London Town or Global City?

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Exhibition Hall 2Place and identity


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In London we want it all: we embrace the diversity and international mix of the city, while celebrating its village-like atmosphere and calling for greater localism. In London you can be anonymous and free, and find food and culture from anywhere in the world – attributes that stem from our integration into the global economy. Yet calls to keep the city ‘open’ coexist with a critique of globalisation, and the desire to reduce the city’s footprint with local food production and manufacturing.

The conundrum of the global city is not unique to London, but somehow our growing pains seem heightened by the new pace of expansion allied to current ambivalence – and even opposition – to development. London’s population has grown rapidly in the past decade after shrinking between 1939 and 1991. However in the next 30 years, it’s estimated that London’s population could soar by a further four million people. Such growth will require ambitious vision. But do we have bold enough plans and sufficient appetite for taking risks to create the city we need?

Take the infrastructural requirements generated by the need to create improved mobility. Even a project such as HS2, which involves the demolition of just three council blocks in Euston, has been hugely controversial, never mind the ongoing saga over increased airport capacity. On the cultural front, a key success of recent years has been London’s nightlife. However, just a year after the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, unveiled his 24-hour vision for London, Hackney Council – which oversees trendy Shoreditch – imposed strict new licensing curfews meaning that any new pubs, clubs and bars must close by 11pm on a weekday, and midnight on the weekend. If a truly great city never sleeps, where does that leave London?

Ironically, the tolerance and diversity that we value in London follows waves of immigration linked to the city’s international links made possible by the expansion of trade and commerce. Yet if London must continue to expand to maintain its status as a global city, many worry new types of development reflecting globalisation of economic activity will be its undoing. Asian finance might support new blocks of flats in the likes of the transformed Battersea development zone. But given many of the flats are left empty to accrue profits from rising house prices, is the new city more in tune with the wishes of global investors than to the needs of the domestic economy and residents?

What is the essence of a global city and do such cities necessarily become victims of their commercial success? How can we reconcile the tensions seemingly inherent with being a global city? Are large-scale plans required to deliver growth inevitably disruptive and challenging to communities, and if so then it is time to scale back? Are there international examples can we look to for inspiration and ideas about how to make the global city work?