New London Architecture

Growth, tech and the citizen-centric city: NLA international symposium

Monday 24 June 2019

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

NLA’s quest to help shape better cities reached out across the globe as it held its first International Symposium at London’s City Hall. And it was clear that housing and jobs – but also infrastructure and the use of tech, including 3D models in planning – were central to answering some of the challenges of modern urban growth and the rise of the ‘citizen-centric city’.

The event looked to speakers from New York, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo, and Toronto to share their expertise and recommendations towards creating better places for people.

Debbie Jackson, interim executive director, development, enterprise and environment at the GLA said enabling technology was essential to London’s growth and that the mayor was committed to ensuring that all those with a say in shaping the city – ‘not just those with the deepest pockets’ – can access technologies to help them grow their productivity.

‘Good growth’, too, was an important programme in the GLA’s output, underpinned by 50 mayoral design advocates and aimed at producing ‘sustainable and prosperous futures’. ‘London remains open to the world, open to business, open to ideas, open to investment, open to trade, and open to talent’, said Jackson.

Giving the opening presentation and drawing on NLA’s charter, NLA chairman Peter Murray said ‘New London’ is a sustainable civilised and egalitarian city, a driver of UK economy and global hub for a wide range of services. It seeks a balance between the dense centre and scattered areas of outer London, he went on, and supports the regeneration of London’s towns. It also seeks to improve the quality of housing design, supports continued investment in transport infrastructure, and believes the shift away from cars and to walking and cycling should be accelerated. 

But housing was one of the key issues the city needs to deal with, said Murray, with the Green Belt felt to be so ‘toxic’ by politicians that they won’t discuss it, even if some organisations like the London Society believe it is due a review. London still has a very strong commercial offer, Murray added, despite Brexit, based on the confidence that London is resilient and can reinvent itself, and strengthened by its status in the knowledge economy. 

The moves toward creating a zero carbon city, said Torleif Falk, city architect at the City of Stockholm are key, especially since Swedes are so engaged in the green agenda. He was positive about moves in this area, he said, because he can see ‘concrete results’, even if the transport sector is the most challenging. ‘We can see light at the end of the tunnel now’. The city created a district heating system some 60 years ago, and is working on storing CO2 in the ground towards negative CO2 solutions. It has climate goals including reduced emissions to 2.2 tons of CO2 per inhabitant by 2020 and a fossil-fuel free city by 2040.

London, meanwhile, has a zero carbon target by 2050, said GLA’s senior adviser to the deputy mayor for environment and energy Leah Davis, improving energy efficiency in new homes, using solar panels and working closely with businesses and communities to come up with new solutions’. Cities are really leading on climate action, said Davis, with ambitions and targets often far more ambitious than national governments, and London produced one of the first climate action plans. But if you wanted to reduce carbon emissions further, she said, ‘you would put more power in the mayor’s hands’. 

With new technologies and digital spawning the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and potentially ‘scaling up’ cities, Jan de Silva, president and CEO of Toronto’s Region Board of Trade said a ‘blueprint’ will provide current and 5-year future evidence-based assessments of industry sectors, population, talent and housing/infrastructure requirements. ‘Toronto has been having what our mayor calls “a moment”’, she said, citing the ‘powerhouse’ of the Great Lakes region and Toronto’s place as central to an innovation corridor. Three layers of government means Toronto has a ‘cap in hand’ governance model to support its growth, congestion is a key issue, but a ‘critical’ element of the city’s success in fighting a brain drain has been in creating a fast track global talent visa and supercharging its AI technologies. ‘Today, it’s not a brain drain, but a brain gain’, she said.

And Yumiko Murakami, head of OECD in Tokyo said that her city’s rapidly ageing population needed to focus on ‘society 5.0’ – quality medical care, where disabled can lead vibrant lives, and creating a place where senior citizens can live with peace of mind. ‘What we are experiencing in Japan and Tokyo, you will, no matter where you are, experience sometime in the future’, she said of its sharp demographic change. There is thus a ‘huge opportunity’ to share how it will address and overcome this challenge of the ‘silver economy’, The technology revolution and pace of automation is taking place in Japan at a faster rate because of its smaller workforce, Murakami added.

GLA’s response from Ben Johnson, senior advisor to the mayor – business and digital policy was that London’s challenges coincide with Toronto’s place in the greater economic zone and ‘disparate’ system of government. ‘We don’t have a great deal of powers as a city’, he said, citing its place as a ‘convenor’ but also its lack of regulatory levers. There is a skills gap in the knowledge gap and similar need to enable businesses to attract talent and be open to migration from around the world, a principle exacerbated by Brexit. But in the knowledge and innovation area we have a bright future ahead of us, he said.

Dreaming the future city was the subject of the final session – what part does urban planning play in that and how do we get a citizen-centred vision, asked moderator Greg Clark.

Ana Ariño, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at New York City’s Economic Development Corporation said that like London, New York faces challenges such as an acute housing crisis and infrastructure investment, despite an ‘unprecedented period of prosperity’. But not everyone has partaken in that growth, she said, so New York has responded toward becoming a ‘venturing city’ with an ambitious affordable housing programme, the creation of free kindergartens for all, and guaranteed healthcare for everyone. But NYC’s biggest safeguard against poverty is a good job, and tech jobs are ‘the future’, having grown by some 30 per cent since 2017, with a particular spurt in cyber-security. ‘Technology jobs are the future’, she said, and the sector a ‘force for good’. ‘And tech employers go where the talent is’.

Finally, Sarah Hill CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission showed how Sydney’s ‘three city approach’ and 40-year-plan – ‘the dream’ – will focus on jobs, education, and housing while creating a 30-minute city with jobs closer to homes, more walkable places, and will address urban heat. ‘Quite frankly, enormous investment is required in the infrastructure to support that’, she said. Growth is a challenge, particularly on housing, but also presents opportunities, such as rebalancing the city to rebalance north-south connections. But the biggest game-changer of 89 the city came up with is a ‘growth infrastructure compact’. ‘It’s what I call planning’, she said. ‘All those things that come together to make a great city’.

Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer, Greater London Authority said London is already challenged on congestion, air quality and housing, common to other cities, but building London’s technological capability was key to them all. ‘Tremendous social goods can help us meet some of these challenges’, he said. ‘Technology will be adopted and accepted if they are really relevant to people’s lives. People want to see things that fix problems in their area’. It can also help in terms of density, he added, particularly in moving toward 3d modelling and augmented reality representations of the city. 

‘I’m really pleased to know that is being taken up in City Hall’, said NLA chairman Peter Murray, closing the event. ‘And I look forward to seeing that happening now’.

View images from the event here

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

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