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.