Thursday, October 9th, 2014

More Praise For Boring

As a follow-on to my Guardian piece last week “In Praise of Boring Cities” I want to highlight a companion piece by Victoria and Albert Museum curator Rory Hyde called “Bollards, Bricks and Black Cabs: Why the Best Urban Objects Are Mundane.” His arguments in it are in line with my old adage that the mark of a great city is it how it treats its ordinary things, not its special ones. Every city does their main street, their war memorials, etc. up right. There’s no distinctiveness there. But what about the average street, space, or object? That’s when the real values of a place are often revealed. As Hyde puts it:

Mundane city objects also offer a glimpse into the operational logic of a city. Pedestrian buttons, building materials or the Johnston typeface are the visible moments when vast urban systems reveal themselves. They are the hooks that invite our participation in the system. Despite or because of their mundanity, they are the city – as close as we can get to this big machine we inhabit.

Whatever you think of these projects (does it matter that the traffic light MoMu celebrates was actually designed in 1965, not 1868 as the label claims? Kind of, yes), noticing city objects “in the wild” can jolt you out of the moment to reflect on the millions of design decisions that bring the city into being. Boring objects can teach us that the city is an intentionally constructed project – and therefore a project that can be changed for the better.

Again, I’d add that by inspecting these elements, something important about the city and its people is revealed.

As I wrote previously, it’s London, a city chock full of iconic buildings and such, that perhaps best embodies the notion of treating the ordinary as special. This is easily seen in its black cabs, retro telephone boxes, and police uniforms. True, there’s an element of kitsch at work. But that too is a part of the city. It’s just another small entry showing the why London has remained arguably the premier city in the world for so long.

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

The Independent City

Last week’s episode of Monocle 24 radio’s show The Urbanist was about independent cities. If you’ve listened before, you’ll know that their episode themes are applied loosely, but there are a couple of specific segments on “city-state” type of constructs, one is the very first segment, which is a hypothetical discussion about London, and the second a short commentary about Singapore starting around 30:00. If the embed doesn’t display, click over to Monocle’s site to listen.

Other segments include a piece about a Liverpool discount program for independent businesses, a segment about Istanbul that immediately follows the Singapore one, and a look at New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood starting at around 43:00.

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Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Istanbul, London, New York, Singapore

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Video Miscellany

I’ve got quite a number of videos in the archives that I haven’t yet found the chance to post, so I wanted to get a few of them in this week.

The Evolution of London

This animation shows the evolution of London’s street network since the Roman era, along with the appearance of buildings that eventually gained historic preservation protections. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. h/t CityLab

Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon Walled City never ceases to fascinate the urbanist. Here’s a video about it. If the embed doesn’t display, click here.

Train Surfing in South Africa

Somebody made this short documentary called “Staff Riding” about young men from South African townships who train surf. Unlike your typical film about fun and games in extreme adventure, this depicts the reality of what can happen when doing things like this. If the video doesn’t display, click here. h/t CityLab

The Cleantech Crash

60 Minutes did a segment a while back on the crash in the clean energy sector, highlighting the many bankrupt subsidized companies in the space. If the embed doesn’t display, click here.

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Cities: Hong Kong, Johannesburg, London

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

London, Then and Now

I think I’ve shared before a cool color video of London in the 1920s called “On the Road”. Well last year Simon Smith set out to reproduce every scene in that film in contemporary London and created a video of old and new side by side. It’s delightful, of course. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. h/t Atlantic Cities

Here’s another look back in time for you. This is a four minute color video of Montreal in the 1960s by Jimmy Deschenes. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. h/t Stéphane Dumas

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

London on a High

The Economist just ran a special report on London, which you can view over at their site. Their conclusion is that London is doing very well, but there are clouds on the horizon.

In a piece called “On a High” they write:

In 1986 the Big Bang, which deregulated the City’s financial services, set off a spate of growth that restored London to its place as one of the world’s great financial centres. Growth drew in foreigners, who have arrived in ever larger numbers, bringing money (sometimes), skills (often) and a willingness to work harder than the natives (usually).

Some come for jobs, some for sanctuary, some for fun. London has a creative buzz that makes it feel more like New York than Paris or Rome. It may be the result of the density of art colleges or the mildly anarchic street culture, but it has been heightened by the arrival of young foreigners escaping more conventional or oppressive societies, and coming to find themselves and each other. The art world, where language is no barrier to communication, is flourishing as never before.

But London is not just a bunch of impressive numbers; it is also an astonishing human artefact. A city that a generation ago was on the skids has become a place where the world meets to study, work, create, invent, make friends and fall in love. It is Britain’s economic and cultural powerhouse, Europe’s only properly global city and a magnet for rich and poor, from anywhere and everywhere. Londoners know they are living through something extraordinary. Many novelists have tried to capture the sense of heightened experience that comes from living at the centre of the world—John Lanchester in “Capital”, Sebastian Faulks in “A Week in December”, Oliver Harris in “The Hollow Man”, for instance—with varying degrees of success. The uneasy excitement that pervades the city is hard to bottle.

There’s much more, including the much greater wealth of the London region as compared to the rest of the UK, and the resulting subsidies that London exports every year.

