Cycling through Hyde Park among the debris of Saturday’s Tour de France prologue I realised that one of the successes of Ken Livingstone’s time as Mayor has been that London is much better at doing spectacle. Which is just as well, because spectacle is more important than ever to the competition between cities – and to the weelbeing of their citizens.
This isn’t a new thought. Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini developed this idea of the success of cities being based on place-based innovation twelve years ago in their pioneering pamphlet The Creative City (downloadable as pdf). In World Class Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about the importance of public infrastructure in maintaining private sector competitiveness; about the ‘magnets’ which attracted people to a place (the high class galleries etc) and the ‘glue’ which kept them there (parks, schools, quality of life etc).
Events such as the Tour de France prologue can be seen as both magnets and glue; attractors for outsiders, quality of life for residents. But it does take serious commitment. Roads need to be closed, police and marshals need to be on hand, truck loads of barriers need to put down and picked up again. London didn’t used to be good at any of this, or have the capacity (in the years between the axing of the Greater London Council in 1983 and the creation of the Greater London Authority) to deliver any of it.
But it’s not just about operating at scale. It’s also about spaces. The outdoor theatre event The Sultan and the Elephant (account and video from Boing Boing) attracted a million people over four days, but unfolded largely in the manageable area around Horseguards Parade, next to St James’ Park. (See Streetmap if the locations are unfamiliar). And there are also scores of smaller events. I stumbled into a Korean Dano festival supported by the GLA taking place in Trafalgar Square a couple of weeks ago, which had attracted both Koreans and other visitors and Londoners. One of the effects of closing the road which used to run along the north side of the square is that Trafalgar Square is now a natural stage – and a fairly safe area for pedestrians.