Why place matters

It is possible to avoid doing almost anything. But it is not possible to avoid being somewhere. When immersed in the most absorbing augmented or virtual reality simulator or simply with the benefit of a vivid imagination, you may project yourself elsewhere in space and time. But the truth is that you have to be present somewhere, in the here and now. At this very basic level, locality matters. We live in localities and they live in us.

Localities are woven into our personal lives: of where we are from, where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we imagine we’re going. Specific localities give form and colour to our origins, our journeys and our imagined destinations.

The fabric of locality gives texture to our lives. The memory of past landscapes and places may be seared more strongly in your memory than the image of the bland location in which you are currently situated. And the personal ties that bind you to other places may overwhelm the flimsier connection to the locality where you are now. But one thing is for sure, you are reading this somewhere.

Periodically we are drawn backwards by the nostalgia of a slightly misremembered past. We may remember with fondness and tenderness the comforting rhythms of life we experienced in specific places during specific times in our lives. These memories tether us to places in our past. And this tethering can sometimes entangle us with places we loathe, almost as much as it attaches us to places we love. Thoughts of place and locality can evoke a sense of belonging to old places as well as generate a genuine longing for new places.

Writing about the way that lived experience both reflects and impacts upon the wider sweep of societal changes is not new: arguably, Homer got their first. And in the late 1940s when Arthur Miller was asked whether his play, The Death of A Salesman, was about one family’s emotional journey or its interplay with the wider waves of economic change in mid-century America, he simply said, “the fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish”.

However, deep in our psyche we seem to possess a pastoral longing for past places where people both worked and played together. In the fields perhaps in Kent, in Devon or in Suffolk; or in tight occupational communities in South Wales, Scotland or in England’s northern cities. Places where friends at work were also neighbours at home. A century long process of deindustrialisation and urbanism seems to have changed all this.

The dominance of city economies on the broader life of the nation sits behind a lot of critical commentary. However, the depiction of the city as a site for modernity and exploitation, contrasted to the relaxed and innocent arcadia of the countryside was carefully rejected by the late cultural theorist Raymond Williams. He argued that this imagery was, “myth functioning as a memory”. Instead he suggested that the English countryside and the cities within it, were symbiotically connected to each other in mutual cultural and economic interdependence.

Our lives have origins in places: but our life journey may lead us to very different places – even if we stay still. It’s a long way from, say, Dhaka in Bangladesh to East London; but it may be further, in socio-economic terms, to move from the Isle of Dogs of the 1950s to the Canary Wharf of today. In the journey to our life’s destinations we cannot but fail to carry memories of our origins alongside memories of the journey itself.

Can you recall the smell of your childhood? Mine was a peculiar blend of vinegar and leather – growing up, as I did, between the Sarson’s vinegar factory and the tanneries in Bermondsey, in South East London. I also recall the blended smell of custard creams and hot metal. For my mother worked in the Peak Freans biscuit factory; while the episodic visits of my father brought the lingering smell of the print rooms where he worked as a compositor. Vinegar, leather, biscuits and print combine in the peculiar smell collage of my late 1950s childhood.

So what do young children smell in London today? Certainly not the products of manufacturing. For only some 100,000 of London’s 3 million workers are employed in businesses that make any products at all. Most of the economic value that is made and exchanged in London today cannot be smelt. Indeed, most of those employed in today’s manufacturing businesses do very little manufacturing themselves.

The decline in the curve of manufacturing jobs in London finds its mirror reflection in the incline in the curve of financial and professional jobs. That’s why the nation with the largest share of London’s exports is currently, Switzerland. For since the mid-1980s, it has been the silent transfer of money, in the form of ones and zeroes, and the daily exercise of “the croupier’s take” that has maketh London.

This financialisation of London and its uninhibited embrace of the digital world has effectively relocated the nation’s capital farther away from the rest of the country. And the escalating value of land in London and the role of so-called “prime property” as a positional good has added yet more distance.

What’s more the past thirty years has witnessed an increasing influx of graduates from across the UK and from the wider world. This has swelled the pool of twenty and thirty-somethings in the capital. The resultant distorted profile of London’s working-age population which includes its bulging share of younger workers most probably flatters its productivity measures compared to other regions.

But it could have been otherwise. London’s population declined throughout most of the 20th century. Indeed, London’s overall population was shrinking for half of my lifetime. Until 1980 the assumption was that London was in decline. That its population would never return to its pre-war peak of 8.7 million people.