Before continuing with the Economist report, I want to splice in an Atlantic Cities article from Richard Florida called “The Secret to London’s Tech Boom.” This is a review of a report called “A Tale of Tech City: The Future of Inner East London’s Digital Economy.” East London’s “Silicon Roundabout” neighborhood now supports 3,200 digital firms with 48,000 jobs. This is another example of how the world’s top global cities are finding success adding tech hub to their repertoire, often by drawing on the unique global city functional domain knowledge that they already host.

Back to the Economist, in a piece called “Global or Bust” they look at several challenges the city faces, most especially an increasing disconnect from the rest of the country:

Britain depends on London’s prosperity; but, as London has got richer, so its distance from its hinterland has grown. It has more foreigners, wealth, poverty, diversity, disruption and excitement than the rest of Britain or the European mainland. It is an adventurous, outward-looking place, tugging at its moorings between an inward-looking country and a troubled continent.

Among the risks of this are that some economic activity is forcibly relocated to less prosperous areas under some vaguely wages fund like view of economic activity:

The misapprehension that lay behind those decentralisation policies—that there is a fixed amount of economic activity in the country that can be shunted around without affecting its level—has proved persistent. It is evident in the decision to ship parts of the BBC from London to Salford, in north-west England. The BBC has benefited from being part of the broadcasting cluster in London, and that cluster in turn benefits from the BBC’s presence. Both will suffer from the move, though the BBC will probably feel it more.

And polices that attack the base of London’s success:

But the greatest danger comes from policies directed against various bêtes noires which are overrepresented in London. Three groups of people are particularly unpopular in Britain at the moment—rich people, bankers and immigrants. Since London depends on them for its prosperity, policies aimed at making life harder for them will hit the capital.

Transport is also an issue, as this article notes.

There is also a short presentation accompanying this series that I’m embedding below. If it doesn’t display, which it won’t in Google Reader, click here.

There are even more articles I didn’t link so be sure to check the whole thing out.

h/t Paul Roales

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

European Financial Centers in History by Beate Reszat

[ I don’t normally do historical surveys, but I came across this very interesting piece on the development of European financial centers. The author, Dr. Beate Reszat, an economist from Hamburg, was kind enough to give me permission to repost it. This is part of a larger paper, so please click through the links below to check out the rest. You can see more of her writings online at reszatonline – Aaron. ]

* This is the first part of a shortened and revised version of a paper published as Centres of Finance, Centres of Imagination: On Collective Memory and Cultural Identity in European Financial Market Places, in: GaWC Research Bulletin 92, 20th August 2002. Part II will be on Collective Memory and Cultural Identity, Part III on Financial Agglomeration in Europe as Cultural Phenomenon, and Part IV will provide a list of links and references.

—–

In an interesting post, Robert J. Shiller recently drew the attention to the importance of common cultural values and symbols for European political and economic stability. In his view, a common currency can play an important role in generating a narrative which allows the members of a monetary union to develop a sense of shared identity. This knowledge, for example, could allow to contain the damages in case of a eurozone breakup.

Common cultural values, narratives and symbols are also important determinants of the rise and success of international financial centres. As I will argue, they help explain why, for example, a financial transacion tax in Europe – with or without UK participation – although weakening the competitiveness of financial institutions located there, would hardly alter London’s regional and international dominance.

Beside their real function as providers of intermediation and financial services cities such as London, Paris and Frankfurt always have a symbolic dimension, a power to focus the imagination of market actors which strongly influences their choice of location. They are imaginary places – “Lieux de Mémoire” (Pierre Nora) – with their symbolic content shaped according to people’s memories and beliefs of a past and present which is socially constructed and determined in a permanent active process of cultural creation and destruction.

There is a subjective experience of financial places shared by actors in the markets determining what broadly may be called “market culture”. From sociology we know that individual memory creating cultural identity depends on the social environment (Berger 1963). It is deeply rooted in collective phenomena. Collective memory of a financial centre in this sense takes many forms. It relies on a variety of rites, myths, symbols and media and is influenced by patterns which in turn are determined by spatial context. Taken as a whole these factors add to the attractiveness of places. Many of them are rooted in history.

European Financial Centres in History

The concentration of trading and financial activities in centres is an old phenomenon. First gatherings of merchants which according to some views already resembled a rudimentary version of an exchange can be traced back to the big trading places of antiquity in Babylonia, Egypt and Phoenicia. First exchange-traded bills emerged on fairs in Italy – in Lucca, Genoa, Venice and Florence – in the 12th century. The first government bonds were issued in Venice. Italian cities in the Middle Ages were “awash with bills and coins from foreign countries” (Edwards 1998).

Initially, trading took place in streets or in public places like in Italy or, for example, at Jonathan’s Coffee House in London. In the beginnings, it was wholly informal by nature. There was no institutional frame and trading had to be done step by step because partners did not know each other. Only much later did it move to closed rooms where entry was restricted to a limited number of traders with proven solvency.

Early financial activities stretching beyond the boundaries of the local town or village were rooted in long-distance trade. Trade and financial activities among European merchants were largely facilitated by the rise of organised fairs such as the Champagne fairs in the European heartland in the 13th century. Located in north-eastern France, the fairs lay midway between the two poles of economic activity in Europe at that time: the Italian cities and the industrially developing textile region of Flanders. Trading in money and foreign exchange became their true specialty.

With the decline of overall Italian economic supremacy the centre of financial activities shifted to the Low Countries, first to Bruges, and later to Antwerp and Amsterdam.

