10 objective reasons why London is better than New York

Subliminal messaging: Boris Johnson at an event earlier this month. Image: Getty.

Last night, the think tank Policy Exchange launched a new, baby think tank called the Capital City Foundation, "devoted to the continued prosperity and progress of London". Which is nice.

More importantly, however, the event featured a discussion of why, after years of post-war dominance, New York may be losing its crown as the unofficial capital of the world to London. 

Ed Glaeser, native New Yorker, cities economist, and the delightfully named "Fred & Eleanor Glimp Professor" at Harvard, took to the stage, and explained why, in his opinion at least, London now has the edge over its rival. Granted, he was standing on a podium at the top of the Shard surrounded by Londoners at the time, but we like to believe he was being genuine nonetheless. 

Here are a few of his main points.

1. Population

Source: London Infrastructure Plan.

Over the last few weeks, London finally reached its pre-war population peak of 8.6m. The last available population figures for New York in 2013 estimated its population at around 8.4m.

Now we know that urban populations can be hard to compare, because boundaries and definitions vary from city to city (seriously, we go on about this all the time), and the official definition of London is far more inclusive than the official definition of NYC: compare unofficial metropolitan populations, and New York almost certainly still has the edge.

But London's loss of status accompanied the loss of nearly a quarter of its population after the end of World War Two. The reverse in the population trend, then, implies a reverse in status, too. 

2. Financial Sector

London's financial services sector is ever-so-slightly larger than New York's: it has around 340,000 employees to New York's 322,000. New York currently holds the top spot on the Global Financial Centres Index, however, with a two-point lead on London. 

3. Education

Inner-city school normally have a reputation for poor results and crime, but London's schools are actually better than the national average. In the US, Glaeser says, "I can't think of a single major city in the states where this is the case". Cities including New York also have a far lower high school graduation rate than rural and suburban areas.

4. Geography

From a piece Glaeser wrote for the Evening Standard yesterday: 

The world has shifted in London’s direction. In 1950, New York was perfectly positioned between California and Western Europe. Nothing else mattered much economically. The rise of the Arab World in the Seventies, the emergence of Eastern Europe in the Nineties and India’s post-2000 successes have all improved London’s geography relative to New York. 

5. Government 

This is a bit of a contentious one. Glaeser argues that the presence of central government in the UK's largest city is a good thing, not a bad one. He argues that Parliament's location means it's "friendly" towards big London infrastructure projects like Underground extensions or Crossrail.  

On the other hand, London's city government has relatively little spending power compared to New York's. Only 35 per cent of New York's budget comes from central government grants; the rest is directly collected by the city through tax. Government control over London's finances is far stronger – it controls around 93 per cent of the capital's budget. 

6. "Fun"

"London is just a fun place to be". Thanks, Ed. 

7. Job Growth

Between 2001 and 2012, the number of people working in London grew by 17 per cent, while in New York it grew by only 3 per cent. Ha.

***

Glaeser did end his panegyric with a warning, however: "London is too expensive... we need to build lots and lots more housing" (we completely agree). 

Next to the stage was London mayor Boris Johnson (also, as it happens, born in New York), who had some rather punchier stats on why London has the upper hand:

London has twice as many bookshops as New York.

We also have a quarter of the murder rate.

London has 240 museums to New York's 83. 

Boris also tried to argue that London is home to more billionaires, but according to Business Insider, this isn't the case – London has 72 to New York's 110. To be honest, we'd rather have museums than billionaires anyway. 

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.