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Trust in Cities

• August 02, 2013 • 2:29 PM

London in 1806. (MAP: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

An established political order blocks innovation and economic development; there’s too much local trust, with individuals only doing business with those they know. Look at what happened in Detroit.

New towns are better than old towns. New towns aren’t saddled with legacy costs yet. Cheaper land attracts people and businesses priced out of London. The Economist lists price point as the primary competitive advantage. As an afterthought, the real upside at the end of the paragraph:

When Labour was in power, Gordon Brown planned several “eco-towns” to be spread mostly around the south east. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both suggested building new “garden cities” to take the pressure off London. Building new towns—and extending existing ones—would help meet housing demand without picking fights with the residents of every nimbyish town and village.

Emphasis added. The established political order blocks innovation and economic development. In a new town, everyone starts out as an outsider. The outward orientation of open social networks encourages trade and invites globalization. China’s greenfield urban strategy:

While corruption is inherently hard to measure, we get pretty good response rates on the question of whether firms have to pay bribes to get loans from commercial banks, which are still largely state-owned. In southeast cities such as Hangzhou or Xiamen, 1 to 2 percent of firms report paying bribes to gain loans; the figure is above 10 percent in more than 20 cities of the center and west.

What explains these differences? Being near the coast is a help in China, because of access to external ideas and because coastal areas were permitted to experiment with reform first. An intriguing pattern is that governance is best in coastal cities that had very little industry when reform began in 1978. Shenzhen now has the highest per capita GDP in China. The same holds in Jiangmen, Dongguan, Suzhou–all were industrial backwaters in 1978, and responded to China’s opening by creating good environments for private investment and learning from outsiders. Cities that already had industry tended to protect what they had and reform less aggressively.

Emphasis added. Welcome to Detroit. Cities protecting what they had suffer from too much trust. You only do business with who you know. Otherwise, that stranger of a butcher will press his thumb on the scale and cheat you.

Some of the greatest technological advances of the last few centuries concern standards of weights and measures. We don’t need national or international standards because of too little social capital. The lingua franca of the metric system or surveying techniques replaced local trust:

Since the Domesday Book almost 500 years earlier, territory had usually been measured by its output and how many people it supported rather than by its physical dimensions. Then a few English and Dutch landowners, influenced by 16th-century mathematics and the generally ambitious business climate of their countries at the time, started to want their estates precisely surveyed. A failed Oxford divinity student called Edmund Gunter invented the ideal instrument.

Gunter’s metal chain was 22 yards long and made of 100 links. It thus combined both traditional English measuring scales and the new decimal system. In time, it would come to dictate everything from the length of a cricket pitch to the size of New York city blocks, which were laid out in multiples of 22 yards. But before the chain could cross the Atlantic and help create the great “chequered land” of modern America, as Linklater memorably calls it, a philosophical revolution needed to happen. A critical mass of landowners and politicians had to be persuaded that standardising how property was measured was a worthwhile rather than dangerous prospect.

During the build-up to the French Revolution, arguments about the accuracy or otherwise of weights and measures were a major source of social tension. Being in favour of precision was a political position, part of the pro-science, anti-tradition agenda of the Enlightenment.

Standardization threatens the parochial monopoly. Goods, even ideas, flow more readily with less social capital. Along the frontier, to be familiar is foreign. In the city, everyone is a nobody:

Yet in Soft City I was trying to write about metropolitan life as it had existed since the 18th century – as a theatre in which the newly arrived could try on masks and identities more daring and extravagant than any they had been allowed in their villages or small towns, as a place that guaranteed a blessed privacy, anonymity and freedom to its inhabitants and, most of all, as somewhere where every citizen created a route of his or her own through its potentially infinite labyrinth of streets, arranging the city around them to their own unique pattern. That was why it was soft, amenable to the play of each of its residents’ imagination and personal usage. A town, even a large one, imposes on its people certain fixed patterns of movement and, with them, a set of rather narrow expectations of what kind of character you’re permitted there. If I live in Worksop, Worksop largely defines me; if I live in a great city like London or New York, I can make the city up as I go along, shaping it to my own habits and fancies. In an article published a few weeks ago in London’s Evening Standard, David Sexton cited Soft City and nicely summed up its essential argument in one sentence, writing that the book was about “how we all construct our own different versions of London, in our imaginations joining up the streets and places each of us knows, so that associations and familiarities matter more than the map and thus we all mould for ourselves a different city in which to live”. Aboard his newly bought bicycle, Sexton was busily discovering the intricate geography of his own soft city.

Even in a city with staggering legacy costs, greenfields abound. That is, as long as there isn’t too much trust and plenty of migrant churn. Out with the old and in with the new. People develop, not places.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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