Stop, pause… go. Among the chaos of everyday life, it’s rare to stop, pause and see what makes a city unique. Particularly if what sets cities apart is part of the furniture: signs, roads and, well, traffic lights.
That’s right: even the humble traffic light can tell us about the history, language and culture of our metropolises.
Take Berlin. Before the fall of the wall, East Germany had developed a rather distinct figure to adorn their signals. Where in the West, the red and green people used to indicate stop and go were a generic outfit, the GDR used Ampelmännchen.
Ampelmännchen, which literally translates to ‘little traffic light man’, is a cartoonish figure, with large rounded arms and a hat. The hat itself is said to be inspired by an image of East German Chancellor Erich Honecker, kicking back to enjoy some rays of sun.
To indicate that it’s safe to walk, the Ampelmännchen takes wide strides and sticks out a hand. To stop pedestrians in their tracks, it does not simply stand still, but forms an exaggerated ‘T’ pose. Legs in, arms splayed wide – gesturing no.
After reunification, the German state tried to standardise lights across the city into the much less expressive, generic figures we see across Europe today. But faced with protests from fans of the lights and citizens with a certain nostalgia for the East, they decided to let the Ampelmännchen live on.
Today, the curious little men have even made it to West Berlin and beyond. Their cult status has led them to be incorporated into cities across Germany. And much in contrast their origins in the communist East, they have become a profit-driver themselves.
The ‘AMPELMANN’ website describes the figure as “Berlin’s iconic brand”. On the site you can buy sportswear, soap, chocolate, phone cases and even condoms (“Hey baby, let’s tear down some walls tonight”, the packet says), all decorated with the Ampelmännchen.
The lights’ inventor, Karl Peglau, said they “represent a positive aspect of a failed social order”, becoming so popular across the West because they have an “indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth”.
But it is not just the figures which adorn the lights which have been a source of interest. Sometimes it is the colour of the lights themselves.
What colour means go? Well, if you go to most countries, it’s green – a bright green in fact.
But in Japan, the go light is blue. Or rather, officially, blue-green.
This may seem like just an unusual, but ultimately meaningless, quirk. But the question of traffic lights has been central to wide-reaching debate, which even involved the Japanese government.
Originally, the lights used to be coloured like any other, with a bright green light indicating it was safe to drive. But the most widely-used word for green in Japanese is “ao”, one of the four main colours in the Japanese language. Ao itself refers to a sort of ‘grue’, a green-blue spectrum of colour, rather than green itself.
A distinct colour for a brighter shade of green only came later, with “midori”.
According to international convention, all “go” lights are required to be green. But this standardised green is rather different to what the Japanese language refers to. Linguists lobbied the Japanese government, insisting that traffic lights were not actually the green that people referred to, ao. They were the brighter shade of green, midori.
In a fudge of sorts, the Japanese government decided that all traffic lights would be green. Just the bluest shade of green.
By doing this, they abide by international convention and linguistic convention. Drivers and pedestrians can continue to say that the light is ao, while they are officially recognised as green.
True blue… or is that green? Image: Redoxkun/Flickr/creative commons.
And it seems many countries are now waking up to the impact that these everyday symbols can have.
Just as traffic lights can exemplify nostalgia or cause linguistic arguments, they can also display messages for residents and the outside world.
Inspired by Vienna’s signals during the 2015 Eurovision song contest, Sadiq Khan unveiled new traffic lights across London to mark the 2016 Pride celebrations. The lights, including 50 around Trafalgar Square, include symbols and figures to represent the LGBT+ community.
In a Tweet, the Mayor said that this move, originally intended to be temporary but becoming permanent fixture, was here to “display & celebrate our tolerance and diversity”.
“#LoveWins”. London’s Pride traffic lights. Image: Matt Buck/Flickr/creative commons.
Despite the initial, and frankly ridiculous, backlash from some members of the public and the right-wing press, the lights are a popular feature in London. So much so, that they are being installed across the country and the world.
