Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Come together?

There's a piece by urban maven Richard Florida on The Atlantic Cities blog, summarising some research on the link between urban density and productivity.  What is perhaps more interesting than the fact that there is a link (talented people and businesses benefit from 'agglomeration' and are drawn to the locations that support it) is the fact that this only works for cities with high levels of skills:
"[the report] notes that density plays a bigger role in cities where levels of skill and human capital are higher. Metro areas with below average levels of human capital realize no productivity gains from density, the study finds, while doubling density in metros with above average human capital gain productivity benefits that are roughly twice the average. This "negative net agglomeration effect" found in less skilled metros leads the authors to conclude that the negative effects of congestion swamp the positive effects of urbanization in less skilled places."
That is to say, densification works for you if you live - put bluntly - in a middle-class professional city, but less well if you are in a low-skilled working class city.  This seems to highlight something that is little remarked on by professional density fans like me, even if it is about people and communities within cities, rather than cities as economic entities.  For all the benefits (viability of local services, lower car dependency, lower carbon impact) that high density urban living can offer, high density means different things for different classes: living in the Barbican and living in the Heygate Estate are different experiences, even if cast from the same concrete.  Notting Hill is not Canning Town.

So how does density relate to deprivation?  In London, the most densely populated wards include both some of the richest and some of the poorest (Tachbrook and Green Street East (in Westminster and Newham respectively)), but the poorer wards are denser overall.  The graph below shows London's 620 wards grouped in order of their average rank in the 2007 Index of Deprivation, with their population density on the vertical axis. 
The co-efficient of correlation is -0.48, which implies some relationship between high deprivation rankings and high density, if not a precise one (IMPORTANT HEALTH WARNING: this blog post involves me using statistical formulae and large datasets, so should be treated with something between suspicion and disdain).  So far, so unsurprising.  Poorer areas are more likely to be in the inner city (so likely to be denser), and also likely to include fewer fripperies like parks that would detract from density (when measured as people per square kilometre, rather than as dwellings per hectare).  Prosperous areas that look dense because they are built up may actually be low density in terms of residents (from, for example, single people or couple living in larger flats with spare rooms).

So, if that's our starting point, how has London been changing in recent years?  The chart below shows actual and projected changes in population density (2001-16), against deprivation rank.
Three things are immediately noticeable. The first is that London is becoming denser almost everywhere. Secondly, the curve is a lot more ragged: most wards are seeing a relatively steady change in population, but there are places (like Stratford New Town, Canning Town and Fairlfield) where density is more than doubling.  Finally, it is the poorer places that are densifying most intensively (with a correlation co-efficient of -0.40 between deprivation rank and absolute increase in density). These are the places that are densest, and getting denser: Northumberland Park, Bromley-by-Bow and Mile End are all among the places that are densifying by more than 20 per cent in fifteeen years.

So, what if anything does this all mean?  It means that we need to look at the numbers more closely.  How are inner and outer city areas differentiated, and how does densification relate to changes in prosperity and deprivation?   Is greater density a symptom of improving fortunes, or a cause of them?  Or does densification have the opposite impact on richer and poorer places, boosting prosperity in the former and amplifying the problems of poverty in the latter?  In the meantime, you can note that the densest, and poorest, areas in London are densifying fastest.  It's not clear that this is necessarily a good thing.

(Thanks to London's http://data.london.gov.uk/ site for the figures, and to Paula Hirst for the tip off)


Saturday, 1 December 2012

The wrong sort of community

A few years ago, I visited one of the poorer districts of Sao Paulo.  Not a chaotic favela, but a cluster of housing projects in an isolated location on the edge of town, as grim as a concrete structure can be under the blazing Brazilian sun.

The Paulistanos - architects, urbanists, social scientists etc - who were showing us round explained how areas like this suffered from very weak social capital, with few organisations in place apart from well-organised gangs like PCC. What about the huge buildings by the side of the highway? one of our party asked.  Ah, they were just evangelical churches, we were told.  There was a brief pause, and then the conversation moved on, avoiding any further mention of what are clearly some of the most powerful players in Brazil's civil society.

I remembered this a couple of days ago when I read, in Zoe Williams' comment piece in the Guardian, that London Citizens had been one of the few success stories in the Government's dismal Work Programme, getting 1,500 people into work.  I have had dealings with London Citizens over the years; they are an effective community organising and campaigning organisation, which has been assiduous in securing solid commitments from local authoirities and other public bodies, by offering public adulation or denunciation.

But you'd have to look reasonably closely at London Citizens' website to see that this is a group with deep roots in the churches and mosques of London.  My first meetings with the group, almost ten years ago now, tended to involve an Muslim imam or two as well as a multi-denominational smorgasbord of Christian ministers (though one of my colleagues remarked sotto voce as their list of demands were read out, "They're not priests, they're fucking Trotskyites").

These religious roots are politely ignored on all sides, not only because the unified front would fracture if theological matters were brought to the surface.  There is a faint feeling of embarassement among secular middle class liberals (like those sitting the other side of the table in City Hall) when dealing with religion.  The awkwardness increases when the religious belief is manifested fervently, as a central plank of identity, rather than as a private hobby that goes unmentioned in polite company.

But travel on any tube in east London, and you quite quickly see people (usually poorer, ethnic minority people) poring over their copies of the Qu'ran, Bible or other religious text.  And the big razzle dazzle evangelical churches (some, like UCKG, imported from Brazil) can pack out auditoria every weekend.  So I'm not surprised that London Citiens succeeded where private contractors have failed: they are reported to have preached the scheme in church and mosque and to have intervened directly (dressing unemployed people up, and driving them to job interviews).

However unsavoury some of their teachings to liberal ears, these 'faith communities' still seem to be able to touch the parts of society that the best-intentioned outreach programmes fail to get anywhere near.  It seems perverse to ignore them, then to talk of 'hard to reach communities'.