad.
The competition London faces from other cities is growing over time. While few cities can easily acquire the range of assets of London, New York or Tokyo, many are proving capable of competing with London in specific areas.
In 2020, London faces international competition from many types of city
(see Figure 15), including:
- Strongly established global cities which compete with London across the
spectrum (e.g. New York, Paris, Singapore).
- Capitals of emerging economies, which compete with London in certain
traded sectors that rely on infrastructure as well as favourable tax and
regulation conditions (e.g. Guangzhou, Istanbul, Mexico City).
- Newly globalising or re-globalising medium-sized cities that possess
high-quality systems and services, innovation and brand advantages; that
compete on quality of life, public health standards, or niche specialisation
in advanced industries (e.g. Austin, Melbourne, Zurich).
How has London’s competition changed in the last 10 years?
- In 2008, London was one of 19 highly globalised (Alpha) world cities with a critical mass of globally networked companies in advanced knowledge services. Today, there are 33 such cities. 108
- 10 years ago, London was one of just four global financial centres with the assets to gain an aggregate rating of over 700 points in the major measure of sentiment among financial specialists. Today it is one of 28 such centres. 109
- In 2005-07, London was one of just five cities outside the U.S. to absorb more than $300 million of venture capital investment annually into its growth firms. In the same period ten years later, it was one of 35 such cities. 110
London’s performance in depth
Across the major benchmarks and throughout the first half of 2020, London has been ahead of its competitors for investment attraction, cultural vibrancy, visitor appeal, talent base, and innovation (see Figure 16). The city has consistently attracted the highest number of new job-creating investments, 111 and continues to rank in the top two financial centres globally by overall performance and perception. It has pulled away from other European rivals for its start-up ecosystem value and success rates, 112 and is reliably rated the top choice of European start-up founders. 113 London’s appeal to international students remains highly resilient, 114 and on softer measures such as the transparency of its real estate sector, the city’s regulatory, legal and governance regime is still viewed as a major advantage to the agility and sustainability of key markets. 115
These business and industry advantages also extend to other segments; the latest figures suggest that up until the coronavirus pandemic it was the third most popular visitor destination globally, 116 and the world’s most highly rated cultural, culinary and entertainment scene. For the first time in seven years, London came top of the largest survey of global citizens on which city they most admired and trusted. 117
Brand success liveability and sustainability gaps
Nonetheless, London has simultaneously been falling behind the world’s top cities for liveability fundamentals (see Table 5 and Figure 16). Among its peer group of global top 10 cities by overall performance, and assessing all major measures, London now places only fifth for unemployment and labour market participation (pre-COVID-19), fifth for safety and security, sixth for all-round affordability, and sixth for commuting and congestion.
Results from individual benchmarks illustrate some of London’s weaknesses and show that some are becoming more of a concern over time. Among its 10-city peer group, individual data points show that London:
- Has been overtaken by others (19th, down from 13th in 2017)
118 in the
safety and security of its “infrastructure platform” (including road safety,
pedestrian friendliness and disaster management).
- Is among the 15 per cent most congested cities among 417 cities globally,
and now higher than the average among top global peers. 119
- Has fallen from 8th to 22nd since 2016 for environmental credentials, as more attention shifts globally to climate change progress and air pollution. 120
- Has been overtaken by others for availability and deployment of green
- finance tools (6th, down from 1st in 2018). 121
- Is 98th among 121 cities for student affordability, more expensive than other top global cities, 114 and currently has the highest construction costs (100th of 100 cities globally). 123
- Is 9th among the top 10 global cities for perceived safety (268th among 374 cities globally). 124
These findings highlight two trends. First, that several other leading cities have been more successful recently in visibly tackling environmental challenges. Second, London’s rate of progress on affordability, congestion, air quality and inclusive labour markets has been weak. Lack of progress in these areas damages London’s appeal.
Perceptions and confidence
The last five years have seen perceptions of London become more changeable and start to diverge by audience type. Since 2016, among the wider group of 20 Established World Cities, London’s aggregate perception score declined by around seven per cent – while other cities such as Beijing, Amsterdam, Singapore and Stockholm all saw relative perception improvements (see Figure 18).
Across all studies of citizen and global audience perceptions, London has declined from being the most highly regarded Established World City five years ago to the 5th most highly regarded in 2019-20. This is because there is now more attention placed upon cities’:
- Family friendliness (on which London is ranked 105th out of 150
cities globally). 125
- Happiness and wellbeing (where London is ranked 36th out of 186). 126
- Neighbourhood child safety (ranked 30th out of 150). 125
At the same time, however, perceptions of London among decision makers, executives, founders and international commentators have improved. Across studies polling these audiences, London has emerged as the top-rated city on aggregate amongst the 20 Established World Cities (see Figure 19). 128
For local residents, workers and occasional visitors, however, expectations of London have risen and experiences have fallen short.
