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Jesse Norman: Living for the City

Jesse_norman_1"Living for the City" is edited by Jesse Norman and published by Policy Exchange.

In 2007, for the first time, human society will be predominantly urban.  For many people today, though, cities mean the social problems of pollution, traffic, overcrowding and yobbery.  They are a fact of life, to be accepted rather than questioned, endured rather than understood.

But how can we make cities healthier and more pleasant places to live for all their inhabitants?  A new book out this week argues that the government’s present policies on cities are badly mistaken.  Living for the City proposes a quite different approach, based on a crucial but unexpected linkage between three things:  “direct democracy” or greater citizen participation in community action and local decision-making; greener, healthier and safer city environments; and improved economic growth.  It thus sets the scene for a new centre-right agenda for cities.

Start with what’s wrong.  For a decade or more the political debate about cities has been narrow and inadequate.  As a result, some government policy-making, far from improving the position of cities, has actually weakened it.  Urban green spaces have been seriously reduced by the longstanding policy of selling off school playing fields—between 1992 and 2005, nearly 34,000 out of 77,949 British sports pitches disappeared.  Poor public transport infrastructure has reinforced public reliance on the car, with adverse effects.  A recent Royal Horticultural Society study showed, region by region, how front gardens have been paved over to make room for car parking.

If we look deeper, it turns out that many of our most basic assumptions about cities are mistaken.  For example, the city and not the countryside is now the true home of nature.  British wildlife has been driven by intensive farming techniques into cities.  Some of the best honey in Britain is made in cities. Why?  Because they generally contain an extraordinary profusion of flowers, wild and cultivated, and little or none of the peppery-tasting rape seed.

Nature has a crucial role in promoting human health and well-being. Take, for example, the effects of trees in providing shade, cool and moisture to the local atmosphere, and in filtering out pollutants.  A mature tree releases up to 450 litres of moisture a day, the equivalent of five room-sized air conditioners left on for 19 hours. A tree-lined street has only 10-15 per cent of the dust of a street without trees: it is also 6-10ºC cooler.

But nature’s effects go far beyond this.  Cities expert David Nicholson-Lord points to scientific evidence that post-operative patients who have a view of trees rather than blank walls recover faster, and need fewer drugs, than those who do not. Plants measurably reduce the anxiety felt by hospital patients. Prisoners who can see countryside from their cells suffer less illness. “Green time” relieves the symptoms of hyperactive children.

Green cities are, then, healthier and more pleasant to live in.  But they are also better for our standard of living.  Many people argue that environmental policies tend to undermine economic growth.  But as the American economist Matt Kahn shows, in fact green city policies can increase economic development.  Cities with more local democracy seem to do better economically.  They do so by drawing in new “value-added” service industries, whose employees both enjoy and increasingly demand a healthy city environment in which to live and to raise their families.  This in turn then sets off a cycle of further growth and further greening.

So what can we do?  The first thing is to have a moratorium on building on inner city green space and gardens.  This will allow us all to stop and think properly about the consequences of concreting in our cities.

But there is a political lesson too.  City leadership is crucial, but politicians have rarely felt more despised, and ordinary citizens more disempowered, than today.  What cities need now is more direct democracy. That means directly elected mayors and police chiefs, more local control of spending and public services, greater community participation, and the active engagement of as many people as possible in the political process. This is what will kick-start the new greener cities of tomorrow, with all their many different benefits.

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