How To Build A Fairer City

Four leading academics propose the ‘grounded city’ – where sustainable transport, accessible broadband and modest housing take precedence over ostentatious tower blocks.

A 17th century engraving of the city of Milan. All images: De Agostini/Getty.
A 17th century engraving of the city of Milan. All images: De Agostini/Getty.

In an urbanising world, everybody says they want a fairer city. If that is the aspiration, the question is what stands in its way? What do we need to change to deliver that fairness?

Our manifesto is about how the fairer city can be achieved by changing both the imaginary and the practice underlying economic and social policy. The central argument is that we can move towards a fairer city by reframing our problems and rethinking our solutions in two ways:

1. Break with the dominant old problem of the competitive city, which competes economically against other cities and sponsors internal competition for limited opportunities.

2. Stop fixating on redistributive policies which will not deliver fairness, and start thinking about reorganising policies which build a grounded economy in the areas which are not exposed to competition.

The global obsession of our age is competing everywhere with everyone for everything. In the mainstream imaginary, every city has to chase competitive success in a league table where it secures prosperity by getting ahead of others.

Our premise is that competition is the wrong kind of imaginary; that we are trapped by an idea of the externally competitive city as a basis for economic success. The content and meaning of that success then goes largely unexamined until somebody notices that prosperity is manifestly failing to trickle down and the tax system actually reinforces income inequality.

This manifesto argues for a different kind of imaginary: the “grounded city”. The success of a city should not be measured externally by relative size and the ability to come first ahead of equals; rather, the measure should be a city’s internal ability to distribute mundane goods and services which ensure the civilised life of the largest number of its people.

Fairness is not summed up in Gini coefficients of income inequality, but in access to the foundational goods and services that all citizens should enjoy.

After 1945, policies for fairness in high-income countries were imagined in a kind of social democratic frame of redistribution through services and income support, financed from a progressive tax system. But today, such tax systems are everywhere not within the realm of the politically possible.

Centre-left and right parties have all now shifted on to managing internal competition through social engineering, using schools and infrastructure, to redress competitive disadvantage.

But we believe it is time to think radically about delivering fairness not by redistributing income or reforming schools, but by re-organising sectors of the economy. We can have new business models, even if 80% income tax rates are not on the agenda.

Part one: where are we now, and how did we get here?

Cities are not just what academics pretend them to be. But the narratives and ideologies of urbanists and sociologists do feed our social imaginary of the city, and in the past 20 years these academics have told a story about possibilities of prosperity through competitive success.

Since the 2002 release of his bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida has become the acceptable face of a new brand of economic geography. He has provided countless urban boosters with a legitimating storyline to convince sceptical councillors and citizens. City branding, high-rise buildings, iconic architecture, expensive hotels, well-endowed museums, large financial centres, free Wi-Fi and separate bicycle lanes are the means to future economic success. All this intervention can be seen as steering and facilitation by new economic geographers such as Henry Overman, for whom agglomeration makes size itself (through economies of scale and network effects) a driver of the success of large cities.

City mayors of today are now no longer second-rate politicians who traded a career in national politics for the administration of city waste collection, street maintenance and childcare. The big city mayor (in a high-income country) has become the high priest of a new, weightless, post-national cosmopolitan capitalism – Boris Johnson and Michael Bloomberg have been its prime embodiments.

A 16th century engraving showing Tangier in Morocco.
A 16th century engraving showing Tangier in Morocco.

In their post-industrial world, widely dispersed international value chains make a joke of what counts as national GDP. Manufacturing is elsewhere; warehouses are converted for economies of apps, big data and latte. Cities with their concentration of nerds, hipsters and gay people, of culture, creativity and innovation, have turned into the new growth machines that will determine the economic fate of billions in the 21st century. And, if that’s too strongly cliched and manifestly irrelevant to many world cities, then – more soberly – agglomeration can be built through transport improvement which extends and connects cities, as the UK chancellor George Osborne now proposes to do in the north of England.

