City life and urban communities are buckling beneath the pressure of social, economic and technological change. What happens next could have a transformative effect on society at large, impacting young, old, rich and poor, Regeneration Advisor, David Barrie explains.
Urban life has never been more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, yet seemingly so troubled and uncertain, too. Decades of intense urbanisation mean that half the world now calls a city home. And by 2050, that is expected to rise to more than 65% of the population. But diverse socio-economic trends are cutting into the very fabric of city life: the disintegration of the family; the emergence of ‘Generation Rent’; smartphone addiction and the rise of the super-rich, cheek-by-jowl with the working poor. These shifting sands are not just altering our daily lives but our communities, too.
As a consequence, many are calling for an emphasis away from the physics of place-making and infrastructure towards people – and new forms of solidarity, diversity, transparency and trust. As Christopher Choa, Chair of the Urban Land Institute UK and a vice-president at AECOM, the largest engineering and design firm in the world, suggests: “Our urban future will have great opportunities, but also battles for social inclusion.”
In the past – let’s call it the age of Austin Powers – images of urban living centred on youth, neon, bohemia and dancing policemen. For musician David Byrne, writing in 2013 of New York, the city was about ‘serendipitous encounters’, diverse ethnicity and ‘vibrant creative playgrounds.’ It was a place, he wrote, that ‘smells like sex.’ Urban living today is way less pert, scuzzy or ‘shagtastic’. Media features paint it as a leisure-scape of day spas, rooftop beehives, loitering Deliveroo riders hidden round corners and tribes of Korean fashion bloggers making happy V-signs-to-camera.
But there are other, less savoury aspects of urban life. ‘Tent cities’ of homeless people in Manchester. A crisis of affordability which means that, in parts of London, homes for first-time buyers might be 20, 30, even more than 40 times their salary. And new social division and anger. At a public meeting to discuss the closure of a vocational college in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a representative of the college told the crowd: ‘We are market-led.’ A woman shouted back: ‘You should be community-led.’
Historically, communities of people have banded together in cities for many different reasons: common interests, capacities, intent and identity. As Paul Augarde, director of placemaking at Poplar HARCA housing association, explains: ‘People build communities by talking, exploring, bumping into one another, associating with one another. It’s a shifting, moving thing – and not organised,’ he says.
Of course, there will always be bonds and relationships between humans. We are a group organism. But the stresses and strains of city living and modern developments such as gentrification, immigration and austerity are making that bonding process increasingly complex and difficult.
"Communities regularly say to me that they like changes taking place in their area. Then they say – “but this change isn’t really for us, it is for other people” - the solution shouldn’t be our fetishising what we conceive as authentic, but engaging communities in the change itself,” says Augarde.
Many different phenomena have rendered community less resilient in recent years, imposing significant challenges on cities and those who live in them. “Migration, inequality, climate change and technology, these are the new Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, says Christopher Choa.
The first two of these may be a grisly by-product of urbanisation. As more and more people move to cities, urban living becomes denser and more intense, but also more desirable to the world’s economic elite. Along the way, wrinkles are ironed out and affordable housing is marginalised to make way for luxury flats and retail – more a world of designer loafers than Doc Martens, if you like.
Addressing this requires change, as Robin Nicholson, senior partner at architects Cullinan Studio points out. Nicholson believes there is no ‘secret sauce’ to a sustainable community. But, he suggests, inclusive processes of development with many different stakeholders, connected housing, mixed tenancies and open courtyards and gardens certainly help.
This may be even more apposite in the new digital economy where lives are increasingly mediated by online platforms that simulate communal human culture, or enable people to trade and relate to each other directly, bypassing traditional ways and means of generating trust.
David Butler’s 1930 film, Just Imagine, is a science fiction comedy, predicting what urban life might be like in 1980.
‘Communities give people a sense of calm, security and empathy,’ says Araceli Camargo, a cognitive neuroscientist and workspace entrepreneur in London and New York. However, in the short term, ‘we do see people becoming more detached and less observant, which is adding up to less empathic behaviour.’
According to John Thackara, author of How to Thrive in the Next Economy, technology feeds into a larger crisis around who or what we should value. ‘In our hi-tech, hi-debt world, things that used to be free are being monetised. Everything is being turned into a transaction. Trust is about shared interests but all that is new in urban life seems to involve the insertion of technology and abstraction into a process to make money.’
In future, experts predict that city living will become more ‘connected’, with biometrics, automated check-outs and mountains of data. We will share autonomous vehicles. We will own things together. Sensors will measure and regulate how our lives are resourced. Technology will be integrated with urban development through new alliances of real estate developers, venture capital and start-up entrepreneurs.
The implications for communities will be profound and may even deepen urban connections. Architect Nigel Bidwell of Farrells, for example, believes that the new urban space, integrated systems and shared mobility created by autonomous vehicles may well ‘crack anonymity and create a new social glue.’ San-Francisco based tech entrepreneur, Gabe Nudel agrees. Having helped to found GiFly, an electric bike sharing company, he says the business is ‘building community and giving ownership to people. Technology is our friend.’
But there are clear challenges. ‘The definition of the city is certainly changing,’ says Christopher Choa. ‘Cities are becoming more about networks of people, hubs and platforms that allow for interaction. In the future, quality of interaction between people will be more important than quality of place. The challenge to cities will not be solved by infrastructure but by a new focus upon kinship.’
The stakes are high. Paul Augarde sees disengagement with change feeding into ‘a progressively polarised debate, further setting stakeholder against stakeholder – and change that could benefit all, won’t be delivered.’ As a result, there is a danger that ‘greater delivery and investment will be targeted at ex-industrial land further from existing communities, leading to further segregation and an incremental rise in injustice and fear in our society.’
Following the fire at Grenfell Tower, disparate communities of local people in West London came together to protest against housing policy, design and many other aspects of the tragedy, including the perception that the area has been run in the past for a rich, white, global elite.
This coalition of the angry, a new anti-establishment community, is a clear sign of the dangers lurking within our city walls. We ignore it at our peril.