London’s future: a brief guide

Five scenarios for the city post-Brexit, from a ‘renationalised’ British capital to a European enclave

Cities can implode, especially when they face a catastrophic shift in the environment to which they cannot respond.
Petra, in Jordan, was once one of the richest cities in the world because of the Nabateans’ technological prowess in building dams and conduits to make the most of scarce water supplies. Yet when trade routes shifted to go through competing cities like Palmyra, Petra was cut off from the flows of people, goods, spices and gold that made it wealthy. Its classically inspired buildings carved out of the rock became monuments to a lost civilisation.

Walk around the city: it has huge momentum, propelled by its young, exuberant population

Perhaps that will be the fate of the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater. Built at the height of London’s financial and property boom, they might one day be seen as reminders of a lost world. Such a thought would have seemed far-fetched a month ago, when London was basking in its own success. But since June 23, when the rest of England voted to turn its back on the EU, the city’s outlook has taken a turn for the worse.

London and its leaders now face five scenarios for the city’s future, each informed by a model loosely drawn from other cities that have faced similar shocks. Which route will London follow?

The collapsed city
The most telling modern examples of collapsed cities are one-industry towns that failed to respond to change. A classical example is Youngstown, Ohio, which became the fastest-shrinking city in the US in the late 1970s, when its steel industry fell to bits and its population plunged from 170,000 to only 65,000. Youngstown’s civic leadership — organised around its exclusive Garden Club — compounded the original economic shock by turning on each other. Not surprisingly, it failed to attract inward investment and new talent. By contrast, co-operative and outward-looking Allentown, a steel town of similar size in Pennsylvania, revived and prospered.

The most famous example of a city imploding, however, is Detroit. Since 1950 it has lost more than 1m people and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Much of the real estate in midtown is still empty, standing like silent witnesses to the city’s implosion and leading every visitor from a more prosperous city to wonder: how could so much go so wrong so fast? What killed Detroit was not just economics — the rise of Japanese competition in car manufacturing — but corruption in city hall and the flight of the middle classes, white and black, to the suburbs. On a Saturday morning at the Eastern Market, the hub of midtown Detroit, it is not the colours and the smells that strike one so much as the noise of the people. That’s because Midtown’s deserted streets often sound more like those of a quiet hamlet. It does not sound like a city.

If London suffers a flight of European talent, driven out by an uncertainty over whether they are welcome, and by dimming economic prospects, then the city could be in trouble. The overpriced warehouses of Shoreditch, which in the past 10 years has become a tech cluster, could within another decade once again be poor but sexy.

At first sight, that kind of flight does not seem likely. An analysis by Deloitte earlier this year found that London had 1.7m highly skilled workers, an increase of 235,000 in the past three years alone thanks to the growth of the technology sector. London has 550,000 more highly skilled jobs than New York. Many of the people filling these roles are from outside the UK. One in three Londoners was born overseas and one in 10 come from elsewhere in the EU.

Walk around the city: it has huge momentum, propelled by its young, exuberant population on a scale that Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam combined cannot match. Yet there are no grounds for complacency. If there is a churn of about 30,000 highly skilled migrants a year, it would only take a decade of strict immigration controls for the highly skilled population of London to be substantially depleted by Brexit. And what would London do if it lost people who would not make it through a points-based immigration system: its 88,000 construction workers; its 78,000 food and hospitality staff; and the 57,000 admin staff who come from elsewhere in the greater European Economic Area? In an economy driven by innovation, knowledge and culture, money follows talent. London, at all costs, has to hang on to the talent.

Five scenarios for the city post-Brexit, from a ‘renationalised’ British capital to a European enclave

Detail of ‘Diorama Map London’ (2010) by the Japanese map maker Sohei Nishino, who uses thousands of photographs to create large prints of urban landscapes. Image courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
Cities can implode, especially when they face a catastrophic shift in the environment to which they cannot respond.

