A wealth of difference

Infrastructure is a common goal in successful European cities. It’s time we followed suit, says Nicholas Falk

With an inexperienced coalition government that lacks a clear plan or chart for dealing with urban development, there is a danger of not only throwing out the baby with the bathwater but abandoning the bath as well.

It is essential that we face up to the coming storm, learn from 20th century history, and start mobilising resources behind a capital programme that will rebuild pride in our towns and cities. It should help reverse the flight of those with the capital and capacity needed to make our communities more sustainable.

In the debates at election time, or indeed over who should replace Gordon Brown as Labour leader, surprisingly little attention was given to the state of our towns and cities. Local authorities have been seen primarily as delivery agents for government, not placemakers, and their role in creating the conditions for economic recovery is largely ignored.

The Oresund, Europe’s longest road and rail bridge, links Malmo in Sweden with Copenhagen in Denmark and reflects the cities’ innovative approach to infrastructure

Hence, instead of delivering the infrastructure needed for economic recovery, or facing up to the shift of power from the West to the East and need to reduce imports of energy and other raw materials, the government seems hell-bent in getting rid of the crew as well as the captain, hoping that somehow Britain will pull through via a new localism. Yet far from pulling out of a recession, and using the challenges of climate change and rebuilding our outmoded energy and transport systems to cope with the loss of cheap oil, we seem to be abandoning both development agencies and the concept of strategic planning without putting anything better in its place. Developers no longer have the confidence to proceed with major housing schemes, and we could easily lose the limited capacity we have left as firms lay off experienced staff and plans become obsolete.

The impressive renaissance of European towns and cities, particularly over the last 30 years, shows there is another way. Instead of being so insular we would do well to pay more attention not only to the physical manifestations, which are all too obvious to anyone taking a holiday or business trip, but also to why, for example, housing costs much less on the continent, or why it costs twice as much to build a length of tramway in the UK than in a European city.

We would then discover, as comparative research has already shown, that our centralised and highly bureaucratised system of government is ill-suited to either making the right decisions or implementing them effectively. Furthermore though reliance on markets may be fine for distributing fruit and vegetables, ‘grocer economics’ simply does not provide solutions to tackling longer term resource allocation, such as are involved in developing our towns and cities or updating our energy systems.

A lot can be learned from France, with a similar history to our own, on how to build a more sustainable infrastructure. Forty atomic power stations and a growing number of wind turbines make it much less dependent on oil or coal. A high-speed rail system connects up the main cities, many of which have now built new tramways to reduce dependence on the car. State-owned companies have performed better than the chaotic system of private monopolies that the last Conservative government introduced. Planning at a sub-regional level has created the conditions for greater economic growth.

Cities that are comparable with Leeds and Bristol, such as Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nantes and Rouen, are now much better connected than their English equivalents. The 27-mile long Bordeaux tramway system, for example, has over 5,000 parking spaces on it, and carries some 165,000 passengers a day. It has played a key role in regenerating previously run-down areas by attracting private investment, as well as making the centre of the city much more liveable, by reducing congestion, and is one of 16 different systems.

Compare this with Leeds, where £50m was spent on detailed plans that were never implemented. Or Bristol, where the situation around the northern edge where the University of the West of England is based resembles an American Edge City. Even the smallest of towns and cities in France have remodelled their roads to narrow the carriageways and give pedestrians priority while enabling shoppers to park easily. In the process the towns have beautified their centres and built a sense of pride (as well as a highly sophisticated engineering and construction sector that wins orders all over the world). They have also succeeded in generating a higher level of gross value added per capita without losing all their talented people to Paris!

Over the last ten or 15 years, where the British have produced policies, plans and public inquiries, our European rivals have invested in transforming their cities. This must be part of the reason why they have done better in economic terms (albeit with higher apparent levels of unemployment and occasional riots in the suburbs where immigrants have been concentrated). This is not just about inspired leadership from city mayors like Juppe in Bordeaux or Mauroy in Lille and is due to the much better inter-relationships between national and local government. It is also because the French (and for that matter the Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians) place much more value on their ‘common wealth’. They value public as well as privately owned property because they recognise not only the need to avoid social exclusion (a French concept originally), but also working as communities or agglomerations of communities, not just as sets of individuals or political parties.

