Cities need champions with deep pockets

First published in the Financial Times on 3rd April 2012.

The answer to economic stagnation is not more state subsidy

For those burning with ambition, there is only one place to go: the bright lights of the big city.

Such a hunger for fame and fortune was embodied by the 14th-century tale of Dick Whittington, the penniless boy who walked to London and ended up a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of the city. Many a self-made man or woman has made that same metaphorical journey.

And despite a connected world, those who want to get ahead must gravitate to the great urban centres. There, among the hurly-burly, lie the opportunities, the prizes and the applause.

Tranquil country living is all very well, but for someone who has a fire in their belly and an appetite for glory, only the roar and mania of a huge metropolis can satisfy. The single most important attribute for anyone so inclined is not a first-class honours degree from a grand university, or even family connections. Instead, the vital ingredient is an ability to hustle. That is what will get you a home, a job, a big order, a deal.

The city matters because we are all profoundly influenced by our surroundings. The environment shapes the man or woman. The mass of people in a city engenders a sense of urgency, while multiple rivals foster a competitive spirit.

You can sit in the suburbs and communicate virtually but it isn’t like being face-to-face, at the centre of the action. Cities encourage collaboration, inspire ideas and drive progress.

According to Ryan Avent in his ebook The Gated City, those who work in more densely populated centres earn higher wages and are more productive. Talent will always migrate to packed hubs, even if it involves sacrifice in terms of quality of life. Cities are concentrations of upward mobility, communal improvement in motion. Politicians, developers and planners should understand this.

Meanwhile, Edward Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City postulates that cities magnify humanity’s strengths. They might lack pastures and trees but they also intensify entrepreneurship and innovation. Every civic leader of every city – large and small – should make it their mission to act as a magnet for intellectual and financial capital. With those resources come jobs and rising prosperity.

If I were the mayor of a city in decline, I would do whatever it took to find rich sponsors to kick-start a revival. The answer to economic stagnation is not more state subsidy – what is needed is a local champion or two with deep pockets and a desire to leave a legacy.

One English town that can offer lessons to its bigger peers is Folkestone on the Kent coast. It has been revived in part thanks to help from Roger De Haan, who made a fortune from the Saga insurance business. He has pumped millions of pounds into a reinvention of the faded seaside resort, launching the “Creative Quarter” as a centre for the cultural industries in a series of refurbished period buildings.

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, Tony Hsieh, founder of online shoe retailer Zappos, is investing $350m of his money into a regeneration of the city’s downtown. He has moved his company’s headquarters into the old City Hall, and is backing technology start-ups and education initiatives in an attempt to reinvigorate the neighbourhood. The city has suffered a precipitous property slump but this has enabled Mr Hsieh to co-operate with local government to assemble an area where entrepreneurs across music, art, fashion and technology can work together.

At the heart of such efforts are entrepreneurs who feel loyalty to a community. Countries such as Britain and the US have dozens of cities in need of boosters to help them stage comebacks. Of course it is about accommodation, facilities and infrastructure, but it is really about individuals and confidence.

As old industries crumble and retailers close, so new ways must be found for cities to thrive. From Singapore to Vancouver to Milan to Austin there are dozens of examples of how 21st-century cities find their role in the world, and can adapt to changed circumstances.

It requires imaginative local politicians, bold thinking, luck and citizens who want to embrace dynamism rather than excuses and memories of past greatness. Every city should be shameless and adopt its own tycoon.