There was a time when intellectual types were tremendously impressed with the idea of historical determinism. These days, not so much. Instead, it’s geographical determinism that’s all the rage.
For example, the Economist ran an article the other week about Britain’s smaller industrial cities and why they supposedly don’t stand a chance:
“Areas such as Teesside have been struggling, on and off, since the first world war. But whereas over the past two decades England’s big cities have developed strong service-sector economies, its smaller industrial towns have continued their relative decline. Hartlepool is typical of Britain’s rust belt in that it has grown far more slowly than the region it is in. So too is Wolverhampton, a small city west of Birmingham, and Hull, a city in east Yorkshire.”
There are facts and figures aplenty showing rates of unemployment way above the national average and workforce qualification levels way below.
An associated editorial urges government intervention – but only to help the people, not the places:
“Governments should not try to rescue failing towns. Instead, they should support the people who live in them…
“Spending money or cutting taxes to encourage people and businesses to settle in run-down areas can help those areas, at least for a while. But it diverts talent and business away from places where they would be more successful.”
The underlying argument is that places like Hartlepool and Wolverhampton should be allowed to wither and larger cities sprawl:
“Big cities would be finer still if they were allowed to grow. Many are hemmed in by green belts, where development is all but banned.”
It all sounds so simple – far too simple, in fact. While it’s true that many smaller urban centres are struggling, others are doing fine. Indeed, it was the Economist that recently reported on the “post-industrial success” of York. As for the supposed success of the larger cities, let’s not get carried away. Of England’s ‘core cities’ (the eight largest beyond London), seven underperform the national average across a range of economic indicators. One might also wonder how letting developers do their worst on the green-belted outskirts is going to help the regeneration of the neglected inner suburbs, where the investment is really needed.
All this shrinking and stretching of cities calls to mind the ancient Greek tale of Procrustes. A less than gracious host, his habit was to either stretch his guests or chop off their legs so that they’d conform to the length of his iron bed.
In true Procrustean fashion, there are those who want to do the same to our cities – as if crude modifications to their size could possibly be in their best interests. Instead of trying to move people around to fit with theoretical models of optimum geographical distribution, we might want to consider the possibility that it isn’t the cities that are in the wrong place, but political power over key investment decisions.
For instance, the Economist points to the failure of major publicly-funded projects to regenerate local economies:
“The names of these buildings reflected the edginess of the architecture… West Bromwich, near Wolverhampton, got a lavish arts centre named ‘The Public’.
“…the slump has undone some of the progress that was made. ‘The Public’ will shortly close: the council cannot afford to pay for its upkeep.”
‘Edgy’ is one way to describe these white elephants, ‘ugly’ is another – and ‘The Public’ is uglier than most. One has ask whether if the actual public had been given a proper choice in this matter they’d have asked a London-based architect to adorn their town with something that looks like a cross between a Friesian cow and a rubber brick.
Before we give up on our cities we should at least give them a chance to make their own decisions.