Does a thriving tech sector really benefit a city – or does it just increase inequality?

500m around Silicon Roundabout. Is this as far as its benefits stretch? Image: Google Maps.

The tech sector has been making its presence felt in many larger cities for a number of years now, and in an uncertain era is proving to be one of the dynamos behind the “next economy”. That’s a good thing right? More jobs, more money, smarter cities?

Well, yes – but who exactly is it a good thing for?

Some of the cities that profess to be the smartest, most data driven, tech paradises – London and San Francisco come to mind – have both a flourishing tech sector and high levels of inequality. How smart are these cities, really, if they are teeming grounds of unfairness?

Research shows that, left to its own devices, the tech industry can be quiet self contained, producing an insular organism with few spillover benefits for the wider city. Positive externalities from tech clusters can be highly localised: spending by firms tends to occur in a particular zone, sometimes in a radius as small as 500m of their base. (This of course differs with location.)

Nevertheless there is a global trend of tech growth leading to one part of the city benefitting disproportionately, creating gentrified ghettoes and social tension of the sort witnessed in San Francisco. Tech growth in the Bay Area has driven property prices to levels far out of kilter with the average local salary, pricing out smaller firms, and costing the city infrastructure funding due to tax exemptions and privately run transport services.

This need not be the case. Tech is not an untameable force of nature. Its impact on a city and who gets to share in its potential benefits are grounded in the choices we make as a society. The question is, as as a tech industry grows, what are the best policy decisions to enhance opportunities on offer to the greatest number of people?

Experience shows that, if there is proactive leadership and public decision making about who should feel the benefits of tech growth, then it can be balanced across a city.

Take Chicago, where mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s office has formulated “The City Technology Plan”. It provides long-term strategies to use the burgeoning tech sector to enhance social as well as economic opportunity for Chicagoans. The main strategies include building a next generation digital infrastructure; fostering tech education through 2smart communities”; and providing for efficient and open government, and civic innovation.

The primary goal of the plan is to provide social and economic opportunities, with resident engagement, access, and skills – as well as job creation – among the top objectives.  Where there is effective leadership, city-level planning can be instrumental in ensuring that the spatial clustering characteristic of tech sector growth leads to positive spill over effects for the whole city.

But it won’t just happen organically; there needs to be planning and engagement if these mutual benefits are to be reaped. City and industry leaders alike need to collaborate and make decisions as to the level and type of interaction between tech growth and the wider city. As the Royal Town Planning Institute has argued, an important function of contemporary planning is recognising and understanding current economic factors and growth trends so that strategic decisions surrounding development add value to the local area. By understanding the needs of a community, planners can assist with achieving successful outcomes by working closely with the private sector, leaders and neighbouring authorities

In The Death and Life of American Cities Jane Jacobs promotes

the need of cities for a most intricate and code grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially... The science of city planning and the art of city design, in real life for real cities, must become the science and art of catalysing and nourishing these close-grained working relationships.

This may mean the creation of new roles at the city level: employing a tech lead in the mayor’s office as has been done in New York, Dublin, and London. However, if this is the route taken, the remit of the city tech lead needs to be wider than just inviting tech companies to locate in the city.

Ideally the tech lead would liaise with city planners who can articulate the issues being faced by the city – such as housing affordability, infrastructure pressures, and skills shortages. Dialogue with industry leaders about their plans may then reveal how the growth of tech could feed into a plan for addressing these issues.

Industry too should to take account of the affect it has on, and what it owes, the city in which it sets up. After all, it is often planned public investments in infrastructure that makes a city attractive to firms and their aspirational employees in the first place. And it’s this that continues to facilitate growth through the creation of what the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Katz has christened “Innovation Districts”:

…mash ups of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fuelled by caffeine.

Whether or not it is acknowledged to the extent it is in places like Chicago, many cities have a relationship with the tech sector. The more this relationship is formalised, the more likely it is that conscious decisions as to how each can mutually support the other’s goals will be made.

One of the RTPI’s current work streams focuses on the relationship between cities and the tech sector. The project will combine case studies and evidence drawn from interviews and round tables with industry leaders, members of the academic communities, and city planners. Taken together, these will articulate the role planning has to play in creating the kind of places that attract tech – and planning's role in ensuring that the economic growth that emanates from tech clusters benefits the wider metropolitan area.

The huge potential for mutual economic and social support that exists between a city and the tech sector should be nurtured into a collaborative relationship that has as its objectives the provision of public goods – as well as economic growth.

Joe Kilroy is a policy offer at the Royal Town Planning Institute. You can find him on Twiter here.

To find out more about the RTPI’s tech project click here.

 
 
 
 

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.