Here’s why you should ignore liveable cities rankings

Oh look, a city. Image: Getty.

At last count, there were over 500 rankings that pit cities around the world against each other: from the most intricately measured quality of life indices, to infographics of how often postal workers get attacked by dogs.

As cities look to compete globally, the business of ranking cities has grown. In much the same way that sports clubs will pay eye-watering sums for star players to win the top prize, urban managers will buy in “starchitects”, global consultancy firms and PR companies, to help them climb these city league tables.

Yet the only prize for reaching the top appears to be rocketing prices for housing, services, transport and food. Indeed, many cities at the top of the tables experience pronounced inequality. Frankfurt, for example, is ranked seventh in the Mercer Quality of Life rankings, while also scoring high for inequality.

Though some efforts are being made to address the flaws in city rankings, they continue to be touted as a viable means of urban analysis. But as someone who scrutinises cities closely and researches the people who live in them, I think it’s time to ignore city rankings because they do more harm than good.

For one thing, only 1 per cent of these rankings are conducted by city governments – the rest are run by private companies. As such, there’s a risk that focus and funding can be diverted from the issues that matter to citizens, as city authorities aim to appease the rankings criteria and promote themselves on the global stage.

For example, while austerity continues to bite in the UK, the Greater London Authority’s communications budget has doubled since 2009. All the while, rankings only ever identify a potential problem, never offer ways to address it, placing the burden on public institutions.

Data domination

The growing use of data-gathering technology in cities is giving authorities unprecedented amounts of information on citizens, housing, health care, transport systems, the built environment and more. As well as driving the global rise of smart cities – in all their different shapes and forms – these technologies are integral to city rankings.

But as with any use of big data and AI, there’s a significant risk that the biases of those who operate them are transposed into the results – as with technologies used by police and the criminal justice system, which were critiqued for reinforcing prejudice against minorities.

Data can be prejudiced, too. Image: ssoosay/Flickr/creative commons.

City rankings reinforce a fixation with data. But if authorities focus on bumping certain metrics up or down to climb these league tables, at best, they risk overlooking the complex nature of many urban issues, such as homelessness. At worst, they could entrench discrimination against their own citizens. Clearly, ethical checks need to be placed at the core of data-gathering developments in cities.


Missing the point

On a more fundamental level, ranking different cities against each other according to specific criteria destroys the essence of that city as a whole. A city is far more than a collection of how many museums it has, or how efficient its transportation system is, or how clean its water is, or how many people die in bike accidents at rush hour – or whatever other metric is used.

Shanghai is a world away from Sheffield, yet rankings seek to compare them using specific minute criteria with no consideration of their social, political, economic, ecological and historical context.

Ever since Walter Benjamin walked the streets of Paris, trying to analyse the social complexity of the contemporary metropolis, urban scholars have been at pains to articulate the inarticulable: what makes a city the intense, immersive and deeply emotional experience it is.

Cities can’t be ranked by homeliness or by the thrill we experience when viewing the sparkling nightscape from a rooftop. No measure of the rate of knife crime can help to address the deep political, cultural and domestic life histories of those who perpetrate it. These experiences are deeply contextual, tacit and subjective, but it doesn’t make them any less important.

City rankings seek to carve the urban environment up into pockets of data, to be captured, analysed and ordered. In doing so, they’re actually doing damage to the fabric of urban life that holds the city together. It’s time to experience and manage the lived reality of cities, not the ranking of them.

Oli Mould, Lecturer in Human Geography, Royal Holloway.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.