This is the third of a short series on ‘Five things a perfect city needs‘, prompted by a twitter exchange on the subject a few weeks ago.
Why did I include entrepreneurship as one of the five essential things for the perfect city? First of all, in a way ‘perfect’ is a misnomer. I am writing about the city that works, that is alive, functional and somewhere that people want to live in and can thrive in, not some ideal city of beauty (though beauty might come into a list of ten if the exercise had allowed this). Entrepreneurship is an essential part of the working city. Cities which work well will accommodate new businesses to start up, whether in people’s front rooms as laid out so lucidly by Frances Hollis in her live/work analysis or in a section of a subdivided shop on the Walworth Road, as described by Suzanne Hall in her ethnography of an ‘ordinary’ high street.
Holliss has provided evidence for Jacobs’ conception of public life as being sustained by people doing little more than coming and going, carrying out prosaic, small-scale activities. She shows how a closer connection between work and home can strengthen local social networks, support people with caring responsibilities and indeed feed back into the local economy. An urban setting which mixes use in an intelligent way, by organising different activities so that they are within reach spatially, but are in minimal conflict with each other will encourage such use. It is a formula that we seem to have forgotten in our drive for clean and tidy zones of use.
Our Adaptable Suburbs project on London’s town centre evolution since the 19th century demonstrates that light touch planning coupled with high streets – well connected to their local street network but also within reach of the wider city – can help build in resilience against economic and social change. The important thing is flexibility: in land use designations and business licences as well as the built form itself. We have shown that arrays of buildings with smaller footprints, decent floor-to-ceiling rations, positioned on accessible sites do best in adapting to change.
Entrepreneurship is also essential for migrants seeking new lives in a city. Indeed, my research into historically successful immigrant groups shows that the appropriate urban setting helps create the foundations for economic activity and ultimately, economic mobility. On the other hand, a pronounced separation from the economic centre can break this virtuous circle. Some entrepreneurship will stem from migrants identifying a gap in the market, whilst in other instances an entirely new industry will stem from the immigrants’ own presence in the city – as Claudia Roden has pointed out, fish and chips is in fact a 19th century Jewish-Irish innovation, whilst the UK’s “Indian” food industry, has bloomed since the arrival of Bengali migrants in the last century.