De Gaulle is famously quoted as saying how can you govern a country with 350 different types of cheese? The solution was of course real devolution to local government, with both the incentives and means for communities to chart and direct their own futures, coupled with high quality strategic planning. Contractual arrangements between government and the big cities, along with institutions for dealing with municipal investment, and joint ventures, enable towns and cities to adapt to economic change. They also produce better results, as can easily be judged by comparing the smooth and clearly signed ride on most French roads with the rough and patched surfaces of our own, or by comparing the way attractions are signed and interpreted.

For too long Britain and America have followed policies that generate unsustainable spatial as well as class inequalities, and that are of little use when the empires on which they depended are no longer willing to supply cheap imports and take services in exchange. Britain has suffered from both its insularity and arrogance, not helped by thinking it has ‘won’ two world wars.

The inter-war years are particularly instructive for the way the UK generally lagged behind much of the rest of Europe in industrial production and lost out in the fastest growing markets. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, which the coalition government would do well to consider. The first is the formation of the BBC to control the airwaves and make mass radio ownership viable. Second was the Central Electricity Board, also set up in 1926, which opened up a new world of labour-saving devices once the country was electrified on a common grid. These networks or systems have had a huge influence on the minds of the British public, or at least the ruling classes at the time, and were comparable with the importance of ecological thinking today.

There was also a programme for building ‘arterial roads’, and for extending and upgrading some of the suburban railways, particularly around London. These centrally planned and financed measures along with cheap labour and materials and the expansion of building societies made it possible for an army of small builders to build and sell semi-detached homes and Britain built more homes than ever before.

By the start of the Second World War one in three homes was newly built, creating a substantial home market for products like cookers and Hoovers manufactured in the new factories on the edge of towns in the southeast and midlands. The physical results of ‘urban sprawl’ or the despair to be found in the old industrial towns of the north may have angered intellectuals like Priestley and Orwell, but the real loss was in the sense of community that had once held our towns and cities together. Class divides widened as those who could moved away into the new suburbs, where a small house could be bought on a mortgage in 1935 for £400 (the price of a Riley car at the time).

For a time, an intellectual transformation seemed to accompany the physical changes, as Keynsian economics replaced the ‘grocer mentality’ that had tried to balance the books whatever the state of the economy, and precipitated the General Strike. However, while the government led by Ramsay Macdonald in the 1930s considered a tax on land values, there were always sufficient people doing well enough to stall radical change.

As Britain lost more and more of its autonomy, so it tried to control more from the centre. Yet it should be clear from the current mess that in many ways the bankers (and perhaps the Treasury) live on a different planet, not just in a different world. Using the Treasury’s adage ‘invest to save’ and the government’s stated commitment to shrinking the state, we need to learn from our own history and the experience of comparable European towns and cities how to raise finance for investment projects, and how to avoid investing in so many ‘follies’.

Locally-driven projects produce better results when they respond to local priorities, integrate transport and development, develop fields of competitive advantage, tap local savings and, above all, rebuild local pride. By focussing on our ‘common wealth’ rather than individual possessions we should be able to take a longer-term perspective and weather the storms ahead.

This means letting local authorities raise funds for putting in sustainable infrastructure and then selling off sites with development briefs to small builders and housing associations.

We have to use the current crisis to develop better ways of working together, just as most of the rest of Europe has already done. If we were to continue on present trends, whereby resources are sucked out of towns and cities by government, financial institutions and retail chains, the inequalities set out in studies such as The spirit level will widen. Large parts of our towns and cities will then become literally unliveable (as can be seen from the spectre of places such as Detroit and the cities of the ‘rust belt’).

The failures of the American ‘free market’ system documented in studies such as Phoenix cities should warn us of the dangers of expecting markets to break the vicious circle of decline and the wisdom of looking to Europe for better models. The role of government should be seen as facing up to reality and providing long-term leadership, not just empty words or dictates.

Instead of seeing the challenge simply as building more and better looking homes, as the Urban Task Force was asked to do, we should be using the housing deficit to make places more sustainable as well as beautiful. Instead of enabling those who can to leave a sinking ship, well-planned urban extensions could be the ‘life boats’ or ‘pilots’ to help us all to change the way we live, for example by walking or cycling more, using our cars less, and by using communal space or balconies rather than demanding our own gardens.

