Why London is good for you

Last year estate agent Knight Frank and CitiBank produced a study called The Wealth Report, in which London was given the number one position in the top 10 cities in the world. The study then went on to predict that only London and New York would maintain their prominence by 2022.

According to the report, the city will hold its position because it is the place where high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) like to work and play. As a financial and legal capital, offering the best services money can buy, it attracts many to come here and enjoy the metropolis.

London has much to show us about the unique qualities of living in a city, demonstrating why urban life is so compelling. But it is not necessarily the city in this report, the capital of capital, that tells the whole story.  

There are many other ways London expresses the beneficial characteristics of cities. The search for this genius, however, leads us to places that are often far from the main streets and tourist trails and starts with the people themselves. We frequently assume that a city is constructed from bricks and mortar, but it is the people who make a metropolis and it is the life between buildings that tells you the most about the vitality of a city. 

Would it surprise you to know that Londoners are among the most polite people? A 2011 study conducted by the Young Foundation looked at levels of civility in three different places: Newham, one of the poorest communities in east London; Cambourne, Cambridgeshire, and a selection of villages in Wiltshire. While it is often thought that incivility is linked to disadvantage and poverty, the report found that the city forced people to overcome their differences and nurture accommodation, shared ownership and politeness. Being close together makes us behave better.

This was also made clear in Tino Seghal’s These Associations, the Turner Prize-nominated show at Tate Modern. The work showed the importance of making connections and how it is these moments of contact that make up part of the genius of the city.

As well as being civil, cities are surprisingly creative and London is one of the most creative cities in the world.  While some neighbourhoods, such as Shoreditch’s Tech City, are being boosted by government initiatives, much creativity can be found in the overlooked spaces of the city.  Projects such as Folly for a Flyover in Hackney, a temporary cinema under the motorway, put together by the architecture collective Assemble, was a brilliant example of making something out of neglected space.

Cities are also the places where smart ideas come together, combine and take root. For example, the temporary timber construction of The Shed arts space outside the National Theatre on the South Bank, by architect Haworth Tompkins, allows for experiment, improvisation and boldness.

In contrast, the proliferation of food trucks in some of the most unlikely places around the city has changed the way people eat, as seen in Berwick Street in Soho or Whitecross Street Market, with the rise of gourmet destinations such as Pitt Cue, Crêperie Nicolas and the Meat Wagon. These are all signs of innovation that could only occur in the city.

However, big cities are naturally innovative by themselves. Leading British-born physicist Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute has measured the dynamic nature of cities. He discovered that as they grew the metropolis became more dynamic. As a result every measure — from wages, income, domestic product, bank deposits, as well as rates of invention, measured by new patents and employment in creative sectors — all scale superlinearly.    

The reasons for this are because as cities grow they become more complex. Yet even within this complexity we must have places where people can come together. Often it feels as if one cannot go anywhere in the city without either having to buy a coffee or being moved on by private security. There are few places left where one can just “be”. One of the achievements of the Occupy London protests in 2011 was to highlight the proliferation of privatised public space in the city. Yet there are places — the Southbank Centre or around the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Kensington Gardens — that are valuable public spaces. They remind us that people are meant to be together, not just out shopping. 

The city needs these open, public spaces. Following the end of the Occupy London protest at St Paul’s, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly, announced that the protesters could use the centre’s free wi-fi. One might also look to the work of architects such as muf, which has transformed corners of the East End. In particular, its Children in the City projects in Dalston show how creating places in the city for children can transform lives and build communities. 

One can find small moments of rebellion that give explosive hope for the future of the city. On May 1 the guerrilla gardening movement is holding an International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day which will attempt to transform ordinary streets into gardens. The Cuts Café in Southwark, a venue that ran two weeks of events, talks and campaigns in October last year, was an exciting, radical alternative space for debate and exchange of ideas. Meanwhile, cycle activism such as Critical Mass, a mass ride that aims to reclaim the streets, (which meets on the last Friday of every month), as well the London Cycling Campaign, remind us that the shared spaces of the city also include roads.

This sense of shared ownership of the city is a powerful force for good. It’s absence was one of the reasons given for the behaviour of looters during the August 2011 riots. But it can be nurtured in unexpected ways. In a survey published last week into health and wellbeing in the city it was proven that public transport has a powerful role to play. The report from the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed how free travel on the bus for the old and the young has positive effects, improving “social lives and independence”, bettered their “confidence” and helped them feel “more like a Londoner”. 

But the city does not just mean the centre. It can also mean outside your front door. Here also we can find the genius of the city. Living in the inner city rather than the suburbs can make your fitter and greener. Often this is the result of simple things. Living on top of each other cuts our heating bills. We are more likely to walk than pop into the car at any moment.

Walkability has become one of the key ways of thinking about improving the city. It has recently been proved that if a child walks or bikes to school every morning their level of concentration increases until lunchtime. An ordinary street that reduces its traffic flow becomes a more sociable place, with people more likely to make friends on the opposite site of the road. Making a neighbourhood more pleasant to wander around can even increase house prices by up to £30,000. It might even be one of the most efficient ways to combat the burgeoning obesity issue. 

Yet, while these ideas are being effected in many of the richest boroughs, by local residents who see the value of good lighting, wide pavements and tree-lined streets, it appears that this is not a priority in the poorer districts. It is a shame that there has been no real government or City Hall commitment to walkability.

Perhaps the most important lesson we must learn when thinking about why London can be good for you is that the genius of the city only makes sense when we see it is a place of opportunity for everyone.    

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