Open City stories: Lisa Taylor

She is chief executive of Future of London, an influential network of urban policy makers and practitioners concerned with the city’s physical regeneration and economic evolution. We spoke at FoL’s office in Farringdon. This is what she said:

I’m Canadian, but I ended up living in London after being plucked out of the US desert. I’d left my video production career in Montreal to live in a beautiful town of about 6,000 people. It was used a lot as a film location, and I was discovered by a crew running a global expedition for Land Rover. I helped them out of a jam, picked up work as a contractor, and in 2007, they brought me to the UK as project director.

I didn’t come straight to London. I initially lived in Horley, by Gatwick airport. It was so bleak that I’d come into London as often as possible, even just to visit Battersea Park or the museums. It was my escape, and I ‘used’ London, as a tourist if you like, more than I ever have since.

I loved the Land Rover job. I worked in Rio, Bolivia, Thailand, Laos, China, Mongolia, Siberia and Moscow, negotiating permissions and running these month-long expeditions with an awesome international crew. Then the recession came and killed the project.

I went back to Canada and made some decisions. Events were getting too corporate, and in traveling to so many cities I’d rediscovered my love of architecture and city systems.

London wasn’t done with me either. So I came back and did a Masters in Sustainable Urbanism at UCL. We were guinea pigs in a wobbly pilot course, but what an amazing laboratory London is if you’re interested in cities: so many ideas and events, and so much of it is free!

I lived in Streatham Hill, renting at mates’ rates in a lovely Edwardian house. The woman I shared with is one of the best connectors I’ve ever known. She works in international sustainability, but has friends in music, government, journalism, you name it; the sort of rich mix that makes the best networks. Future of London’s team has that too.

After the Masters, I applied for an internship at FoL. I didn’t get it, but I kept in touch. In 2013, after another year overseas, I was invited to cover maternity leave for the director. It’s worked out well all around, and I’ve been with FoL since. I miss the travel – and hate admin! – but my job is to help inspiring people to make a world city better. Who gets to do that?

After a year in the job, I decided to move into town. I’d been taking the train in from Tulse Hill – it was packed, late or cancelled every day, and with my hours, it was awful. I thought ‘screw this’: I’ll pay more rent, share a two-bed and move closer to work. I now live near St Paul’s, a six-and-a-half minute walk from the office. The area’s getting livelier out of City hours with Crossrail coming – it’s definitely been worth it.

I’ve lived in, worked in or visited dozens of cities around the world and this is my favourite by far. Others are more exotic or have something about them, but this is London. You just look above eye level and there’s masses of history there. It’s a fabulous city. I’m from Montreal, which is also a great city – it’s a great food city, an outdoor city with an excellent quality of life. But I think I’d struggle to find satisfying work there now, because it feels very parochial. Every time I’ve thought about leaving London, I’ve found I’m not ready.

Among other things, London has a proper brawny river. Being able to walk along the Thames to get open space and enjoy all that happens there is a real tonic. There are also more neighbourhoods in London than anywhere else I’ve lived – so many of them. There are places I’ll never get to, but one of the great things about this job is getting to see more of the city than I otherwise would.

I do recognise the problems here are terrible: there’s a lot of inequality and the affordability issue is huge. Is London fair? No, it’s not fair. But it could be fairer. That’s one of the things we’re striving for. And frankly, when you see other transit systems, for instance, London’s is bloody good. When you see the homelessness in Washington DC, you realise our rough-sleeping issue is nowhere near as bad. We can’t let it get worse, but people can be really quick to dump on London. Given what we’re up against, it’s amazing that it works as well as it does.

What we see across FoL’s network every day is people really struggling to make this a better place. There are trade-offs, like the way housing zones or opportunity areas speed up house-building but also push up prices. Across the piece, boroughs are trying to be creative and responsive, but government budget cuts have been absolutely brutal, which makes it that much harder to cope.

We want to help the people who deliver London’s regeneration, housing and services do the best job they can, and learn and stay sane in the process. We work with everyone, but our core is public sector. They have no time; they have no money or staff; their workloads are ridiculous – the pressure they’re under is just nuts. They could use a little credit and they need to work with the community and private sectors more. We just need to get past these big trust and language barriers first.

My speculation is that we are going to see more economic fallout from Brexit – we’re just at the very beginning of that. That being said, London is resilient, and if it does become a bit more broke, it might also become a bit more affordable, at least for a while. There’s a lot of pressure to make things more equitable, and I think some good will come of that. I’m hopeful.

I’d like to thank Lisa for finding time to talk to me and so providing the second of what I hope will be a series of short histories of Londoners who’ve come to the city from many parts of the world and elsewhere in the UK and made lives for themselves. The first example is here. Learn more about Future of London here.


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