A recent trip to Tokyo illustrates something about the old question; is it ‘people’ or ‘place’ that matters?

Tokyo has poor cycle infrastructure

There are very few bike lanes in Tokyo. Cyclists often share the pavement with pedestrians which is frustrating for both groups.

However, far more people cycle than in Washington DC or London, which have both invested heavily in things like bike lanes and cycle hire schemes.

In fact, about 14% of journeys in Tokyo are by bike, compared with only 4% ish of people in DC that commute on bikes.

Tokyo allows some public smoking


Tokyo has fewer restrictions on where you can smoke than many other rich cities.

There are designated public smoking areas and many restaurants have smoking areas.

More people smoke in Japan than in other rich countries, but not that much more. Roughly one in four Japanese people smoke, whereas one in five Americans smoke.

Homeless people in Tokyo are highly visible


Some homeless people in Tokyo live in prominent blue tents made of tarpaulin in Ueno park.

There is something much more permanent about these tents than I have seen in Washington DC. They reminded me of the old cardboard city in London.

There are up to 5,000 homeless people in Tokyo. This is considerably fewer than in Washington DC, a much smaller city.

It’s not so much ‘place’ that matters as ‘social’

A recent report by the Work Foundation takes as it’s title the old question, “People or Place?”, asking, in essence, where should we focus our attention, on improving places or helping people (through whatever means)?

These three examples from Tokyo show how places can acquire social meaning for people. Different people will have different feelings towards the same place. Some might feel like they belong, while others feel that they are trapped and others in turn feel like they are just passing through and so on.

The social meaning that places have is bound up with people’s relationship with other people and with more abstract groups such as ‘the public’ or ‘my neighbours’. As Zachary Neal says, cities are social networks as much as geographic or administrative areas.

Rather than solely looking at how we can get a certain company to locate in an area by giving it tax breaks or asking how we reduce unemployment through training schemes for everyone out of work, we should also try and understand the different social meanings of places and use this as a basis for policy.

This could mean a number of things, from Renaisi’s work on ‘Tech City‘, to Porter’s ideas on ‘Business Clusters‘ or the ‘going with the grain‘ approach that John Houghton has talked about.

Either way, talking about ‘people’ or ‘place’ can be unhelpful if it blinds us to the importance of social interaction, norms and values.


It was my birthday a few days ago and my wife surprised me by taking me to Baltimore for the weekend. The city has a special place in the imagination of lots of community organizers and regeneration people because of ‘The Wire’. On that basis here are some slightly random observations about Baltimore from a regeneration perspective.

  • John Hopkins University is a big player

As well as bringing in thousands of students John Hopkins employs tens of thousands of people. It may well be the biggest employer in the city.

These numbers are pretty rough but I would guess that it could be employing as many people as Bethlehem Steel was in the 1960s.

Of course, not all or even most jobs are John Hopkins are good jobs. There are lots of people on low paid work at universities including janitorial work, administrative work and (because of the medical side of John Hopkins) low paid caring professions.

  • Americans love cars but they don’t have to

All the advice for tourists is that you need a car if you are going to Baltimore. Never mind that you can get a return train ticket for two people from DC for $40 and that there are free (free!) buses in the city center, we were constantly told that you need a car. Even though it’s hard to find parking, parking can be expensive and driving means you can’t drink, people still said we needed a car. Even though it is a beautiful city to walk around, especially along the waterfront, people kept saying you need a car.

You don’t.

But Americans love cars.

  • The Ravens are a big deal

We were in the city while the Ravens were playing the Eagles (in Philadelphia). So many people were wearing purple (the teams colour). Unlike in DC (were there are racial and class divides over who supports the Redskins) it felt like all sorts of people were wearing Ravens gear, different ages, sexes, classes and races.

I think that many post industrial cities have an especially powerful connection with their sports teams. Not sure why this might be, but lots of answers spring to mind…

  • Joggers are a sign of… something

There were lots of joggers out and about, especially in the areas with new build housing. They were mostly young(ish), white and, from the look of them, quite well off. The same is true in DC.

