We Need to Talk About Towns

A week or before the US presidential election, I visited Youngstown in eastern Ohio. On a deserted street corner, across from a bail bondsman and a boarded up shop, an elderly white man explained why he was voting for Donald Trump. “This town used to be something. Now it’s nothing,” he told me. “You guys had Brexit, now it’s our turn.”

Trump’s was a victory for the town against the city. The sprawling metropolises on both coasts were, as ever, solidly blue on November 8. It was places like Youngstown – a city that has seen its population more than half amid four decades of relentless deindustrialization – that swung the race for the White House.

Much has been made about the similarities between Trump and Brexit: white working class alienation; the anger at globalization; the distrust of experts. There’s undoubtedly something in all of this. But the most glaring connection is where these two unlikely victories were forged: in towns and small cities of our former industrial heartlands.

Burnley, Bolton, Hull, Grimsby. The names are familiar from June 23. In many British towns, the pride and purpose of industry – the very thing that called these towns into being in the first place – has been replaced by call centres and low rent chain stores.

Youngstown’s municipal government has started to demolish entire city blocks. In Hartlepool, over 27 per cent of shops were vacant last year. Some 70 per cent of the town’s residents voted for Brexit.

Empty retail units and urban blight did not cause voters to flock to Farage or Trump, but they are a symptom of the problem.

Glasgow, where I live, has barely half as many inhabitants now as they had at their peaks in the middle of the 20th century. The ‘Second City of Empire’ has, to an extent, developed a service-sector economy to compensate. The expensive apartment complexes that look out onto what was once the busiest ship-building docks in the world have spawned restaurants, bars and shopping centres.

But the myriad smaller industrial towns peppered across central Scotland have continued their decline. The most dependable source of employment – the public sector – has been decimated by almost a decade of austerity.

The problem for our towns is not just economic, it is cultural too. Town living is not cool.

City burghers have all the cultural capital, the flat whites and art house cinemas. The country, the rural, has its place as the opposite of the insatiable urban. But what of the town? Who wants to live in what the Americans condescendingly call ‘flyover country’? Certainly not many of the media who, like me, grew up in towns and have little desire to ever return to them.

The turn to Brexit, and to Trump, is not just a primal scream against the metropolitan elite. Globalisation has not been the win-win game that some of its supporters had claimed it would be. It may have lifted millions out of poverty and triggered the emergence of a middle class in developing countries, but it has wrecked a huge price on the working class here.

The shift of manufacturing jobs to cheaper parts of the world decimated once self sufficient industrial communities. The jobs that came to replace them were often low paid, precarious and seen as emasculating by a generation of men raised on tales of life in the pits and the steel mills.

Ten of the twelve most struggling cities in Britain are in northern England, according to research released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year. Rochdale fared worst in the survey. The response from local politicians? Shoot the messenger.

The JRF data was “outdated” and “does not show what is happening in Rochdale right now” said council chief executive Steve Rumbelow.

In reality, the picture is all too familiar. Most workers in the UK and the US have seen their real wages stagnate and even fall for decades. Employment opportunities have dried up in many areas, and job and social insecurity have spiked. And it’s likely to get worse.

In November, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that by 2021, real wages in the UK – pay adjusted for inflation – will still not have recovered to their 2008 level before the global financial crisis hit. That’s 14 years of zero wage growth in the UK.

So what’s the answer for our towns? The message from the Brexiters and Trump is simple: jobs. Strip out cheap foreign labour. Erect trade barriers. Do whatever it takes, even restarting the coal mines of West Virginia or bribing Nissan to stay in Sunderland.

But here’s the bad news: jobs won’t save our towns. If anything, they are about to witness even more unemployment in the years to come.

Having seen the industrial working class hollowed out by de-industrialisation, the skilled middle-classes are set to follow. Automation is a word on few politicians’ lips, but it should be. We are at the start of a massive information technology-fuelled disruption that will change the fundamental basis on which our world is ordered.

Mechanical improvements meant thousands of layoffs our factories over the past forty years. Soon it will be the same in our offices. Who needs accountants when, as happened in the US in 2014, 48 million people used online tax preparation software rather than professional help? What is the future of teaching when more people sign up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year than attended the actual university in its almost four centuries in existence?

The future will require skilled workers – in tech, in finance, even in the media – but few, if any, of these jobs will be located in towns that are often sited by historical accident, not on the confluence of rivers or roads but near deposits of long-exhausted raw materials.

We are not the only country faced with the problem of places that no longer have a clear function. Russia has nearly 20,000 ghost towns, mostly in the freezing north. In many instances. Moscow wrote off large chunks of the local population’s mortgage debt to encourage them to move. Would any British politician ever propose a similar scheme?

Our leaders will need to start thinking along such radical lines. With no prospect of paid work for all some form of guaranteed state supplement will need to be introduced. Such a “basic” or “citizen’s income” would need to be enough not just to survive on but to live the fulfilling lives on which social stability rests.

But even this is no panacea. As automation increases, the tax take will decrease as the numbers in work fall. Public money would need to be found. The only feasible option is an effective, global effort on tax avoidance.

This problem is not new. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown realised that, for many workers, wages were so low that they could not afford to live. But their solution – tax credits – did nothing to address the inequalities unleashed by globalization, where low wage workers could end up paying more tax than the massive corporations that employed them on insecure contracts.

