John McTernan: Driving forward our cities

Edinburgh's trams, while a source of despair for many residents, should be seen as a statement of the city's ambition. Picture: Julie Bull
Edinburgh's trams, while a source of despair for many residents, should be seen as a statement of the city's ambition. Picture: Julie Bull
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Transport policy is just one of the ways to set out the kind of thriving, competitive urban spaces we want to live in, writes John McTernan

Visitors to Edinburgh now see sleek, gleaming trams when they arrive at the airport. They probably feel a little frustrated that they can’t just hop on one and head straight into town. Scots returning home probably have more mixed feelings, remembering the mismanagement and the cost over-runs. All will have missed the real point. The tram is a symbol of the choices that Edinburgh – and Scotland – have to make about the kind of cities we live in.

This matters, obviously, for the inhabitants of those cities. But we live in a world in which competition between cities is as important economically – and socially – as competition between nations. How they are run and how they develop may well be the crucial factor in our prosperity this century.

It has been well-said that a tram is not a form of transport, it is a different way of experiencing – and using – a city. To compare trams to buses or to cars is to miss the point. To complain about the road space they take up is totally to misunderstand them.

The original proponents of Edinburgh’s trams were right when they conjured up images of European cities to propagandise for the scheme. A different kind of transport creates a different kind of city. All transport makes a claim on urban space. The car – that brilliantly brutal expression of selfish individualism – says “I go where I want, and when I go home to the suburbs, I stay there”. The tram, in contrast, is social democracy on slick steel rails. Its presence puts the group first. Its stops and platforms carve out an oasis of civility in city centres.

Its existence invites workers to stay on in the city after work, to eat and drink, see a show. The tram safely glides you home – no drink-driving. Or it invites you back in after work. Increasing the night-time population and civilising space twice over. Why does it matter? In one simple sense because Scotland and Britain are urban countries – where a substantial majority of us have lived in cities since the Industrial Revolution. So, the better the urban environment, the better we can live. And anything that improves the look of Edinburgh’s Princes Street – still the ugliest great street in the world – is a boon.

But the world has gone urban, too. At the end of 2008, for the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lived in cities. This is due to rise to two-thirds by 2050. Cities are now locked in as the great drivers of economic growth. They are laboratories of innovation – attracting and aggregating workers and then giving their talent free rein.

Here’s the rub. All round the world, heavy industry is being superseded by a knowledge economy. The women and men who create the value in that economy are cultured, educated and footloose. They choose where to live on lifestyle – and they take whole industries with them when they move.

Richard Florida has written widely on the “sticky” qualities that make some cities rather than others attract talent. Where is Silicon Valley? Near San Francisco. What does that tell us? If you want the geeks, first get the freaks. San Francisco has had a radical tradition since the 1920s – from unions such as the International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) to the Beatniks and the Hippies. And trams, or streetcars as they call them.

Now, one tram does not a radical Edinburgh make. But Glasgow has the right tradition, including Scotland’s very own Beat genius – Alexander Trocchi. And, to be honest, from a global perspective, Edinburgh and Glasgow are a megalopolis, or at least a duopolis (a twin-city). Between them, they drive the Scottish economy and they drive job creation. At the moment, they do this in spite of the Scottish Government. Understandably. Because the biggest threat to Alex Salmond is not Johann Lamont – it is Gordon Matheson and Andrew Burns, the respective leaders of the Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils.

Why? Well, earlier this year the United States National Intelligence Council published Alternative Worlds, a report describing global trends that will transform the world within a generation. A thoughtful piece in the New York Times this month, by Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation, pointed out that one of its predictions – a Non-State World – is coming true already, with cities taking over; supplanting the governments of their own countries as the engines of growth, the shapers of the future.

What is true in China, is true in the developed world. New York and London are virtually autonomous city states now. And they are listened to. Mayors Bloomberg and Johnson tell Obama and Cameron what they want, not the other way around. Think that through in a Scottish context. Edinburgh could leave Scotland tomorrow. A world-class university. The associated spin-off industries. Financial services. Add in Glasgow and you get the fourth-largest financial centre in Europe, and a film, TV and music industry.

Devolution is not an event, it’s a process. One that draws power down and down to its most appropriate level. If the city-state is the future of the world, it’s certainly the future of Scotland.

Elected provosts would short-circuit this, but they are not necessary. Civic leadership is as civic leadership does. Who speaks for Edinburgh? The politicians who brought you the trams. Who speaks for Glasgow? The politicians transforming the nature of urban space. Cities and city leadership are critical for Scotland’s future. Will they get the freedom they need?