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‘Separate Worlds or Shared Prosperity’. Centre for Cities ‘City Horizons’ Lecture series

September 29, 2017

On a very pleasant September afternoon I made my way to The Shard and the floor occupied by Warwick Business School to listen to one of the lectures in the Centre for Cities ‘City Horizons’ series.

After a short time to admire the view across London I, and the other attendees, gathered to listen to Prof Michael Storper, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies’ and teacher at UCLA, Sciences PO and the LSE, discuss trends in urbanisation across the world.

Cities photo

The talk focussed on the growing divide between cities and ‘the rest ‘ of a country which has shown up in various ways recently. It’s clear that there has been, and continues to be, growing interregional inequality in terms of income, job creation and productivity – known as ‘The Great Inversion’.

Over time prosperity has tended to even out between the cities and the suburbs and rural communities. This no longer appears to be happening. Rather there seems to be a strong shift to inner metropolitan areas which can be dated from the 1980s with a ‘new geography of jobs (skills, opportunities, etc)’ creating increasingly separate worlds.

There has been a major change in the focus of growth since the 1970s/1980s. The increase in digital work, lower long distance trade costs and growth in the finance industry means that the core functions of the new industries have become more and more urban and oriented to big cities.

These cities are still attracting talent despite their high costs and travel issues because they have more amenities, a residential economy and the income is higher as opposed to the rural work even in skilled jobs.

Historically, people moved to cities to gain skills, ‘move up’ the social ladder and take advantage of new opportunities. However, since 1980, the migration has been of skilled people moving between a range of skilled areas; that is, other cities. Some say this is to do with housing price differential but that is not sufficient to account for the overall trend.

It appears that skills are increasingly important – not just the availability of the necessary education but also the access to other people and networks. It seems that it’s about being there in person to know what is going on, what jobs are available, what skills are required – to be ‘in the know’.

There are many challenges in this world – the need for the creation of good jobs outside the metropolitan area, how universities get students into ‘areas of access’ although, of course, not everyone needs a degree and how to overcome the ‘middle-trap’ for the regions.

Research also shows that values are diverging interregionally with manual versus cognitive work showing a strong correlation in values surveys. This is leading to a situation where the ‘professional elite’ and the ‘manual working class’ do not understand each other, with differing sources of validation, honour and self-worth across the various geographies. It seems likely that this is, in part, leading to the social and spatial ‘traps’ we see in communities around the world, including increased rates of depression and drug use along with lower intergenerational social mobility.

All these themes raise a number of challenges and questions. For example, what happens if we just ‘let the cities get on with it’ and they continue to get increasingly prosperous? Will we be able to work out how to share across the apparent divisions? Alternatively we know from history that cities are naturally changing ecosystems so could we see the end of big prosperous cities? This could be foreshadowed by the rise in artificial intelligence as it could change the need and availability of skilled workers and damage the amount of money available to the large cities.

Prof. Storper’s talk raised a number of issues about the prosperity or otherwise of big urban agglomerations and made for a fascinating hour with many areas for further thought and exploration as the conversations afterwards demonstrated. As ever, though, there are no easy answers.

If this short review has piqued your interest you can catch up with the talk at:

http://www.centreforcities.org/multimedia/event-catch-up-city-horizons-with-prof-michael-storper/

Written by Cathy Dunn, SAMI Principal.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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