New York vs London: Friendly Competition

New York and London are world cities without compare, leading their time zones in financial matters and leading culture with their diverse, creative populations. They are rivals in many fields, including now for the 2012 Olympics. But the rivalry is always based on friendship, and the cities’ leaders constantly share thinking.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the Big Apple. I just had to look at Ground Zero to find out how things are really going with the reconstruction debate. Meeting Carl Weisbrod, the president of the Alliance for Downtown New York Regeneration, it soon became clear that he knows London and its issues well. He also knows the New Yorkers, like London transport commissioner Bob Kiley, who are in the capital to help us.

September 11 destroyed over 12 million square feet of space, but it also crystallised a crisis that had been building in Downtown for a decade. The historic financial district had been losing ground to Midtown as the home of major firms. They had been attracted away by Midtown’s hotels, shops, restaurants and better transport connections, for commuters and to the airports.

Downtown has been fighting back with leisure and hotel development, and allowing old office stock to be converted into housing. But the losses continued into 2001 when so many lives, and their jobs, were destroyed.

The plans for Lower Manhattan are now much more radical than could have been considered before. The competitors for the architectural competition were asked to include major civic, arts and retail space as well as the memorial space, expected to draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Lower Manhattan will become a truly multi-role centre rather than a monoculture of financial offices with a fishmarket attached. Major public open space will be created over West Street, connecting to a ring of “river to river” waterfront parkland. The new station to be built partly on the World Trade Centre site will vastly improve connections, plus there is lobbying in progress to include direct rail connections to Kennedy and Newark airports where transit links are nearly in place. This would trump Midtown, giving Downtown a much more competitive position for global business and giving companies a reason to return.

But the power of Midtown is increasing too. The Olympic concept adds a new quarter on the Hudson riverside near Penn Station which could allow growth of the business district. Lower Manhattan also frets that the current surge in residential development will undermine business use.

The City of London, faced with its own rivals and transport challenges, won’t countenance more housing projects for fear of residents stopping overnight construction in the square mile. London will certainly envy New York if it gets its airport expresses and superstation and London fails to get Crossrail.

The two world city leaderships are thus in constant dialogue, swapping advice and experts. Each city regards the other as its natural ally in the event of an emergency. It’s hard to imagine such closeness between London and any European city, but that’s another story.

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