The worse things get in the early 21st century, the more our thought leaders tell tales about the possibilities of economic prosperity through competitive success. Against a background of ongoing financial crisis, the political classes in high-income countries also insist, at the same time and without apology, on the necessity for austerity cuts. The two stories are complementary because the pain of austerity living is eased by the drug of prosperity dreams where the city is reimagined.

Cities were predominantly perceived as a locus of societal problems in the 1960s, 70s and 80s – places of poverty, ghettoisation, crime, drugs, social disadvantage, deindustrialisation and unemployment. But, since the early 1990s, the story has changed and the urban has more and more become the answer to all our problems. In a kind of volte face, the urbanists of today see large cities as the solution to our ecological problems due to their smaller footprints, as inimical to crime and anomie thanks to more interaction and social control, and – through their higher density of people, connections and ideas – as seedbeds of creativity and innovation, and hence of future economic growth.

What are cities and what should they be? The urban bible of the 1960s was Jane JacobsLife and Death of Great American Cities – a passionate defence of the mixed 19th-century working-class neighbourhoods against the high-rise modernism of Le Corbusier and Moses. At the time of Jonathan Raban’s Soft City, the city was associated with dark values of doom and menace.

The bible of today, aside from Florida’s writings, is arguably Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City. This book of 2011 provides a mainstream economic treatise about the benefits of higher density based on the tenets of Paul Krugman’s New Geographical Economics: the result is a simple, normative argument for high rise and megacities. The subtitle of Glaeser’s book – How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier – brilliantly encapsulates the possibilities of prosperity that the new urbanists have come to project upon the city.

The possibilities of prosperity tales have diverse origins. But all shared a strong interest in globalisation as the new, new thing. After the perceived failure of welfare state capitalism in one country, political elites, with some prodding from big business, responded to the stagflation crisis of the late 1970s with successive waves of deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation which disempowered the organised working class. A new generation of urbanists latched on to this under the rubric of globalisation, which opened up opportunities in a new field of investigation. With new concepts, sources of data and methods of analysis, they could criticise or endorse, or sometimes do both at once.

Like most groups of innovating social scientists, they defined themselves by what they were against. They argued that nation-states, with their predefined boundaries, were not the natural, quasi-biological containers of social, cultural, economic and political life. The city would come to play a crucial role in this conceptual liberation, for it allowed the new urbanists to break radically with the ‘methodological nationalism’ of yesteryear. The geographers could bypass the national by simultaneously conceiving the local and the global in a relation of mutual co-dependency.

Of course, there were sound empirical reasons for some such reconceptualisation. Data and anecdotes increasingly showed that a small number of the world’s large cities had indeed gained disproportionately from the territorial rearrangement of value chains that was triggered by neoliberalism. It was easy to go one step further and argue that, as globalisation progressed, these global cities would increasingly house the command and control functions of finance and the large multinationals that managed the spatially distributed value chains; the logic was that they would increasingly develop into transnational jurisdictions in their own right, out of reach of national governments and national democracies, as globalisation progressed.

The city of Constantinople – 16th century.
The city of Constantinople – 16th century.

Saskia Sassen’s The Global City, from 1991, is an early classic of this kind. It was written just after the end of the Heisei boom and without anticipation of Japanese stagnation, so London, New York and Tokyo would be the three regional pillars of post-national capitalism. It did not matter how new, how structural or robust it all was – what mattered was the announcement of a new order of global city states. This felt about right, and promised to make sense of a political conjuncture in which nation-state industrial policy-making was increasingly perceived as bankrupt.

So a new research agenda developed for World/Global City research led by new urbanists like Sassen, Peter Taylor, John Freidmann and others. They initially built sweeping statements on sparse empirical foundations, but 30 years later this has evolved into a powerful performative marketing machine. As well as conferences, journals, websites, consultants, the new urbanists have their city rankings. Their rankings are used, maintained and reproduced by a transnational urban growth coalition consisting of politicians, academics, pundits, civil servants and – in particular – real-estate developers, builders, realtors, architects, investors, accountants and bankers.

