Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

London and the Power of Place

Tyler Brûlé is the über-hip founder of Wallpaper magazine, founder and editor of the excellent Monocle magazine, and owner of a design agency. He also writes a weekly column for the Financial Times in which he frequently takes London to task for its poor quality of life. This week featured another installment – “London: Not As Livable As I’d Like” – in which he extols the virtues of Seoul in comparison to London.

But guess what? Brûlé lives in London and bases all of his businesses there. Despite his complaints, there must be something about the place that keeps him from packing it up for Seoul or Tokyo.

Anyone who has ever been to London can attest to its miserable transport conditions, generally unattractive streets (in contrast to, say, Paris or Amsterdam), and high costs, among other annoyances. Yet for some people, the value of being in London is so high none of that matters.

People talk about quality of life and amenities as drawing people. That’s a strategy many cities are pursuing. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon said of his city:

My goal in the changing of the face of Seoul is all related to enhancing its attractiveness. If the city is attractive, people, information and capital flow in. This in turn creates economic re-vitality and it also creates a lot of jobs.

But once you’ve reached a certain level, that stuff almost doesn’t matter anymore. London’s power of place is so high, it trumps all other considerations, including quality of life, for those who can take advantage of it. That shows the magic isn’t per se in the amenities, it’s in the people and the value of them being together in a place like London.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t focus on amenities or quality of life, especially if you aren’t yet in the London league. You’ve got to prime the pump somehow. Just remember why you are doing it. And I’d suggest not losing sight of the bottom line on costs either.

By the way, a couple years ago I was privileged to spend quite a bit of time working in London. There’s definitely something about the city. It’s got an energy and edge that is just incredible. You know just walking down the streets that this is a place where important things are happening. Whatever my long list of complaints about Heathrow and such, London is still by far my favorite city outside the United States – and I’m not just saying that because they speak English.

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Talent Attraction, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: London

15 Responses to “London and the Power of Place”

  1. smh says:

    I lived in London for a while and I never understood the transport complaints of the natives. They have a clean, beautiful and informative subway system and a thorough (though sometimes incomprehensible) bus network and all they do is bitch about it. Meanwhile, here in the United States I’m stuck in my car anytime I want to go anywhere. I don’t even really have the option of walking to a nearby grocery store because there are no sidewalks between here and there and if I did walk someone would almost certainly think I’m some sort of disadvantaged citizen. God forbid if I couldn’t afford to purchase/operate/insure a motor vehicle. Then I’d really be screwed.

    Rant over. I feel better.

  2. It’s called “money”.

  3. Of course, this is the opportune time to trot out that famous Samuel Johnson quote….

  4. smh says:

    “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” -Dr. Samuel Johnson

    I keep it in a sticky on my desktop at all times.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    If someone offered to pick up my cost living tab to reside anywhere in the world, then I’d choose to live in London.

  6. Christopher Hylarides says:

    @smh London’s rickety tube is not air conditioned and due to historical lack of investment the tracks are in rough shape. That’s slowly starting to change, but it’s been a long ride. On the older lines the trains are packed, making for a sweaty commute. That is why they complain, lucky as they are.

  7. I should also add that many Tube lines seemed to be shut down on the weekends when I was there.

  8. Regine says:

    My 1st trip outside the US was to London. Spent my time eating Lebanese food, exploring the City’s markets, and museum/gallery hopping. To this day, my favorite museum hands down is the Saatchi. London is truly a great city.

  9. smh says:

    I hate to go terribly off topic here, but for those who might be interested MARC (Mid-America Regional Council) the body responsible for planning the future of the Kansas City region is seeking comments on their Transportation Outlook 2040 Draft plan posted on their website.

    It is worth a look.

  10. A modification to my one-word answer above, making it now three words, including the conjunction:

    “Money and power”.

