A forgotten city

By Phil Allemendinger | 07 July 2021

Smart cities have become an aspirational must for our urban areas. After all, who’d want to be a ‘dumb’ city? Yet alongside the digital stardust and promises of a better future involving personal connectivity, more targeted public services and reduced costs for local authorities there are obvious downsides.

Digital is disrupting our towns and cities for better and for worse. On the positive side, digital and smart has enabled more flexible work patterns, a more engaged public through information and opportunities to be involved, brought new economic drivers and disrupted existing business models in transport and retailing. Yet there is a negative, prevailing face to changes too that we are all too familiar with.

Take housing affordability. Prior to the pandemic many cities around the world are experiencing the ‘Airbnb’ effect as residents let out properties for short-term visitors taking them out of the local rental market. In the centre of Paris, a quarter of all properties are now no longer homes, but purely short-term rentals for tourists. In 2019 Airbnb’s site listed more than six million rooms, flats and houses in over 80,000 locations across the globe. That year around two million people stayed in an Airbnb rented property every night. Many cities are reporting that developers and investors are buying up properties solely to rent out through Airbnb. The impact on housing affordability is getting worse and the controls that cities have are limited.

At the same time the digital economy is having profound impacts on the nature of work and local economies. What some term the gig economy and others the platform economy is now firmly embedded and disrupting existing business models and services. Over the past 12 months the likes of Uber, Deliveroo, Task Rabbit, etc. have exploded, helping support people during the pandemic. Yet the underlying business model is one that is causing cities anxiety as the impacts of zero contract hours, no sick pay and working long days takes its effect on the individuals and society. Yet this is not the only digital disruption that cities are concerned about.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that 9% of urban jobs are at risk of automation while a further 25% will be disrupted in some way. Combine this with the effects of globalisation and one in five jobs in cities could go. And like the impacts of the pandemic more generally this economic disruption will not fall evenly on or within cities – lower income jobs are twice as likely to be replaced and these are the jobs that are disproportionately currently undertaken by women.

While the pandemic highlighted how much we can now rely on digital technology in all aspects of our lives, it also managed to accelerate and mask some of the harmful trends and impacts.

What is particularly concerning for cities is that smart and digital are selective: there are certain issues and challenges that we face that are better suited to this approach. Cities face a myriad of problems, many of them wicked in the sense of having no easy or quick solutions, particularly around health, addiction, homelessness, inequality and education. Digital focuses on the low hanging fruit of city issues – optimising traffic flows, for example.

There is no easy way in which digital can address what are deeply political and intractable challenges. Yet even if we wanted to use digital to support policies it is undermining our levers and options. Take my area of town planning. Regulating physical space – the basis of planning – becomes meaningless when the challenges to city centres are virtual through Amazon and the like. Planning controls are also jurisdictionally bounded, based on the assumption that what goes on in a city can be controlled by that city. Globalisation has weakened this assumption, but in the digital era who and what are cities in competition with? How can planning controls help improve an actual city when we are engaged in the virtual?

Finally, traditional, linear models of planning do not sit easily in a non-sequential, fast and networked world. The timescales and approaches are out of step with the ‘one click’, consumer driven culture that characterises our interactions with cities and services. A five-year planning period looks completely out of step with the pace of change.

These and other issues inhabit what I term the ‘forgotten city’, the city that we need to give attention to if cities are to have a future in the post-pandemic world.

University of Cambridge academic Professor Phil Allemendinger is a world expert on cities, development and urban governance. He is the author of The Forgotten City: Rethinking Digital Living for Our People and the Planet

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