The future belongs to the cities of the west – FT.com

These are places where today’s 0.1 per cent, the most mobile class in history, might want to live.

cities-of-the-westToday’s global city must have bike paths and sunny restaurant terraces, says former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt. It needs pretty neighbourhoods and great art. A strong urban economy is not enough to attract talent. “People will choose where to live,” says Ajay Banga, president and chief executive of MasterCard. “Capital will follow where people go. I’m not sure that talent follows capital as easily.” 

Fun as well as rich: this is the consensus picture of the successful global city that emerged from last week’s Chicago Forum on Global Cities. By this description, for decades to come most great cities will be western ones. The US and western Europe combined have less than 10 per cent of the world’s population, yet rankings of world cities tend to begin with New York, London and Paris before passing on to Tokyo, perhaps Hong Kong, says Richard Longworth, author of On Global Cities. Since these are the cities where power and wealth are increasingly concentrated, the west may continue to outcompete the rest.

Most big developing-world cities mushroomed after about 1950, in the automobile age. But the roads of Beijing, Rio, Istanbul and others are gridlocked. Many Chinese cities have unsafe air, and Latin American ones have unsafe streets. As Hank Paulson, former US Treasury secretary who chairs the Paulson Institute, points out: “Nowhere in the developing world do you see a successful urbanisation model.”

Lest this sounds like a partisan western view, note that the Chinese and Russian elites are increasingly stashing their money and children in western cities. Wang Shu, Pritzker-prize-winning Chinese architect, says his compatriots have spent 30 years destroying their own traditional cities. Even the landmark buildings by brand-name international architects that now adorn Chinese downtowns are out of context. Mr Wang says Chinese people have recently begun asking: “Where is our memory and our life and our culture?” 

Hundreds of cities are being built across Asia. But it is hard to give a new city life, says Mr Wang. Wim Pijbes, director of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, notes that newcomers such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi are trying to fill new museums with art. But buying rootless collections rarely works.

A large chunk of pre-1900 human heritage, neighbourhoods as well as art, is now concentrated in a few western cities. Preserved history is part of the appeal of London and Paris. The great western cities have innumerable assets besides. Built mostly before cars, they can adapt relatively easily to a new-old era of walking, cycling and public transport. They also house all nationalities. And they keep getting safer, albeit not yet as safe as Hong Kong, where the homicide rate is near the world’s lowest and crime data are so sparse that “predictive policing” — the statistical approach to law enforcement being adopted in places such as Chicago — barely works. 

There are signs of trouble however; New York and London in particular are becoming bastions of the superrich. Hong Kong, where more than a few people already live 30 or more floors up, lacks room to expand. If first-tier cities hit their limits, smaller ones can pinch business. 

But their rivals will mostly be other western cities: Berlin, which competes with London for artists and techies, Oxford or Austin, Texas. These are places where today’s 0.1 per cent, the most mobile class in history, might want to live. As long as some Swedish diplomats refuse to move to Beijing because they consider it “unbearable”, as Mr Bildt told delegates at a conference last week, China’s capital and its developing-world peers will remain second-tier. In an age when global cities suck in global talent, that matters.

The future belongs to the cities of the west – FT.com.

Author: TMW

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