I don’t know if I am reading too much into things but I think it might be fair to say that people jog a lot more than they used to because it is much easier to put on weight than it used to be (mostly because work is so much more sedentary than it used to be). However, not all people jog and I think part of the motivation to jog might be that some people are worried about becoming obese, in a country where obesity is associated with poverty not with wealth (hard to prove this I know, but just a thought).

If this theory is correct then you might say that one of the ways that you can tell whether a city is successful in attracting what Richard Florida calls “the creative class” (young, wealthy, mobile) is an increase in the number of joggers.

I will confess that I am a bit of a jogger myself, although I normally do it on a treadmill rather than in the outdoors…


There’s lots more I could say about Baltimore including the meaning of ‘urban pirates’, the differences between the harbor waterfront (full of chain stores and families) and fells point waterfront (with more live music in bars), the industrial landscape becoming a heritage feature and so on, but that will have to wait for another day.


A modest proposal

It used to be a melancholy object for me that some places suffer from far higher unemployment than others, but no longer, thanks to the learned Doctor Tim Leunig.

He explains so clearly and beautifully that we should not worry about the regeneration of deprived areas since it is impossible anyway. Instead “everyone should have the opportunity to leave failing towns and cities and move to more prosperous, thriving areas”.

It is truly inspiring to see someone brave enough to take on this government’s recklessly ambitious approach to regeneration. They are apparently poring billions upon billions into schemes to regenerate poorer areas and this must stop.

Inspiring too to read someone calling for an end to restriction of movement in the United Kingdom. After all, how can we truly call ourselves free if we are not even allowed to move town? Dr Leunig is brave enough to argue against those people who would legally restrict where we can move. Thanks to his leadership no one will force us to live in the towns of our birth.

Now, far be it from me to raise a note of criticism about the good Doctor’s work but I was confused to read advice from a similarly learned writer in America. Matthew Yglesias’ very well researched book is daring and brave enough to tell us all to stop complaining about high rents in places like London and New York. After all, if we want low rents we can just move to Detroit.

Wise advice. But it seems that the unemployed should be moving to London or New York to find work but to Detroit or Burrows to buy their house. You can, perhaps, understand my confusion.

That is why I have come up with this modest proposal. A happy medium between these two fantastically practical and erudite positions. We should have slum
housing in London. Before you shout me down you should know that no less a respected magazine as The Economist recently called for exactly that, writing that “Cities need poor housing”.

There are many advantages to my proposal including creating a huge pool of cheap labour to work long and hard to enrich a small number of wealthy business owners. Not only can you work for next to nothing under this system, but you will also still be able to afford rent.

I should note, just at the end, that I myself will not be able to live in slum housing as I already have a place in Camden but I hope that this will not distract the reader from what I believe to be a very fair and workable idea.

Unintended Neighbourhoods

Things don’t always work out the way you mean them to.

Take, for example, the strange story of Jacqui Janes. Her son died in Helmand in Afghanistan in 2009 and she received a handwritten letter from the then Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She thought the letter was a “hastily scrawled insult” partly because of the spelling errors.

The biggest selling daily newspaper in the UK, The Sun, had recently taken the decision to stop backing the Labour party and to start backing the Conservative party. They ran with the Jacqui Janes story as an attack on Gordon Brown.

It seemed like a very clever move. They hoped to right a perceived wrong, to attack a politician that they no longer favoured and also, possibly, sell more newspapers.

However, it did not work out that way. Many people thought the attack was inappropriate and polls found that people had a higher opinion of Gordon Brown and a lower opinion of The Sun as a result of the whole episode.

It has become very fashionable for people who think about how to revitalize cities to talk about the importance of the “creative class”, a term some people will know from Richard Florida’s work. In particular, lots of city governments are now bending over backwards to attract young creative people not just artists, but also people working in tech, media or even engineering.

Will these plans to attract the creative class work out as intended?

