Growing good cities


The latest in my Postcards From the Future, which now number over 40, deal with the links between technological change, urban growth, and human wellbeing. My journey from Vancouver in British Columbia on the West of Canada to Palo Alto South of San Francisco in California took in some of the most prosperous places in the world. My experience raises the question of how so many people can live on the streets in cities in the richest part of the world, and why the revolution in information technology has not resolved the problem of traffic jams and urban pollution. In a period when forest fires in California are highlighting the widespread impacts of global warming, I wanted to explore whether our cities can change direction before it is too late. In a book with Sir Peter Hall we had used a tour round European cities to structure our analysis.[1] I hoped to do something similar in a trip of over a thousand miles that took three weeks.

I planned the trip around a return to Palo Alto, the birthplace of digital or information technology, which some class as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. An invitation to a 50th anniversary class reunion at Stanford Business School provided an excellent justification for revisiting cities on the West Coast of North America over three weeks. As well as fascinating discussions with some leading experts I was able to study recent books on innovation and the impact of the high-tech revolution on housing and congestion, and in particular on Portland and San Francisco. My partner Esther and I were also able to watch American television and marvel at the contrasting explanations given on Fox News and CNN, and read insightful stories in papers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Hopefully my impressions will stimulate discussion on how to secure ‘smarter urbanisation’, that is growth that does not cost the earth.

One particular interest was in lessons that could be drawn not just for London and the South East, but also for rapidly growing cities in Asia and elsewhere. In a world where half now live in cities, and 40% of a global population of 7.7 billion are under 24, what can be learnt from the American experiment? A big question, given the challenges of global warming, population movement, and economic disparities, is whether and how cities can shift course, and use new ideas and technologies to support more sustainable and intelligent ways of life.

Our itinerary

With Esther Caplin, we started by flying into Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, and then took the ferry for a day at Victoria on Vancouver Island, before taking another ferry down to Seattle. A four hour journey on Amtrak due South took us to Portland, a world model for ‘smart growth’. After a couple of days exploring the city on its fine rapid transit systems, we took an internal two hour flight to San Francisco. Staying with a friend from my Stanford days near Golden Gate Park, we spent a wonderful week using buses and trams as well as a lot of walking around, before being driven down to Palo Alto, where we stayed a short walk from Stanford University’s beautiful campus. We finished by taking the Caltrain a couple of stops and changing on to BART to get to San Francisco airport and thence to London after three great weeks looking and learning from the current innovation centre of the world.

During this time, I was thinking about a book on how cities can change direction so that they become more sustainable, affordable, healthier and happier. In this series of ‘postcards from the future’ I have tried to organise my thoughts around the themes of how cities grow, why innovation happens in some places and not others; how transport affects investment and activity; and how cities can respond to housing demand. Throughout I was searching for what can be done to create a climate of enterprise and collaboration in other rapidly growing towns and cities. In short, the West Coast of North America is both an inspiration and warning for other places on how good ideas can get out of hand when the pursuit of money becomes the dominant value, and when planning loses its powers to moderate human behaviour.

Rapid growth and population displacement 

The ascendance of the West Coast as one of the best places to live and work in the world is quite recent[2]. Cut off by deserts and the Rocky Mountains on the East side, and by the Pacific Ocean on the West, it took missions from Mexico to colonise the coastal strip, leaving Spanish names behind, but few residents. The native Americans were either forced North or died from disease. Their distinctive and highly social way of life is celebrated in the splendid ethnographical museum of British Columbia in Vancouver. Further South in Mexico and Guatemala, the Mayans built great cities and civilisations, as we saw in a superb exhibition in the museum in Victoria on Vancouver Island. However, they were forced away, probably by climate change and civil war over a thousand years ago, a salutary lesson, and their cities were covered over by jungles until recent archaeological excavations revealed them.

British Columbia

Native American history is celebrated in the museum of British Columbia


The Mexican settlers who built early market towns like Sonoma, now the capital of the Californian wine industry, and Monterey, lost their titles to the land when the emerging USA took over. The US federal government sought to create new states in the West that were not dependent on slavery, and abolished church land. The Central Pacific railroad that broke through the mountains was paid for by the US government and incentivised by land grants (every alternative square mile). This made four San Francisco traders very rich, who because known as ‘The Big Four’. Chinese workers were brought over to do the hard and skilled work. Subsequently two gold rushes attracted many more pioneers and turned San Francisco and Seattle into boom towns. Land was given on favourable terms to those prepared to build houses or homesteads. The arrangement encouraged a distinct spirit of individualism rather than the collectivism of European towns and cities from which pioneers had come.

