Some of the best recipes in the world are made of two simple ingredients: bacon and eggs, fish and ships, tomato and basil, gin and tonic. It’s not so different with cities. The combination of two factors determine their success or failure: systems and empathy. Systems oil cities. Without effective power, transport, legal and financial, health and education systems cities fail and fall apart. But it’s empathy that makes cities human.
London’ population, as Boris Johnson often reminds us, is growing quickly. And that will certainly mean we need new systems – new homes, offices, power lines and train tunnels. But as London rushes to get bigger, taller and faster, we need to make a special effort to protect the city’s capacity to be slow, social and convivial. As cities clamour to become smart and high-tech, London should realise its strengths lie in being friendly and hospitable. Empathy, our ability to connect with, take note and respond to one another, overcoming our differences, is the dark matter of city life: invisible yet ever present, empathy holds the city together. That dark matter is present in the countless minor acts of civility that make city life bearable: a middle-aged woman loses her footing as a tube judders to a halt and a young man catches her. Fellow feeling gets the city through crisises: most famously during the Blitz, more recently after the 2011 riots and today’s tube strike. Foreign immigrants become citizens through a legal process; they become Londoners by showing playing their role in its culture of everyday self-governance.
The collective creative genius of city life runs on empathy; but cities need to rely on a backbone of systems to make them efficient .
The Olympic Games were a prime example of how that is done. The venues, accommodation, media centres, stations and parks, were built on time and to high standards. Despite widespread scepticism nothing broke down and the city did not grind to a halt.Yet the real success of the games was that millions gathered in an atmosphere that was warm, welcoming, generous and celebratory, largely due to the social force of the 70,000 volunteer games makers who jollied people along, wearing their purple T polo shirts, a rare example of empathy out in the open at scale.
To make that recipe work, over and over again, and not just for a special event like the Olympics, London needs systems that are shared, soft and small.
The London Recipe is published by the Centre for London.
My article for the Evening Standard outlining the main themes of the report can be found here.