Will sex save the city?

Ah, the romance of urban economics and human geography!

In a thread of tweets last month, global cities guru Richard Florida reflected on the future of clustering, the force of agglomeration that brings industries and people together in cities. Looking at advances in remote working during the pandemic, he suggested that location may become less important in future for industry clustering than for talent clustering. HQs may locate where CEOs want to live, even if that is not an urban centre, but talent will continue to cluster in selected locations. In his words, “young folks will continue to be drawn to cities for a combination of thick labor and more so mating markets.” 

Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith reached a similar conclusion pondering whether the changes triggered by the pandemic will enable workers to escape the overpriced grasp of ‘superstar cities’. He sees access to labour markets and office productivity as easier to replicate in a world of remote work, but is less sure about the informal knowledge spillovers that form the dark matter of agglomeration. And he thinks the social value of cities would be even harder to replace, particularly for young people seeking “bars, music venues, fun social events, lots of potential friends in their age group, and — probably the most important piece — opportunities to meet romantic partners.”

So will sex save the city? Cities have always cast their net wide, gathering young people (or at least those with the means) to meet and match up – from the aristocratic dances of “the season” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the graduate convergence that sees a net flow into London of 25,000 people aged 20-24 in a normal year.

For all the features about the frustrations of dating in big cities, and despite the rising role of dating apps, restaurants, bars and workplaces still play a pivotal role in bringing many couples together. For all of those, cities offer a ‘thicker market’ – more opportunities and more choice, particularly for gay people or people from other minority groups who are more likely to be gathered in the big urban areas. And meeting up with your perfect online match is easier if they are a tube ride, rather than a flight, away.

London’s employment, entertainment and dating offer has drawn young people from across the world for years, but its short-term outlook looks pretty challenging right now. The restaurants and bars are closed, the theatres and nightclubs are silent, and the flows of people that animate the city are stilled. As reflected in Arup’s recent report for the Greater London Authority (and in Centre for London’s reports), London’s core has seen some of the sharpest slowdowns in activity of any city in the UK or comparator cities abroad, and London as a whole has seen the UK’s sharpest spike in unemployment and highest levels of furlough.

GLA research published in October estimated that lost tourist and commuter expenditure in the Central Activities Zone would be £13 billion in 2020. This loss of custom has hit London’s hospitality and cultural sectors particularly hard. Arup estimate that the West End arts and culture economy shrunk by 97% in 2020.

Moreover, while the UK’s vaccinations are a huge success story, the appearance of new strains of coronavirus means that an imminent big bang re-opening of London to international tourists, students and business visitors seems unlikely. But that will change over time; global travel will rebound, even if not this year. As I write, snow is turning to sleet outside, gusting around in a bitter easterly wind. As ever in the depths of winter, summer seems almost inconceivable, but we all know it will come.

The challenge is not to give up on London’s hospitality and cultural industries, magnets for the people who come to London to work, to study, to innovate, to make friends and more, as well as for those who visit for conferences or holidays. Confusing short-term sickness with long-term viability risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, if we let the infrastructure of the city’s sociability decay. 

This means that more support is likely to be needed this year – to sustain what is hard to replace, to allow space for new growth, and to address long-term problems such as housing quality and affordability – so that London can continue to play its role as the UK’s gateway to the world. When we emerge from the other side of this crisis, young people will once again be drawn to the possibilities and freedoms that cities can offer. London needs to be ready to welcome them back.

[Published in OnLondon, 14 February 2021]

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