Beyond the crisis – cities

London, perhaps more than many cities, is highly-centralised. Like all world cities, it sucks in talent, becomes a melting-pot of people and ideas, and stimulates growth. Big cities thrive on the intensity and interaction of people. It’s a formula that’s difficult to sustain at the best of times; during and immediately after a highly-contagious pandemic, it’s close to impossible. The impact on sectors which benefit from clustering is likely to be significant. Clustering and economic agglomeration are key to various sectors, not just the cultural and creative industries. But while the tech and financial sectors, and life-sciences can function part-remotely, the cultural sector requires physical proximity – for production and, in particular, consumption. Pat Brown, formerly of Central London Partnership and now running her own consultancy, kicked off a recent discussion on this topic. She outlined London’s history of grappling with the topic of intensification and centralisation, which is actually a relatively recent phenomenon of city-planning. She reminded us of the work of Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force at the end of the 1990s, with London becoming the “poster-child” of that Urban Renaissance over the next 10 years. Even before Covid-19, that centralisation was already becoming unsustainable and, as Pat outlined, the case was already being made for a poly-centric city. We also reviewed some recent literature on cities and the impact of Covid-19 – by Azeem Azhar, Max Nathan, and a short, punchy, piece from Leanne Tritton. The notion of a ‘15-minute city’ has been taken-up forcefully by Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, since the crisis – and other planners and advisers are advocating a similar approach. But perhaps a more nuanced perspective is required. Creating mini-cities for people and businesses won’t generate a model of independence – where, somehow, everything that’s needed is available within a given locality. Interdependence, where liveable spaces are created in a way which facilitates interaction across a bigger space, seems more meaningful: multiple centres connected in a sustainable way, not one big centre and an expansive periphery. The Brookings Institute has pioneered work on the idea of Innovation Districts: “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators… [constituting] the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.” There’s a clear opportunity here to replicate this model – not so much as an alternative to the big city, but as part of the big city construct. Although for Brookings the Innovation Districts are part of a process of re-densification (“physically compact..denser residential and employment patterns, the leveraging of mass transit, and the repopulation of urban cores.”) – these provide an interesting perspective on how a successful post-Covid city might begin to operate. Not least for creative businesses – as part of a process of de-densification within big cities. For major cities like London, it will mean supporting the development of new centres – reducing the reliance on and concentration within zones 1 and 2, to create multiple centres, each of which supports business growth. The current Mayor’s Creative Enterprise Zone model would seem to be well-aligned to a post-Covid poly-centric model of Creative Industries growth – fostering creative hubs outside of Westminster and Camden – and the creation of new districts, such as around the Olympic Park. Loughborough London sits in the heart of an emerging district, linking creative businesses in Hackney Wick with research centres and universities, shops, businesses and thriving local and new communities – linked by fast transport to other parts of the city. But attracting and sustaining a vibrant business community post-crisis will require considerably more than new housing and some devolved planning powers in our major cities. Perhaps the model to aspire towards is one which also involves levelling-up across the UK – ultimately reducing the reliance on London, Covid or no Covid. The impact of Covid-19 will have been devastating for many creative businesses; a more equitable and sustainable future for the sector is likely to be one which supports Creative Industries growth across poly-centric places outside the capital. The new creative and innovation districts could perhaps be poly-centric cities in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester – creating interdependence across a number of new creative centres – Coventry, Wolverhampton and Leamington Spa; Bolton, Bury, Stockport and Rochdale. A kind of creative renewal which spreads wealth rather then re-centralising it.