Time to reflect on a year of cities. I am lucky that work means regular visits to most of the UK’s great cities whilst the need to sully favour with the children shortly to leave home has meant a few overseas city breaks in 2015.
LONDON AND NEW YORK
Perhaps the overriding impression from the year is how similar London and New York now are. And how different they both are to any other city I have visited. In both cities:
- the current flow of global immigration is palpable. The millions of people from hundreds of countries are more predominant than the indigenous population creating an incredible diversity and vibrancy in terms of food, shops and culture
- such is the resident and tourist demand for food and drink there appears to be a coffee shop or some other eaterie every 50 metres. And usually the same brands in both cities
- West End and Fifth Avenue sell the same products, to the same customers, from the same high end stores
- The City and Wall Street are both increasingly crammed with brand new skyscrapers of similar architectural styles
- Master-plans for the big regeneration opportunities at Nine Elms and Hudson Yards look suspiciously similar
- Central Park and Hyde Park both still look and feel like magnificent green lungs but both perhaps struggling to provide the tranquility they once did
- formerly edgy districts like Harlem and Brixton both now offer multi-million dollar flats, cheek by jowl with council estates/high rise projects
- public transport is constantly full, 7am to 10pm seems to be the rush hour
Above all else the diversity. London no longer feels like part of England and perhaps New York never felt like being part of the US. Both are magnets for some of the most talented and ambitious young people in the world and it shows.
But what about the differences between these two great places. Firstly the public realm. London is consistently fantastic – outstanding design, superb materials and high quality maintenance. New York simply isn’t like that – in stark contrast to Boston by the way. In New York the general quality of floor materials, street furniture, shop front design control and public spaces is way below par in most areas. The superb public realm being laid down at the World Trade Centre is in sharp relief to many other parts of Manhattan.
Secondly the infrastructure. I can only imagine what a regular user of Penn Station must think when entering the fantastic Kings Cross/St Pancras or perhaps viewing the transformational plans for Crossrail or Euston. And the snails pace of trains on the “high speed” 215 mile line from New York to Boston. About an hour longer than the 285 miles covered by the 7.04 from Newcastle to London. Plus, having travelled the New York subway for a week I will never again moan about the state of London tube trains again – albeit seems easier to get a seat.
Thirdly the levels of construction. Cranes everywhere in London but surprisingly few and far between in New York.
PARIS, BOSTON AND MANCHESTER
Thirty years ago on my first trip to Paris I remember being struck by how similar it was to London. Albeit with the distinctive Parisian style. The scale, the variety of independent shops and businesses, the grotty streets so close to the richer ones, the mix of busy and quieter neighbourhoods and the endless symbols of imperial greatness.
Today it seems everywhere within Zones 1 and 2 in London is busy, gentrified and dominated by modern global brands. In contrast, Paris this Autumn felt surprisingly similar to thirty years ago. Still incredibly beautiful and well planned but lacking the full-on vibrancy and levels of investment evident in London or New York. More like Barcelona, Boston, Manchester or Glasgow.
Major cities serving millions of people rather than billions. All with some architectural masterpieces (both older and newer) and downtowns dripping with wealth and splendour whilst some nearby streets still seem shabby and ripe for new investment in businesses or homes. Economies where tourism and sports branding seem to be playing an increasing role in economic development.
So what am I saying here? I guess that New York and London both seem pretty full. Both appear to face increasing difficulties in providing an affordable quality of life (beyond work and cultural opportunities) for the world’s most talented young people. Will such people make different life choices in the future? Perhaps deciding that location isn’t as crucial as it once was for engaging with the world’s most successful economies. Could this perhaps drive an economic renaissance of these second tier cities (especially where they can fall within the economic ambit of New York and London) over the next 50 years?
Subject, of course, to essential and expensive caveats about infrastructure, culture and public realm. And recognising that walking through Wall Street or EC1 does make you realise that many of those who simply want to be be rich and powerful will continue to be drawn there for many years to come.
However, go to Manchester and Boston right now – their talent driven renaissance appears already to be well underway. Who else next?
Final point. Obviously never been to any of the great cities in the Far East or Africa. To be continued hopefully….