    Which brings to mind an interesting point which might help explain London’s pre-eminence in many world affairs: I’ve taken the G-20, subtracted the EU (as a trans-national organization), and sorted the remaining 19 into two lists; neither in any particular order:

    List A:
    * South Africa
    * United States
    * Canada
    * Brazil
    * China
    * India
    * Germany
    * Italy
    * Australia

    List B:
    * Argentina
    * Mexico
    * Japan
    * South Korea
    * Saudi Arabia
    * Indonesia
    * United Kingdom
    * France
    * Russia
    * Turkey

    The question for the gallery is: What is the difference between List A and List B? The fact that this is an urbanist blog is a big hint. The answer will come in a forthcoming comment (feel free to respond in the meantime); as my wife is now summoning me to my chores. :)

  11. Daniel says:

    The countries in List A have no single dominant city that’s the undisputed capital of business, culture and politics. The countries in List B do.

    Do I win?

  12. You win a hearty round of applause! Exactly right.

    Actually, I was focusing on business and politics (“money. and power”) when generating the list–but as you note, in those lands where one city is the nexus of both; it typically is the cultural capital as well. Of the G20 cities listed, the only possible exception is Saudi Arabia–Mecca is culturally important for religious reasons (and important far beyond the Saudi borders) despite Riyadh’s dominance of politics and finance.

    For the List A countries; though, finance and governance are separate. Further analysis of these is interesting:

    * Four of them (Germany, Italy, China, and India) are old civilizations, more or less, whose historic capitals are located inland and thus lack a seaport–leading to the rise of other cities as centers of commerce in the maritime area. (The political history of these four countries differ greatly, of course.) In all four cases, however, the political capital has extensive if not primary cultural influence.

    * The other five are former European colonies where the indigenous peoples were subjugated, and where the colonists eventually gained independence from the imperial power. In three cases (US, Australia, and Brazil) there were existing rivalries between established cities/regions when the new nation was founded; with the result of a new “planned” capital being constructed on a greenfield, in order to give none of the existing cities undue influence on the affairs of the new nation. In the case of Canada (which was still a British possession at the time in question), the seat of governance was moved from Toronto to Ottawa to safeguard it from a feared US invasion. Ottawa remained in this role when Canada gained independence, as it serves as a useful compromise, both politically and geographically, between Toronto and Montreal. South Africa is both a former colony and a political union–its tripartite capital is a legacy of its rather complicated history. (Its financial capital–Johannesburg–arose as a mining boom town). In the cases of all of the former colonies, the political capital(s) play a relatively minor role in the culture of the nation.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    Germany is no older as a civilization than France or the UK. While it was less capital-dominated even a hundred years ago, much of the difference dates to the Cold War. West Germany had a makeshift capital, like the US or Canada, so it ended up having separate capitals for finance (Frankfurt), culture (Munich), and industry (Ruhr area).

    Overall, I think the “He lives in London rather than Seoul” is an unfair dig. People aren’t very mobile on the international level; mass migrations only happen in face of a large difference in per capita income. Even then, Brits who move to East Asia traditionally prefer Singapore and Hong Kong, which are more English-speaking.

  14. Vin says:

    Its true that people aren’t very mobile internationally, still, the “some cities are so huge/important that so-called livability doesn’t even matter” argument rings true. I’d say it holds true even more for New York than London. Three reasons why:

    1) More domestic competition. The UK has other large cities, but no LAs or Chicagos or SFs. If you want to live in a major global city in the UK, London is pretty much the only game around, whereas the US has some other decent approximations. Nevertheless, New York is SO important that its worth it to many, anyway.
    2) The two complaints levied against London – its transit is often decrepit and its streets are often ugly – are doubly true for NY. I live in NY, and frankly, I find London’s transit ultra-modern and its streets rather pleasant compared to the norm here. Especially with regard to transit – with the notable exception of it being air conditioned, the NYC Subway is far, far behind the Tube in terms of amenities and attractiveness.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love New York. But it ain’t pretty.

  15. Vin says:

    OK, that was actually two reasons, wasn’t it? Sometimes I’m pretty dumb.

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