California’s early wealth was largely created through agriculture. This was made possible by the many who fled the dust-storms of Oklahoma, immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which came out just before the Second World War. Gold and silver mining were also major attractions. The dry flatlands of the Central Valley and Southern California were irrigated and turned into orange groves and other crops by piping water down from the Northern hills, a story partially told in the film Chinatown (with Jack Nicholson and Walter Huston.) Government funded water projects were crucial to turning virtual deserts into farmland and enabling individuals to prosper.

The term ‘robber barons’ was sometimes used to describe those who capitalised on the great financial ‘surges’.One of the San Francisco four was Leland Stanford, who made most money from owning the sub-contracting firms who built the railroads. In 1885 his land provided Stanford University with its principal asset, (which evaded government claims). Subsequently this land enabled pioneers in electronics, such as Hewlett and Packard, to get going, and to devise electronic gear vital to winning the Second World War.

Somewhat ironically, Mexicans or ‘Latinos’ have moved in again to work not just in the fields but as service workers. Of those classified as poor in California, 70% are white of which Hispanics make up the majority or 40%). Recent immigrants have been supplemented by large numbers from Asia, who range from workers at, for example, San Francisco airport, to the wealthy investors from Hong Kong in prime real estate ranging from Vancouver to Palo Alto and Irvine. Half the students at Stanford Business School come from abroad. The Information Technology hub at Palo Alto is like the magnet of a dynamo in drawing people or energy to it and multiplying their efforts. As in the UK, there has been strong resistance to building new housing from the wealthy people who live in the hills of Mountain View or along the coast, and the environmental movement is well resourced. Hence the inevitable result has been escalating housing costs and congestion as people spend hours driving to and from work.

The changes over the last decades were most visible in driving through East Palo Alto. Half a century ago it was known as a ‘black ghetto’, but African Americans have largely moved away. Streets off University Avenue, where I and fellow students had rented a house, are now for the very rich. A powerful study of displacement by San Francisco author Alex Schafran, blames escalating rentals and then foreclosures due to the overselling of mortgages for another great population movement.[3] But this time people have moved far away from the high paid jobs of Silicon Valley. They have moved  across the San Francisco Bay and beyond the former industrial port and railway town of  Oakland to Stockton and the San Joaquin Valley.. Like the Indians or the Mexicans before them, the African Americans have largely been displaced. At the same time commuting has rapidly grown for those who can afford it, turning old towns into suburbs and creating ‘edge cities’.


Many who are homeless live on the street a short walk away from expensive homes in Seattle


Public investment

Significantly while California invested relatively little in public transport, between 1982 and 2,000 the prison population increased by nearly 500%, two thirds of whom were African Americans and Latinos, as Alex Schafran stresses in his book on displacement, which he calls the ‘road to segregation’. Expenditure on prisons expanded from 2% to 8% of the State budget. At the same time Proposition 13, which was passed in a referendum, limited tax increases. Existing property owners refused to pay for the local infrastructure needed by a growing population. Environmentalism trumped the common purpose of the advocates of ‘smart growth’ and social justice. Social divides widened.

Yet the planning process is in many ways exemplary in larger cities such as San Francisco. Communities are engaged in how their cities should grow. Consortia for planning were created and public private partnerships formed for major projects. Bonds were issued using Tax Increment Finance in which a rise in the city’s tax revenue is used to service and repay loans that have been approved through a ballot. A vital distinction was drawn between Priority Development Areas (PDAs) and Priority Conservation Areas (PCAs) in the Plan Bay Area, as the process for the wider sub-region was called, which began in 2011. The problem is that implementation can be powerless without ownership of the land, and as in the UK city boundaries stop expansion.

The growth of California into the richest state in the world’s richest country is a tribute to individual enterprise backed by government expenditure. In the process of promoting economic growth, the West Coast is attracting immigrants from all over the world. While this has brought economic benefits, including hundreds of thousands of new jobs, it  has also created serious social and environmental conflicts. Poorer people who end up being displaced far away from opportunities end up driving far further for work, with serious consequences for both health and the environment. The fourth industrial revolution is having as profound an impact as the ones that preceded it, and planning seems powerless to direct investment where it is most needed.



[1] Peter Hall with Nicholas Falk, Good Cities Better Lives: how Europe discovered the lost art of urbanism, Routledge 2014

[2] I am indebted to classmate Richard Gregory, a native Californian and former World Bank staff member, for his valuable comments and corrections on my short , and inevitably naïve, history.

[3] Alex Schafran, The Road to Segregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics, University of California, 2018

James Tracy, Dispatches against Displacement: field notes from San Francisco’s housing wars, AK Press, 2014

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