The beginnings of Bruges’ rise date back to the year 957 when the first trading fair there was established. But, the true breakthrough came with what economists tend to call (making historians groan) “historic accident”: In 1134, a big storm raged over the North Sea and changed the coast line. As a consequence, for the first time commercial ships could navigate this part of Europe. In what follows, Bruges became the main trading port at the North Sea coast. In 1252 it established relations with the Hanseatic League. In 1277 the first trading ships from Genoa arrived and in the 14th century, there was even a daily courier service to Venice overland.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Bruges became one of the richest cities in the world famous not only for its trade but also for its fine cloth manufactories as well as its banking services. The end of the its predominance was marked by another natural event: In the late 14th century, the Zwin, the river on which the city is built, began to silt up, discouraging the passage of commercial shipping. Economic crises and political unrest worsened the situation and in 1488 Maximilian of Austria, ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, ordered foreign merchants to shift their offices to Antwerp (Benevolo 1993).

Between 1480 and the 1560s, Antwerp rose to the main centre of north European trade and to the leading financial place in Europe. The town was the first to grant almost total liberties to both domestic and foreign merchants. One reason for the existence of fairs in the Middle Ages had been the temporary exemption from trade restrictions. Now, under almost total permanent liberalization uninterrupted market trade became possible and Antwerp changed from a place for fairs and markets to one in which exchange trading became the rule. In 1518, the Antwerp Exchange was founded which was open to merchants from all nations. Only the English merchants kept their own commodity exchange.

In the 1570s, the Spanish-Dutch conflict, the closure of the river Scheldt and the isolation of the town by Spanish troops put an end to Antwerp’s supremacy. Its successor became Amsterdam whose advantages were among others its port, its outstanding superiority in shipbuilding and its geographic position, but also a liberal government compared to the rather conservative Spanish rule. The Amsterdam Bourse became Europe’s leading securities market. One of its achievments was that it helped stock trading to get accepted and that forward transactions as a specific form became a common tool of exchange trading.

At that time, European merchants often concentrated their transactions in one or more specified towns known as staples and Amsterdam was the biggest staple in the western world (Fischer 1998). There, merchants coming from East India or America met those from eastern Europe, and since cargoes from both directions could not be transported any further before the winter set in they were stored in Amsterdam. As late as 1728, Daniel Defoe described the Dutch as “the Carryers of the World, the middle Persons in Trade, the Factors and Brokers of Europe: … they buy to sell again, take in to send out: and the Greatest Part of their vast Commerce consists in being supply’d from all Parts of the World, that they may supply all the World again.” (Cited from Fischer 1998: 29.)

One hundred years later, the same was said of London. The exact time when London took over from Amsterdam is not known. It emerged as a centre of international merchant banking in the 17th and 18th centuries. The decisive years appear to be between 1660 and 1700 when the Navigation Act took effect and England brought a large part of the transatlantic trade under its flag (Inwood 1998: 318 f.). Among the 28 colonies established in the western hemisphere in the 17th century, 12 were English, but only three Dutch and eight French. Around 1700, there were 350,000 to 400,000 British subjects on the other side of the Atlantic, but only 70,000 French. The final stroke to Amsterdam came during the French Wars of 1793-1815. When in 1795 the French occupied the town much of its financial business migrated to London which was one of the few major towns in Europe which had not fallen under Napoleon’s control (Einzig 1970, Inwood 1998). When peace returned many of the Dutch commercial and banking families remained and London benefitted from their money as well as from their experience and worldwide contacts. For a long time, Dutch became the leading business language in London. Many financial regulations, norms and behaviour patterns such as the rules and techniques of stockbroking followed those prevailing in Amsterdam.

The Dutch were not the only aliens dominating trade and finance in London, and they were not the first ones: The first foreign financiers there had been Jews who had settled in London after 1066 where they were the main source of loans until the middle of the 13th century. Next came Italian and Hanseatic merchants as well as many others. The most important group up to the late 15th century were Italians who not only handled about a quarter of England’s overseas trade but also dominated its banking system in using financial techniques and capital not available to native merchants.

War was not the only reason for Amsterdam’s decline. During the 1760s and the 1770s there had been a series of financial crises. In 1763 it was speculation in unsecured war loans which ruined several Amsterdam financiers. In 1772-3 a succession of bankruptcies among Dutch financiers from speculations in East India Company stock brought business to a standstill. In both cases, the Bank of England acted to restore confidence which left the overall impression among the European business community that the financial system in London was safer than the decentralised and uncontrolled system in Amsterdam.

All this does not mean that in the 18th century England as a whole already had an efficient banking system or a well-functioning capital market. On the contrary, before the 1880s, there were almost two separate financial sectors: the ‘City’ with its highly sophisticated system of mainly foreign banks and financiers as well as its insurance, shipping and commodity markets which reflected Britain’s dominant position in the global economy, and a rather backward country banking sector (Cottrell 1992).

During those years, London’s position as a financial centre underwent radical changes. Traditionally, credit had been granted by those with surplus cash, above all, goldsmiths, courtiers and merchants. Some of them became part-time bankers. However, for example, most of the 44 goldsmith-bankers known to have existed in London in 1677 did not survive the next turbulent fifty years (Inwood 1998).

The first true English banking houses were founded only around 1700. In addition, the capital market at that time was poorly organised compared to the continent and its development was largely following domestic needs. On the other hand, the system had already considerable comparative advantages. The Bank of England was the only central bank in the world producing a paper currency with a fixed and guaranteed gold value. There was a whole range of sophisticated financial instruments and methods to shed risk or deliberately take it. Government debt as well as industrial expansion brought a constant flow of financial demand. Since the late 17th century it became possible to buy insurance against all kinds of calamities from individual brokers or underwriters.