A recent piece by MSN real estate said that U Street (the area of Washington that I live in) is now one of the best neighborhoods in America for people without children. Proof perhaps that the city has been successful in attracting young creatives. That is certainly the view put forward by The Washington Post in an article that referred to the city as an “urban playground” for twenty-somethings.

But things do not always work out how you hope. That same article wonders if the city could retain these same people or if they will move out to the suburbs when they grow a bit older and have kids.

Some citizens are taking matters into their own hands. A new organization has been set up called the Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance (SDCA). They are protesting the number of places that sell alcohol, how hard it is to find parking and how noisy the area is late at night. Their views are strikingly similar to the ones put forward in the neighbourhood of London I used to live in, Camden Town.

They may be successful in their campaigns but will their success undermine the very things that the creative class finds attractive about U Street?

Indeed, there is already a tension at work in the way housing developers and the city have tried to attract the creative class to U Street, summed up in the name of one of the large housing developments, The Ellington. It’s named after the famous Jazz musician. He was born in the area and the success of him and a number of other musicians meant the area was for a while known as the ‘Black Broadway’.

People from the creative class are attracted by the development’s mixture of modern condo living and hint of excitement and ethnic diversity (plus excellent transport links, of course). But, just as they are attracted by these things, they also undermine them and actively work against them.

Where does this story led?

One future can be seen in the adjacent neighborhood to Camden Town, Primrose Hill. For years it was a smoggy working class area populated by people who worked building the railways. Then, in the 1960s, a wave of people working in the theatre or media, fresh out of university, attracted by low rents, community spirit and transport links, moved in. As they grew older they managed to get the large road that used to go through Primrose Hill re-directed. They invested in their houses. They got the area designated as a “Conservation Area”. House prices started to increase. The shops started to change. The schools improved. Now it is one of the wealthiest parts of the country, and when artsy residents move out, it is corporate lawyers or money men that move in.

Like I said, things don’t always work out how you intended.

Everybody needs good neighbours

Are there such things as ‘neighbourhood problems’ and can they ever be solved given current levels of income inequality?

A recent report from the Brookings Institute argues that regulation of the housing market is the best way to improve the schooling that poorer children get. They propose that lower income families are supported to live near excellent schools.

This is an interesting and provocative argument. Most discussions on education assumes that individual schools can be improved and that this will help children from low income families. In fact, improved schools are just as likely to lead to increased house prices and low income families being prices out of the neighborhood as middle class families move in. This in turn can lead to the schools continuing to improve since middle class people are better at accessing and using public services, and so the cycle of gentrification and displacement continues.

This same pattern can be seen more broadly in approaches to improving neighbourhoods. Just last week it was announced that the local government wanted to ‘transform’ 6 neighbourhoods in Prince George’s County. Can this possibly work? And by work, I mean, can the grievances of the people who currently live in the neighbourhood by resolved without them being priced out of the neighbourhood? Greivances such as crime, poor quality enviroment, lack of well paying jobs, health hazards and so on.

I had a deeper look at the data on this very question for London. There is information available in London down to the neighbourhood level on; average house prices, the percentage of people from different social grades and the amount of neighbourhood problems (using what is known as the Index of Multiple Deprivation). I found that there are very strong correlations between these different factors.

For example, here is a graph showing the connection between the average house price of a neighbourhood and the percentage of people in that neighbourhood who are in social grades A or B (upper and middle class) using the NRS social grading system.

As you can see, the higher the percentage of people from grades A or B in a neighbourhood the higher the average house price. The correlation coefficient is 0.65 which means there is a strong correlation between these two factors. According to my calculations, in London an extra percentage point of people from grads A or B is associated with an increase in house prices of nearly 11,000 pounds.

The exact opposite is true of the percentage of people from grades D or E (i.e. low skilled or on government benefits). The higher the percentage of people from grades D or E in a given neighbourhood the lower the house price. An extra percentage point of people from grades D or E is associated with a decrease in house prices of nearly 8,000 pounds.