Petra, in Jordan, was once one of the richest cities in the world because of the Nabateans’ technological prowess in building dams and conduits to make the most of scarce water supplies. Yet when trade routes shifted to go through competing cities like Palmyra, Petra was cut off from the flows of people, goods, spices and gold that made it wealthy. Its classically inspired buildings carved out of the rock became monuments to a lost civilisation.
Walk around the city: it has huge momentum, propelled by its young, exuberant population

Perhaps that will be the fate of the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater. Built at the height of London’s financial and property boom, they might one day be seen as reminders of a lost world. Such a thought would have seemed far-fetched a month ago, when London was basking in its own success. But since June 23, when the rest of England voted to turn its back on the EU, the city’s outlook has taken a turn for the worse.

London and its leaders now face five scenarios for the city’s future, each informed by a model loosely drawn from other cities that have faced similar shocks. Which route will London follow?

The collapsed city
The most telling modern examples of collapsed cities are one-industry towns that failed to respond to change. A classical example is Youngstown, Ohio, which became the fastest-shrinking city in the US in the late 1970s, when its steel industry fell to bits and its population plunged from 170,000 to only 65,000. Youngstown’s civic leadership — organised around its exclusive Garden Club — compounded the original economic shock by turning on each other. Not surprisingly, it failed to attract inward investment and new talent. By contrast, co-operative and outward-looking Allentown, a steel town of similar size in Pennsylvania, revived and prospered.

The most famous example of a city imploding, however, is Detroit. Since 1950 it has lost more than 1m people and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Much of the real estate in midtown is still empty, standing like silent witnesses to the city’s implosion and leading every visitor from a more prosperous city to wonder: how could so much go so wrong so fast? What killed Detroit was not just economics — the rise of Japanese competition in car manufacturing — but corruption in city hall and the flight of the middle classes, white and black, to the suburbs. On a Saturday morning at the Eastern Market, the hub of midtown Detroit, it is not the colours and the smells that strike one so much as the noise of the people. That’s because Midtown’s deserted streets often sound more like those of a quiet hamlet. It does not sound like a city.

If London suffers a flight of European talent, driven out by an uncertainty over whether they are welcome, and by dimming economic prospects, then the city could be in trouble. The overpriced warehouses of Shoreditch, which in the past 10 years has become a tech cluster, could within another decade once again be poor but sexy.


Ruins in the ancient trading city of Petra
At first sight, that kind of flight does not seem likely. An analysis by Deloitte earlier this year found that London had 1.7m highly skilled workers, an increase of 235,000 in the past three years alone thanks to the growth of the technology sector. London has 550,000 more highly skilled jobs than New York. Many of the people filling these roles are from outside the UK. One in three Londoners was born overseas and one in 10 come from elsewhere in the EU.

Walk around the city: it has huge momentum, propelled by its young, exuberant population on a scale that Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam combined cannot match. Yet there are no grounds for complacency. If there is a churn of about 30,000 highly skilled migrants a year, it would only take a decade of strict immigration controls for the highly skilled population of London to be substantially depleted by Brexit. And what would London do if it lost people who would not make it through a points-based immigration system: its 88,000 construction workers; its 78,000 food and hospitality staff; and the 57,000 admin staff who come from elsewhere in the greater European Economic Area? In an economy driven by innovation, knowledge and culture, money follows talent. London, at all costs, has to hang on to the talent.
An inward turn

A slightly less scary scenario is that London could go back to where it has come from. It could become once more a British city, rather than a cosmopolitan one. Brexit could lead to London being renationalised.

This would return the city to the role it played in the 1950s, when it hosted the Festival of Britain, introducing the rest of the country to the modern world, when the Finsbury Health Centre offered a vision of Britain with an NHS that people up and down the country could identify with. London is after all still home to most British institutions: the British Museum, British Library, British Broadcasting Corporation and so on.