In the 19th century London’s international role strengthened. It became common for European merchant banks to open offices there. American banks followed. Those were the years when the Barings and the Rothschilds became the most powerful financiers in the City. In 1914, twelve of the twenty-one leading London merchants banks were Anglo-German, three American and one French. London became the focal point of overseas lending – mostly government and railway issues, but also mining, industry and public works, in America, India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – with a large proportion of the money originating overseas and much of the businesses handled by the London offices of American and German finance houses. The City’s reputation was high: Foreign merchants used its accepting and discounting services even when their trade was not with England.

Internationalisation was fostered by new technology. The electric telegraph enabled trades between London and other financial centres to be done in minutes rather than days or weeks. The first submarine cable linking London to Paris was established in 1851, to New York in 1866 and to Melbourne in 1872 (Headrick 1990). However, perhaps the most important single advantage was the openness of the financial system which was largely free from government interference and official rules and regulations.

During these years other towns in Europe emerged as financial centres as well. London’s nearest rival at that time was Paris. Between 1850 and 1870, Paris was said to be the first place in Europe for foreign exchange (Kindleberger 2007, 2011). Historians emphasize Paris’s dealings with Russia and Italy at that time. However, various data show a different picture. For example, published deposits in London banks in 1873 amounted to £120 million, compared to £40 million in New York, but only £13 million in Paris (Inwood 1998: 483).

Like in Britain, in France there was a discrepancy between the domestic banking sector and the international one. But the French system was by far much less developed than the British and those of other comparable countries. Between the 1880s and the 1930s French commercial banks proved largely incapable to provide the channels for financial savings. For example, end of 1937, there were 12,000 francs’ worth of deposits per inhabitants in the United States, 10,000 francs in England, but only 1,200 francs in France. Hoarding reflected the still essential rural nature of the country (Gueslin in Cassis 2002).

The influence of the French state was overwhelming. This does not only refer to the vast public channels for deposit collection provided by public and postal savings banks, but also to the numerous restrictions French banks were subject to before World War II (and to the Bourse de Paris which, in contrast to the London Stock Exchange, was a state monopoly).

Paris’s international position was not to last. It became severely weakened by the Franco-Prussian war when the Bank of France abandoned the gold standard for long eight years.

In Germany, up to the second half of the 19th century, Frankfurt was the most important financial centre (Wandel 1998). Its success owed a great deal to names such as Bethman and Rothschild. It was Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) who established the famous dynasty there. The earliest source mentioning the Frankfurt stock exchange dates from 1605. But, the place lost its vigour in the Thirty Years’ War from which it recovered only in the 18th century when bond issuing operations, together with commodity trade, formed the basis for exchange trading on a larger scale. One feature of the bond issuing process in Frankfurt was the strong cooperation between banks and the exchange – a characteristic marking the relation between the two up to these days which strongly influenced the rise and decline of Frankfurt as a financial centre in the course of history:

In general, German exchanges were rooted in two different developments. On the one hand, in the general market activities of the big trade fairs in towns like Nuremberg and Augsburg, on the other, in the guilds and merchant cooperatives which were found in Frankfurt, but also in Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin.

Those differences had important implications for the competitiveness of German financial centres in the 19th and 20th centuries: At the beginning of the 19th century, modern exchanges in Europe like those in London, Paris, the Netherlands and – to a certain extent – Vienna were tightly organised and regulated, either by the state or by private initiative in reaction to earlier speculative excesses and breakdowns. Access was restricted to professional traders with a specialisation and separation according to functions aimed at, among other things, investors’ protection. For example, in London there were brokers taking orders from outside the exchange and so-called dealers or jobbers executing those orders in trading on their own accounts. Another characteristic of those exchanges was a high sophistication and a strongly growing funds, and in particular forward, business.

In contrast to these exchanges, in principle, the major trading places in Germany in the 19th century were successors of the autonomous merchant gatherings and guilds and cooperatives of the late Middle Ages and early modern history. Their most important characteristic was free access. Funds and forward dealings were comparably underdeveloped. There was no excessive speculation and therefore no need for respective regulation. The exchanges served above all as information exchanges which offered an opportunity to deal in commodities, foreign currencies and assets besides.

The first speculative boom in Germany was in railway stocks in the middle of the 19th century. This was accompanied by a change in hierarchy among the German exchanges. While in the 1940s, Frankfurt’s supremacy in a bond-dominated market was still unchallenged, with the boom in railway stocks and the crisis of 1848 the Berlin exchange took the lead. In the following years, Frankfurt, confirmed by the events, maintained its hesitant attitude towards industrial shares concentrating on the bond business which, after a while, brought it into the reputation of backwardness. When the Prussian government decided to make Berlin the new capital, the town soon became the centre of economic and financial activity in Germany, a situation which prevailed until the end of World War II.

After 1945, Germany was split up into occupied zones and the financial system was rebuilt in a largely uncoordinated way along the lines of its former decentralised regional nature. Berlin lost its dominance, above all, because of its geographic position in the Soviet zone. Frankfurt once again took the lead – this time, at first, together with Düsseldorf. However, Frankfurt’s future role was decided when the American and British occupation authorities chose the head office of the Bank deutscher Länder, the predecessor of the German Bundesbank, to be located there.