Rather than focussing on the rather academic and centrally devised concepts of the ‘carbon challenge’ we should now be engaging local communities in how to put the best of the new models for housing, energy, waste and transport into effect on a scale that would give our old cities new life.

Scandinavian cities: the sustainability pace-setters

Despite their peripheral locations and relatively small populations, the Scandinavian countries have been remarkably successful since the last world war in developing great places to live and thriving economies.

Thus Copenhagen gets voted one of the best cities in the world to work, while both Sweden and Denmark score well in surveys that measure both environmental and social sustainability. Sweden now has the highest economic growth rate of any OECD country, whereas in the 19th century a quarter of the population was forced to emigrate to the USA. Norway is ploughing the proceeds from North Sea oil back into diversification, while Finland continues to develop its knowledge-based economy, exemplified by Nokia, once a forestry company.

They have taken action to make their cities truly liveable, whether through extensive pedestrianised streets and bike ways, outdoor cafes (with blankets to fend off the cold), and some of the smartest new settlements in Europe along with upgrading post-war estates. There are at least six common themes to their success:

The cities have been the economic dynamos (80% of new jobs in Denmark have been created in Copenhagen), with city councils and their mayors setting new visions in both thematic and spatial terms. Thus Copenhagen is managing growth by setting out to be the world’s leading environmental city and concentrating development along new railway lines. Similarly Malmo in Sweden, just over half an hour away from Copenhagen across the new Oresund Bridge, responded to the closure of its shipyards in 1986, with a vision of setting a national example of sustainable urban development in the Western Harbour, along with a transition to a knowledge-based society, with a new university, and the achievement of social sustainability by upgrading failing estates.

Instead of letting profit-crazed banks shape cities, the Scandinavians have combined opening up markets (for example with housing societies that are independent businesses) with planned developments that have concentrated building in places with the right infrastructure. As well as using ‘municipal banks’ to enable local authorities to borrow for capital projects, major infrastructure projects such as the Copenhagen Metro have been undertaken through a joint company set up between the government and the city of Copenhagen. Finance has been raised through 40-year bonds repaid by selling off land for development – and the new town of Orestad is effectively paying for the new metro line.

The post-war success of the Scandinavian economies has in part been due to opening up export markets for their building products and systems (and trade makes up half the Swedish GNP). High levels of insulation were a natural response to their harsh climate and lack of cheap carbon fuels. Thus Swedish windows were the first to be triple glazed and prefabricated houses, often using timber composite panels, have cut energy consumption. Constructing wind turbines was a natural spin-off from ship building. Similarly by investing in the public realm, including extensive neighbourhood ‘greens’ housing estates that we might have demolished have been made to feel safe and attractive.

Copenhagen has led the world not just in excluding cars (Stroget, the main shopping street, is a mile long), but also in promoting cycle use. Some 37% of trips to work involve a bike and suburban trains are designed to carry bikes, while offices provide shower and changing facilities. Space has been progressively taken away from the car and given over to cycling or walking and open air cafes have flourished as a result ( 5,000 in Copenhagen). Main roads are progressively being turned into quality streets, cutting car use, congestion and pollution.

The quality of Scandinavian design is world famous, as individual craftsmen designers have successfully made the transition into volume production. Instead of trying to build one-off ‘icons’, the focus has been on construction economies, epitomised by Ikea. Space is used more efficiently because buildings are sold in terms of floor area, not number of rooms, and apartment living is much more common than in the UK. The masterplan for Malmo’s Western Harbour stresses ‘sustainability, mixed use, the creation of meeting places and attractiveness’ with the university taking over some of the redundant industrial buildings, and there have been good relations with developers via the Building Live Dialogue project, rather than relying on rule books, as we might seek to do.

Behind the signs of physical and economic development lies a strong moral philosophy that stresses the ‘common wealth’ rather than individual consumption. Thus the Danes feel much safer than we do, even where the facts suggest the opposite. Women make up half the members of Sweden’s parliament and family life is still savoured. There is a stress both on acquiring skills, and on working flexibly. Isolation, however, is a growing problem and some of the old securities are breaking down, as the Wallander novels bring out. But significantly the Swedes are now seeking to apply the lessons from the German cooperative buildings groups in the next phases of Malmo’s Western Harbour and Copenhagen is going to be connected to the European high speed rail network through Hamburg. So if you want to see what the future could look like, take a look at the Oresund region.


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