London is an excellent example – but so is Berlin, New York, Barcelona, Dubai or Amsterdam. The City Hall on the south bank of the Thames houses the advisers who help the mayor and assembly with the continuous makeover that is required to keep London on top of any of the many city rankings which track success. Indeed, everything needed to beat the competition. This means an advertorial for the mayor here or a new slogan there; a new interurban collaboration (preferably with a Chinese city) or a new urban redevelopment project which ostentatiously rebuilds the city; a stream of initiatives, especially those with global reach like bids for major sporting events. Unsurprisingly, the city of Manchester has played exactly the same game since it hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

And of course, this requires new organisational setups, ideally public-private partnerships, and a strategised approach to city promotion. Old municipalities were administrative spaces for providing social housing, transport, education, rubbish collection, public space and other directly useful services; their memorials, for better or worse, are social housing estates like the gemeinbauten which still house one-third of Vienna’s population.

New municipalities have, over the last two decades, spent their resources rather differently, on the construction of a discursive space of urban neo-mercantilism. In forums and platforms, politicians, consultants and academics regularly meet to rework ideas from Glaeser or Florida into a new marketing message through which each city can promote itself, and indirectly serve citizen interests. Hence the many copies of New York’s hugely successful city marketing strategy, I♥NY, with elected politicians and unelected officials committing taxpayers’ money to back developers betting on rising land and property prices as they build everything but social housing.

Increasingly, the dreams of urban prosperity through competition have served to legitimate hugely costly – and publicly subsidised – spatial urban interventions in prestige redevelopment. Real-estate investments to keep the upper-middle classes in the city, to accommodate a growing army of international students and young service workers, to attract major corporates and financial service providers to business parks, to persuade the hypermobile cosmopolitan ‘creative class’ to nest locally.

The promises sounded fine because redevelopment projects always offer the prospect of a revitalised urban economy with more service jobs and taxes paid so that the poor and vulnerable gain. Take any report, website or paper: unfailingly, public investments in locations and areas frequented by the upper middle classes – campuses, museum quarters, central business districts – are being sold politically with the argument that the additional employment and tax revenues will ultimately reach the poor and vulnerable in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

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This was ironically called ‘trickle down geography’ in 2005 by the doyenne of critical economic geography, Doreen Massey. After the intellectual (and sometimes actual) bankruptcy of the old-style industrial policies in the 1970s and 80s, after the broadside implementation of generic competition policies of neoliberal mercantilism in the form of wage moderation, product and consumer market liberalisation and labour market flexibilisation in the 1980s and 90s, the ‘trickle down geography’ of the new urbanists of the 1990s and 2000s provided national and local elites with a new tool that projected governmental vigour, and suggested win-win solutions all around: growth and equity, prosperity and sustainability, competitiveness and emancipation. Urban redevelopment with public sponsorship and private profit was industrial policy reinvented for new times.

And so, all our cities took a post-industrial turn and ended up looking increasingly alike. Each and every would-be international financial centre built its imitation of Canary Wharf, as in La Défense in Paris; cities with heritage invested in inner-city museum quarters, municipalities handed over derelict industrial areas and harbour fronts to private real-estate developers who have transformed them the world over into the same kinds of loft apartments and cafe bars while pocketing handsome returns; every municipality designates some shabby, upcoming areas for artists and/or digital hipsters; every city builds expensive light railways and metro-networks (which always exceed budget and rarely get the number of passengers planned); huge investments in multimodal railway stations promise to resuscitate blighted inner-city areas.

The punishments for cities which failed because they did not – or more realistically, could not – take the post-industrial turn were real enough. In a flat world where labour, knowledge and capital can move across space to where they generate their highest return, cities have to make sure they attract mobile production factors. If not, they end up with a wasted economic base and an overconcentration of the poor and vulnerable which could bankrupt any city: see the fate of Pittsburgh, Detroit or Liverpool. Nothing new there; capitalism has always moved on and blamed the people and places left behind. The shock is only that the left behind now include former centres of industrial prosperity.