Looking ahead: The competitive landscape after COVID-19
COVID-19 is bound to alter how cities are judged and compared. Studies are already starting to place more weight on remote working flexibility, public health, decarbonisation, social inclusion and integration, mobility options, future skills and advanced technology platforms.
London shows promise in terms of measures that track the growth of the green economy (where London is 1st among the global top 10), ingredients for accommodating remote working (1st), and specialisation and adoption of new technologies (3rd).
On the other hand, COVID-19 is also focusing attention on how well cities are making tangible steps towards inclusive growth, fairer gender outcomes, citizen engagement, cybersecurity, privacy protection, and confidence in healthcare provision. These are areas where London is viewed as falling behind many of the leading global cities (see Table 6), and where smaller cities are making headway – which may give them an advantage if industries and talent begin to look at a wider range of location options in future.
Overall, even as benchmarks evolve to respond to the reframing required by COVID-19, it seems likely that London will remain in the global top tier, because the combination of assets it possesses are not easy to replicate. These include super-agglomeration, deep talent pools, institutional functions and relationships, established leadership in finance, media and higher education, diversified technology strengths, and a record of openness to ideas and population.
It is also clear, however, that there are now many more “doubts” about London reflected in these studies. These include new sources of competition, the implementation of Brexit and future trade dynamics, exposed cultural assets and lifestyle propositions due to COVID-19, and intensified concerns around unaffordability, social polarisation and isolation. There are also a range of questions that we need to consider for the future, such as:
- What more could be done to improve London’s reputation globally?
- How important, relative to other priorities, is London being open to
the world in terms of labour, capital and ideas?
- Is the global elite’s view of London more important than that held
by regular citizens across the world? If so, why?
- How might we capitalise on Brexit for London, and reduce
- Is liveability, decarbonisation or something else the most important
thing for London’s leaders to prioritise in the competition for
Case study 1: Barcelona: A city of superblocks
Like many cities, Barcelona has been faced with issues relating to pollution, congestion, and lack of green space. In response, the city has launched several innovative initiatives.
Since 2016, Barcelona has developed the “superblock” concept – three by three zones in the street grid within which traffic is reduced close to zero. A single lane is designated for cars at the perimeter of the blocks, while the rest of the space (formerly designated to cars) is allocated to pedestrians, giving them precedence on the city’s streets. The first superblock was introduced in 2016 in Poblenou, in the north of the city, and superblocks have now been rolled out in six locations.
Although only a handful of superblocks have been set up, there is scope for expansion. There were 503 potential superblocks outlined in the initial plan, and a recent study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health suggests that if superblocks were created in all 503 locations, ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide could be reduced by 24 per cent, life expectancies could be increased, and premature deaths could be reduced by around 660 a year. 129 However, there is opposition to superblocks in the city. There are concerns about the impact on car owners and businesses, and about access for emergency services vehicles, as well as the risk of gentrification in superblock areas.
However, in areas like Poblenou, which have experienced the benefits of the scheme, opposition has largely faded away. Expansion may be taking place slowly and cautiously, but superblocks have great potential to improve wellbeing and quality of life. While the designers acknowledge that Barcelona’s pre-existing grid system is an advantage, they argue that this concept is still replicable in cities without this design.
A superblock in Poblenou, Barcelona
Case study 2: Paris: A green manifesto for the city
Paris Mayor Ann Hidalgo was re-elected for a second term in office after running on a green manifesto that placed ecology at the heart of city policy and put forward several policies to boost environmental and social sustainability. These policies include barring diesel vehicles from Paris’ beltway by 2024, cutting the city’s parking spaces in half, 130 and creating what Mayor Hidalgo calls a “15 minute city” – something that has garnered international interest from both urbanists and policymakers.
As part of the 15-minute city concept, all Parisians should be able to meet their essential needs – like shopping, health, work and culture – within a short walk or bicycle ride. This would create a series of more self-sufficient neighbourhoods and mark a departure from the postwar dominance of the car in planning and policy. To make this leap, the city will have to use a type of “antizoning” planning system that focuses on mixing as many functions as possible in one space.
While this idea of a hyper-local development model is not new (there are similar models in cities like Melbourne, Copenhagen and Utrecht), it would be a groundbreaking step in a city the size of Paris – the centre of which is home to 2.2 million people. 131 As a dense city which already has substantial amounts of mixed use, Paris does have a head start – but there is certainly scope for other global cities to take note and learn.
A cyclist in Paris