It is only since the mid-1980s that London has begun to grow again. Doubtless the “big bang” of financial deregulation in 1986 sparked the incredible growth of financial services in the City that then generated demands in professional services, information technology and the new creative digital economy. This financialisation of the London economy (producing £1 in every £5 in the capital’s economy by 2015) has brought both promise and peril. At its most perilous it may well have contributed to the extraordinary financial crash of 2008 and the decade-long impact of stagnation this has had across the nation.

However, the fabric of locality is more than economics and the world of work. Its fabric also involves the social and cultural life of a place. The socially diverse, cultural vibrancy that characterises London today is a recent phenomena – reflecting just two to three generations of migration into the capital. Nowadays, each of the thousands of communities that compose the kaleidoscope of today’s London have as many connections across the globe as they have with other Londoners.

Crucially, these connections have not been established through the framework of the nation state but directly through the complex interactions between people and between businesses. The economic geographer Parag Khana has written of the critical importance of “competitive connectivity” for the success of cities. For Khana ‘connectivity’ is the comparative advantage that localities must nurture as the 21st century progresses. He argues that only the most connected localities can thrive in the uncertainty of our future global economy.

But what if your place of origin was in, say, the North East of England; and what if you lived in a locality where the prospects of economic turnaround were slim? A place where population is declining and what was once the source of the nation’s energy, is now a site of economic stagnation. In places like this, the adaptable, flexible types have no waves to surf like the millions of their counterparts in London. Instead they have to make their own waves. Generating inclusive growth is somewhat easy when the circumstances are propitious.

But how do you do this when circumstances are not propitious? Localities can’t be shut down simply because it’s difficult for the people in them to make their economies thrive. There are many thousands of “company towns” throughout the world that have shrunk back when the dominant company goes bust. The solution isn’t to find another dominant company but to diversify the economy. Don’t just make things: attend to people’s desperate need to learn throughout their lives and not just before they start work. Also assemble things, distribute things, create value in services, discover new markets, and deepen your connections with existing markets. Search for connectivity to other localities.

In the North East they are trying to do all these things. They need the nation’s support. They are trying to make waves through the unique cultural heritage of their region (in Gateshead); through university-led growth and high tech investment (in Newcastle); and through linking local supply chains to substantial investment in car manufacturing (in Sunderland). These local efforts are supplemented by plans to develop the region’s economy through the £330m North East Growth Deal and the £55m North East Investment Fund.

Of course, the truth of global capitalism is that it will continue to be disruptive and destructive. The geographical dislocation of production, distribution and exchange will increase. Things will literally be made everywhere. The shoes that you are wearing, the phone that you use daily, and the book that you are reading just now. These things will not be made anywhere near where you live and work. And it is most unlikely that they will be made in any single location. Consider the iPhone.

The iPhone is Apple’s most profitable product. Apple has annual revenues of some $225bn with a market capitalisation of $800bn. Half of all iPhones are made by the Taiwanese company, Foxconn, in its massive facility in Zhengzhou in China. Zengzhou is an ancient city in east central China with a history going back over 3,500 years. With a population of 9.6 million, it has 1 million more residents than London. Over a decade ago, local governments in Zengzhou promised Foxconn discounted energy and transportation costs, lower social insurance payments, and more than $1.5bn in grants for the construction of factories and dormitories for hundreds of thousands of workers.

The city government created a special economic zone for the project (now known as iPhone city) and provided a $250m loan to Foxconn. Local governments also pledged to spend more than $10bn to expand the airport, just a few miles away from the factory. From this airport, some 350,000 iPhones are flown out every day to San Francisco.

The scale economies achieved by such a concentration of technically competent mass labour employed at low wages enables Foxconn to generate substantial profits. But these do not compare to the profits made by Apple who, more simply, just design the iPhone and sell 240 million of them globally. The power of propinquity is that it generates cluster advantages for designers in San Francisco and electronic assembly workers in Zengzhou.

As consumers we demand reliable, high-quality products that are ever improving – this comes from design standardisation and economies of scale, a form of uniformity. But as humans we desire uniqueness. We want our own experience in somewhere distinctive. The challenge for locality is how to be a source of deep uniqueness. For every locality has its distinctive history and unique character.

We are all tethered to the fabric of locality. This tethering can tie us down through attachments that limit our horizons or our scope for action. For the limit of localism is parochialism. But when properly attached to the fabric of locality we can also develop our capabilities and our confidence to craft new and productive attachments to other places nearby or across the globe.

Barry Quirk is chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

This article first appeared in Localis’s essay collection ‘Neo-localism: rediscovering the nation’