“There is no such thing as the North”: why devolution must be to the region's cities

Not a northern powerhouse: a sheep enjoying the grass in Grasmere, Cumbria. Image: Getty.

In recent months we’ve seen the focus on boosting northern city regions begin to expand to a focus on “the North” as a region.

This could be useful from the perspective of planning some pan-regional transport improvements, or the marketing of investment opportunities across the wider region. But such a large geography is ultimately not a helpful basis to devise and deliver the majority of economic policy interventions that could make a difference to the lives of people living in the area.

Here’s why:

1. The North is not a single political or economic unit…

Where does the North begin? North of the Watford Gap of course, or so goes the old joke.

Seriously though, if we are to begin thinking about a pan-North approach to economic development, defining the geography over which we’re talking about is a must.

Although not uncontested, let’s say we are happy to use the former government offices for the regions geography, as defined at the outset – that is, the North West, the North East and Yorkshire & the Humber. This “North” is an area home to around 14.5m people, dispersed across a massive 37,000km2 area.

To put those figures in context, that equates to the best part of double the population of Greater London, albeit spread over seven times the geographic space. It’s also about three times the population of Scotland, in about half the geographic space.

Yet the North is neither one functional economy like London, nor a single political unit like Scotland.

Although it can be argued that Greater London suffers from its own inadequate political boundaries, the capital is demonstrably a single, contiguous built up urban environment. It provides a reasonable approximation of the geography in which a majority of residents live and work, and a tier of governance that people can identify with.

The same cannot possibly be said of the North when, for example, just 4 per cent of working residents in Greater Manchester commute to the neighbouring Liverpool City Region; while only 1 per cent make the daily commute from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to Greater Manchester. Comparing the North to London is like comparing “the South” to the Liverpool City Region – why would you do it?

Scotland, by contrast, may be more rural and have a more dispersed population; but it has a far stronger, more cohesive historical, political and cultural identity than the North of England, as has been demonstrated by the rise of Scottish Nationalism over recent decades.

Whatever shared heritage or culture those of us from the North may share, it’s hard to observe anything approaching a “northern nationalism” that could compare. Indeed the identity politics of the North are often far from homogenous – just ask a Scouser how he feels about a Manc, a Mackem about a Geordie, or David Cameron about the people of Yorkshire.

2. And pretending it is one would make affecting change more difficult, not less

There are 15 separate urban areas in the North boasting a daytime population above 250,000. There are many more towns and villages of far smaller populations, each with their own economic history, as well as challenges and opportunities for the future. In total, these settlements are spread across 70 different administrative tiers, including counties, unitary authorities and district councils.

Without even thinking about the range of universities, Local Enterprise Partnerships or local Chambers of Commerce located across the North, to what extent will it ever really be possible, let alone helpful, for all of these constituent bodies to speak with one voice? If it was, what would that voice ask for, and how would it deliver if a positive response was elicited from government?

The fact is that, barring things like major inter-city transport connectivity or the marketing of investment opportunities across the wider region, it makes very little sense to think of “the North” – or for that matter “the South” or “the Midlands” – as tiers through which to devise and implement the majority of economic policy. And the risk is that, in trying to do so, we will take significant political capital, capacity and time away from the kind of interventions that could make a difference at the more local level.

Making the most of all of the assets of the North is of course important. But in seeking to do so we must not lose sight of the fact that there is no single political or economic geography of the North, or that economic change will ultimately best be affected at the level at which the economy actually works.

That’s why the move to more city-region combined authorities as the primary unit for local economic development policy is so important – and why we mustn’t be seduced by a whole region approach to all of the economic challenges facing places in the North.

Ben Harrison is director of communications & development at the Centre for Cities.

This article was originally published on the think tank's blog


Mexico City’s new airport is an environmental disaster. But it could become a huge national park

Mexico City’s new Norman Foster-designed airport, seen here in a computer rendering, is visually striking but environmentally problematic. Image: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/creative commons.

Mexico City long ago outgrew the two-terminal Benito Juárez International Airport, which is notorious for delays, overcrowding and canceled flights. Construction is now underway on a striking new international airport east of this metropolis of 20m. When it opens in late 2020, the LEED-certified new airport – whose terminal building was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster in collaboration with the well-known Mexican architect Fernando Romero – is expected to eventually serve 125m passengers. That’s more than Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles’ LAX.

But after three years of construction and $1.3bn, costs are ballooning and corruption allegations have dogged both the funding and contracting process.

