Where to look for an­swers to chal­lenges of city life

A new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum Of Lon­don picks apart the chal­lenges of liv­ing in a city where scale of­ten over­whelms peo­ple’s ca­pac­ity to cope. GILES BROAD­BENT looks for clues to the an­swer.

The Wharf - - WHAT'S ON -

The stress test of Lon­don’s democ­racy must, surely, come with af­ford­able hous­ing, the city’s most press­ing prob­lem.

A new Mayor de­mands 40% af­ford­able hous­ing in any new devel­op­ment but, as his­tory shows, that fig­ure is Mr Whippy soft.

De­vel­op­ers pull faces, scratch their heads, do the maths and it turns out their plan is not vi­able at 40%. How about 25% or 20% or 10%?

The Mayor and coun­cils have a choice – dogma or ex­pe­di­ence. Some homes or no homes. They cave. Democ­ra­cies are timid and pop­ulist. Big devel­op­ment trumps small print.

At The City Is Ours, a new ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum Of Lon­don ex­plor­ing key is­sues of city life, in­clud­ing plan­ning, trans­port, pol­lu­tion and so­cial co­he­sion, one ex­hibit dis­plays a 360-de­gree view of parts of Lon­don in all its sprawl­ing, dis­parate beauty and de­cay.

Through speak­ers, Lon­don­ers tell of their con­cerns. One lit­tle girl says, in a plain­tive voice that should be singing nurs­ery rhymes, that big com­pa­nies will own ev­ery­thing in her fu­ture and the rich will own all the houses. So much for fairy cas­tles and free uni­corns.

Lon­don does not lend it­self to the moral cru­sades of smaller cities like, for ex­am­ple, Copen­hagen, which plans to be­come car­bon neu­tral by 2025 or Medellin (pop 2.464mil­lion) where a free ca­ble car sys­tem has trans­formed the drugs’n’mur­der cap­i­tal of the world into a model for so­cial co­he­sion.

What be­comes ev­i­dent, as the lit­tle girl’s dream­less com­men­tary sug­gests and is ev­i­denced in this ex­hi­bi­tion, is that the two great pow­er­ful forces of the fu­ture live at the ex­tremes of scale.

The first is cor­po­rate gov­er­nance. Those face­less de­vel­op­ers have a greater abil­ity to shape the lives of many Lon­don­ers than a gag­gle of politi­cians in City Hall – yet profit and mo­nop­o­lis­tic zeal, not the com­mon good, is their guid­ing light. Is that sus­tain­able?

In ev­ery realm, cor­po­ra­tions, like the in­ter­net giants, have the sway and mus­cle to shape com­mu­ni­ties. Cor­po­rate gov­er­nance could be­come the cen­tre of grav­ity for po­lit­i­cal dis­course and scru­tiny in the com­ing years.

The sec­ond clus­ter of ac­tiv­ity is the col­lec­tive – bot­tom-up com­mu­nity ac­tion. Pocket-sized projects aimed at cre­at­ing a bet­ter life for their par­tic­i­pants.

Like food co-op­er­a­tives. Con­sumers and farm­ers come to­gether with a shop­ping list of pro­duce; the con­sumers pro­vide fi­nan­cial cer­tainty for the farm­ers through sub­scrip­tions and, in re­turn, re­ceive de­liv­er­ies of lo­cal pro­duce.

In Tod­mor­den, in the UK, vol­un­teers plant mini-veg­etable gar­dens wher­ever they can, shar­ing the re­sult and bind­ing a com­mu­nity blighted by post-in­dus­trial divi­sion.

There is a role for a demo­cratic au­thor­ity – as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor, a mood-set­ter, a nudger, a strate­gist, a moral force – but in­creas­ingly the fo­cus will shift away from the money-starved, in­ert in­sti­tu­tions to the places where things ac­tu­ally can and do hap­pen – in the board­room and in the streets.

Di­rec­tor of the Mu­seum of Lon­don Sharon Ament said: “In Lon­don, re­cent es­ti­mates pre­dict that its pop­u­la­tion will grow to nearly 10mil­lion by 2024.

“In this age of the city, we’re ask­ing – what does the fu­ture hold for these ur­ban me­trop­o­lises and how can we con­trib­ute to their sus­tain­abil­ity and sur­vival?”

The City Is Ours, FREE, Mu­seum Of Lon­don, un­til Jan 2, 2018. The ex­hi­bi­tion forms part of the City Now City Fu­ture sea­son, mu­se­u­moflon­don.org.uk

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