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What the UK can teach US cities

New York fireworks

The British have long looked to US cities for inspiration. Now Americans are starting to seek UK solutions to their urban problems, says Dermot Finch of the Centre for Cities.

Gleaming skyscrapers, the land of opportunity, pursuit of the American Dream - many admire major cities in the United States and their dash of extra polish. In 2006 alone, more than 30,000 Brits left to try their luck Stateside.

Leading Labour and Conservative figures regularly look to the likes of New York and Chicago to fix urban problems back home. The Tories' new welfare to work proposals were modelled on existing schemes in New York and Wisconsin. And John Prescott and David Miliband both made ministerial study tours of the US a top priority.

But the reality behind the shining urban bastions of the American dream isn't always so rosy. When it comes to preventing urban sprawl and tackling congestion, UK cities are actually further ahead.

So what can UK cities - which have benefited from a decade of strong economic growth - teach their Atlantic neighbours?

TACKLE GRIDLOCK

Since Ken Livingstone, the previous mayor of London, brought in the congestion charge in 2003 (amidst a barrage of criticism and only reluctant support from the government), the volume of traffic entering the congestion charge zone has fallen by over a fifth - with bus use increasing by 15%. Meanwhile the 125m extra cash generated by the charge (after its upkeep costs) goes straight back into public transport.

Traffic in Miami as the city ranks as worst for road rage in a survey
Road rage plagues Miami

This week the Department for Transport announced its support of Manchester's own charge proposals - although until more of its critics are won over, the future of the charge continues to hang in the balance.

Miami, Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco are also currently looking to London's congestion charge to solve their traffic problems. The charge in London has its critics, particularly concerning the charge amount and the western extension, and there are still problems with congestion caused by road works in parts of the capital. But the fact that the charge survived the change in mayoralty is testimony to its success - and the likes of Seattle and San Francisco could learn from the scheme's successes and limitations.

KEEP TOWN AND CITY CENTRES ALIVE

In 1996, the Conservative government took action to stop UK city and town centres and their High Streets turning into ghost towns.

High Street in Southampton
Britons shop in the High Street

Whilst not everyone supports recent city centre redevelopments, by putting town centres first in the planning rules, successive governments have reduced the number of car-dependent shopping centres being built - and encouraged more shops and offices into city centres.

As a result, total retail floor space in UK town and city centres increased from 25% in the mid 1990s to 34% in 2003/2004.

HOW TO BEAT SUBURBAN SPRAWL

The Labour Government went on to take further steps to stop UK cities and towns sprawling like their American equivalents. Atlanta and Los Angeles have become known for the segregated neighbourhoods, lengthy commutes and gridlock that resulted from suburban sprawl.

Sprawling suburbia in London
Living in a box, London style

Reusing urban land where possible, rather than building on Greenfield sites, has helped cities like Leeds and Bristol to avoid far-flung car-dependent suburbs proliferating. In 2000 the Government introduced a housing density target for new housing developments of 30-50 homes a hectare - where it's appropriate to do so. By 2006, new homes were being built at an average density of 40 a hectare.

The British experience suggests that American cities would benefit from a strong steer from the federal government to make neighbourhoods denser and less dependent on private transport.

LAVISH ATTENTION ON CITIES

The decline of British industry after World War II saw UK cities and towns riddled with social and economic deprivation, and largely neglected by central government.

A foliage sculpture of the Beatles in Liverpool - with Ringo's head chopped off
Liverpool celebrates its cultural legacy

In recent years - starting with Michael Heseltine's city development initiatives under the Conservative government of the 1980s, UK cities have basked in the attention of senior ministers. Tony Blair's Social Exclusion Unit, Gordon Brown's target to reduce child poverty and John Prescott's expert Urban Task Force attest to a concentrated effort to help cities improve after a lengthy period of economic and industrial decline.

Ex-industrial cities like Leeds and Sheffield have seen jobs growth of 15% and 25% respectively in a single decade. Who would have thought 10 years ago that Liverpool, the European Capital of Culture, would be welcoming its two millionth visitor so far this year? That Gateshead would be hosting the Conservative Party's 2008 spring conference?

There has been no equivalent high-profile championing of urban development and regeneration by the US government in recent years - American cities have been missing out.

Boris Johnson shows off London to Michael Bloomberg
Boris Johnson show his New York counterpart the view from City Hall

Of course, we can and should continue to learn from US cities. For one, US city mayors have more control over their own finances - meaning that they can innovate more and grow their economies as a result. Only 5% of all tax revenues are raised by local councils in England, compared to 41% in the US.

Policy learning can go both ways. A recent visit to London's new mayor by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, and the promise to exchange expertise and personnel on London transport and crime reduction in the Bronx could signal an end to this one-way traffic.

British ministers have for too long gone cap in hand to the US for ideas on how to improve our cities. With cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic now facing tougher economic times, isn't it time for our two nations' cities to share the best of both? As the US political parties gear up for the Democratic Convention in Denver and the Republican Convention in St Paul, Minnesota, the question is more relevant than ever.

Dermot Finch is the director of the think-tank Centre for Cities.


Send us your comments using the form below.

Being a native Bostonian I have witnessed first hand the before and after of the "Big Dig," a 10-plus year construction project on the entire city. On the whole its greener and cleaner, which reminds me of the UK and the rest of Europe. But still there are problems with traffic due to the spread of suburbs and lack of efficient public transportation. In that area, Europe has it all over us. But the comment on how mayors have more control of their economies is a little too rosy. The tax money is not allocated efficiently to make our towns and cities better places because funds are strained as it is. In most towns the money is put into "more needed" areas of the budget.
Lia , Boston Ma US

Tackling gridlock in a sprawling city such as Los Angeles requires greater ambitions than simply charging for entry to a city center. LA has no city centre and is already so infected with sprawl that any treatment to this disease will have to be very dramatic. For those of us who live here, change such as those mentioned in the article needs to be made by courageous public officials, willing populace, and supportive corporate interests. I'm not holding my breath.
Hoot, Los Angeles, CA

Is this for real? I used to live in Seattle. I-5 is a main interstate that runs right though the city. We have nothing like that in the UK. It seems the only think the US is taking from us are the scam-the-motorist policies. As for housing density, all forms of violent crime (per capita) increase with housing density. A detached house with a bit of grass round it is far nicer and stops people getting in each others face all the time. Like many of the world's problem, it is overpopulation that is the real root cause.
Simon Ward, Watford, UK

The majority of your comment seems to relate to cars and pricing cars out of affordability and cramming more people into ever smaller boxes. I'll bet none of the decision makers want to live in them.
Jim, Herts

While several British cities have made innovative changes to improve life, London's congestion charge, the majority are examples of how not to carry out urban development. Housing density is higher in the UK because of land prices, developers have to get as many properties onto a site to make building commercially viable. Many US cities have better public transport systems than UK ones, subsidy, integration, cleanliness and reliability. Granted, US city traffic is still generally bad. I am sure other readers can think of many other instances of why US cities should not apply British ideas. Personally, I think they would be better off looking at German, Dutch, French or Spanish cities for inspiration.
Kenny Boy, Edinburgh, Scotland

Horses for courses. Each city is a unique combination of geography, communications and cultures which may not work elsewhere. London's first congestion zone had an almost-natural boundary in the Ring Road AND a unitary authority covering highways and transport. Shouldn't stop people trying as long as they don't just copy...
Joel Kosminsky, London

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