Eccentricity is the vital ingredient for a city’s success

The future of the city is an industry. Cities have always been big business, machines for creating money and culture, a means for people to gather and create a civilised, comfortable life. The making of the city is itself a fundamental process in the development of capitalism. The city’s property and infrastructure have always been vehicles for speculation and, on occasion, stupendous profit.

The modern, successful city is a realisation of what the late French film-maker and provocateur Guy Debord forecast would be a “Society of Spectacle”. Within this, success is gauged by skyscrapers and super-luxury apartments that come with record prices attached. It is measured by blockbuster cultural institutions and shopping streets sparkling with the logos of global brands. It is assessed by spurious quality of life surveys that rate the availability of exotic coffees and artisan cheeses above the quality of social housing or healthcare.

Over the past decade or so, the city has been monetised as a futures market — not only in the old fashioned manner of property development and speculation but through reconceiving its inhabitants as consumers rather than citizens. We have all become data. The technology we use at home, in the office and, above all, carry in our pockets has radically transformed the way we can be tracked and the way we will be targeted.

The city’s characteristic cocktail of anonymity and sociability — the potential to become lost in a crowd — is changing fast. Already, smartphones have transformed the way we use the city. Our reliance on Google Maps and apps strips us of our observation and our need to understand the grain and texture of the city streets. Disruptive apps such as Uber are changing the way we move around.

How do we make a sustainable city, in which citizens are treated with respect rather than as data? How will they compete with each other beyond being mere vehicles for property investment or as instruments of the markets?

There is a lot of hype surrounding the so-called Smart City — the idea of the city as a connected network in which mass information collection allows more efficient operation. Its potential has been overstated, but its arrival does signal a change in the idea of the city into a forum for hyper-surveillance and data farming. That change is compounded by a marked shift from the city as public realm to a new conception of its streets and squares as a massive mall without walls.

The creation of business investment districts across the UK and US and the construction of privately owned developments blur the boundaries between the genuine public commons and private property. As the public sector continues to shrink in the neoliberal city, infrastructure is increasingly left to private capital and the economies of cities are driven by the mantra of “regeneration”.

This has become a cliché and it can be a very blunt device. The line between regeneration and gentrification is often virtually invisible. There is, of course, nothing new in these issues. When the notorious Old Nichol slums in London’s East End were cleared to make way for the London County Council’s Boundary Estate, opened in 1900, residents complained that they were being turfed out. The hard drinkers were discriminated against in favour of what politicians might now call “hard working families”.

The urban renewal strategies of the 1960s and 1970s in US city centres were dismissed by African-Americans in poorer districts as designed to remove them. In London more recently, the efforts to demolish and rebuild many of the few remaining city centre social housing estates — notably the Aylesbury estate in Southwark, in the southeast of the capital — have led to protest and squatting, as residents accuse the authorities of social cleansing.

The question for city centres is how they can embrace the complexity of uses and the social mix from which their character has derived — and whether there is any way to maintain these communities and relationships. Or alternatively, do we just accept that cities change and that we need to adapt?

These are real problems, because what makes cities great is the dynamism that derives from their particular cocktails of class, ethnicity, eccentricity and opportunity. Without that blend they become either dull tourist centres — take central Paris, for example, or, increasingly, central London — with little authentic life, or two-tier cities with the poor populations marginalised on the edges and effectively disenfranchised from urban processes. Paris, again, strikes as an example.

The most successful and creative cities tend to be those with a degree of redundancy, that is to say with a little slack in their space where property value does not dictate every move or development. These are not necessarily the same as those cities that are the wealthiest or the most equitable or even the most liveable.

New York, for instance, was at a creative peak in the period after the second world war and, arguably, again in the 1970s, when it was virtually bankrupt, sliding into a massive crime wave and suffering from radical depopulation as the middle class moved out to the suburbs. Everything from abstract expressionism and jazz to literature and graphics thrived there in that period.

London’s greatest modern creative spurt may well have been during roughly the same period, namely from the Swinging Sixties to the mid-1980s, when it was a city in transition, pockmarked with bomb sites and with social housing going up in once-affluent and central areas.

Berlin’s best periods were the fraught 1920s, when the city was recovering from a devastating lost war, and the 1990s, when it found a huge property resource in the office space left over when the Communist political bureaucracy — and the endless web of buildings inhabited by the Stasi intelligence network — was dismantled and left redundant. This all left property affordable and available to students, artists and anyone else.

The traditional measures of success — wealth and GDP — might serve to underline profitability and suitability of the city as a place for the global rich to park their money, but they do little to ensure that success will be sustained.

When cities become too successful, they marginalise exactly the eccentricity and experimentation that lead to new ideas. An overdose of success can kill a city.

Perhaps the message is to be careful what you wish for.

Financial Times