Britain cares about its cities; the United States does not.
It was tough for Americans attending the Urban Land Institute's World Cities Forum here last week to reach any other conclusion.
And the Brits' visionary urban-agenda setter, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, made the point without a word of trans-Atlantic criticism.
Instead, Prescott simply described the amazingly broad set of activist initiatives that Prime Minister Tony Blair has allowed him to lead and champion — in housing, transportation, recycling abandoned industrial lands, revitalizing towns and using government power to force new malls and megastores back into downtowns.
All of this is rolling forward with tens of billions of pounds invested, pushed with little opposition in a national parliamentary system with few of the checks and balances of the U.S. system.
But the listening Americans couldn't help wonder: What if our federal government developed a vision of where American communities need to be headed?
"I can't think of one U.S. national politician who mentions cities or urban environment in any meaningful way," noted Urban Land Institute President Richard Rosan. "Not one of them is out there talking seriously about critical issues of transportation and housing, metropolitanwide planning, viability of communities — all ways that national government, even without dictating quite the way London does, could at least encourage a more secure and livable urban future."
Prescott, by contrast, is a hard-charging, one-time merchant seaman who's used his broad portfolio of powers to push projects on a scale unimaginable in the United States. The biggest of them all, the Thames Gateway Project, is intended to provide hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units — 128,000 in the first wave — to offset what Prescott describes as the "roaring" inflation of housing costs in southeast England.
Like the amazing run-up of housing costs that started around such U.S. hot spots as San Francisco and Boston and is now spreading nationwide, the London metro region escalation means fantastic wealth gain for some, but housing unaffordability for millions more.
So the Thames River lands, which start with London's highly successful Canary Wharf employment center but then run through 40 miles scarred by abandoned docks and quarries and factories, will be built out in a succession of communities offering state-of-the-art schools, health-care facilities, even three new universities. Along the line of the London-to-Paris "Chunnel" rail service, the area will have premier public-transport services. And government's substantial up-front monies, Prescott told me, will generate substantial private-sector development.
Can you imagine Washington — or indeed any American state government — moving so aggressively? Americans seem quite unaware of infrastructure as a true place-maker, notes the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program's Alan Berube. The English, and many Asian countries, are building massive new systems and communities, linked carefully to transportation, employment centers and amenities — new developments, says Berube, "not just plopped 30 miles outside with roads and a Target store."
Or in the words of New York Regional Plan Association president Robert Yaro: "Our competitors around the world are spending megabillions on rail, brownfield reclamation, urban regeneration in their megaregions. And we're frozen on our derriéres."
Will errors be made, significant sums of money misspent in all these ambitious projects? Yes, most likely. What's critical is to learn from the past — for example, the 20th century's dreary public-housing blocks for the poor, spectacular failures in both Britain and the United States.
Prescott vows not to repeat the errors; he talks instead of "sustainable" communities that don't just incorporate good environmental standards but assure a sense of place, low crime, transportation choices, citizen participation, economic development and "life chances for all." Such places, he argues, "create superb buildings and open spaces — where people want to be together and feel real pride in their own community."
Prescott's premier test of a sustainable community: housing opportunities and a welcome mat for people of many income groups. He sees deep divisions of income and class as the scourge of our time, to be attacked aggressively with public power and the public purse.
It's a stunning vision, extraordinarily tough to execute, even by a determined national government. The tragedy is that we Americans aren't even dreaming it.