No wonder places like Oldham, with its 365 mills all now empty, backed Brexit so enthusiastically. No wonder a once solid union city like Youngstown swung behind Trump. Neither have the answers to our towns’ problems, but unless we start to grapple with them soon that won’t even matter. It will already be too late.

This piece originally appeared in the New European, December 2016.

 

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Which is the world’s most segregated city?

The city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid, not due to an influx of property speculators, but because rather a lack of affordable housing.
Segregation has shot up in Madrid – due less to property speculation than a lack of affordable housing. Photograph: Alamy

“Reclaim your community,” declared the posters. “Hipsters beware.” Pinned around London’s East End last month, they announced Fuck Parade, an anti-gentrification demonstration that culminated in an attack on a café selling bowls of cereal. Long the first port of call for cash-strapped new arrivals in the city – Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis and many others – the East End was changing, said Fuck Parade’s organisers. They explained that they were protesting against increasing economic segregation: the construction of “luxury flats that no one can afford” instead of “genuinely affordable housing”.

London certainly is a very inequitable city. The richest 10% of its residents own 60% of the city’s assets. The top 10th of London earners take home around 4.5 times as much as the bottom 10th.

However, according to new research, and unlike many European cities, between 2001 and 2011, London did not actually become more economically segregated … largely because the city was so divided to start with.

“In the central parts of London, housing is extremely expensive and segregation is already high,” says Maarten van Ham, professor of urban renewal at Delft University of Technology and the University of St Andrews. Van Ham co-authored the study, which measured a range of variables associated with segregation: income, occupational status, education and more.

Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background.
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Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background. Photograph: Photofusion/Rex Shutterstock

The research found that, in the decade from 2001, segregation increased in 11 of 13 major European cities (the other exception, along with London, was Amsterdam.)

In Scandinavia, for example, the traditional Nordic model seems to be fraying at the edges. In Stockholm, social housing is being sold into the private sector; even in famously equal Oslo, rich and poor are increasingly living parallel lives in different parts of the city.

Across the Baltic Sea, Vilnius and Tallinn have gone from Soviet cities with limited private ownership of housing to hyper-capitalist ones in just 25 years.

Throughout Europe, inequality is on the rise. Our cities are looking and feeling very different, as middle-class professionals flock to central neighbourhoods while immigrants increasingly congregate together, often in suburban enclaves. “Without inequality, there wouldn’t be any segregation by income,” says Van Ham. “If inequality increases in a city, you expect segregation to rise, too.”

For example, the city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid – not due to an influx of property speculators, but rather a lack of affordable housing, which, for example, forced young people to stay living with their parents. In Vienna, the number of professionals has doubled in the past decade, squeezing out poorer residents.

In 2005, riots broke out across the Parisian banlieues. The insurrection was, in part, a protest against inequality, and yet segregation has increased in the years since.

Over the past three decades, it has increased in most US cities, too. The most extreme economic examples are concentrated in college towns – in part because the vertiginous cost of American university education attracts only the wealthiest. But it affects larger cities, too: New York, Philadelphia and Chicago are segregated along economic lines and are getting worse.

North of the border, in Winnipeg, a “great divide” has opened up between the 80,000-strong indigenous population and the rest of the city’s residents. Most of Winnipeg’s First Nations community live in the inner city and the North End, two of the poorest postcodes in Canada. On a whole host of indices, from access to housing to exposure to violent crime, aboriginals fare worse.

Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US.
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Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters/Corbis

But for the starkest examples of segregation, we have to look beyond Europe and North America. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, hundreds of thousands of erstwhile nomads live in felt-covered “ger” tents on scrubland on the outskirts of the city, while downtown, the nouveau riche shop in expensive designer stores. And in Johannesburg, walls – often topped with broken glass and surveillance cameras – separate the wealthy from the hoi polloi. The South African city, once strictly segregated along racial lines, is now divided by income.

Cities, of course, are not just divided by money. Belfast, too, has walls – in this case iron “peace walls”, some almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. In the Indian state of Gujarat, scene of vicious anti-Muslim riots in 2002, many Hindus and Muslims live in separate, sprawling ghettos. Parts of the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, are split along gender lines, with women-only shopping centres and restaurants, and even a dedicated women’s day at the local zoo.

Indices of dissimilarity – which measure the evenness of two groups (such as ethnic or occupational) in any given area – can be used to chart segregation. According to one study, Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US, with a dissimilarity score of almost 80: a largely black inner city, with whites living predominantly in the surrounding suburbs.

Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists.
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Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

And yet, racial segregation may not be inevitable in large multi-ethnic cities. In Los Angeles, for example, segregation has actually decreased, according to new research. In 2000, 40% of LA’s population lived in strongly segregated neighbourhoods; by 2010, it was one-third. The biggest fall has been in the number of heterogeneous white areas. “Diversity and heterogeneity is the new structure of urban society,” the authors conclude.

In Europe, however, cities are likely to become more divided as the impact of the 2008 financial crisis really starts to bite. “The crisis has probably caused inequality to rise in Europe,” says Van Ham. “But there is a serious time lag – five to 10 years – between rising inequality and when it affects cities.”

Compared with other cities around the world, however, Europe’s capitals are still relatively mixed. The oil-rich Angolan capital of Luanda has been, in some measures, the world’s most expensive city for each of the last three years. The super-rich live in gated, high-rise apartments; hotel rooms cost upwards of £250 a night for the most rudimentary. Poorer residents, meanwhile, struggle to survive in makeshift housing, unable to afford the eye-watering prices for basic staples such as milk and tomatoes.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.