Internationally, London’s role as a financial centre was in steady decline since 1914. The main reason was its shrinking influence in the global economy and the economic and political rise of the United States which already began at the end of the 19th century. However, despite the shift in economic leadership, London’s dominant position as a financial centre remained undisputed for about at least another twenty years. New York banks continued to depend on the City of London for their international business, the rules and regulations prevailing there stayed the same as overseas and by the end of the century the British gold standard was adopted almost worldwide.

One explanation given for London’s ongoing predominance during those years was the role played by the British Empire. Another important factor was the willingness of the biggest economy at that time, the United States, to go on considering London as its central financial place. More than one hundred years after becoming independent, the US obviously felt no need to change old habits that appeared well-established, comfortable, inexpensive and reliable. A third argument is that Britain managed to maintain its competitiveness in at least two areas which were of special importance for its functioning as a world banker: On the one hand, it showed an increase in a whole range of services from shipping over insurance to finance even at a time when its industrial performance was in decline. On the other hand, its surpluses from overseas investments were still growing with remarkable regularity.

The First World War brought two significant changes. One concerned Britain’s international financial position which was considerably weakened by the need of war financing and by foreign assets lost or confiscated. The other, even more dramatic, was a widening trade deficit which not only reflected the effects of the war but also long-term structural changes. As a result, New York took the lead, and it maintained this position up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the following worldwide economic crisis when London – although temporarily – regained its supremacy. World War II brought another setback for London, and New York became again the most important international financial centre, a position it held until the US introduced the Interest Equalization Tax in 1963. The resulting emergence first of the eurodollar market, and later on the euromarkets for other currencies, meant the last turning point so far in the history of international financial centres (Hamilton 1986). Since then, London was, and is, the Number One, not only in Europe but worldwide.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its competitive advantages, during the 1960s and 1970s, the City of London remained a remarkably conservative financial place slowly reacting to new challenges. This changed with the arrival of highly competitive American and Japanese banks in the 1980s and with the deregulation of the London Stock Exchange, the so-called Big Bang. One result was an often complained change in the nature of the City itself, its main actors, habits and rules:

Before 1914, there had been thirty foreign banks in London. In the 1970s, there were already 183. Between 1914 and the first half of the 1980s their number grew fourteen-fold up to 434 in 1985 (Hall 1999). Another result was the concomitant spatial extension of the City economy. There was a huge increase in the demand for, as well as supply of, office space which in parts triggered a kind of self-reinforcing process. In the end, the pressure to build seemed to become a herding phenomenon (Fainstein 2001). One of the most disputed outcomes was the transformation of the Docklands in order to create new office space. The City, which over centuries had been the “square mile”, a region with more or less unchanged boundaries, was losing shape. Between 1985 and 1989 alone, 2.6 million square feet of office space were completed in the Docklands, another 16.5 million square feet in the City itself.

The introduction of a common currency in Europe brought new challenges for the City. Competition among financial centres has clearly stiffened and the discussion of advantages and disadvantages of places is no longer restricted to economic arguments. These days, cities compete by building infrastructure and enhancing the amenities of their Central Business District (CBD) as well as by promoting lavish cultural programs. The way in which people in financial institutions are conceiving a place is considered more and more important. No longer do locational decisions for or against one or the other financial centre depend solely on cost and return considerations. The symbolic dimension, and the common cultural values, narratives and symbols Robert Shiller referred to in a different context, play a growing role here, too. The theoretical foundations for studying these influences will be explored in the next part.

This post originally appeared in rezatonline on March 26, 2012.

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Cities: London

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

The Coolest and Best City Videos

I have posted quite a few “city videos” in the course of blogging. These are usually unofficial short pieces, often art projects, and frequently featuring time lapse, tilt shift, or other techniques to produce a very cool “music video” about a particular place. I thought I’d share a compilation of some of the coolest and very best of these today. If you have other suggestions, please post a link as a comment.

A lot of these are high quality uploads that more than justify watching them in full screen mode. Enjoy!

You’ve Got to Love London

This one was an instant classic (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

Le Flâneur (Paris)

Here’s a variant on the time lapse approach (if the video doesn’t display, click here). The creator of this video discussed his techniques over at National Geographic, but alas the post seems to have expired (or I can’t find it).

Little Big Berlin

This is such an incredible video. It doesn’t necessarily beat you over the head with the coolness of the place like the London and Paris videos, but instead gives you slices of everyday life in way that reveals the city to you. Even the classical soundtrack (Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2″) is awesome. (If the video doesn’t display click here).

Le Tour de France Grand Départ 2010 (Rotterdam)

This one actually is a promotional video, shot for the Grand Départ of the 2010 Tour de France. But it’s a great video about cycling and Rotterdam generally. This one I particularly love since the music is a delightful original composition by Erwin Steijlen, featuring vocals by Alma Nieto and Steve Balsamo. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Inter // States (Tokyo)

This video by Samuel Cockedey isn’t as good as the rest of them on the whole, but if you’re a transport geek like me, you’ll definitely like it (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

New York City

The best of the city videos all seem to be from overseas cities (though interestingly the London and Paris ones were made by Americans). Here are a couple of great New York timelapses, however. First, one from James Ogle (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

And one by Mindrelic called “Manhattan in Motion” (if the video doesn’t display, click here).

