The UK Centre for Cities has been undertaking a lot of interesting research on the future of cities. In a recent article on their website, they look at 'why place matters when thinking about productivity. Productivity has been persistently low in the UK and the article discusses "‘Place’, one of the pillars of productivity identified by the Government’s Industrial Strategy" and how it interacts with the other four pillars – ‘People’, ‘Ideas’, ‘Business Environment and ‘Infrastructure’.
Perhaps not surprisingly they find that. city centres offer inherent advantages to some businesses compared to those offered by rural areas. They also draw on previous research in finding that "broadly speaking, density is good for innovation.... the proximity of researchers to each other through co-location improves quality of output. Our work also finds that jobs in city centres are more productive than their counterparts elsewhere" although this preference is not universal.
‘Infrastructure’ , they say, "is the pillar where the impact of ‘place’ is the most obvious. Proliferation of public transport systems is the most efficient solution to get people around in dense city centres where as a private car is the best way to travel in the countryside."
However it is the people pillar that I find most interesting and where I disagree with the article. "For the ‘people’ pillar, ‘place’ is indiscriminate – skill levels are the biggest determinant of outcomes everywhere." The research has been taking place as part of the government drive to develop Local Industrial Strategies in England. Yet I do not think 'place' can be reduced to providing skills training courses. Our work in the EU funded CONNECT project suggests that as important, if not more so, is the promotion of opportunities for learning, through networks of different organizations including both the public and private sectors. Such organisations embrace cultural and social activities and adult education as well as formal skills training. And especially in dense cities like Valencia or Athens informal learning taking place in public spaces is critical. Such public spaces are frequently under pressure from developers and policies need to be developed to preserve and extend such places. Thus any policy which looks at productivity and skills needs to take a wider viewpoint and in relation to cities, consider how public places play a role in sharing knowledge and developing social innovation.