Conference themes

New York is certainly the most populous and perhaps the most urban of America’s cities. Such qualities are not universally seen as representing positive attributes in a country in which the traditional city is regarded with a certain degree of political and popular suspicion and which is continually elaborating new forms of exurbia.

Understanding New York’s very particular nature and its prospects is an essential part of coming to terms with the evolving nature of the contemporary city, as it faces up to the reality of the extraordinary size jump of the later years of the 20th century. Scores of cities now have populations far larger than entire European nations. A city with an effective population of 18 million people - now the size of both New York and London - is an entity with no historic precedent. If such a metropolitan area is to achieve the cohesion and the sense of identity that until now has been regarded as the fundamental essence of any successful city, then it must either learn from and build upon New York’s experiences, or else find an alternative workable model.

As the first stage in a cumulative sequence of conferences organized by the Cities programme of the London School of Economics, with the support of the Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue, to be held in six cities across four continents, Urban Age is exploring the deliberately provocative proposition that New York is almost all right. Through a mix of muddle and dynamism, New York is succeeding as a city. It continually attracts new people, and creates new jobs for them.

Despite everything else, it has proved itself as an urban machine with an impressive capacity to turn poor migrants into citizens with at least a foothold on the ladder to prosperity. By the standards of an Atlanta or a Phoenix, it has done so with relative restraint in its use of land and natural resources. New York, at least in comparison with Houston or Los Angeles is a city that has the possibility of bringing its consumption of fossil fuels used for transport under some kind of limit. It still has significant numbers of people who regularly walk to work.

It is a city that has begun to address years of underinvestment in its infrastructure, and to reclaim its marginalized neighbourhoods, even as it has had to face fiscal problems, a lack of affordable housing, and a middle class under increasing stress. A contrary view would be to see New York as relying on federal and state tax subsidies, overly dependent on an excessively narrow employment base, and facing the prospect of serious difficulties meeting the financial obligations of the bond issues made to fund a huge investment in transport infrastructure. Despite the much publicised turn around in its fortune of the last decade, it still lacks such basic urban infrastructure as a rapid transit link to its primary airport. New York may have more pedestrians than Dallas, but it is also more polluted, faces a famine of affordable housing, dead rats in its gutters, and may be in the midst of what is inevitably no more than a temporary lull between crime waves.

The conference tests both views of the proposition to explore the model of the relatively high density city embodied by New York, as the first step in a series of such investigations that will move to Shanghai and London in 2005, and then to Mexico, Johannesburg and Berlin in 2006. Urban Age is based in the belief not just that these cities have things to learn from each other, but also from understanding themselves in the context of a wider appreciation of similar challenges and opportunities. Above all it is a response to the belief that this is a moment for a reappraisal of the armoury, intellectual and practical, that we have for understanding and developing the future of all cities. Despite the complexities and nuances facing the city, the fundamental models for it are still encompassed by two paradigms; the high density versus the low density model.

New York’s experiences offer lessons both for rapidly growing cities such as Shanghai, Mexico and Johannesburg some positive, others cautionary, as well as for cities with more similar characteristics such as London and Berlin.

Urban Age is a kind of comparative clinical testing, exploring new techniques for diagnosis and treatment, across six cities, assessing their wider applicability. In New York, as in the other five cities the conference is undertaking a comparative analysis of key policy areas, from the legal and political underpinnings of city government, to the economics underlying employment issues, and the physical form of the city and the degree to which urbanism and architecture impact on it. By bringing together academic specialists with individuals concerned with the day-to-day shaping of urban policy, and the key actors in the field: political, financial, and professional, the Urban Age moves beyond research, to build an agenda for the emerging city.

London and New York are cities with striking parallels. When their metropolitan areas are taken into account, they have comparable population, size and economic base. Both are attracting newcomers drawn from an extraordinarily widespread range of countries. Both have in the past suffered from the loss of traditional industries associated with their roles as port cities. They have evolved analogous structures, at least as far as their business districts are concerned: London’s West End offices parallel Midtown, the City is Wall Street, and Lower Manhattan is reflected in Canary Wharf.

The two cities have considered similar remedies for their difficulties, from new financial instruments for funding public transport, to various forms of tax incentives for housing and job creation, to road pricing and policing methods. It is an interplay that has produced a significant flow of key individuals between the two cities to take up senior roles in their implementation. And at the same time, New York and London have as many discontinuities. Their political systems are in fact very different. And in their ethos, there is the paradox of a New York supposedly governed by market forces, actually shaped by rent control to an extent that London, with its supposedly more socialized system, has never contemplated.

But a comparison of New York and London offers a rich potential source for the understanding of urban change, and the impact of policy and design upon it.

Urban Age is using four distinct themes as the focus for its explorations of the forces that drive the urban process to arrive at some sense of synthesis around the key issues facing the city. The aim is to relate policy and economic issues to the physical form of the city; these are equally critical concerns that are too often isolated from each other. This underpins the series of questions that Urban Age asks. They are posed in the context of New York, but of concern to all major cities, and by interrogating the fundamental issues of what it means to make a city, the hope is to bring fresh clarity in helping us make choices. Cities are the economic mechanisms that create the wealth that sustains their people. But do jobs build cities or is it cities that build jobs? In other words is it those urban qualities of a city that are within our power to change that are responsible for attracting fresh investment that brings jobs? Or is it simply the creation of jobs that brings with those other desirable urban qualities?

The public realm is the key aspect of contemporary life that is unique to the modern city where strangers can come together to share the experience of city life. But at a time of public fear of terror, how is it still possible to feel safe in the crowd.

The city may be a powerful machine for the transformation of the migrant poor, into more affluent city dwellers. But to judge by the stress the middle class find themselves under –

priced out of affordable housing, concerned by public education and health systems, etc. The city must address the squeezed middle, especially in the field of housing. Then there is the issue of movement within the city. Commuting distances driven by the cost of housing, and an imbalance between mass transit systems and the private car are escalating. Finding ways of reducing journey times is a vital part of improving the quality of life in a city.

Each of these issues sparks off a whole group of contingent questions. And the issues that they raise are interrelated. They form the starting point for a dialogue that will move to Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin to contribute to the production of a major statement about the nature of the contemporary city. This cannot be a prescriptive blueprint, advocating the low density garden city, or the high density alternative of the past. It must go beyond the tidy minded attempts of the past to zone cities by functions. Its form will depend on clarity about the definition of the city, and a pooled experience of its nature.

Author: Deyan Sudjic