A Summer Sped Up (Chicago)

Here’s a reader suggestion that I can’t believe I’ve never seen before since I live in Chicago at present. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Hope you enjoyed these.

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

The Mark of a Great City Is in How It Treats Its Ordinary Spaces, Not Its Special Ones

Cities turn to starchitecture in order to create iconic images to symbolize their city and its aspirations to the world. Famous buildings can, as with the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Milwaukee Art Museum, even come to symbolize a city itself. Such buildings or spaces also fulfill the human need for the spectacular, and for sacred space in the community.

Similarly cities create “gateways” to mark the entry to special districts, or engage in various “placemaking” initiatives around branding. We frequently see, for example, the main street, plaza, or square of a town especially beautified.

This is true of all great cities. Consider London, with its many famed iconic spaces and landmarks, such as the Tower Bridge.


The Tower Bridge – Photo Credit Flickr/wallyg

I could devote an entire post to showcasing London’s special places. Here’s Trafalgar Square:


Trafalgar Square – Photo Credit Flickr/steeljam

But these special buildings, structures, spaces, and elements are not what make London a great city. Indeed, because everyplace has these to some extent, they fail to distinguish a place. Go to any small town in America and find its Main Street nicely bricked, with old time gas lamp replicas, flower boxes, a statue or memorial, major civic buildings, etc. There’s nothing special in the special.

But leave the tourist district behind and check out the average street, the average building, the average design. Too often you will find that those are of another order altogether. It’s as if there are two separate cities. One place is the city of special events and tourists, existing inside a cordon sanitaire (whose boundaries are marked with gateways perhaps?) indicating its unique status. The other place is the city as it is actually lived in and experienced in everyday life. This latter city, that is to say, the vast majority of the city, is too often neglected. The gulf between the special and the ordinary proclaims the hollowness of these places.

The true mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary places and things, not its special ones. Does it invest as much care, or any care for that matter, into the ordinary, workaday aspects of the city?

Let’s again look at London, and we’ll see that what perhaps more than anything shapes our unique impression of London as a city are not those special landmarks at all, but rather the design of what in too many places are purely prosaic and utilitarian objects. It is the pervasiveness of these objects throughout the city, not just some special zones, that is one of the things that distinguishes London from the pack.


Double-Decker Buses – Photo Credit Flickr/wallgy

There is perhaps no more iconic image of London than its red double-decker buses. Even the single-floor buses are painted in the same red scheme, making them fit right in. I can’t even name one other bus livery in the world that stands out in any particular way (please send examples my way).

Something about these buses and other iconic designs of London is that they aren’t new. They go back a long way. One reason they are classics is that they’ve stood the test of time. While so many places discard the old in order to showcase some “new, improved” brand or design, London shows the value of continuity over time.

Here’s a 1928 photo of a London bus. Look familiar?


1928 Autochrome by Clifford A. Adams for National Geographic via How to Be a Retronaut

And what about these fellows?


Officers of London’s Metropolitan Police – Photo Credit Flickr/Risager

Note the nice mix of old (the classic hat) with the new (a modern reflective jacket also executed in a style recognizably London).


London Taxi Cabs – Photo Credit Flickr/StormCab

The black cabs of London are right up there with the buses. Of course, London’s cab drivers are also widely regarded as among the world’s best if not the world’s best, thanks to the requirement that they past an exhaustive test of geographic information called “the Knowledge.” London is unique in not using a medallion system regulate the quantity of cabs, rather relying on its rigorous standards of driver competency and professionalism, as well as very tough oversight of rolling stock.


London Phone Booth – Photo Credit Flickr/Shark Attacks

This is one that I believe is pretty much limited to tourist zones these days. In an era of mobile phones, who uses a phone booth anymore anyway? But the city does recognize the branding value in these.

Here again I’ll show a historic 1928 photo to compare:


1928 Autochrome by Clifford A. Adams for National Geographic via How to Be a Retronaut

Been around awhile, haven’t they?

Here might be the most famous London image of all:


Sign for the London Underground – Photo Credit Flickr/DanieVDM

And did I mention the famous map of the underground system? I’ll let you look that one up for yourself. And this one I found interesting:


London Bike Share Station – Photo via This Big City

I love how the new London bike share program, which I believe falls under the Transport for London umbrella, uses the same signage. This both adds a dash of prestige, but also signals the intent that bicycling be part of an integrated ground transport system.

Most of these items are what I’d describe as branding related. Of course there’s also functionality and many other matters of importance. It’s not all about branding and looking pretty. There are many areas where London does not live up to the high standards set by these branding items. I mercifully won’t be showing you any pictures of the queues at Heathrow T3 today, for example. London, like everywhere, has its share of problems. In some respects more than its share. And the underlying greatness of London is not to be found in material things at all, but, as with all great cities, in its people and culture. But that greatness does manifest itself into the physical world, and these are some of the ways. When you walk around London, which is not beautiful in the way of Paris or Amsterdam, you nevertheless know you are in a very unique and wonderful place, and these are some of the reasons why.

Given the overwhelming success and brand equity London has created with these items, it is a mystery to me why almost no other city has tried to replicate them. Many places enforce a common cab livery, but it’s very rare to get something beyond a standard issue yellow and black. Dittos for bus liveries, police uniforms, signage, etc. Perhaps it is because people associate these London items with the self-consciously retro traditions of royalty and such – the changing of the guard, etc. There’s no doubt that some of the same forces are at play, and that there’s more than a streak of shtick in the whole thing. But it’s effective shtick. And the principles that underlie it are available to all. It starts with caring about the ordinary elements of our urban existence, and a recognition that there’s no detail too small to be carefully considered in the urban environment.