In 2018, they were installed across Manchester for the city’s Pride celebrations. A year earlier, Stockholm installed 48 new traffic lights. Across many other towns and cities, similar ideas are being discussed to display inclusivity.
Of course, these displays will not change the world; we need good, progressive policy for that. However, it shows that policymakers are becoming more sensitive to how the fabric of our cities affects how we act and feel.
These signs and symbols can tell us something more about the places we live. Particularly if we stop and pause, before we go about our daily lives.
Compared to other European countries, inequalities between and within cities and regions in the UK are stark. They are typically blamed on the faster growth of London and the South and slower growth of the North. But London itself is a highly unequal city.
There is a growing consensus that we need to tackle these regional inequalities and address the years of decline across areas of Britain that have been left behind or forgotten. We need to ensure that such places are firmly on the policy agenda in a way that they cannot be forgotten.
The uneven impacts of the global financial crisis and austerity have recently exacerbated longstanding regional inequalities. At the heart of these inequalities is the UK’s shift from a manufacturing to a service economy. The growth of financial services, enabled by market deregulation, was key to this process. Today, much of London’s wealth resides in land and housing; this contributes to inequalities as inflated asset prices aggravate the housing crisis.
But market processes are not the only cause of regional inequalities; they also result from public investment decisions and entrenched political processes that favour some places over others.
London and the south east have benefitted from infrastructure investment that is often justified through cost-benefit analyses and arguments that such investments are necessary to secure London’s economic success. Public investment in London has underpinned an economic model where gains have been unequally shared.
The political and economic model that has shaped this landscape is broken in at least two respects. First, growing congestion, pollution and pressures on public services in London is reflected in a slowing rate of economic growth, declining in-migration, and people leaving for other parts of the UK (some of these trends can be seen in other big cities.)
Second, there is growing concern about acute social and economic problems in places excluded from the UK’s growth model. These are places most affected by the decline of traditional industries and, in some cases, are the sites of deprivation. The Brexit referendum gave expression to these economic divides.
Market forces alone cannot solve regional problems. In some important respects, market forces are actually contributing factors that create regional inequalities in the first place. The dysfunctional housing market, for example, rewards existing owners of land and property, inflating the value of their assets and distorting economic decision making.
To invest in services and infrastructure, protect the environment and encourage enterprising and housebuilding, we need effective land use – this, in turn, requires local and regional governments to coordinate and intervene.
Effective land use requires radical thinking, decentralisation and devolution, a supportive fiscal framework, and institutions that reflect local and regional identities and attachments. Recent policy agendas have focused on functional urban regions and new forms of metropolitan governance, such as Metro mayors.
While these have their place in a national framework, we need more flexible and imaginative geographies than top-down, one-sized fits all approaches. Devolution without real power and resources is a recipe for widening inequalities.
Inequalities within cities and regions can be as significant as inequalities between regions. The UK’s unequal landscape demands different responses in different places.
Rather than imposing solutions from outside, communities affected must have a stake in shaping responses. We need to examine the relationships between different parts of the country, especially that between London and other regions, to deliver a sustainable and equitable future for the UK.
The limits of urban regeneration based on real estate are apparent in the shiny developments that surround declining towns and villages. To tackle inequality, we need new approaches to local economic development, such as the “foundational economy” and asset-based community development that are aimed at meeting social needs rather than simply increasing returns to developers.
A key challenge will be recouping the unearned gains that have accrued because of rising land values to generate the resources that are necessary for creating a vibrant local economy.
Policy makers have often understood regional inequality in terms of growth, efficiency, costs and benefits. It’s essential to introduce a moral dimension to this framework and define the appropriate goals of economic policy. The scale of inequalities in our society is unacceptable and lies at the root of many political problems. Planning and planners need to be at the heart of the search for solutions.
Alasdair Rae is a professor of Urban Planning at the University of Sheffield. Ceclia Wong is a professor of Spatial Planning at the University of Manchester. John Tomaney is professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.
They are all participating in the UK2070 Commission, an independent inquiry into city and regional inequalities chaired by Lord Kerslake.