Urban drift and Flexibility

gray spiral building connector
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

I live on the outskirts of a town in Buckinghamshire in the United Kingdom. My town borders on farmland, small lakes and parks. Including the walk to the local train station, it takes about 1 hour 45 minutes to travel by train south into Zone One (Westminster) London.

The train trip into Westminster starts by travelling past rolling landscapes of farmland (green rectangles of pasture, processions of trees, hedge lines and barren grain fields), through old industrial lands (an art-deco style drinks factory, an old biscuit factory and long empty Kodak factory). Continuing further inwards, you travel through the concentric zones of the commuter suburbs of London – the suburbs broadly getting wealthier, the further inwards you travel.

Travelling further towards the centre of London, you reach the hub station where a number of train lines converge. Then, travelling still further into the centre on the London Underground train system, you pass under various tourism sites. And ultimately reach the Whitehall government offices, close to the Houses of Westminster (the centre of UK-wide government).

Today it struck me that my journey into the very centre of London is rather like travelling forward in time (from basic farming, to 20th century industry, to a basic service economy to highly skilled service-worker economy. And ultimately, to reach the complexity & high stakes of a 21st century, first World, western government centre.

What has this got to do with flexibility? Well, as the super-rich progressively buy up the properties at the very centre (the plots of land that aren’t protected parks & tourist sites), each of the other groups, need to have the flexibility to move one level further out i.e. ride the waves of urban drift. To elaborate, new Industry moves into farmland, leaving old industrial sites ripe for environmental clean-up. New basic service-worker suburbs reclaim old industrial sites. Advanced service-worker suburbs renovate the more down-at-heel suburbs further out. Transport hubs move further outwards, to match the popular disembarkation points of the commuters. And with budget pressure on government department running costs, government offices move out into the nearby suburbs too.

All of this requires flexibility from local government planners & building consent regulators. And flexibility from the people who are inevitably priced out of inner-city accommodation.

At this point, I’m not passing judgement on whether this is a good or bad thing.

For inner-city, social-housing occupants, the further out their jobs move to, the longer their commute also becomes to reach those workplaces, if they stay in relatively inner-city properties.

What is also profound for the government planners in a mega-city is that the investment they need to make in transport infrastructure and social housing moves ever outwards. In other words, plan for greater investment in the outlying areas. Not renovation of the inner areas, to not even benefit the super-rich. Who travel by Ferrari, or helicopter in any case.

people sitting on desks inside well lit room
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What happens if some companies with deep pockets and high ambitions (Apple, Google, Microsoft etc) buck the ‘ripples on a pond ’ trend and invest in large inner city renovations to create office campuses there instead? Firstly the supply of inner-city property to super-rich investors becomes even more limited. Bidding wars drive up the prices of inner-city land even quicker. Commuter journey times lengthen, including for highly-skilled, service workers and the police, emergency-service workers who are required by their employer to commute into those areas. Of course, the more skilled workers are able to work from home, the more vacant those shiny new, inner-city software offices will become.

So in summary, what is needed?

1. For government policy makers and housing/transport regulators, make the urban shuffle as pain-free as possible, for everyone involved.

2.  And for the ‘players’? Accept the inevitable. And make your own plans regarding the inevitable shuffle.

What do you think?


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I have strong interest in flexibility the subject and in promoting its use more widely. Professionally, am a science graduate, chartered accountant and MBA-holding business adviser. Over three decades of work experience, I've worked in three countries, parented three genders, become involved in three lots of people rescues and quite like three course meals...

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