To build better cities, we must overcome inequality

Rich and poor in east London. Image: Getty.

We think of cities as having existed for millennia – but only a few are that old, and they were all extremely small. Most people in the world have only lived in a city in the current generation. Most people who have ever lived in large cities are alive today. So we fool ourselves if we imagine that we have a wealth of historical evidence to draw on to establish how “better cities” can be built.

The city I grew up in, and in which I now live, is Oxford. But while historic, most of Oxford is less than one hundred years old. Most of the roads, most of the homes, most of the schools, most of the workplaces, are new.

What most effects life in Oxford, and cities across the country, is how economically unequal we are. All cities in the UK have a similar steep inequality gradient – from the richest suburb through to the poorest enclave. At times different cities are said to be the most unequal in the country. But they are all similarly unequal and suffer greatly from the effects of inequality compared to cities on most of the European mainland.

The recent economic crisis has exacerbated the UK’s urban social problems. For example, the main cause of homelessness today is being evicted from private rented accommodation, something three times more common now than it was in 2010. Overall, we don’t have too few homes, but we share out what we do have increasingly badly – worse than at any time since 1911, which was when we first recorded their distribution properly. Many homes are under occupied; others are more and more overcrowded.

Our health has also worsened significantly in the last six years, caused mostly by cuts to public services in our cities. This is part of a wider urban crisis. We are now failing to recruit teachers to work in schools in urban areas. And we are seeing many other basic aspects of urban live become worse in absolute terms.

Other countries demonstrate how we could do better. Turn to France to look at health funding, Germany to looking at how to better house people in the city, or Finland for schooling. We are not very good at learning from abroad, despite being fortunate that enough people migrated into our cities from Europe in recent years to bring a halt to the housing demolition programmes that so blighted many Northern, Midlands and Scottish cities in the 1980s and 1990s.


At the heart of our urban problems is high and rising inequality. As inequality rises more and more people near the very top of the income distribution begin to lose out; equality is squeezed below the fabled 1 per cent, and then below the 0.1 per cent. But the take of those who have most still grows and grows. As a result, the UK has become the most economically unequal country in Europe. It is no coincidence that it is also the first country after Greenland to propose to leave the EU.

Dutch and Danish cities show us how we could better plan our housing and workplaces to commute and get to school each day more easily. Norway and Sweden show how a high quality urban life is possible, even with cold weather. There are lessons from outside Europe too – from Japan and Korea for instance – that we could learn from if we were only prepared to look. The one place where there are few positive lessons to draw on is the USA, but we can see what might happen to our cities if we were to follow the American nightmare.

Cities are just one object of geographical study. Everything is connected. By comparing the fortunes of people living in different cities in different countries we can begin to see just what is possible. We can see that there is an alternative to how we currently choose to live and arrange our urban life. And we can draw hope that a dystopian future is entirely avoidable.

In most of the world, and in most cities in the world, peoples’ quality of life is rising rapidly because inequality is relatively low. So tackling inequality is the single most important thing we can do to building better cities.

Danny Dorling is Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University. This blog is based on a lecture given by Professor Danny Dorling to the Human City Institute in Birmingham on 9 March 2017.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

What would an extended Glasgow Subway look like?

West Street station. Image: Finlay McWalter/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many notable things about Glasgow’s historic Subway.

It is the third oldest in the world. It is the only one in the UK that runs entirely underground. It runs on a rare 4ft gauge. For reasons passing human understanding, it shuts at teatime on a Sunday.

But more significantly, it’s the only metro system never to have been expanded since its original development. A couple of stations have come and gone in the 122 years since the Subway opened (and promptly shut again following a serious accident before the first day was out). But Glasgow’s Subway has remained a frustratingly closed loop. Indeed, while a Scottish newspaper recently estimated there have been more than 50 proposed new stations for Glasgow's iconic Subway since it first opened, all we’ve had are a couple of replacements for closed stops. 

The original route map. Image: SPT.

It’s not for a lack of trying, or at the least discussion. Glasgow’s SNP-led council pledged a major expansion of the Subway as part of their election pledge last year, for example, vowing to find the funding to take the network beyond the existing route.

All this sounds very familiar, of course. A decade ago, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games in mind, operators SPT began looking into a near-£3bn expansion of the Subway into the East End of the city, primarily to serve the new Velodrome complex and Celtic Park.