The Leave vote was intended to rein London in, to close the yawning gap between the city and the rest of the country. Perhaps this could be the moment when the provinces and suburbs take back their capital, in the process forcing it to share more of its prosperity with the rest of the UK. Jobs might not just go to mainland Europe but also to Stoke and Sunderland. London might go slower but perhaps that would be no bad thing, as the architecture critic Rowan Moore puts it in his book on London, Slow Burn City: “The ideal is that cities burn slowly. Their social ecologies and physical forms should renew through change, not be devastated by it.”

Would it be so bad for London to have a few fallow years? New life would emerge in the cracks of a city that would be more affordable and more British in its orientation.

One of the most striking — and tragic — examples of a cosmopolitan city that was nationalised is Salonica, the extraordinarily diverse Ottoman city that was ruled by Muslims between 1430 and 1912, in which Jewish industrialists lived next to Turkish army officers, Greek merchants, Bulgarian traders, and many more. A shoeshine boy in Salonica needed mastery of eight or nine languages. Salonica was a multifaith city until the early 20th century, when a combination of war, depression, nationalism and ideology led to its ethnic cleansing. By 1950 it was Thessaloniki, 95 per cent Greek and almost entirely Christian.

London will not suffer that fate but it is being brought to heel by a political instruction to take greater heed of national identity. A slightly different model for its future, as Tyler Brûlé pointed out in this newspaper, is Montreal. As the capital of French-speaking Quebec, Montreal in the 1980s turned its back on the English-speaking, international business world, which was anyway already migrating to Toronto, in the name of greater equality for French speakers.

Critics say the result is a melancholy city with lots of lovely old streets with boarded-up houses and shops. Defenders would say Montreal is happy with its lot, home to much cross-cultural creativity, symbolised by Cirque du Soleil, and busy promoting homegrown social innovation.

This renationalisation assumes, of course, that there is a coherent Britain for London to represent. That, too, is far from certain.

European enclave
Another model for London would be for it to assert the European identity it has developed in the past 20 years by becoming a European enclave within an otherwise Eurosceptic Britain. The model for that is West Berlin, which survived as an enclave in hostile East Germany after the Berlin Wall was built. West Berlin was connected to West Germany by a narrow strip of railway line; that role would be assigned to the high-speed line to the Channel tunnel.

London could only become a European enclave thanks to quite a lot of creativity about what it means to be a citizen. As proposed by Rohan Silva, founder of the tech co-workspace Second Home, London could have its own visa system, which would allow for freedom of movement between London and the EU, so long as people lived and worked in London. Presumably this would have to be matched by complex arrangements over London’s access to the single market and contributions to the EU budget. One leading London politician described the visa plan thus: “It is an absolutely bonkers idea. We are 100 per cent behind it.”
The UK might have to reimagine London as a “special European economic zone”, much as Shenzhen was China’s portal to the rest of the world. An alternative might be that London, like US immigration gateway cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, could create its own identity card to entitle people to use local services even if they do not have full citizenship. People who did not get past the new points-based immigration system would be like the metics in ancient Athens: aliens who were permanently resident in the city.

None of this will be possible, however, unless the UK becomes even more of a patchwork state of devolved powers to nations, regions and cities, something a Theresa May-led government is unwilling to countenance even with former London Mayor Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. George Osborne was the great decentraliser. To force such a shift, London would have to become much more organised politically and mobilise a movement for independence, perhaps in alliance with other pro-European cities like Cambridge, Oxford and Bristol.

The hovercraft city
A fourth option would be to imagine London hovering just above the territory of the UK, a global city-state governed by British law, like Singapore.
London will respond to this current crisis in the way a great trading city always does, by following the money. The money is all coming from Asia. The people who see Brexit as an opportunity are Chinese and other Asian investors who want to snap up London property companies, heritage brands and tech companies. Central London at times already resembles Dubai-on-Thames. It could become Shangdon.

Seen in this light, Brexit might be a blessing in disguise for London. An ageing Europe is gripped by slow growth and German-led austerity. Employment in banks has already passed its high point as artificial intelligence starts to lay waste to trading floors.


