London in the mind

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…there was no Mayor of London, Greater London Authority or City Hall.  Bankside Power Station was just about to be re-born as the Tate Modern. The year was 2000, and I was teaching and researching at the London School of Economics. Together with my colleague Tony Travers, I became involved in an exhibition in the Oxo Tower, called “Our London, Our Vote” . The purpose of the exhibition was to help explain to Londoners what the role would be of the new Mayor and London Assembly, to be elected that May. As part of the exhibition, I put together some quotations about London for one of the display panels – quotations not from politicians and public officials but from writers, artists, poets.

Here they are below:

London “is an idea, almost a metaphysical entity in the minds of those who contemplate it”  A.N.Wilson

“We do well perceive in our princely wisdom that our City of London is become the greatest, or next the greatest City of the Christian World.”  King James I, 1615.

“When I was a child in Trinidad, the wharves were lined with cargo boats coming from and heading to the London docks. The clothes we wore, much of the food we ate, all the luxuries of life we associated with London”   Darcus Howe, journalist.

“Rain grey town/known for its sound/In places/small faces/abound”  The Byrds, Eight Miles High

“Unreal city/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn/A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/I had not thought death had undone so many” T.S.Eliot, The Waste Land

“It is odd how one imagines that just because the sun is shining in London, it is shining everywhere else”  Hanif Kureishi

“Hell is a city much like London/A populous and smoky city”  Shelley

“If I had to sum up for you what London seems to me, it’s a community of unpaid extras in the most expensive theme park on the planet”   Malcolm McLaren 

Is London too much? Four centuries of debate

King James I lamented in the early seventeenth century: “soon London will be all England”. Then, as now, London’s population growth was both driven by and drove the capital’s economic prosperity. Before the end of the century, arguments would appear for what we would now call the ‘re-balancing’ of the country’s economy and population : 

“Now as to the Grandour of London. Would not England be easier and perhaps stronger if these vitals were more equally dispersed? Is there not a Tumour in that place, and too much matter for mutiny and Terrour for the Government  if it should Burst? Is there not too much of our Capital in one stake, liable to the Ravage of Plague and fire?…Will not the resort of the Wealthy and emulation to Luxury melt down the order of Superiors among and bring all towards Levelling and Republican?”

This was written by Robert Southwell to Sir William Petty in 1686, one of the many  fascinating extracts and fragments of how contemporary observers saw the coming of the Maxine age in Humphrey Jennings’ marvellous ‘Pandemonium’. Southwell’s argument across four centuries sounds some very contemporary concerns: regional inequalities; threats to resilience, both natural and man-made; conspicuous consumption by the ‘1%’.

Moreover, as the historian Richard Olson points out,  Southwell was responding to an essay by Petty in which he argued that by 1800, London’s population would rise to 5 million, exceeding that of the rest of England.

Hence, both London’s pre-eminence, and the debate on whether this is beneficial or the opposite, has  persisted for four centuries. That suggests to me that the issue will not be resolved any time soon. As a policy-maker, the more salient issue for me is how to craft a set of national policies which both support London’s growth and dynamism, and also use this asset to the benefit of the whole of the UK. 

BIG CITY, BIG IDEAS: Data Innovation and City Governance

Earlier this year, as part of my sabbatical at the Munk School of Global Affairs, I gave a public lecture in Toronto on the theme “Data Innovation and City Governance”. This was part of the University of Toronto’s ‘Big City, Big Ideas’ series, and I was following in the distinguished footsteps of speakers such as Richard Florida, Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Michael Storper, Meric Gertler, and others.

You can view the webcast of my talk here.

London House Prices – a Borough Cartogram

Even though I am in Toronto I couldn’t resist looking at this excellent House Price cartogram for London. I agree with  Ollie O’Brien when he says ‘We like the simple, “grid of squares” concept and the addition of the Thames. Cartograms are hard to produce in a way that makes them familiar to an audience familiar with Google Maps, but with this concept, that challenge may have been met.’  I think I would go further. By limiting the cartographic verisimilitude, and producing a bold simplified map that works intuitively – red to green for prices, and compass points in the right place – it is in the excellent and radical tradition of Harry Beck, creator of the familiar London Underground map. Sometimes less really is more.

Highbury Corner

Wandering around Highbury, London yesterday at lunchtime looking for some where for a family meal prior to the Arsenal v Middlesbrough FA Cup I was struck once again by just how busy much of London is. Obvious of course given how fast the city is currently growing, but fascinating to see how the city adapts (or sometimes struggles to do so). In N5 yesterday, middle class locals and Shoreditch hipsters wandering north mixed with Arsenal fans discussing what a great season Santi Cazorla was having. I was torn between observing the urban diversity and worrying if we actually going to find a restaurant that wasn’t full. Eventually we squeezed in at a small Italian place off Upper Street.

The last time I looked at the literature on stadia and regeneration (at least 10 years ago) the evidence was mixed at best. But N5 in the early spring sunshine seemed to tell a different story – peaceful co-existence seemed to exist between the regular Sunday destination shopping, eating and entertaining and the fortnightly influx of football fans.

Oh, and Giroud got the goals but Cazorla was brilliant again.