But, more significantly, the rewards of success were elusive, narrowly socially distributed and (despite large-scale commitment of public resources) have never trickled down for a majority of citizens, who see no benefit from the success of their city – which is celebrated, not examined. The competition for mobile capital has transformed every would-be global city into a tax haven, eroding real and nominal tax rates, enhancing global wealth and income inequalities.

Taxes on households are further increased by the way in which big firms benefit from, but hardly contribute to, the maintenance and renewal of the material and immaterial infrastructures of our cities. Similarly, the competition between national financial centres accelerated regulatory capture and contributed materially to lax regulation before the crisis. Again, the benefits were private and concentrated, while the costs were public and diffuse.

Finally, success in places like London is associated with the atrophy of social housing and asset price gains for the well-to-do property owners, turning large parts of the city into no-go areas for the median income earner, let alone the poor. Susan Fainstein’s 2011 book on the Just City shows how the concept of urban justice can be intellectually reinvented; in practice, justice has been politically undermined by the developments of the past 20 years.

Elbing in Prussia – 17th century.
Elbing in Prussia – 17th century.

Part two: finding fairness in the ‘grounded city’

How do we reframe the city’s potential? Where can we find an alternative imaginary about something other than competitive success? The fairer city is a good enough ideal, even though fairness is a peculiarly Anglo-American idea (there is no Italian, French or German word which can express the evocative and generic English idea of fairness). The problem is its international unattainability through income redistribution in today’s world.

Income tax rates well above 50% on immobile firms and citizens were part of a post-1945 conjuncture in the industrialised countries, when there was political pressure from an organised working class through trade unionism (and parties aligned with labour) in a system where the prudent bourgeois were minded to make concessions. We shall not see high tax rates again in the absence of such conditions. The centre-left’s nostalgic attachment to redistributive taxation has faded, and all parties now increasingly problematise fairness as a matter of managing internal competition: the result is standard packages of policy remedies whose reach exceeds their grasp.

It is time to think more radically, by challenging the assumptions and reversing the principles of the competitiveness imaginary. On this basis, we propose a new imaginary of the “grounded city”, where each city does not compete externally with others. Instead it reviews its activities, then aims to make locally relevant improvements in its internal capacity to provide a larger number of people with the basic goods and services that provide the material basis for social life.

The grounded city is a fairer city delivered through radically different policies, necessary because the current packages of policy fixes for unfairness are inadequate to the scale of the problems and their drivers. In centre-right and centre-left variants, these policy fixes are set in a frame of managing internal competition: the centre-right backs jobs and schooling as a basis for more equal competition; the centre-left favours an overlapping package of schooling plus minimum wages and some redistribution through family credits and such like to compensate for disadavantage. Either way, the conscience of our competitive age is about “equal opportunities” through policy remedies which, in our view, are necessary but not sufficient for a better, fairer city.

Some of the policy novelties are valuable. The new technologies for procedural fairness, complete with opportunity commissions and policy advisers in city hall, are invaluable in preventing discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, and they continue to be necessary. But procedural fairness does not secure substantive outcomes in high-income countries, where the proliferation of anti-discrimination policies since the 1970s has been accompanied by sharply increasing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. These inequalities are materialised in all our cities by residential segregation around hierarchised districts, from the desirable, gentrified suburb to the sink estate.

How and why does the concern for fairness co-exist with growing inequality in our cities? Because the fairer city is so far an aspiration which does not any longer come with any kind of politically actionable and substantive policy programme that has the leverage to deliver fairness in terms of broad outcomes.

Fairness in terms of outcomes is, of course, much harder to achieve than fairness in terms of process on social housing allocation. For example, schools as institutions and teachers as professionals deserve our social respect and financial support; but there is no evidence that they are up to the social engineering task of compensating for the many other kinds of disadvantage generated in the home and within the neighbourhood. The most likely outcome is that centrist politicians announce the aim and then simply give school teachers another good kicking for failing to achieve the unachievable.

So if fairness policies in a competitive frame promise more than they can deliver, why not change the frame by reversing what might be called the principles of operation underlying the practice of the competitive city?