We see a similarly strong relationship when we compare neighbourhood populations with neighbourhood problems. This graph show the relationship between neighbourhood problems and the percentage of people who are in grades A or B.

A larger the percentage of ABs in a given neighbourhood means fewer neighbourhood problems. Inversly, the larger the percentage of DEs in a given neighbourhood the greater the likelihood is that we will find neighbourhood problems. The correlation here is a whopping 0.83.

All this adds up to the fact that, unsurprisingly, areas with higher house prices have fewer neighbourhood problems.

There are some dramatic conclusions that we can draw from this. Imagine a neighbourhood that has mutliple problems and a very fed up population of mostly low skilled workers or people who disabled and unable to work. The neighbourhood has lots of crime, poor quality physical enviroment, a lack of decent jobs and health hazzards galore.

Now imagine that through some miracle a government programme, such as the one mentioned earlier from Prince George’s County, was able to start combating the levels of crime, improving the public realm, getting people healthy and bringing new and good jobs to the area. What would happen?

I would bet that the area would become more attractive, wealthier people would move in, house prices and rents would rise and those same residents that were so fed up with all the old neighbourhood problems would not get a chance to enjoy their improving area. Instead they would be priced out of the area and have to move to another neighbourhood, possibly one that was just as bad as the one they started off in.

What should we do in the face of this problem? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please put them in the comments below and I will return to the problem next week.

Unemployment and neighbourhoods

There are now a very large number of unemployed people in Europe. One in three people aged 15 to 24 is out of work and looking for work. There is less unemployment in Washington DC, overall, than in many other American cities but unemployment is sickeningly high in some areas.

You see, D.C. is divided into eight wards, and those areas with the highest concentrations of low-income and African American residents also face the highest unemployment rates. 1 in every 4 people in Ward 8 is out of work and looking for work, whereas only 2.5% of people in Ward 3 are unemployed.

What is the answer to this problem?

Many people would say that education is the answer. But a new report from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research shows why this might not be the case. They found that a third of people who are in low paid jobs have some college education and another 37% have a high school diploma.

Getting more formal education is no longer a guarantee of a job or a well paid job (although a college degree is still a very useful thing to have when you are looking for work.


Partly because education is a ‘positional good‘. To an extent it doesn’t matter what your objective level of education is for your job hunting prospects. What matters is how well educated you are compared with other people in the economy. Because so many people now have high school diplomas it does not have the cache with employers that it used to have.

What would happen if, through some miracle of public policy magic, we managed to get college degrees for all unemployed or low paid people in America? I am guessing a few things would happen;

1.College degrees would no longer be seen as an important qualification by employers.

2. Employers would find new ways of privileging some people over others (perhaps post-graduate qualifications) for work

3. There would be lots of unemployed people and people on low paid work with college degrees.

Does that mean that we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that some areas will have very high concentrations of unemployed people or people on low pay than others and all the problems that come with this in terms of crime, mental health and sense of community?

In both America and England this is in fact current government policy. Whereas in 2001 New Labour pledged to “narrow the gap” between the poorest neighborhoods and the rest of the country, there is no such commitment currently being pursued by governments on either side of the pond.

Instead politicians and policy makers talk about social mobility and expanding opportunities. The clear implication of this approach is that those few people who are able to take advantage of these opportunities and will literally become socially mobile and move on, out of neighborhoods with a high concentration of people with low incomes.

Meanwhile, those people who lose out in this new mobility rich world (warning: social mobility means your income may go up as well as down), will find that the only places where they can afford to rent or buy are neighborhoods with a high concentration of people on low incomes.

Perhaps this will always be the case as long as we have both;

1. A large number of jobs that pay low wages (currently, in the UK and the USA roughly 1 in four jobs are low paid, McDonalds and Safeway are two of the largest employers in DC, employing 15,000 and 10,000 people each)

2. Rent and house prices that are set by the market meaning that people are often paying to live away from neighborhoods with a large concentration of people with low incomes.

This is one of the reasons why an ‘economics first’ approach to regeneration is, as John Houghton writes, destined to fail.