I’ll leave you with another incredible blast from London’s past: a 1927 color film by Claude Friese-Greene. This 10 minute silent feature is pretty amazing. You can’t help but notice how many touchstones of this era are still alive today in London. While clearly of another time, there’s a certain evergreen nature to this piece that shows why London is one of the world’s greatest cities. This is also via How to Be a Retronaut, a site I highly recommend checking out if you don’t already read it. (Click here if the video does not display for you).

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Urbanoscope

“Today, mobility is not fundamentally different from 20 years ago. Although the pressure for innovation is significantly higher: in 20 years we will still have internal combustion engines on the streets. The road will remain the main mode of transport. Railway will still not have taken sufficient capacity from the street. Aircraft will be an indispensable means of transport. We will still see traffic jams in urban areas. But air will be much cleaner and there will be much better integration between modes of transport.” – Peter Ramsauer, German Transport Minister

Top Stories

1. Grist: Tell me again why we mandate parking at bars?

2. Errol Morris: Something is wrong but you’ll never know what it is. An interview with David Dunning, discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which the more incompetent you are, the less likely you are to be aware of it. I’m convinced this effect has broad applicability, even to areas of urban development.

3. Karen Heller: Stuck in Pennsylvania

4. Grist has a couple of other great pieces on Charlotte’s light rail system, that are critical reads for smaller cities looking at transit. Charlotte does light rail right and “How Charlotte’s mayor championed light rail.

5. Loving London. I don’t usually put videos in my top story list, but I’ll make an exception for this simply brilliant stop motion time lapse video by Alex Silver called “You’ve Got to Love London.” It starts with 15 seconds of pastoral bliss, then Wow. Click the link if it doesn’t display for you.

Scary Labor Market Chart

Writing at his Economist blog, Ryan Avent put up a very scary chart of US job losses:

The US is the blue line. The chart shows 1Q08 to 1Q10.

Fool Me Eight Times…..

Yes, this is a video-heavy post. I don’t normally link to Jon Stewart either, but his Daily Show monologue on the failed promises of the last eight consecutive presidents to wean America off foreign oil is priceless. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.)

World and National Roundup

Moncole magazine just released their annual list of the best cities in the world to live and work.

Andrew Manshel: Enough with Jane Jacobs already

Business Week: Top down tech clusters often lack key ingredients

The Guardian: Norman Foster at 75

Transport Politic: Barcelona metro continues its expansion at a relatively cheap price” – Yonah demonstrates yet again how US transit construction costs are way out of line.

Joe Peach: London 2010 Olympics missing an opportunity for truly sustainable development

Joel Kotkin: The Productive Economy Still Matters

Ed Glaeser: The Health of Cities

Nancy Folbre: The Sagging of the Middle Class

Silicon Alley Insider: This latest wave of New York startups is just getting started

Fred Siegal: John Linsday’s Bright, Shining Failure

Ryan Avent: Immigration and Detroit

Business Insider: California Pension Funds Assume Dow Reaches 28 Million. I’m beginning to see why they have a pension crisis.

LA Times: LA’s ‘phantom parking’ is a jam

Transport Politic: Philadelphia selling full naming rights to SEPTA station to AT&T

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Diversity a point of pride for East Point

peHUB: Chicago is not the next Silicon Valley, but at these prices, what a shame (h/t Windy Citizen)

Chicago Sun-Times: Regional transit faces $24 billion repair bill

Rust Wire asks if Ohioans are the Okies of the Great Recession. They link to an article in the Charlestown City Paper about with stories of people complaining about Ohioans. Most of it sounded like good-natured fun to me, but it’s interesting to watch.

St. Louis Post Dispatch: Sinquefield not discouraged with return on his political efforts. This St. Louis billionaire is spending millions to try to significantly change public policy in Missouri.

NYT: Fostering entrepreneurs, and trying to revive Detroit

Taking the Slide

Volkswagen did a promotion in the city of Berlin, where they installed a slide from the mezzanine to the platform level of a subway station. They call it the “Fast Lane”, and yes, adults can use it too! (If the video doesn’t display, click here.)

This is both super-fun and very cool. Alas for America’s litigious nature and the general killjoy attitude of our elected officials. h/t CTA Tattler.

Triple Lightning Strike

A severe thunderstorm in Chicago last week produced some dramatic lightning strike imagery. This short video captures an amazing moment lightning strikes the three tallest buildings in the city simultaneously. Click the link if it doesn’t display for you.

Post-Script

Continuing my Columbus, Indiana series, here are a couple of interior shots of the North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen. My camera isn’t the greatest for dimly lit interior shots, but you can get the feel for this spectacular space. This building is a National Historic Landmark.

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

“For me, as a graphic designer, I cannot live outside of a city. I have to be in big cities. I like the energy that comes out of them, I like the noise, even the dirt and grime. I like the fact that they are places where humans have to struggle to live, to compete. I don’t like super-clean or super-sanitised environments, or architecture. You have beautiful architecture and ugly architecture. Cities embody a kind of chaos, which is a thing of beauty.” – Philippe Apeloig via This Big City

Come find out what over 3,000 people already know by following me on Twitter. I send out about 10-15 tweets a day with the coolest links about urbanism and design so you can keep up with what’s going on in the world. You can also follow my Google Reader feed too. On that I usually only share less than three items per day, mostly architecture and design related.

