“Is not-London the new London?” What England and its capital can learn from one another

Was this man so wrong? The Samuel Johnson statue in Lichfield. Image: Elliot Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

The novelist AL Kennedy recently said that “being out of London is the new being in London”. Ironically we were both moving to the same place for largely the same reasons, though my exit was less newsworthy and (possibly, who knows?) more agonised.

And it seems that those we'd categorise as thinking people have to consider their reasons for leaving London. We may decry gentrification, pollution, the struggle of managing children. And, after we have emotionally and physically extracted ourselves from this “problem”, we await a better life on the outside, in whatever “like London but without the bad bits” location we have chosen.

Yet nagging doubts claw away at our consciousness. Practically each and every article on the topic references Samuel Johnson's “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life” quote, and so we feel a need to justify our actions. Life will be much the same, we say, just in a bigger house and fresher air, as we rampage around the countryside elevating house prices, only to then feel culturally displaced and alien.

Because, if the EU Referendum vote told us anything, it was that there is a huge symbolic gulf between London and the rest. London is hated for its imagined wealth, the volume of foreigners who reside in it, and its cultural cosmopolitanism. And London hates England because of its assumed backwards-looking parochialism. But all this is just a projection. The two are more similar than they’d like to believe – and making England more like London and London more like England could radically change the fortunes of this troubled island.

So why should England become more like London? London is incomparable for sheer hyperactive energy. Everything gets used – time, people, buildings. Businesses are continually being set up, new restaurants appearing. Innovation is central to the London environment. Want to set up a multi-use space where creatives chat over coffee by day and musicians play a gig by night? Great, just don’t try it in Zone 1.


Arguably, this dynamism happens because of the impact of the City of London, financing hipster businesses to revalorise a locale. But it is more than that. London has, first with reluctance and then with enthusiasm, embraced immigration, and consequently, it has revitalised our culture, our high streets, our food, and our economy. Diversity acts upon the brain in such a way that we get used to considering differences between people, thus increasing our empathy as well as our ability to handle complex information. It gives us ideas, big ideas, just like those migrants who were brave enough to travel across countries, continents and seas for an outstretched dream.

Compare that to not-London, where I am surprised by the sheer wastage of people, buildings and places. Older women and men, incredibly talented and imaginative, not engaged in productive activity of any kind. Young people criticised for anti-social behaviour when the reality is there’s nothing cool to do. Mothers, raising their kids wonderfully but outside of paid employment, all the while feeling bored and unmotivated. Poor wages and expensive houses; small parks and playgrounds. Immigrants, still energetically trying to build new lives, isolated and often ghettoised by an unforgiving racism.

And still locals mutter about there being too many people in their spacious towns and villages, with driveways and garages. Lonely people and empty streets. Incredible buildings not yet converted into an art gallery, bar, restaurant or home. Art galleries built in a fit of over-achievement that lay fallow and rejected. It is wasteful and gives a lie to the brave new world promised by English Brexiteers.

For the most part, in London, councils have set aside parochial considerations to boost development and creative activity, either through flagship projects or seeding. They build relationships. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes the make decisions which are downright socially unjust. They struggle with implicit corruption. But even the most entrenched local boroughs get it eventually, after sustained assaults on its fortresses by activists and entrepreneurs.

The other side

In the zone of not-London, progress is always sluggish, and councils seem reluctant to let go of the shibboleths of large-scale housing developments, roads and supermarkets. Frankly, it is hard for them to do anything, without being weighed down by the population’s conservative muttering and resistance to any change.

But looking at it from the other side – how London should be more like England – another picture emerges. Consider London’s vast swathes of poor, left to rot in sub-standard housing and moments away from being cast out beyond the city walls. And it has a fair percentage of mothers, older people, disabled people, and so on, with underutilised skills.

Nor is London is as welcoming to immigrants and each other as it claims. Jock Young once referred to London as a place of “lightly engaged strangers,” while Tim Butler argued relationships between ethnicities in London were “tectonic”, meaning coexisting in segregation, even if we do live on the same street. We all know the narratives about the isolationism of hipster entrepreneurialism, but it applies more broadly. We live in the same place, but do we speak across the garden fence? Perhaps London could learn from the civility of the English village, but apply it to a multicultural context instead.

The rat race in action: London Bridge. Image: Getty.

Time is lost in London like a running stream. Merely getting from one place to another to see a doctor, dentist, or even do the shopping takes hours of your time. And in London too, prising people out of their cars is seemingly akin to trying to hack off their arm from their body, with devastating consequences for health (for the ageing, the elderly, the infirm, children).

London is too tightly packed for sanity and could benefit from the size, looser spatial frames and amenities of not-London. Not everyone wants to embrace the city and all it can offer, but they are forced there because of work or the racialised prejudices of elsewhere. Too many people in the capital know nothing beyond their neighbourhood and fear the outside. Just as England fears London, so London fears England.

And its commercialism has pretty much done for its subculture – the London I knew as a mardy teenager – judging by the ongoing closure of clubs and pubs. In the zone of not-London, eccentricity abounds, even if it is homeless.

London is not the Promised Land, though it is a hugely important social experiment. The debates we are having represent our very skewed culture where the imposed reality is, on the one side, overwork and hyperactivity, and on the other, under activity and waste. 

There needs to be a redistribution of economic activity so that London does and contains less, and England – the not-London – does more. But that implies the regions should try to create more to entice young people to stay. It means more cultural entrepreneurialism and other hipster amenities, and less bucolic countryside preserved in aspic. More Richard Florida and less Jane Austin. Local governments need to encourage culture, economic activity and regeneration more effectively, to lead, not follow – or worse, disrupt. And yes, sometimes people from elsewhere can show us how. Maybe it’s time we stopped complaining and listened.

So is not-London the new London? It could be if people and governments allowed themselves to become more porous. But we are still a long way from that, and, with an impending Brexit led by Randian ideologues and nouveau fascists, aided by a large dose of incompetency, it feels like an ever more distant ideal.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist specialising in culture, society and all things urban.

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.