How the Essex new town of Harlow is rediscovering its founding ideals

The Harlow Water Gardens. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

Like many Londoners, Kimberlee Perry began eying properties outside the M25 when she was expecting her first child. She and her husband chose Harlow, the new town in western Essex, because of the transport links to London, and its urban-rural feel.

As it turned out, the London link wasn’t that important. Kimberlee didn’t return to her sales job after her maternity leave ended; and five years on, she’s fully invested in Harlow. She founded the global fitness franchise company Bounce – styled “((BOUNCE))” – when her son was a few weeks old, and has since established its 8,000 square foot headquarters – complete with a 100-trampoline studio – in the town.

Over 35,000 people now attend Bounce classes every month in the UK, New Zealand and Kimberlee’s native Australia – and soon the U.S, too. Many of them are mums who bring their children to class. This child-friendly attitude is part of Bounce’s DNA, and, according to Kimberlee, something she inherited from her adopted home.

“Harlow has a lot to offer,” she said. “It’s a great option for families, with lots of mummy groups and free activities for kids – and it’s very friendly. That’s true in business as well: local businesses, we help each other out, tag each other on social media. I don’t think I would have had anywhere near as much success if I’d started somewhere else.”

Sir Frederick Gibberd would be pleased to know that the features of the town he masterplanned are still attracting and inspiring talent like Kimberlee. Born in 1947 out of the idealism of the post-war Labour Government, Harlow was one of eight new towns designed to provide decent housing for survivors of London’s Blitz. Despite the very real austerity of the time, the New Town programme was underpinned by a belief in the power of planning to address wider social issues such as public health and social justice.

Reflecting the pioneering spirit of the early days, Harlow quickly chalked up a series of firsts: the first high-rise residential tower block, the first pedestrian shopping precinct, the first health centre. Mag Barret, a journalist who moved to Harlow in the 1960s, covered many of the openings for local papers including the Harlow Citizen, Harlow News and Harlow Star – all now defunct. “Mary Peters, an Olympic runner, came for the opening of the first purpose-built sports centre in the country,” she says. “And the first post war Odeon opened here, with a big fanfare.”

In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the young and ambitious were drawn to the town, with a feeling that things could be done in Harlow that weren’t possible elsewhere. So many families were started here – at one point 20 per cent of its population was under 5 – that Harlow earnt the moniker “pram town”.

From a peak in 1974, however, its population began falling. A lack of high-quality jobs and higher education offerings meant the town began to lose its youngest and most affluent, and with them went a number of large employers.

After the Development Corporation was wound up in 1980, the town centre was sold off to private owners. In common with other new towns, Harlow struggled with the fact that, because everything had been built at the same time, it all needed renovating at the same time. But because the assets had been sold off, the town council had few income streams to pay for maintenance.

A period of economic and social decline set in, reflected in the very fabric of the town. Potholes appeared in the extensive cycleway system that was part of Gibberd’s original masterplan, and were not filled in. Several of Gibberd’s landmark buildings, including the original town hall, were demolished and replaced by less imposing structures.

Then, in the tense aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a Polish man called Arkadiusz Jozwik was killed in a late-night altercation. The incident was labelled initially as a potential hate crime, although a court would later find this not to be true. The self-examination that followed would prove a turning point. Harlow came together, first to mourn the death of Jozwik, then – in a series of celebrations to mark its 70th birthday – to show to itself and the world that it’s a much nicer than even many of its residents had come to believe.

The Discover Harlow project was launched by the council in 2018 to bring together people and businesses as ambassadors for the town. It’s an attempt to challenge perceptions of Harlow. At an economic development conference last year, some professionals expressed surprise after discovering some of Harlow’s gems, from the beautiful Town Park designed by landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe, to the town’s many sculptures: works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Rodin and Barbara Hepworth are on permanent public display around the town. Discover Harlow wants newcomers and existing residents alike to know and appreciate these assets.

It is also working alongside other organisations to improve the town. Although the council doesn’t own most of the property in the town centre, it is trying to galvanise business owners into starting a Business Improvement District, where they collectively pay for upgrades to common spaces. And it funded a facelift to Market Square, which it does own.

One of the reasons Harlow began losing its youth was a poor higher education offering. That is being addressed by Harlow College, which has enlarged its offering to fill the skills needs of local employers with Stansted Airport College and the Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Centre, as well as accreditation from Apple as a Distinguished School.

On the map: Harlow lies just to the north east of London. Image:

Job numbers are growing again – from 42,000 in 2009 to 48,000 in 2017, according to Office of National Statistics data – and are likely to increase further with the development of three science parks. On the site where fibre optics was invented – a discovery that earnt Sir Charles Kao the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 – will be a new 15-acre campus called Kao Park. Phase One is completed, housing a brand-new data centre and the offices of defence contractor Raytheon, Arrow Electronics and Pearson Education.

Nearby, also enjoying the planning and business rate advantages of Harlow Enterprise Zone, is the council-run Harlow Science Park. When completed, it will include a 15,000-square foot ARU Innovation Centre built in collaboration with Anglia Ruskin University.

Also in the works is the £400m move of Public Health England to the former site of GSK, a major pharmaceutical company who left town in 2010. PHE will create a centre for public health research, health improvement and protection employing 3,250 people, many of whom it says will be recruited locally.

New homes are planned – 23,000 of them – encouraged by the rationale that the reasons Harlow was chosen as the location for a new town in the first place make it an attractive place to live and work. With good road and rail links to Cambridge and London – only 30 minutes away by train – Harlow is also near Stansted airport.

It is hoped that the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, delivered by Places for People, will fix some of the failures of the New Town programme, notably creating income streams to pay for future maintenance and ensuring stewardship remains with the community. It will also address the historic lack of diversified tenure, which made it hard for Harlow to attract people in higher income brackets.

“It’s about supporting the growth of Harlow,” said Mary Parsons, Group Director for Placemaking and Regeneration at Places for People. “Harlow has a lot of great things about to happen. I’d like to hear more people saying they feel proud to come from Harlow.”


What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave

The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.