Also, I was recently a guest on the Explore Cincinnati podcast, along with Randy Simes of Urban Cincy. So click over to listen to us talking about a variety of urban issues, not all Cincinnati related.

Top Stories

The Atlantic is doing is special project this month called The Future of the City. There’s a huge amount of great stuff there, ranging from an interview with Andres Duany that’s already stirring up trouble, to an archived piece by Robert Moses from 1962. This is a must to check out.

1. Lee Hsien Loong: Singapore and Human Capital – Mr. Lee is the Prime Minister of Singapore. This is the text of his remarks at the Singapore Human Capital Summit (via Brewed Fresh Daily).

2. John Podhoretz: New York Then and Now. This article in the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary tells an incredible tale of what it was like to grow up on the Upper West Side during its 70’s nadir. If you want to know how far New York has come, read this article.

3. KC Star: Immigrants find old careers don’t transfer to new life in America

4. Richard Longworth: Brookings and the Midwest

5. City Mayors: Top Level City Domains – Apparently the new TLD system will enable city specific top level domains (e.g., “.paris”, “.nyc”, etc). This article explores the potential of that.

Best States for Business

Chief Executive magazine released their 2010 list of the best and worst states for business. Here’s how Midwest states stacked up:

  • #16 – Indiana
  • #17 – Iowa
  • #26 – Missouri
  • #31 – Minnesota
  • #42 – Wisconsin
  • #44 – Ohio
  • #46 – Illinois
  • #49 – Michigan

Naturally Texas was #1 and California was last. Illinois has fallen 29 places in the last five years.

Lawsuit Climate

The Institute for Legal Reform – obviously an advocacy group, so caveat emptor – published their 2010 Lawsuit Climate rankings for states. Here is how Midwest states stacked up:

  • #4 – Indiana
  • #5 – Iowa
  • #11 – Minnesota
  • #22 – Wisconsin
  • #29 – Ohio
  • #30 – Michigan
  • #45 – Illinois

Chicago/Cook County, Illinois was cited as the worst jurisdiction in the country, even worse than infamous Madison County, IL (only fifth worst).

World and National Roundup

Yahoo: Megacities of the World – a glimpse of how we’ll live tomorrow

Dan Steinbock: Shanghai: The Rise of the Global City

Ahmad Rafay Alam: Tea, Anyone? – A discussion of the impact of urban form on the cultural and intellectual life of Lahore.

George Monbiot: The case for UK high speed rail has not been made

Marketing Interactive: Can Singapore Brand Itself As a Nation?

Chicago Tribune: Battery company recharges debate about US manufacturing

Harry Moroz: Stop the War on Our Cities

Joel Kotkin: Immigration is U.S.

Dome Magazine: Brain Gain: Immigration key to future prosperity

WSJ: How Geeks and Their Transit Apps Get Us Around

Ed Glaeser: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes

The Economist: In Praise of Boise

WashPo: Commercial property owners may be asked to pay for part of streetcar project.

New London Doubledecker Buses

London has unveiled a new design for its iconic red double deck Routemaster buses. It’s a pretty sleek design on the whole I think:

DIY Bike Signage

I mentioned before guerrilla bus shelters, now GOOD Magazine tells us about guerrilla bike signage. Fed up with a lack of progress in making roads safer for bikes, some folks are taking matters into their own hands.

Bike Advocacy in London

Broken Sidewalk points us at a nice 40 second bike advocacy video from Transport for London. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

If you click over to the original BS post, he contrasts this with a Chrysler minivan ad using the same music.

More Midwest

Indianapolis and Columbus – Similar Surfaces, Opposite Cores (Urban Out) – Greg Meckstroth compares the two cities in a compelling analysis.

A Brand for High Speed Rail in the Midwest (Urban Milwaukee)

Terry Schwarz on Shrinking Cities (Flint Expatriates)

What Color Ohio’s Economy? (Columbus Dispatch)

Cleveland
In Cleveland, Sports Fans Cheer Until It Hurts (NYT)

Detroit
Detroit to demolish 10,000 abandoned properties (WSJ) – Includes Mitt Romney’s boyhood home.
Ten tips for downsizing Detroit (Free Press)
Detroit leads the way in urban farming (CS Monitor)
Can Detroit Learn From the Rebirth of Grand Rapids? (CNN/Fortune)

Indianapolis
I-70 Shortcut Getting an Obstacle – INDOT is spending $450 million to make it harder to get downtown from the West Side by eliminating the preferred freeway route. I am not aware of another case in US history where a flyover ramp at a freeway-freeway interchange was replaced with a stoplight. It’s a truly stunning step backwards. It also shows that scope reductions, not efficiencies were the likely source of this project coming in under budget. Somebody was asleep at the switch bigtime on this.
Monument Circle and the Legacy of East Liberty (A Place of Sense)

Kansas City
State line status brings cooperation and competition (KC Star)
Sewer upgrade approved (KC Star) – Kansas City next up to spend billions

Louisville
They Tore the Whole Thing Down (Broken Sidewalk) – An entire 4th St. streetscape razed. Sad.

Post Script

A Broken Sidewalk photo of Operation Sidewalk Defense, a group protesting the closure of sidewalks (but not streets of course) during construction projects.

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