Fog is seen clearing around the Shard skyscraper in Londo.n.
There are shadowy forces at work guiding the direction of cities like London. Reuters

It’s not always big leaders with big plans.

Why is London’s public transit thriving while New York City’s is struggling? It might be tempting to ascribe the difference between the two cities as one of social and political culture—high European public spending versus American agnosticism about the state. According to Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics and director of the LSE Cities research center, the real difference lies elsewhere—in the way the two cities’ governments are structured.

Citylab caught up with Burdett in the run-up to his keynote address at the reSITE 2018 ACCOMMODATE conference in Prague on June 14. (Like last year, CityLab is a media sponsor of this event.) He’ll be discussing LSE Cities’ latest research and the group’s upcoming book, Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, which is due to be launched this September at the Venice Biennale. The final installment of a de facto trilogy, the book showcases the latest research by the Urban Age, an international co-project examining the connection between the political and the social in today’s cities. In conversation, Burdett picked up on this knot of themes, emphasizing that time and again, a city’s growth or transformation is defined not necessarily by individual plans or leaders, but shaped by political and administrative institutions themselves.

London and New York, for example, are broadly similar in population, educational base and GDP per head. But the two cities have been going in different directions on public transit progress. London’s governance has shifted since the office of the mayoralty was established in 2000, ending a strange interregnum stretching back to 1986 when no elected body or leader oversaw the city as a whole. Since 2000, London has introduced a congestion charge, created the highly successful Overground train network through a combination of renovation and new construction, and come close to completing the new Crossrail heavy rail link between Central London and its furthest flung eastern and western exurbs. It has also launched a bikeshare scheme and—belatedly—started creating a segregated bike lane network, extended the light rail system in its former docks, and created a successful streetcar line in the city’s southwest. During the same period, New York’s progress has been less positive, though it did open a modest extension to the Second Avenue subway and launch its own bikeshare (with somewhat fewer bikes than London). Transit ridership and service quality have been tumbling.

The main factor powering this difference, according to Burdett, is that London Mayor Sadiq Khan has a big say in his city’s transit provision and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio doesn’t. “The governor of New York State sitting 130-odd miles away up in Albany is responsible for New York City’s mass transit,” says Burdett. “The decisions of what to invest there have to be always compared to spending elsewhere in the state.”

London’s great fortune is that, since 2000, the city’s mayor has been chair of Transport for London (TfL), the body overseeing all transit in the city. “I had no idea at the time how important that would be,” Burdett says. “It’s important because he can bang on the door of the Prime Minister and say, ‘If you want London to compete globally and bring jobs, then we really need money to build Crossrail.’”

But just as London’s governance structure has helped it get the edge over New York City on public transit, it has also hindered it from successes elsewhere—notably with housing, over which its political brief is far more limited. Since 2000, rhetoric about increasing the volume of affordable housing has been a staple for three of London’s mayors. Much of this rhetoric has gone no further than that, says Burdett.  

“What Khan is saying now, and what [former mayors] Johnson and Livingstone also said, is that they would build affordable housing at a rate of 35 percent [as a proportion of all new builds],” he says. “If it's going to be done via the private sector, however, then it just won't happen. A developer’s instinct is to build as little affordable housing as possible to keep prices up.”

London’s boroughs are trying to improve the affordable housing situation, but they don’t necessarily have the land to build on—and the state’s position as a major landowner has been substantially ceded to the private sector. Contrast this to Singapore, where 85 percent of residents live in state-built social housing.

“Singapore, as a city-state, owns the land and builds housing through something called the Housing and Development Board. If you or I were living in Singapore we would be living in social housing—it’s just a different level of what social housing means.” The city-state’s substantial holdings and financial commitment to housing most of the population in state-built accommodation means it has been able to ensure a level of affordability and stability absent elsewhere. “You need the Singaporean way of saying, ‘We own the land, we will control supply and demand by building the housing stock.’ That generates a completely different approach to affordability.”

Simply telling cities to “be more like Singapore” isn’t giving advice that’s necessarily easy to act on, of course. But the role of a research center like LSE Cities is to remind cities of options, not to enforce them. “Change may be difficult, but then that’s what politicians do” says Burdett. “Our project is to put these things on the table so that they don't just remain abstract and theoretical.”

Urban planners and architects might be inclined to agree that decisions about the shape of a city are inherently political. But how can they engage with questions of governance when they have no control on that aspect of their commissions? It’s vital to “have evolution written into a city’s planning DNA,” Burdett suggests. “Too many designers think about the reality of the built environment at one moment in time—that you create an instant city.”

But examples of successful from-scratch neighborhoods are rare, and even the ones deemed successful, such as at Canary Wharf, a business district constructed in London’s former docklands, lack the qualities that define other quarters of the city. “It’s all perfect, highly policed, very controlled—and alienating,” Burdett says. “Cities that work are much richer than that—they adapt. There’s a resilience, a grunginess that becomes attractive. Understanding that process of change is essential.”

Neighborhoods that prove to be resilient in the face of change tend to have flexible spaces, both private and public, that adapt well to new uses. Thus, the (perhaps unintentionally) fluid planning of late 19th- and early 20th-century tenement districts such as, say, Manhattan’s Lower East Side or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, has enabled them to transform gradually from sites of light industry to highly desirable residential and commercial areas without entirely losing their mix or character. It’s by focusing on this that architects and designers can create spaces that don’t quickly become arid or obsolete, and that can weather shifts in governance.

“You have to allow enough elbow room for things to actually happen. Neighborhoods that have remained open, literally—connected, porous—are the ones that are more likely to have that layering of complexity.”

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