One master assumption underpins the ideology of competitive cities. Boris Johnson stated this assumption in his 2013 speech on the relevance of Margaret Thatcher: “Like it or not, the free-market economy is the only show in town. Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy, in which the competition is getting ever stiffer.”

But this claim mistakes the competitive part of the economy for the much larger whole which contains many sheltered sectors. It leads London’s mayor and many others towards city policies focused on sectors of the future which have a supposedly key role in international competition in tradable goods and services: the corollary is neglect and mismanagement of what we call the foundational economy, and the sphere of sheltered production of many other mundane goods and services which are important to the welfare of every citizen.

The idea of a heterogeneous economy means only that the economy has different spheres or zones which run on different principles. The historian Fernand Braudel argued in Civilisation and Capitalism “there were not one but several economies” from the 15th to the 18th century, with one economic zone above and one below the market and competition. Were he writing now, Braudel’s injunction would be to explore present-day economic life in ways that recognise its multiplicity and its organisation into zones and spheres which have different internal logics and variable salience for material welfare.

The tradable competitive sphere has all the key sectors which associate themselves with a high-income present and a glamorous future. Here we have wholesale finance and markets, the prestige end of business services in accountancy, law and consulting, anything digital or supposedly knowledge-based from media to advertising, together with the parts of manufacturing which have high tech associations. The object of competitive global city policy is to attract more of these glamour activities to locate in their city, adjacent to a hub international airport.

The metal bashing, plastics moulding and assembly work of manufacturing is then to be relegated to industrial districts and cities which are in the hinterland of an Asian country, half a world away from the US or Europe. The industrial working class becomes increasingly Chinese, while the successful post-industrial global city draws in service workers to meet the needs of the frequent flyers in business class who use the local hub airport. Tradable goods and services – from smart phones to call centres – become ever cheaper without commensurate benefits in well-being and quality of life for city dwellers in either Asia or California.

Glamour front-end activities of branding and design have the power to subordinate and claim the profit of assemblers and suppliers; as Apple does at the expense of Foxconn’s Chinese workforce in Shenzhen. The effects of such corporate success in western cities are muted because financialised companies sterilise reserves offshore; and at city level, corporate success often turns into crowding out (not trickle down), as when Google workers compete for San Francisco housing.

In contrast, we seek to define another sphere of the economy, geared to producing mundane, foundational goods and services that have three inter-related characteristics: first, they are necessary to everyday life; second, all citizens regardless of income consume them; and third, they are distributed according to population through branches and networks. The list of such activities includes: the privatised pipe and cable utilities together with transport; some traditionally private activities such as retail banking, supermarket food retailing and food processing; and some traditionally state-provided activities including health, education, and welfare or social care, which are now increasingly outsourced. Such activities employ 30-40% of the workforce in all the world’s cities, yet they figure only as instrumentalities in the competitive city paradigm because city boosters recognise the competitive city must have infrastructural improvement.

Against this, we would argue that in Shenzhen or San Francisco, the ordinary citizen’s welfare, material well-being and cultural participation all depend very directly on the provision of an adequate quantum of foundational goods and services which are priced or de-commodified so that they are accessible to the majority of city population. These issues about foundational supply are not abolished by “economic development”, they only change form: in a Brazilian favela or an African shanty town, the issue will be absence of sanitation and paying for electricity; in London the issue will be the absence of reasonably priced family housing for lower-income workers with jobs in the central city.

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Mombasa in Kenya, in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum of 1572.
Mombasa in Kenya, in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum of 1572.

Our argument is simple. If we want fairness, then we should focus on the foundational economy and reorganise these activities to make them more grounded. This requires new kinds of policies which build on the naturally sheltered part of the economy and more or less reverse the operating principles of your local city hall as it has pursued competitiveness. Here are two new directions and some recommendations for city policy:

1. Invest unshowily in improving the supply of foundational services in specific and locally relevant ways (instead of promoting the ostentation of iconic buildings and grand projects of regeneration which are the same everywhere for competitive cities).

