New York and London – resilient cities

Thursday 30 November 2017

‘Keep calm and carry on’, was one of the takeaway messages from the latest NYLON event – a synchronous discussion between London and New York on ‘comeback cities’ earlier today. Both cities had responded well to major catalytic events in their pasts such as 9/11 and the IRA bombs in the 1990s, and both will succeed with a similar confident outlook in the future.

The event – held at KPF’s studios in Covent Garden and the Center for Architecture in La Guardia, was headlined by Sidewalk Labs chief executive officer Dan Doctoroff, former CEO and president of Bloomberg and former deputy mayor of New York.

Doctoroff, who has just published a new book – Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback, said that no two cities are as alike as New York and London or have such a dependency on each other. And over the last 15 years it was remarkable how the two pre-eminent financial centres in the world rose and fell through cycles and in the wake of catalytic events. ‘They survived and thrived together’, he said. ‘There are no cities as alike or dependent on each other that rise and fall together and therefore need to cooperate as  much as these cities do.’

For New York this catalytic event was 9/11, from which the city has emerged stronger, said Doctoroff, via its five borough plan and the PlanYC it got from London, or perhaps the Olympic bid it mounted, unssuccessfuly, in competition with its UK cousin. This was the catalyst to get things done, but more importantly raise the city’s spirit. Three other items were necessary for government to get things done. The first was that you need a philosophy, said Doctoroff, which at Bloomberg was called the ‘virtuous cycle of growth’. Cities need to grow to survive, but also to manage that growth. The next was to have a plan – in New York theirs was to assess its competitive strengths and weaknesses with a ‘cold-hearted look’. Lastly, it needed execution. New York is littered with unactioned plans, but what the city learned was that this started with people – from Michael Bloomberg down, and in the particular case of the High Line the execution trick lay in creating a mechanism for providing value out of air rights to got the project moving.

Following 9/11 New York has staged a big comeback, with 700,000 more jobs in the city than in 2002, population up by 600,000, number of visitors up from 35-62million and budget up from $40bn to $80bn. This last item has enabled the city to pay for more things like affordable housing, focusing on tourism, tech and TV, although Doctoroff conceded that the city has become ‘less affordable’ and the transport system has been a case of state failure that was completely predictable. ‘The basic message is you’ve got to grow’, said Doctoroff. ‘It creates prosperity. At the end of the day, that is what it’s all about.’

The conference also heard from commentators in London including Fiona Fletcher Smith, executive director development, enterprise and environment, GLA, able to speak freely on the London Plan following its launch yesterday. She said the plan is a very different, more muscular affair than its predecessor, with a lot more emphasis on delivery. But London is an ‘attractor city’, and with the birth rate unchanging will have to be smart in accommodating the needed 66,000 homes per year. ‘The importance of design and place cannot be stressed enough’, said Fletcher Smith on that mission with an emphasis on new providers and smaller sites, while a modal shift in transport will be 80% to sustainable modes such as walking and cycling. What London had to do was to be creative in finding new funding mechanisms.

NLA chairman Peter Murray reminded the audience of London’s own catalysts such as the Great Fire in 1666, which led to the city being rebuilt within half a century and becoming the focus of the British Empire. And following the IRA attacks in 1994, the ring of steel implemented in the City led the Corporation to notice its transformation into a pleasant place with a new focus on the public realm.

In New York, Raju Mann, director of land use, New York City Council said that the city’s problems and governance are ‘not terribly well aligned’ with a federal government indifferent at best to the wellbeing of the city, while David Partridge, managing partner at Argent said London’s crisis in housing could be aided by a concentration on the outer boroughs. ‘London used to be known as a series of little villages. All of those will have to become a town in their own right.’

As to the future threat to London’s resilience, Brexit, Fiona Fletcher Smith said we are not panicking, but Dan Doctoroff had some even more measured advice. ‘I’m not an expert on Brexit but I’m encouraged by the fact that no-one else is either.’ he said. ’I’d say the most important thing with respect to international institutions is not to panic. I’m a great believer that whatever happens, London will be one of the two leading financial capitals, with New York.’


By David Taylor, Editor New London Quarterly

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Dan Doctoroff, former deputy Mayor of New York, will join experts in New York and London for a discussion on resiliency, based on Dan's new book "Greater than Ever, New York's big come back." With Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Doctoroff developed an ambitious development plan to transform New York's economy.