The Singapore skyline
This could be a chance for London to jump on to a different trajectory. Its strength is that it is a pragmatic, commercial trading city that gives shape to whatever forces are running through the world. Just as Miami is a largely Latin American city on the southern tip of the US, so London could become an Asian outpost in Europe.

This shift would require London to follow its own foreign policy. It would have to be prepared to embrace Asian companies, values and culture in a way it has only played with so far. Shanghai was once a western enclave in China; London might become a Chinese enclave in Europe. We are just getting used to the idea of Chinese tourists; we will have to get used to the idea of Chinese landlords, owners and employers. Suck it up.

Muddling through

The most likely and perhaps the most optimistic scenario is that everyone muddles through, in Europe, in the UK and in London, perhaps with aspects of all four of the previous scenarios in play at the same time. This London would be part of a UK that would still be an associate member of the EU albeit on strained terms. A model for this is Greece and a model for London might be what has happened to Athens.

The Conservative party now faces a challenge not unlike the Syriza-led government in Greece, which threatened to pull out of the eurozone over the punitive terms of the bailout. Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, campaigned strongly against the plan, winning elections on that ticket in 2015. However, the exit deal offered by the EU was so unappealing that eventually most of Syriza swallowed its pride and decided to stay in the fold. The party split as a result. Surely the EU will play the UK the same way: offering it a deal so bad that choosing to remain seems the better option.

If Brexit negotiations are drawn out; if the Leavers grow remorseful and distracted; if the terms offered are deeply unattractive, then the question of leaving the EU might once again become a dispute confined to the ranks of the Tory party and its splinter groups.

Athens, under the leadership of Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, has been a model of civic resilience during these crises. Not only has it had to cope with existential economic and political crises, but with an influx of refugees as well. Athens has come through, albeit with its port of Piraeus majority-owned by the Chinese government, thanks in no small part to a mass of collaborative self-help among citizens to take over the running of parks, public spaces and cultural institutions, inspired by Amalia Zepou, a documentary film-maker-turned-politician. London will have to be like Athens, resilient enough to cope, make do and get through the next few years before something akin to normality and common sense returns.

‘The flour of Cities all’

Whichever of these scenarios comes to pass, given the shock that London has experienced over the past few weeks, a few things have become clear.
First, London will need new levels of ambitious, shared leadership and not just from the mayor. London’s universities should be pooling their expertise to chart a better future for the city. Cultural institutions should start programmes to promote European culture and values. London needs to show the world through thousands of everyday acts that the city remains open, a place where minorities are not just succoured but celebrated. This is an extraordinary opportunity for London’s leadership to galvanise a city that was close to self-satisfied complacency. The challenge and so the opportunity is far greater than the easy wicket Mayor Johnson enjoyed with the 2012 Olympics.

Second, other European cities tempted to gloat at London’s travails should recognise that the faultline between more cosmopolitan, innovation-driven cities and their more nationalistic, cautious hinterlands now runs around the globe. Major cities in different countries share as much with one another as they do with the nations that host them. There’s a strong case for the recreation of the medieval Hanseatic League of free-trading northern Europe cities, of which London was one. European cities have a strong shared interest in a civic, open, cosmopolitan Europe. If cities are held hostage by the forces of provincial conservatism and nationalism then Europe has no future.

Third, London has a prodigious capacity for reinvention, precisely because it is messy, slightly chaotic and not overly planned. Above all it must remain a polyglot city, what the 16th-century poet William Dunbar described as “the flour of Cities all”.

London is not a place for people to feel sorry for themselves. No one owes the city a living. London must be a city for people excited by mixing with people who are different. Those who find that alarming should live quietly in Arcadian suburbs and provincial towns. Good on them. They should leave London to pursue its own role to give form to the ideas and forces that are remaking the world.

Charles Leadbeater is an Associate of the Centre for London and author of ‘The London Recipe’
Photographs: Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery; DeAgostini/Getty Images; Dreamstime

Published :http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/70614aee-4e82-11e6-8172-e39ecd3b86fc.html

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