Northernlands 2 - Cities can, and will, bounce back


Tom Bridges explains why cities will still be a hub for productivity but there will be a switch from retail to knowledge as the driving force


This transcript comes from the captions associated with the video above. It is "as spoken".

The COVID-19 crisis poses huge questions for cities. Throughout

history people, businesses, knowledge-producing

organisations such as universities, professional

institutions, business have and investors have been attracted to

cities because of the concentrations, the densities

and the flows of knowledge, ideas and opportunities that

urban areas create.

The close networks of face to face collaboration have

enabled this, but all of this is now challenged by a new

dangerous communicable disease.

The requirement for physical and social distancing and the

experience of mass working from home poses huge

questions for the future of cities, city centres, transport

networks, the office. Why force people to locate and coalesce in

dense urban centers? Why force them to use public transport

to get there when there's a risk of disease and they can work

from their own home. But I believe that cities

can and will must bounce back. That is because it is in cities

that we can drive the productivity, the innovation and

the creativity needed to build a stronger economy for the future

and to do so sustainably and inclusively. And I will explain

why in this talk.

So why is density and face-to- face contact so important? Lots

of people with the advent of the Internet, email, advanced

communications, predicted the death of city. We would no

longer have to come together. We could all work from home

remotely. But actually the opposite has happened as the

economy has become more complex and more knowledge-intensive

face-to-face contact has become more not less important.

There's a number of reasons for this and they're not new.

As humans, we are hardwired to tell stories, to build

trust, to build relationships, and to do so face-to-face.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari tells the importance of

how in the cognitive revolution people telling stories, gossiping

enabled humans to cooperate and organize in

ever larger numbers and to develop new technologies and

new systems of organizing society.

And that process has accelerated in recent years, particularly

with the emergence of the intangible economy, which Stian

Westlake and Jonathan Haskel have written about.

Competitive advantage is no longer primarily gained from

natural resources, and fixed capital assets such as

factories, machinery, plant, premises. Increasingly in the

modern economy, competitive advantage comes from intangibles

such as knowledge,

creativity, software, data and that makes those knowledge

spillovers really important and knowledge spillovers happen best

when people can meet face-to-face. Look at Arup's office in Leeds,

it was built in the 1830s as a flax mill. It then became a

distribution warehouse for transport by the waterways

and now it houses a number of

professional services firms. It is almost built embodyment

of the growth of the intangible

economy. Bruce Katz is written about Innovation

Districts and about how people innovate today and he says

people no longer want to drive to their out-of-town office park

where they keep their ideas secret within their buildings.

They want to share ideas in the hyper caffeinated spaces between

the buildings in urban areas. They want to collaborate.

They want to compare. They want to compete alongside each other.

Smart people want to work close to other smart people.

Employers and businesses want to be near knowledge intensive

knowledge producing functions such as universities and

teaching hospitals, and they want access to a skilled and

creative workforce from across a

wide area. We see this in Leeds City centre where,

you know, where the knowledge intensive business services -

KIBS for short - have grown rapidly and over 50% of the jobs

in Leeds City centre or in those KIBS functions compared to only

25% across Leeds City Region as a whole and Leeds City centre has

experience very rapid growth in those and really important high

productivity KIBS jobs over recent years including compared

to other core cities.

The transport network has been critical around this. It enables

it supports those densities. It allows firms to access those

skilled people from a white hinterland, and it enables

people to access more productive jobs; to be able to move job

without moving house. That's why we've seen such huge increases

over recent decades in rail use into Leeds Station. It's the

busiest station in the North of England. It's now used by over 30

million people a year and that has grown rapidly over recent

years, and that growth continued through previous recessions.

The nature of clustering has changed as well. We've moved

on from the very specialist clustering that Alfred Marshall

wrote about to a concept of related diversity, where

actually what matters, particularly in cities, is not

necessarily deep domain expertise and concentrations in

one particular area, but it's about a mashup and integration

of different areas of expertise.