Symbols are a constitutive element of the history of our cities. All major European cities have built self-images around symbols, mostly architectural symbols as with Haussmann’s Boulevards and the Eiffel tower which can together stand for Paris. The ideology of city competition has elevated the symbolic power of architecture to an extreme degree, but has damaged the symbolic heritage of our cities, filling their business and residential districts with “iconic buildings” by starchitects which reproduce the same styles in different places. The result is a developer-led spectacle of ambition and competition materialised with no sense of place and history.

More than 200 tower blocks of more than 20 storeys are presently in planning or under construction in London and three-quarters of them will be luxury flats; Manchester council has put millions into the Spinningfields office and financial district. How does the ordinary citizen benefit from such development? For citizens in present-day cities, the invisible and foundational economy is far more necessary and salient than highly visible, iconic additions to the cityscape which make money for developers and produce look alike cities that fit a generic template in the mind of city hall.

Rather than significant investments in the architecture of ostentation, we need investment and incremental innovations in what we usually take for granted: the infrastructure for sustainable transport, the treatment and distribution of drinking water, underground drainage systems, waste recycling, telecoms and broadband systems accessible to everyone everywhere, modest but energy efficient family housing in unremarkable districts with public spaces and services. And to see how all this can be done in a territorially responsible way by expanding local firm and workforce capability and improving quality of work.

The logic of this priority is that is that it requires us to engage with the specifics of infrastructural deficiencies in individual cities. Each city has a bundle of very specific needs, resources and opportunities: a different topography, a different history, different levels of income and inequality, a different provision of existing infrastructure. London is not Amsterdam, Milan is not Johannesburg.

Locally relevant improvements have to be defined without the one-size-fits-all assumptions of competition: dedicated bike lanes are not an issue in sprawling megacities or towns built on steep hills. In many low-income cities, access and pricing for basic utility services is an issue for edge-of-city informal settlements that lack utility infrastructure and/or require long-distance commuting; in a cold, high-income country with old housing stock, the priority might be short term measures that alleviated fuel poverty and longer term issues about financing necessary investments in secure, sustainable energy supply. In most cities, building or buying social housing and capillary transport improvement will be objectives which are interconnected physically and in terms of pricing decisions.

This kind of shift to specifics would not be intellectually or politically easy, because it requires priority setting and chain thinking about local connections and consequences; but the shift is attractive because it sidesteps the absurdities of the ranking game. If we are concerned with the foundational economy in one city, the measure of success is not primarily an external measure which involves ranking one city against others in meaningless cross section; the measure of success becomes primarily internal and temporal.

The question then becomes: to what extent is that city providing (reasonably priced or decommodified) material conditions of civilised life? For example, take five key domains of foundational security (housing, utility supply, food, health/social care and education) and then ask: to what extent are adequate and reasonably priced key services in each domain available to ordinary citizens and, specifically, how far down the income scale to median incomes or below does this provision extend? It should be clear that cities which rank high on global competitiveness often rank low on one or more basic foundational criteria, as London does on housing. Specifics and time are both crucial because the basic assumption is that policy is about cities doing do more and better in specific domains over time to improve the local offer of foundational goods and services.

2. Promote social innovation which meets basic social needs with a learning government in the leading role (instead of fixating on technical innovation which promises but no longer delivers diffused benefits from productivity and economic growth)

Technical innovation was the embodied aim of 20th-century industrial cities whose suburbs presupposed the motor car and electricity distribution systems; productivity gain and GDP growth were then measures of our national achievement, on the assumption that economic gains would be broadly distributed.

But this assumption is no longer valid in the high-income countries: as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated, the national macro-economic trends in high-income countries are to greater inequalities of wealth and income; as the UN concluded in its 2012-13 State of World Cities “cities generate wealth but it is not shared equitably”.

GDP growth has no rationale when the benefits are captured by the top 5% of the population, which in our cities means urban ecologies of residential segregation by income. We believe the emphasis needs to be shifted towards social innovation that promotes a civilised, inclusive city which performs fair outcomes in all its decisions. A city committed to making access to foundational goods and services more widely available to citizens; and does so, without restricting the privileges of citizenship to a narrow group, as in Gulf State urbanism.

