Richard Brown: Will sex save the city?

Richard Brown: Will sex save the city?

Ah, the romance of urban economics and human geography!

In a thread of tweets last month, global cities guru Richard Florida reflected on the future of clustering, the force of agglomeration that brings industries and people together in cities. Looking at advances in remote working during the pandemic, he suggested that location may become less important in future for industry clustering than for talent clustering. HQs may locate where CEOs want to live, even if that is not an urban centre, but talent will continue to cluster in selected locations. In his words, “young folks will continue to be drawn to cities for a combination of thick labor and more so mating markets.” 

Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith reached a similar conclusion pondering whether the changes triggered by the pandemic will enable workers to escape the overpriced grasp of ‘superstar cities’. He sees access to labour markets and office productivity as easier to replicate in a world of remote work, but is less sure about the informal knowledge spillovers that form the dark matter of agglomeration. And he thinks the social value of cities would be even harder to replace, particularly for young people seeking “bars, music venues, fun social events, lots of potential friends in their age group, and — probably the most important piece — opportunities to meet romantic partners.”

So will sex save the city? Cities have always cast their net wide, gathering young people (or at least those with the means) to meet and match up – from the aristocratic dances of “the season” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the graduate convergence that sees a net flow into London of 25,000 people aged 20-24 in a normal year.

For all the features about the frustrations of dating in big cities, and despite the rising role of dating apps, restaurants, bars and workplaces still play a pivotal role in bringing many couples together. For all of those, cities offer a ‘thicker market’ – more opportunities and more choice, particularly for gay people or people from other minority groups who are more likely to be gathered in the big urban areas. And meeting up with your perfect online match is easier if they are a tube ride, rather than a flight, away.

London’s employment, entertainment and dating offer has drawn young people from across the world for years, but its short-term outlook looks pretty challenging right now. The restaurants and bars are closed, the theatres and nightclubs are silent, and the flows of people that animate the city are stilled. As reflected in Arup’s recent report for the Greater London Authority (and in Centre for London’s reports), London’s core has seen some of the sharpest slowdowns in activity of any city in the UK or comparator cities abroad, and London as a whole has seen the UK’s sharpest spike in unemployment and highest levels of furlough.

GLA research published in October estimated that lost tourist and commuter expenditure in the Central Activities Zone would be £13 billion in 2020. This loss of custom has hit London’s hospitality and cultural sectors particularly hard. Arup estimate that the West End arts and culture economy shrunk by 97% in 2020.

Moreover, while the UK’s vaccinations are a huge success story, the appearance of new strains of coronavirus means that an imminent big bang re-opening of London to international tourists, students and business visitors seems unlikely. But that will change over time; global travel will rebound, even if not this year. As I write, snow is turning to sleet outside, gusting around in a bitter easterly wind. As ever in the depths of winter, summer seems almost inconceivable, but we all know it will come.

The challenge is not to give up on London’s hospitality and cultural industries, magnets for the people who come to London to work, to study, to innovate, to make friends and more, as well as for those who visit for conferences or holidays. Confusing short-term sickness with long-term viability risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, if we let the infrastructure of the city’s sociability decay. 

This means that more support is likely to be needed this year – to sustain what is hard to replace, to allow space for new growth, and to address long-term problems such as housing quality and affordability – so that London can continue to play its role as the UK’s gateway to the world. When we emerge from the other side of this crisis, young people will once again be drawn to the possibilities and freedoms that cities can offer. London needs to be ready to welcome them back.

Richard Brown is Acting Director of think tank Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.

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Categories: Analysis

2 Comments

  1. Philip Virgo says:

    This finding is nothing new. Forty years ago I was engaged in a relocation exercise when our North American combined HQ, Research and Production facility was denied expansion and redevelopment by the zoning/planning rules of New York. Later our UK R&D and production facilities were driven out of South London by lack of world-class telecoms. In both cases the short list of locations was dictated by where our key staff would be happy to bring up families and where we could recruit new staff locally (with the necessary skills and attitudes) . Before lockdown London was already in trouble because it was too expensive even for the bank and finance staff to live. Hence the growth of “back office” facilities around the M25 and from Chatham, through Chichester to Bournemouth as well as North to Peterborough, Leeds, Harrogate and York. That trend has accelerated over the past year. Post Covid London now has to reinvent itself and compete or die. Will the GLA help or hinder? At present, unlike the City Corporation, it has its head in the sand.

  2. Kyle Harrison says:

    London is going to decline, not because of Covid but because of big structural problems the city has failed to fix, namely the housing crisis.

    Yes, young people like cities to have fun in. But this is hardly brilliant news for London on account that the UK is full of far cheaper cities that offer clubs, bars (believe it or not, even northern cities have theatres) and plenty of public parks for people to meet in the summer. Plenty of younger people can save a fortune living in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle etc… And they will get great night life, arguably better than London. I love London. But going for a night out in London is not as fun as, say, Newcastle or Liverpool. It costs a fortune, for one. And getting around the huge city is not easy or cheap.

    A lot of the articles I read in youth aimed outlets i.e. Vice and i-D are talking about why London is over. And the exodus. Most the articles I read about how London will bounce back tend to be by old men that bought their houses in London twenty years ago. I think that tells you something. Again, leaving London doesn’t mean going to a village in Sussex. Plenty of urban places to go to in the UK.

    Plus, London already loses more British people than it gains, and has done even in the boom years over the last ten years. It is immigration that kept the population going up. And that’s fallen through the floor and is unlikely to recover much for a long time.

    I love London, my boyfriend is a born and bred Londoner. But London needs to stop thinking its innate brilliance will see it through and it needs to start realising that this is a city with some deep seated problems that effects younger and poorer people hugely.

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