We see that, increasingly, in Leeds. The economic

success of Leeds. And in recent years has been built on the back

of financial and professional services. And those remain

really important parts of the Leeds economy. But in recent

years and up until Covid, we've seen rapid

growth in sectors such as softwar, radio and TV

production and broadcasting, data and technology,

professional and scientific sectors, the creative

industries. And that diversity and those inter-relationships

between those sectors has become really important.

We see that as a professional services firm located in Leeds.

For example, when we needed to solve the

challenges of the Grade I listed Temple Works building in

Holbeck - the structural engineering challenges. We did so

by sending drones into the

building. We used a gaming engine to build a VR model

bringing together a number of different technologies and

disciplines: traditional engineering, architecture,

software and gaming, immersive tech and robotics and that's

happening across the economy as a whole, and cities bring those

different functions together.

Cities also and business parts also provide the office.

And there's been a lot written in recent weeks

about the potential death of the office. There's a risk that WFH

working from home becomes the new normal. The finance teams

have got an eye on how they can reduce property costs,

employers mindful of life-work balance, are seeing a new future

where people work from home

much more and the property sector has been

surprisingly quiet. Indeed, I would say spineless and

supine in fighting back for the future of the

office in the face of such fundamental questioning of one

of its core products.

But I think

our experience as an employer and I think the experience of

many others that I talked to is that the inefficiencies and the

problems of mass working from home are becoming increasingly

apparent. Lucy Kellaway has written about the importance of

the office as a place to learn, as a place to collaborate, as a

place to have a separate identity from your home life.

As a place that's important for workers mental health and we

are seeing, as indeed many others have seen, that those things are

really suffering in the context of mass working from home.

I think that offices remain really important. The office

will be back in it's time for the property sector and cities

to start fighting the corner for the office. Its function

might change in the future. It may be less around providing

banks of desks more around providing space to collaborate

to innovate and to build relationships. But offices

I think are really important.

I think the third reason why face-to-face contact and cities

are so important is it is in cities where we have the best

prospects of achieving the rapid innovation to address some of

the big societal, economic and environmental challenges that we

face both here in Leeds, in the UK and globally. And those

challenges have been brought to the fore as a consequence of covid.

And the need, and potentially the ability to

innovate rapidly is also come to prominence. Look at the huge

acceleration in progress in vaccine development or the

transition to drone technology for delivery or the accelerated

reallocation of road space from cars to pedestrians and

cyclists. The crisis has shown we can innovate rapidly across

the public, private and voluntary sectors. And actually

it's in cities where

the institutions of the talented people to enable us to do that

are brought together. There's a real focus and we saw this in

the government's R&D road map published in the last few days

on a mission-focussed approach to industrial strategy. What will

be our equivalent of the moon shoot to provide that call to

arms, that guiding force, that catalyst for collaboration

to drive innovation.

Cities also are the home to innovation districts where

knowledge producing organizations such as

universities, such as hospitals, cultural organisations,

enlightened developers who are willing to take a long term view.

Entrepreneurs, investors and firms that undertake R&D are

coming together in city centers or in well connected

urban nodes and the out-of-town office park, the science park also

remains important, and many of them are also retrofitting

themselves and to become perhaps a bit more like city centers

with public transport connections and a more diverse mix of users.

But we're seeing the rise of innovation districts

globally and also here in the UK. In Leeds there's a

fantastic opportunity around the redevelopment of the LGI.

And bringing together the Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust,

some of our universities, an our business spaces in the city.

I think cities are also really crucial to our ability to not

only kick-start the economy post covid and to create jobs - which

will be really important - but in the perhaps overused phrase

"build back better" to put in place the foundations for a more

sustainable, more productive and more resilient economy for the

future. I think it's in cities and it's because of some of

those factors that I've talked about where we can really drive

innovation and productivity. But we can also do so

sustainably. At the right density served by public

transport and inclusively creating jobs that are

accessible physically, but hopefully also in terms of

skills for communities... many people who live in

close proximity to where those jobs can be created.

