Smarter Growth: Quality not quantity - RSA

Smarter Growth: Quality not quantity


  • Picture of Dr Nicholas Falk
    Dr Nicholas Falk
  • Economics and Finance

How can we achieve inclusive growth? For decades Britain has pursued the false god of ‘economic growth’, measured by GNP, at the expense of all other goals. In the process we have seen social disparities widen, and the environment bear much of the cost as cities have sprawled beyond the green belts that were supposed to keep them compact.

But what if we were to follow the European rather than the American model, and to use urban growth to achieve wider and longer-term aims – planning for posterity not austerity? In Good Cities: Better Lives, Sir Peter Hall and I took readers on a kind of Cooks Tour round European cities that had transformed their position in the international league. international league. [1]Here are some of the lessons, under the themes of the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth. ( 

Connectivity French cities show how to link development with infrastructure. This is not just about connecting major cities with high speed rail lines, but spreading the benefits through investment in local transport. So Lille invested in a driverless underground Metro as well as surface trams and a good bus network to link its 83 communities in a Metropolitan Compromise.  Montpellier, the fastest growing city in France, attracted high tech companies by first taking cars out of its historic centre, and then opening up a tramway network that has formed the spines of subsequent growth. Significantly the Mayor won office around the theme ‘Montpellier c’estvous’, to overcome political rivalries. 

Community Dutch cities show how to make housing affordable by densifying the areas around transport nodes, regenerating former industrial areas like Kop von Zuid in Rotterdam, which has been linked up by the iconic Erasmus Bridge. A hundred new suburbs, built as urban extensions under the VINEX plan, have helped rebalance cities and provide homes for growing families. Importantly not only are 30 per cent reserved as affordable, but a third of these in the expanding historic town of Amersfoort are sold to households on low incomes; the Council shares in the uplift in values when they are resold. Priority for cycling and pedestrians helps tame the car, and makes it easier for people to reach central shops and services. New neighbourhoods are preferred to older ones, unlike in the UK. 

Climate proofing Scandinavian cities have led the way in showing how to conserve natural resources. The best known example of Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm has pioneered a ‘circular metabolism’, reusing all the waste.  Visitors to Copenhagen enjoy walking along the mile long Stroget from the main station to the café quarter of Nyhaven, and are amazed to discover  that over a quarter of trips are made by bike. The more adventurous take the train over the bridge to Sweden, perhaps visiting the new town of Orebro, which has financed Copenhagen’s first metro line, and end up in Malmo. This former ship building town, has found new life by promoting environmental quality and social inclusion. 

Collaboration All of the cities we celebrate enjoy much greater autonomy from central government, but still have to package resources behind long-term spatial plans and economic strategies. Germany’s economic success is largely due to the renaissance of its many major cities. This is supported by technical universities and institutes that support small firms (the Mittelstand), but also keep giants like Mercedes in Stuttgart, ahead of the competition. So Freiburg, the City that ‘did it all’, used solar power to cut emissions and in the process built a new industry which has made it the ‘solar capital of Europe’. Cities are able to take over land at close to existing values, and plough the uplift back in improved infrastructure like trams. They are supported in this by state investment banks (KfW), and local savings banks (Sparkassen). But a similar situation can be found in most of Europe. I was struck when I visited San Sebastian in Spain’s Northern Basque country with the Academy of Urbanism how they had also modernised their industries (which provide a quarter of jobs) through collaboration with expanded local colleges, and achieved social cohesion in the process. 

Character The resulting landscape and townscape generally looks much better thanks to higher expenditure on maintenance, or what I call the 'comon wealth'. The country and town are brought together, not segregated. While some cities still suffer from outmoded peripheral high rise housing estates, in general there seems to be a greater sense of civic pride. Instead of a fixation with the value of their individual homes, people enjoy living in ‘great places’ and  meeting each other over a drink. Of course this boosts productivity, as people spend less time getting to work, which gives them more time to enjoy country pursuits or café life. 

So ‘smarter growth’ should have wider appeal than inclusive growth, as it uses most people’s concerns to create healthier, safer and better looking places to foster social justice and tackle social exclusion. Instead of turning our back on Europe, we should be doubling our efforts to make connections with cities that face similar challenges, as for example Eindhoven is doing with Manchester. 

The RSA could lead the way in celebrating a common urban heritage or common wealth that no other continents possess. 

Dr Nicholas Falk, founder director of URBED, now chairs the URBED Trust to share  good practice.

[1] P Hall with contributions from N Falk, Good Cities Better Lives: how Europe discovered the lost art of  urbanism, Routledge 2014

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles