The Romantic City


by Francesca Perry

As it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s think about love. Or more specifically, how do urban forms – if at all – affect and even shape attitudes towards and behaviours surrounding love, sex and romance? I’m not seeking a claim of outright environmental determinism, but I do think it’s interesting to consider possible connections. Romantic and sexual behaviours are part and parcel of social practices – something that most agree the built environment plays a significant role in. How we live our public lives, in the public realm, is coordinated by how a city is built and organised. The ways in which we work and play, in which we come together or separate ourselves off – the city both reflects and perpetuates this.

A fascinating article by Abigail Haworth, exploring the current social phenomenon in Japan in which young people seem to be decreasingly interested in sex and relationships,has long stuck in my mind. It is well known that Japan is a conglomeration of mega-regions – which is to say it is a country of endless cities. For me, then, this social phenomenon seems to be a particularly urban one. Haworth cited the pressured economic and work culture as primary reasons in this attitude shift. Her mention of urban conveniences-for-one, however, particularly grabbed my attention. In a city like Tokyo catered towards the individual, where apartments are tiny, density is high, products are sold individually-wrapped and visual stimuli is excessive, is the notion of togetherness designed out or made unappealing?

I often quote Georg Simmel, whose seminal essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in 1903 suggested that the busier our cities and the greater the level of stimuli in our urban environments, the more likely we are to retereat into ourselves and adopt a blasé attitude to the external world. I am not saying that Simmel’s extreme conclusion is what is going on here, but it is an interesting psychological context to consider.

This got me thinking about other cities, other romantic practices. Paris may be known as the city of love, but beyond tourist rose-tinted glasses, what is the reality of romance there? From both first- and second-hand experience, it seems to me that some romantic attitudes are as stuck in their ways as the obsessively-preserved architecture. In this snow globe of a city, where the real diversity of modern life is pushed out beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, one can find very male-dominated traditional attitudes that result in an imbalance not palatable to any feminist. Monogomy is rare; men peacock around the metropolis, as sure of their virility as Paris is of its legendary status. Paris in its elegant beauty certainly encourages romance – but it is often a fleeting act, an ongoing merry-go-round that sparkles as brightly as the Eiffel Tower’s light show, and burns out just as quick.


In London, we can’t help but feel that the sprawling size of the city plays a role in our romances. When it can take as long to travel to a (potential) partner’s house as it would to fly to another country, does the sheer dispersed bulk of London form a barrier to sparking – and sustaining – romantic connections? What, then, will happen when tube lines are opened around the clock in 2015 – could transport infrastructure be the facilitator of love? Prague seems to have taken this one step further, with dedicated ‘flirt trains’ which encourage romantic connections. In London, whilst our public spaces become ever-more privatised, and our social spaces ever more commercialised and unaffordable, our places for pursuing romance seem to become increasingly restricted – perhaps flirt trains are next on our agenda too.

Can a city’s form be more ‘intimate’? Think of Barcelona, where in the close-quarters of the central Gothic Quarter, life is certainly lived more in the public realm: togetherness is enabled, encouraged, celebrated by every square and every pedestrianised street. Does it follow, then, that facilitating social interaction affects romantic connections? Or is this rendered meaningless in an age of digital encounters via dating and hook-up apps?

In dense, concentrated cities, apps such as Grindr and Tinder are more successful. The more people in your immediate location, the more options and opportunities there are to you. Perhaps facilitated or reflected by this, the high-density city of New York seems to be known as a ‘dating’ city, with a culture of hook-ups and romances that seem to be yet just another activity slotted in the queue of consumption. Whatever you want, whenever you want it, you can pretty much get it in New York, whether it’s a hamburger delivered to your door, a person to walk your dog in the middle of the night, or a hook-up (or all three).

What of the city of sex? Whilst some define Amsterdam by its Red District and associate it with sexual indulgence, the real picture is a more wholesome – but happily liberal – one. As a city, Amsterdam is low-density, low-stress, open-plan, beautiful and with generous and inclusive public spaces. Fitting, then, that a life-long resident (and friend of mine) should call it ‘tolerant, progressive and liberal’ in terms of sex and romance, with a focus on equal and settled partnerships: ‘the culture is just quite open, practical and sober about sex, it isn’t something taboo or forbidden so there’s no ‘exciting’ cultural fixation on it.’ IMG-20131006-02351

Of course, I have somewhat set myself up to fail. Urban form cannot dictate sexual and romantic activity – culture, economy, social norms, even laws will always play a more dominant role. In Singapore, a single person is not eligible for a HDB (public housing) flat until they’re roughly 35, meaning most people in their twenties still live with their parents – or have to get married in order to move out and achieve any romantic privacy. A culture of dating, as you can expect, does not blossom under such circumstances. And it can get even more extreme: in Purwakata City in Indonesia, unmarried couples are forbidden to be seen on dates after 9pm – and as the (reported) story goes, those found to be defying this law are forced to get married ‘on the spot’. Yes, seriously.

Whilst, then, other factors are more critical, as urbanists we must always consider how the design of cities enables or hinders social interaction. And social interaction, of course, is the start of it all. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Zurich Nottingham

This is an edited and updated version of an article originally published on this site in 2014. Thank you to some truly wonderful women who helped me with this piece: Anna Berezina, Zing Tsjeng, Natasha Lennard and Rosie Haslem.

Brutal heritage: renewing London’s icons

From Tower Bridge to Buckingham Palace, Jasper Sutherland‘s montages blend the traditional icons of London with brutalist housing in a reimagined cityscape

'Twin Tower Bridge'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Twin Tower Bridge’. Image: Jasper Sutherland

What if London’s feted architectural icons were replaced with brutalist blocks? That’s he urban landscape imagined by designer Jasper Sutherland in his ‘Postcards to London’ series.

Mingling notions of tradition and monumentality, the postcard montages – created by pasting brutalist icons into ornate landmarks of London’s picture postcard history – seek to reference the often unusual juxtaposition of architectural styles in the UK capital, much of which remains as a legacy of the Blitz.

“London is both of the things in the picture – and more – but you have this layered spectrum,” explains Sutherland. “Grand wealth and imperial antiquity at one end and the changing face of modernity, often responding to social deprivation, at the other. What I find interesting is when this spectrum is compressed and ends up side by side as it is, all over London.”

“Part of my interest was sparked by the link between architecture and the ‘future’,” he adds. “We are always living in a vision of the future from the past. We do live in a postmodern city – something like a watered down 2019 LA in Blade Runner. London in the future is never going to look shiny and coherent because of its existing context. And that’s kind of what I love about it – it’s diverse to the point of incoherence, architecturally speaking. It doesn’t look ‘planned’ because things happen at distinct moments in time, in a very condensed amount of space.”

'Trellick Circus'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Trellick Circus’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Heygate Palace / One below the Queen'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Heygate Palace / One below the Queen’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Bovril Heights'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Bovril Heights’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Apartments of Parliament / Second Home'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Apartments of Parliament / Second Home’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'British tele-column'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘British tele-column’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'Abbey's Loft conversion'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘Abbey’s Loft conversion’. Image: Jasper Sutherland
'St Paul's Terrace of Alexandra'. Image: Jasper Sutherland
‘St Paul’s Terrace of Alexandra’. Image: Jasper Sutherland

Housing London’s Young

Why supporting and enabling young people to live in London is key. By Francesca Perry


A YouGov poll conducted earlier this month revealed that the majority of Londoners believe the best age to live in the city is in your 20s – but with extensive unemployment amongst young people and an increasingly exclusive housing market, is this really the case?

A clear effect of these soaring house prices and rents is to push people out of the city that cannot afford it. So-called affordable housing is beyond many people’s reach; new luxury residential developments proliferate and private rents rise quicker than most young people’s incomes – the result is that those young people facing unemployment, low-paid jobs and debt are excluded from the very city that attracted them in the first place – the city of so much promise.

This ‘exodus’ of people from London has been reported in the media recently – yet most still herald the city as the big draw for young talented people. The truth is, many seriously struggle to get their foot on the career ladder here, let alone the property ladder. The thought of buying a house has become a pipe-dream for the majority of London’s young residents. In the late 90s, the average house price was five times the average salary – now it is 10 times that, and rising.

Many either stay renting, hemorrhaging money even in the cheaper pockets of the capital, or they move out entirely. 26% of the UK’s young adult population now live with their parents – but for some this is not an option. In some cases, young people are forced by London’s unfeasible rents to choose stark and even dangerous living conditions just to stay in the city, including the so-called slums of houseboats without running water or heating, detailed in a Guardian article recently written by a young houseboat resident. What he writes reveals a reality we are all too unaware of: ‘I’ve often heard people ask how anyone can afford to live in London on low paid, insecure work. The truth is that some don’t really live at all; they merely exist, and their existence is bleak and unforgiving.’