Environmentalists are also concerned. The new airport is located on a semi-dry lake bed that provides water for Mexico City and prevents flooding. It also hosts migrating flocks and is home to rare native species like the Mexican duck and Kentish plover.

According to the federal government’s environmental impact assessment, 12 threatened species and 1 endangered species live in the area.

The airport project is now so divisive that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist winner of the country’s 2018 presidential campaign, has suggested scrapping it entirely.

An environmental disaster

Mexico’s new airport sits in a federal reserve. Image: Yavidaxiu/The Conversation.

I’m an expert in landscape architecture who studies the ecological adaption of urban environments. I think there’s a way to save Mexico’s new airport and make it better in the process: create a nature reserve around it.

Five hundred years ago, lakes covered roughly 20 percent of the Valle de Mexico, a 3,500-square-mile valley in the country’s south-central region. Slowly, over centuries, local residents – first the Aztecs, then the Spanish colonisers and then the Mexican government – built cities, irrigation systems and plumbing systems that sucked the region dry.

By the mid-20th century, the lakes had been almost entirely drained. In 1971, President Luís Echeverría decreed the area a federal reserve, citing the region’s critical ecological role for Mexico City. The smattering of small lakes and reforested land there now catch and store runoff rainwater and prevent dust storms.

The new airport will occupy 17 square miles of the 46-square-mile former Lake Texcoco. To ensure effective water management for Mexico City, the airport master plan proposes creating new permanent water bodies to offset the lakes lost to the airport and cleaning up and restoring nine rivers east of the airport. It also proposes planting some 250,000 trees.

The government’s environmental assessment determined that the impacts of the new airport, while significant, are acceptable because Lake Texcoco is already “an altered ecosystem that lost the majority of its original environmental importance due to desiccation and urban expansion.” Today, the report continues, “it is now only a desolate and abandoned area.”

Environmentalists loudly disagree.

Make Mexico’s airport great again

I see this environmental controversy as an opportunity to give Mexico City something way more transformative than a shiny new airport.

Nobody can entirely turn back the clock on Lake Texcoco. But the 27 square miles of lake bed not occupied by the airport could be regenerated, its original habitat partially revitalised and environmental functions recovered in a process known as restoration ecology.

I envision a huge natural park consisting of sports fields, forests, green glades and a diverse array of water bodies – both permanent and seasonal – punctuated by bike paths, walking trails and access roads.

The airport will come equipped with new ground transportation to Mexico City, making the park easily accessible to residents. Extensions from the surrounding neighborhood streets and highways could connect people in poor neighbourhoods abutting the airport – dense concrete jungles like Ecatepec, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and Chimalhuacan – to green space for the first time.

The nine rivers that empty into Lake Texcoco from the east could be turned into greenways to connect people from further out in Mexico State to what would become the area’s largest public park.

Space could also be reserved for cultural attractions such as museums, open and accessible to passengers in transit.

New master plan

This idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

As early as 1998, Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and the late Teodoro González de León proposed rehabilitating the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Their book, “The City and its Lakes,” even envisaged a revenue-generating island airport as part of this environmentally revitalized Lake Texcoco.

Under President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s National Water Commission also proposed building an ecological park in Lake Texcoco, which was to include an island museum and restore long-degraded nearby agricultural land. But the project never gained traction.

Granted, turning a large, half-constructed airport into a national park would require an ambitious new master plan and a budget reallocation.

But in my opinion, evolution and change should be part of ambitious public designs. And this one is already expected to cost an additional $7.7bn to complete anyway.

Toronto’s Downsview Park – a 291-acre former air force base turned green space – has transformed so much since its conception in 1995 that its declared mission is now to “constantly develop, change and mature to reflect the surrounding community with each generation.”

Local communities neighboring Mexico City’s new airport were not adequately consulted about their needs, environmental concerns and their current stakes in the Lake Texcoco area. A revamped park plan could be truly inclusive, designed to provide recreation and urban infrastructure – and maybe even permanent jobs – for these underserved populations.

Presidential race

Three of the four candidates in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election wanted to finish Mexico City’s new international airport. But eventual winner López Obrador was not so sure.

Early in his campaign, he said he would cancel it if elected. Instead, López Obrador suggested, a former air force base could become the new international terminal. It would be connected to Benito Juárez airport, 22 miles south, by train.

López Obrador has since said he would support completing construction of the new international airport if the remaining financing came from the private sector, not the Mexican government. Currently, some two-thirds of the project is funded by future airport taxes.

The ConversationLópez Obrador’s promise to review and likely upend the airport plan could open the door to its wholesale transformation, putting people and nature are at the core of a plan ostensibly designed for the public good.

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.