La capital del Reino Unido no necesita un modelo transatlantico a seguir. Tiene uno mas relevante cerca de casa
Watch out New York, London is coming for you. This was a key message of theLong Term Economic Plan for London launched by the U.K. Chancellor and London’s 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 many cues from its transatlantic sister city recently. Whether it’s building higher and flashier, rebranding its neighborhoods, or aping food trends, New York has been cited as an 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 actually an inadequate role model for London. Not because it’s a terrible city (personally, I’ve always loved it), 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 prices are spiraling, products of a housing drought that’s turning decent apartments affordable on a working class wage into urban legends. The city’s inequality chasm is widening inch-by-inch, and once economically diverse neighborhoods risk becoming monocultures. 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 ignoring the small print of daily livability and being channeled into ridiculouslyflashy grand projects that see the city 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. NYC’s steps towards building genuinely affordable housing seem to fall far short of actual need, and it’s been cited as a “capital of inequality”. Its art scene has been pronounceddoomed, while it also 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 NY-LON obsession more frustrating is that London actually has a far more relevant role model closer to home. It’s a place that has strong historical connection with London, a city whose architecture and cultural life London long strove to emulate. Obviously, I’m talking about Paris.
France’s capital may long 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. It’s working hard and fast to overcome its divisions, broaden housing access, streamline its transit, and clean its air. It’s too early to see the effect, but Paris’ political will and forward thinking are currently putting London to shame.
Just outlining all of Paris’ 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 tabled a new law to fine office owners who choose to leave their properties empty rather than convert them to residences—a plan designed mainly to convert formerly residential older real estate back to its original use. 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. The idea there is that the city can increase its social housing stock in a given neighborhood if it wants.
Paris’ pollution, meanwhile, is being attacked by plans to phase out diesel fuel and make central Paris a residents-only zone for drivers by 2020, by which time cycle lanes will have been doubled. New nationwide laws to create city rent rise caps and clamp down on exploitative letting agent charges are also helping the city make progress. And finally, the unhealthy division between Paris and its suburbs is being bridged by the Grand Paris project, through which greater regional cooperation will be boosted by a massive expansion of the metro and suburban train network. To make the city more accessible to poorer suburbanites, the cost of transit fares from the far periphery to Paris’ core is also being slashed.
This level of state intervention might make some people’s hair fall out. Certainly it would be extremely hard to get a mandate for in New York. That’s kind of the point. Solutions that might be impossible across the Atlantic still have a fighting chance of acceptance in London, making Paris a close, instructive example. But rather than make comparisons that might be both relevant and uncomfortable, Britain’s public conversation is often dominated by trivial, puerile French-bashing, whose attempts to assert superiority actually reveal a perplexing inferiority complex. 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.