Home‘, a play by Nadia Fall exploring young people’s experience of homelessness in London, returns to The National Theatre next month. The play developed out of a project based in a temporary supported accommodation hostel in East London for homeless young people. The project discovered that as rents rise substantially above the level of benefit young people can receive, more end up homeless and in need of shelter.

Welfare reform changes, including the Shared Accommodation Rate and the capping of Local Housing Allowance are reducing young people’s ability to access private rented accommodation. Furthermore, this accommodation can be insecure and poor quality, with landlords increasing rents with no notice. Esta Orchard, an inspiring woman behind the Home project believes that current benefit changes and reduction in supported housing for young people are more likely to lead to increased homelessness, poorer chances to gain employment and increased mental health problems.

Why has inclusivity so clearly disappeared from this city’s agenda? If we cannot sustain a city that is balanced, inclusive, supportive and enabling to all people, we are travelling down a worrying path. London’s future is cast as one of empty towers of luxury flats, homes only for the very wealthy, with public spaces and streets starved of diversity. Not to mention a hollowed economy that usually thrives from the talent and creativity of young people – the people who are being pushed out and away from these jobs.We cannot disrupt the momentum of flourishing start-ups and creative sectors so critical to our economic recovery by making the city unaffordable for the young.

So what can be done? Well, we can start by supporting alternative and more affordable models of housing. For instance, Nakedhouse is an organisation that has emerged out of the fact that young Londoners have been priced out of the property market. They build affordable, stripped-back, low-cost housing that enables people to secure their own accommodation in the city. Community Land Trusts are gaining traction in order to secure more genuinely affordable homes, including The East London Community Land Trust in Mile End. These trusts are nonprofit, membership organisations run by local people that develop permanently affordable housing and other community assets for long-term community benefit.

But we also need to see an overhaul of approaches to and policies around housebuilding, as well as structures in place to avoid rent and property prices to rise far above the realities of income. Many people recently, including London’s young residents, media platforms and politicians, have called for rent controls as a possible way out of London’s housing crisis. If such rent-regulation laws succeed in maintaining New York as a young, thriving city – why not London? In addition to this, we could do well to curb hyper-luxury developments and implement a vacancy tax. A large number of properties in London sit dormant, purchased only as investments, in the process pricing London’s residents out of their own city.

We may need to build a huge amount of housing, but this is not just a numbers game. This is about people. Economic growth is high on the capital’s – as well as the UK’s – agenda; but if we focus too much purely on the economic aspirations of the city, we may forget issues of quality of life and inclusivity in the process – and a city driven only by money is not socially – and ultimately economically – sustainable.

Young people are vital to any city and any place. They are the future generation of leaders and the current situation of housing in London is forcing many to leave. Meanwhile many do drastic things in order to afford to stay: choosing jobs they do not want, working unhealthy hours and living in poor conditions. If we don’t provide for or support our young generation now, we will be destroying our social future. But, of course, it is not only the young being disadvantaged by the housing situation – as the new Prince’s FoundationHousing London’ report concludes, this lack of affordability threatens to cripple the capacity of so many to keep London as their home. Let’s ensure that our housing responds to the diverse needs of London’s residents, and enables them to live and thrive here, for the long term.


This is an adapted version of a talk I gave at The Prince’s Foundation ‘Housing London’ Symposium to HRH The Prince of Wales on 26th March 2014.

Love/hate London

by Francesca Perry


‘There has probably never been a city that has excited so much of the extremes of abuse and affection as London,’ wrote the architect and RIBA librarian Edward Carter in 1962.

As a lifelong resident, I have to agree. The love/hate relationship is a particularly English one, yes, and London enhances it. The love: a diversity of places and people, a hotbed of culture, a centre for innovation and creativity, a wealth of history and beauty. The hate: the public transport, poor cycle infrastructure, the unaffordable housing, the unfathomable size, the unequal opportunities.

What is today’s narrative of the city, and its future? Boris Johnson made one such attempt with Vision 2020, but we need a more holistic and nuanced understanding of London’s reality. There has been much talk recently about the issues of exclusive property prices and a sense of ‘exodus’ by the people of London. This is part of a much wider story, of course, that involves the destructive impacts of developer-led gentrification, bedroom tax, cuts to vital services, unaffordable transport and other factors leading to exclusivity of place.