So cities are so crucial to our economic future. They're so

crucial to the COVID-19 recovery. They're so crucial to how we can

build back better for the longer term and I think the

disadvantages of remote working are becoming so apparent that in

the future we will see an increased focus on how we design

cities to enable collaboration, to enable

interaction and to enable us to create and startup and scale up

the high growth businesses, the new products and processes that

we need to be competitive. The future of cities is not going to

be about retail. It needs to be around knowledge intensive jobs

and production. I'll end with a historical perspective

because cities and pandemics have a long history.

Michael Pye in his book

"The Edge of the World" about the North Sea and

how that drove innovation, art, civilization and urbanism,

talks about how it was in response to pandemics that

social organisation, regulation, and city planning

was introduced laying the foundations for

the success of cities like Antwerp and then Amsterdam.

And data has been always important in terms of how cities

have been able to respond to public health crises. In 1854,

John Snow painstakingly and meticulously mapped the cholera

outbreak in London and in doing so identified the water pump that

was the source of that outbreak, and in doing so led to the

introduction of sanitation of clean water and the

incredible engineering feats by Bazalgette in building the

sewage system. In 1842 the Leeds Improvement Act focused on

improving the health, the well being, the cleanliness of the

people of Leeds and in 1869

George Gilbert Scott built the new Leeds General Infirmary

and was advised by a nurse and a social reformer called Florence

Nightingale. In fact, you could argue, it was one of the

original Nightingale hospitals.

So public health and cities

have always been inter-linked. Indeed, the growth of

enlightened 19th century city government in the UK was

inextricably linked with the desire to improve the health and

well being and sanitation of our cities. But over time, their

health system and how we plan and govern cities became disconnected.

The health system became fragmented across acute

care, social care, public health and primary care.

And it was only recently when Public Health Departments

were brought back into cities. But as the UK's government's

response to COVID-19 has shown: the relationship between how

we plan and manage public health at a national level and at a

local level has become problematic; it's become, and to

some extent, dysfunctional. And data or a lack of data and a

lack of open data has been a big part of that.

I know one of the strap lines for ODI Leeds is open data

saves lives. Well the experience of the past few weeks has shown

how cities and local authorities not having ready

access to the data they need may well have cost lives.

So cities have been able to adapt and change to public

health crises in the past, and they can do so in the future

And I think it's really important they do

adapt and change in the future.

As Ed Glaeser said, we've built the modern world around

proximity. And COVID-19 has made the costs of that

closeness painfully obvious. We can either reorientate

ourselves around distance, or we can recommit ourselves to

waging war against density's greatest enemy: contagious disease.

In my view we can, we must and we will win that war. We will

adapt our cities to enable them to thrive again. And that is so

important because it is in our urban areas that are so crucial

to our economic future.

  • Tom Bridges

    Director City Advisory, ARUP

    Tom Bridges
    © Tom Bridges 2020

    Tom is a professional in city strategy, urban and regional policy and planning, transport, economic development, regeneration, and city governance and operations. He is a chartered member of the RTPI.

    Tom re-joined Arup in January 2018. Tom leads Arup’s City Advisory practice, advising on city and regional strategies for economic development, inclusive growth, infrastructure, skills and innovation, supporting clients on funding and finance, socio- economic advice, housing, and regeneration. Tom is the Leader of Arup’s 400-strong Leeds office.

    He was Chief Officer Economy and Regeneration of Leeds City Council 2012 to 2018, responsible for Leeds City Council’s economic development, property and regeneration functions. Tom led the work to produce the Leeds Inclusive Growth Strategy, and the Leeds City Region high-speed rail growth strategy. He oversaw the South Bank Leeds and Leeds Innovation District projects which will double the size and economic contribution of Leeds City Centre. Tom also helped develop the Northern Powerhouse strategy, producing proposals on education and skills.


Nothernlands 2 is a collaboration between ODI Leeds and The Kingdom of the Netherlands, the start of activity to create, support, and amplify the cultural links between The Netherlands and the North of England. It is with their generous and vigourous support, and the support of other energetic organisations, that Northernlands can be delivered.

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