The social problems we now need to solve in many cities are those such as adult care in an era of weakening family ties and ageing populations. To our knowledge, no world city has model arrangements for care of the elderly; their care is a challenge to our ingenuity and, like the quality of public school meals, a litmus test of our civilisation.

All of this requires financial innovation for social purposes which means not higher taxes but new forms of taxes to provide an adequate revenue base.

The competitive city is associated with the race-to-the-bottom, post-1979 incentive strategy of cutting tax rates (and allowing all kinds of general exemptions, especially in corporate tax) in the hope of attracting and retaining big business. Instead, the discourse should be about responsibility when business which draws private benefits from city expenditure (on everything from education to law and order) so that business should, in return, pay its fair share of the social costs; and the valuable businesses are those which are rooted in place and accept their social obligations.

But the answer at this point is not higher tax rates but new forms of taxes which tap the capital gains and incomes created by urbanism. Because taxation is a social technology where innovation in forms of taxation has come to a halt after a heroic century of achievements from 1850-1950 which gave us social insurance, sales tax and income tax deductions for weekly paid workers. The problem of our own time are not about financial innovation but about innovation applied for private purposes regardless of social consequences, as with sub-prime mortgages and other forms of long chain finance.

The argument must be about how to connect social obligation and fiscal innovation. There is then no escaping the point that the grounded city needs some kind of land value tax, for reasons which were familiar to radical Edwardians before 1914 but have subsequently been forgotten. Urbanism generates increases in the price of land and property: for the individual land owner, property renter and homeowner, these increases are an unearned increment arising from social development and the investments of others, especially public bodies which provide infrastructure. As the city creates the unearned increment, it is only sensible that the municipality should, through tax, take some of the value of the increment.

The precondition for mass welfare in the grounded city is a re-invented tax base intelligently spent on public goods and services which directly benefit the mass of the population. One implication is that there are limits to single-city policy because there are places, like Detroit or Liverpool, which have been set problems which cannot be solved from limited local sources. Cities do not, of course, have a full control of all the levers.

Another implication is that intelligent use of the levers depends on rebuilding proper expertise, especially within the tradition of town planning, globally represented by figures such as the late Sir Peter Hall. But this does not imply the idea that urban government is in some general sense for planned cities and against the market, only that the state and planning must take responsibility for some fundamental basics of city organisation.

This implies a shift from seeing the private sector as a source of enterprise and dynamism to seeing the public and third sectors as a source of initiative, experiment and legitimacy.

The grounded city is neither an insoluble city problem in the 1970s sense, nor a city black box in the 2000s sense delivering pleasant surprises. The grounded city is instead a site of diverse experiments and learning which could and should be publicly led.

Drawing on thinking from science and technology studies, government is about experimenting; experimenting is about learning; learning is about building on successes but also about making mistakes; and learning is also about recognising these as mistakes, and moving on.

We think these experiments have to be led by the public sector because only city and city region government has the tax revenue base, local knowledge and democratic legitimacy to require and sensibly lead large scale change. Public sector outsourcing so far, in sectors like rail operation in the UK, reveals a private sector which is risk averse, reluctant to commit investment and unlikely to experiment in socially desirable ways; while private sector capital is hardly necessary if governments at various levels can borrow and do so more cheaply than the private sector. Against this background, a new social contract is required, enforced as we have argued elsewhere by a social process of licensing which enforces corporate responsibility according to local and sectoral circumstances.

The point of fragility in all this is not the coherence and integrity of our vision of the grounded city; the question is about whether it is possible to put together a coalition of city government and civil society to get things done. We live in an era of post-democracy which has removed many of the pressures on city governments world-wide to act radically. Hence the lazy default pursuit of competitive success will continue for a little longer, though not without challenge by a new ideal.

The authors are academics: Ewald Engelen at the University of Amsterdam, Sukhdev Johal at Queen Mary, University of London, Angelo Salento at the University of Salento and Karel Williams at Manchester Business School. Sections of this article draw heavily on the book by Andrew Bowman et al: The End of the Experiment? (Manchester University Press).


This article originally appeared in The Guardian.



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