How can we shift a culture of exclusive development to inclusive placemaking? In order to support places that thrive in London, socially and economically, we need to make places for everybody – not just the wealthy few – and places that respond to context (of need, aspiration, history, society, identity). We should prioritise places that involve participation, interaction and co-ownership, especially in terms of young people – transforming notions of territory into opportunity instead.

There are of course positive examples of placemaking happening in London. People clued in to the issues are engaging with communities, co-creating places and spaces and designing for holistic sustainability. Make:good, a design studio, puts communities at the heart of local change, engaging and empowering them to shape user-led designs of spaces, places and services. Co-operative housing (such as Phoenix and Coin Street) and Community Land Trusts form promising alternative models to the current norm – with studies showing co-op housing is more effective in building social capital and creating stronger communities.

From my experience, the dominant narrative of planning for the future comes from fairly traditional sources and people who were saying very similar things 20 years ago. Where is the voice of the young? The generation with the innovative thinking to make positive change? It is with this in mind that I have helped partner The Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanists with The Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design for an exciting event, Future of London Placemaking.


The seminar, on 23 November 2013, will explore the culture of placemaking in London and how young people can help shape a better future for the city. Combining speakers from young innovative practices with interactive workshops and sharing sessions, the event aims to give young emerging urbanists a stronger voice in the narrative of the city, collaboratively generating future ideas and forming a shared agenda for placemaking in London.

London has very specific challenges and opportunities. Certain engrained approaches to development and growth need to be re-assessed and shaped in to something more positive: making inclusive places for people, with benefits that go much further than financial concerns. Let’s get to it.

How to regenerate inclusively

by Francesca Perry

Reading the spot-on article by Loretta Lees about the damaging effect of regeneration in London got me thinking. Regeneration has become a dirty word. But good regeneration is not about ‘bringing back to life’ – life is always there – it is about supporting and enabling, making positive change to benefit everyone.

Listen to the community

As a developer, this may not come naturally! Those practitioners involved in change should be aware of multiple narratives and needs and if necessary, bring someone on board who can responsively engage with the community, understanding how they feel and what they want. The local and existing community in a place should be involved at every step of a development or change to help shape it. Crowdsource ideas from the people that know and use the area – they are the experts!

Support services

A lot of the time, a place doesn’t need an injection of luxury landscaping to ‘improve’. Look closer and you’ll realise that vital community services – whether it’s running a family centre or maintaining a local park – may be in need of support, time and money. This sort of support is often the section 106 ‘afterthought’ of a pricey development – but developers tend to put money towards their own version of what’s beneficial, rather than the community’s.

Integrate housing

It sounds so obvious – but it rarely happens. There are so many excuses for separating social housing from private housing, but there is no excuse for creating a segregated city. Rent and sale prices in London are becoming increasingly exclusive – and ridiculous. We urgently need to decelerate something that is spiralling out of control – as Lees articulates, this property-led regeneration – leading to a city dominated by unaffordable luxury housing.

What’s appalling is that even if social housing is built in the same development as private, often the quality of the buildings is so markedly different as to be offensive. Additionally, developers and local authorities should ensure new housing is not only integrated within itself, but also with the surrounding existing communities and spaces. Create communal spaces for all to use, including community centres, family facilities and open green spaces where collaborative activities like sports and social groups can take place. Nurture place, don’t displace.

Help build pride and community

I’d like to think that community is not, contrary to popular belief, built through ‘place branding’ tactics! Real collaborative and productive local projects can achieve great connections and improvements. From communal gardening and urban agriculture to public art projects and youth initiatives, it is important to help enable people to both get involved and run activities themselves. Public space plays a crucial role in these processes, and really it is accessible public space that needs to be nurtured to achieve inclusive regeneration.

Target additions

Sometimes additions are needed. By this I don’t necessarily mean another Tesco Metro or a cafe that charges £4 for a coffee. Is it possible to contribute a community space, healthcare facility, or a skills training centre? Respond to existing and very real needs that, if catered for, will greatly improve the wellbeing of the people and their place.

Enhance training and employment opportunities

Ensure existing and any new businesses provide opportunities to local people for apprenticeships, training and employment, working with local schools and colleges to achieve this. Places like Free 2 Learn are crucial too. In London especially, when I talk to young people about what they want to see in their local area, I hear this again and again: more training, more work experience, more jobs.

I want more than anything to believe there is a better way; we can grow and support our city without being exclusionary and divisive. More holistic and sensitive regeneration is the bigger win in the long term. Listen to the multitude of diverse voices: this city belongs to all of us.