Dylan Jones: Modern London is so far ahead of the rest it should be a city-state...
The figures say it all: in terms of investment, opportunity, culture and visitor numbers the capital has no real rivals.
London is the most dynamic city in the world today. In the 21st century it has become the most powerful, the most dynamic, the most culturally focused city-state on earth. No other city comes close. Not New York. Not Paris. Not Shanghai. Not Hong Kong. London is already the one true global cultural megalopolis, the one true cocksure city-state.
Nowadays it might not be the biggest in the world (Tokyo and Yokohama can claim that crown) yet it is as full of architectural riches as it’s ever been. The decor and architecture of important London buildings once seemed to represent a conscious desire to be part of an imaginary immemorial London, whereas these days every new building wants to look like the future. As the city gets bigger, so it seems to be raising the bar. As Anthony Sampson said in The Anatomy Of Britain, back in pre-Swinging 1962, “Bigness has strengthened the lure of London.”
In 2014, London brought in more foreign investment and created more jobs than any other city in the world, according to IBM’s annual Global Location Trends. For the seventh year in a row, the city topped the IBM list, attracting 235 foreign investment projects from companies relocating or expanding overseas, generating 11,300 jobs.
Many people suffer a transmogrification when they reach the metropolis, reinventing themselves in a way that simply isn’t possible in the provinces. Of course anyone can reinvent themselves when they arrive in a big city but London seems actively to encourage it. New York applauds anyone who arrives and makes a success of themselves, whereas London inspires people to amplify their personalities.
The city is again full of the “London Lights”, the artists, scientists, writers, architects, musicians and engineers who, like their forebears in the first half of the 19th century, through their genius and courage, luck and misfortune, anger and charm, moved mountains to put London at the cutting edge of cultural change. Back then it was Charles Babbage creating his calculating machines, John Martin devising a new system of clean water supply, John Mayall and Antoine Claudet perfecting the daguerreotype, and Michael Faraday harnessing electricity.
These days it is the likes of industrial designer Thomas Heatherwick, particle physicist Brian Cox, artist Damien Hirst, designer and film-maker Tom Ford, tech entrepreneur Kathryn Parsons, Arts Council chair Sir Peter Bazalgette, e-tail guru Jose Neves and theatrical impresario Sonia Friedman who are shaking up their respective industries. However, while there were only hundreds of creatives in London 200 years ago, today there are thousands.
London life is nowadays a lifestyle, a kaleidoscopic polyphonic theme park across 33 boroughs and nine travel zones that houses grand hotels, dive cocktail bars, world renowned design galleries, bohemian indie clubs, family-owned bistros, esoteric independent retailers, theatres, gentrified trophy parks, state-funded public art and reclaimed open spaces, a cavalcade of consumerism and participatory art. Everything is here: unlike Italy there is no equivalent to Milan, meaning London is the UK’s fashion and media hub; unlike the US there is no equivalent to Washington, meaning London is our political capital; unlike the US again there is no equivalent to Los Angeles, meaning we are the entertainment hub; and unlike Germany there is no equivalent to Frankfurt, meaning London is our centre of finance. Ken Livingstone used to say the reason London overtook Frankfurt as the financial capital of the world is simple: have you ever been stuck in Frankfurt on a Friday night?
Modern London is so far ahead of the rest it should be a city-state.
London is Europe’s largest city, and the sixth richest place on the planet. It has experienced a rapid growth spurt since the Nineties, and in 2015 passed a population peak of 8.6 million (another million are expected to arrive before 2030). In 2014, 17.4 internationals visited London, and it has more international visitors than any other city.
We also have the most languages spoken here of any world city — around 300 — and remain a magnet for global talent (around a third of the city’s population was born overseas). As an editorial in the Times put it a few years ago, “New York has remained a metropolitan city, a great American city with many foreigners in it. London has become a great international city.”
In the last Ten years visitors to London have increased by 43.5 per cent, with eight out of 10 of those saying culture and heritage is why they come. In a way, culture has become the city’s business model. After all, it works: The British Museum gets more visitors than Belgium, we have 22 million theatre admissions a year, the O2 Arena is the number one venue in the world, and Tate Modern is the most visited contemporary art gallery. Not only that, but London’s creative industries generate £35 billion annually for the economy.
The empirical evidence mounts year after year. In June 2015, MasterCard published its annual city league table, and for the fifth year out of seven, London was top, beating 131 other cities.
London is more exciting than it’s ever been. Comparison may be the thief of joy, and it might be invidious to square London off against New York, Milan or Paris — which is heavier, a ton of feathers or a ton of gold? — but right now there is no other city like it. Which makes me think maybe we should turn London into a city-state, or a citadel. Not to keep people out, and not to keep them in, but to celebrate the fact that London deserves to be recognised as the most important city on earth.
Historically places such as Rome, Athens and Carthage were honoured with this status but these days the term only really apples to Singapore, Monaco and Vatican City, and possibly Hong Kong and Dubai. But isn’t our city better than all of them put together? I’d say so. In fact, I think I just did.
‘Ken Livingstone used to say the reason London overtook Frankfurt as the financial capital of the world is simple: have you ever been stuck in Frankfurt on a Friday night?'