In the end, the plans — like so many discussed for expanding the Subway – failed to materialised, despite then SPT chairman Alistair Watson claiming at the time: “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

As detailed previously on CityMetric, that extension would have seen seven new stations being opened along a second, eastern-centric loop, crossing over with the original Subway at two city centre sites. Had that gone ahead, we would by now have had a new route looking something like this:

The 2007 proposals for an eastern circle. Image: Iain Hepburn.

St Mungo’s would have been close to Glasgow Cathedral. Onslow, presumably located on or near Onslow Drive, would have principally served Dennistoun, as would have a link-up with the existing Duke St overground station.

Gorbals, benefiting from the ongoing redevelopment and residential expansion that’s all but erased it’s No Mean City reputation, would have gained a station, while Newhall would have been next to Glasgow Green. Dalmarnock station would, like Duke Street, become an interchange with Scotrail’s services, while crucially Celtic Park would have gained the final stop, serving both the football stadium, the nearby Emirates Arena and velodrome, and the Forge shopping centre.


Those plans, though, were drawn up more than a decade ago. And if the SNP administration is serious about looking again at the expansion of the Subway, then there’s more than a few changes needing made to those plans.

For starters, one stop at the far end of the loop serving Celtic, the new sports arenas and the Forge feels a bit like underselling the area, particularly with so much new residential development nearby.

Two feels more realistic: one serving the Forge and the rest of Dennistoun, and the other sited on London Road to serve the mass volumes of football and sports traffic. And if Ibrox can have a stop, then it seems churlish not to give the other of the Old Firm clubs their own named halt.

That’s another thing. The naming of the proposed stations is… arbitrary, to say the least. You’d struggle to find many Glaswegians who’d immediately identify where Newhall or Onslow were, off the top of their head. 

The former, especially, seems like there’s a more natural alternative name, Glasgow Green; while the latter, with a second Forge stop also serving Dennistoun, would perhaps benefit from named for the nearby Alexandra Place and park.

(Actually, if we’re renaming stations from their unlikely original choices, let’s say goodbye Hillhead and a big hiya to Byres Road on the original Subway while we’re at it…)

So, what would a realistic, 2017-developed version of that original 2007 proposal give us? Probably something like this:

Better. Image: Iain Hepburn.

One glaring issue with the original 2007 study was the crossover with the… let’s call it the Western Subway. The original proposal had St Enoch and Buchanan St as the crossover points, meaning that, if you wanted to go out east from, say, the Shields Road park and ride, you had to go into town and double back. 

Using Bridge Street as a third interchange feels a more realistic, and sensible, approach to alleviating city centre crowding and making the journey convenient for folk travelling directly from west to east.

There’s a good case to be made for another south east of the river station, depending on where the Gorbals stop is sited. But these are austere times and with the cost of the expansion now likely more than £5bn at current rates, an expanded Bridge Street would do much of that legwork.

Putting all that together, you’d end up with something looking like this:

 

Ooooh. Image: Iain Hepburn.

Ahead of last year’s election, SNP councillor Kenny McLean vowed the party “[would] look at possible extension of the Subway and consider innovative funding methods, such as City Bonds, to fund this work. The subway is over 120 years old. It is high time that we look to connect communities in the north and east of Glasgow.”

Whether Glasgow could raise the £5bn it would probably need to make the 2007 proposal, or an updated variation of it remains, to be seen. And this still doesn’t solve how many places are left off the system. While a line all the way out to Glasgow Airport is unrealistic – after all, an overground rail service to the airport from Paisley has failed to materialise after 30 years of discussion and planning – there’s plenty of places in the city not well served by the Subway, from Maryhill in the north to Hampden in the south, or the riverside developments that have seen flats replace factories and new media hubs, museums and hotels line the Clyde.


Image: Iain Hepburn.

Key city landmarks like the Barrowlands, the Riverside Museum – with its own, fake, vintage subway stop, or the Merchant City are woefully underserved by the subway. But their incorporation – or connection with a Glasgow Crossrail – seems a very expensive pipe dream.

Instead, two adjoining loops, one to Ibrox and one to Celtic Park, seems the most plausible future for an extended Subway. At least colour coding the lines would be easy…

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook