Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The U.K. capital doesn't need a transatlantic role model. It has a far more relevant one closer to home.
Watch out New York, London is coming for you. This was a key message of the Long Term Economic Plan for London launched by the U.K. Chancellor and London Mayor Boris Johnson last week. Among a host of new plans for the city, Johnson vowed that he would see London's economy overtake that of its great rival across the Atlantic. He won't do so in office, of course—he's stepping down next year—but it's certainly true that London's powers-that-be have been taking cues from their U.S. sister city recently. Whether it's building higher and flashier, rebranding neighborhoods, or aping food trends, New York is a clear influence and, among a small elite at least, a benchmark against which progress can be judged.
Is this a good thing perhaps, an example of friendly sparring between two great cities? Probably not. For a start, the crush is a little one-sided. As a New York exile acquaintance aptly put it: "People in New York don't give a rats about London." To them, it's a faraway city that's expensive to travel to, where politics is conducted and solutions are forged under very different conditions. The thing is, regular Londoners actually feel much the same way about New York. It's just that the elite of London are so intertwined with the finance industry that, in their narrowed vision, The City and Wall Street are just two ends of the same short alley. New York, meanwhile, is an inadequate role model for London. Not because it's not a great city (it surely is) but because when it comes to bright ideas for London to overcome its problems, it offers close to nothing.
If that sounds harsh, let me outline the difficulties the U.K. capital faces. London's property values are now so high that decent apartments affordable on a working-class wage are practically urban legends. The city's inequality chasm is widening inch-by-inch, and once economically diverse neighborhoods risk becoming monocultures. All of this has helped to deaden and marginalize aspects of the city's cultural life that made London vibrant in the first place—a lesser point than displacement, no doubt, but a problem nonetheless. Meanwhile, the city's regenerative energies are being channeled into ridiculously flashy, grand projects that see London as a mere display cabinet in which to cluster expensive, largely functionless infrastructural tchotchkes.
Does this all sound familiar, New Yorkers? When it comes to big city stresses at least, Londoners and New Yorkers might well be siblings. New York's efforts to build or maintain genuinely affordable housing thus far seem to be falling far short of actual need. Its art scene has been pronounced doomed. And it of course has its fair share of flashy, superficial infrastructure proposals. It might not be worse off than London, but when it comes to solutions, it looks just as stuck as we are.
What makes Johnson's New York obsession more frustrating is that London actually has a far more relevant role model closer to home. It's a place with a strong historical connection to London, a city whose architecture and cultural traditions Britain longed to emulate for centuries. Obviously, I'm talking about Paris.
France's capital may once have been damned as a deadened, divided museum city, but when it comes to new measures to tackle urban problems, right now it's pretty much on fire. The city is working hard and fast to broaden housing access, streamline transit, and clean up air pollution. It's too early to say whether they’ll succeed, but the sheer amount of political will and forward thinking coming out of Paris right now is putting London to shame.
Just outlining all of Paris's plans is a marathon. Since Mayor Anne Hidalgo gained office last April, the city has set aside €3 billion to build new public housing over the next six years, at a rate of 7,000 units a year. She's championed a new law to fine commercial property owners who choose to leave their properties empty rather than convert them to residences. Hidalgo is also trying to prevent total gentrification of formerly working class areas by establishing a list of earmarked apartments that the city would have a "right of first-refusal" to buy should they go up for sale.
To tackle the city’s air pollution crisis, there are plans to phase out diesel fuel and to make central Paris a residents-only zone for drivers by 2020, by which time the number of bike lanes in the city will have doubled. New nationwide laws to create caps on rent increases and clamp down on exploitative leasing agent fees are also in the mix. And finally, there’s the Grand Paris project, which hopes to bridge the unhealthy division between Paris and its suburbs through a massive expansion of the metro and suburban train network. To make the city more accessible, mass transit fares from the far periphery to Paris's core are also being slashed.
It would of course be extremely hard to find a mandate for this level of government intervention in a city like New York. That's kind of the point. Solutions that might be impossible across the Atlantic still have a fighting chance in London, making Paris a close, instructive example. But rather than make comparisons that might actually be relevant, Britain's public conversation regarding its neighbor tends to be dominated by trivial, puerile French-bashing. This is a huge missed opportunity. New York's vibrancy will always have a magnetic pull, but right now London doesn't need another Manhattan-esque High Line Rip-off. It needs a Parisian New Deal.