The era of cities
Discussion Urban form and urban society Retrofitting cities and suburbs Strengthening the role of planning
Diana Ibáñez López: Winy Maas launched Domus 2019 with the statement “Everthing is urbanism.” Do you agree with him?
Ricky Burdett: I wish that were true! Urbanism implies an understanding of the relationship between urban form and urban society, broadly speaking. It’s a connection between a way of being, a way of life, and the physical structure of cities. That’s how I read it, anyway. And I don’t think, if you look at who is actually shaping the built environment, that everyone buys into that notion. If it is a statement about the fact that anything to do with our lives and the world has to do with cities, that’s partly true – but also not. Urban Age is doing work on Africa where, today, 42 per cent of the continent is urbanised. That means 58 per cent isn’t. And even within the urban there are very non-urbanistic ways of being.
What is the future of cities?
A very small percentage of cities built in the next decades will be completely new, built on virgin land like Brasilia, Canberra or the 1960s New Towns in the UK. The majority will be extensions, expansions and adaptions of existing urban centres and smaller towns. The challenge will be how to make them grow with out losing their urban DNA. If you think that 90 per cent of all urban growth will happen in Africa or Asia, in mainly unplanned environments, then the notion of what the future city might be needs to be reconsidered.
You identify sprawl as a huge social and ecological issue, with densities dropping, reduced open space and stretched public services. How can future cities address sprawl? Can existing sprawl be retrofitted?
Yes, sprawl is an issue. Colleagues at the NYU Urban Expansion Program run by Solly Angel have shown that over the past 25 years urban populations have doubled, while urban footprint has multiplied by five. People move to cities to take advantage of the complexity and critical mass that constitutes a city, and this multilayered-ness is difficult to create from scratch. Retrofitting is very much part of this growth model. Today there’s no direct correlation between ideas about sustainable cities and most of what is actually happening. That’s because it is cheaper to build on agricultural land: think of the outskirts of Istanbul, or Mumbai or Lagos. You get development which is only just that — it’s not a piece of city — without the infrastructure and, worse, you stretch movement patterns and the amount of stuff you need on the ground. There’s only one way to deal with that, and it’s an unfashionable word: planning. Any argument around sustainability must reintroduce planning as a political and design discipline, at the heart of architects’ agendas. In 1943, when bombs were dropping on London and it had reached a peak of 8.6 million people, the great planner Patrick Abercrombie took the decision to draw a line around London — the Green Belt — on which you couldn’t build, with satellite cities beyond. When I lecture about these things, people’s mouths literally don’t close.
Because the notion that you can control growth with a policy statement is simple and powerful. People say: “Ohhh! Why can’t we do it here?” The reality is that very few countries can — because you need an alignment between national and city governments to take that sort of decision. So we enter the world of politics. To contain sprawl you need a strong hand from the planning point of view; this is where the tension between who decides and what the community feels sometimes pull you in completely different directions.
Yes, on the fringes of the Green Belt there is a tense relationship to the London Plan thinking on reducing car use and increasing density.
Multiply that tension a hundredfold in cities without planning regulation!
Are you optimistic?
I’m extremely optimistic. A), full stop. And B), for cities. Why? Because cities remain the one place where people come together and have creative ideas. The cynic asks: which Nobel Prize was won in a village? One of the great luxuries of working at the LSE is the level of genuine inventiveness you get around cities. Things happen! My optimism comes from observation, not just ideology, that you can actually get things done. And that’s why a city, by the way, is much more able to be — and it’s not a term I like — resilient. It can turn itself around much more quickly than a country.
You helped establish the institution of the Mayor of London as it is today. What can a mayor achieve?
Today, 8 April, London has done one of the most avant-garde things ever, with the launch of its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). It’s an extraordinary thing that will help stop 36,000 people dying of a heart attack every year in the UK; 36,000! That’s why I’m optimistic that policy can be implemented, as can projects, in such a way that you can make change. And, unless you’re listening to the right-wing vote complainers, people believe in change; they prefer to live in a city where their children won’t die of respiratory diseases. This change is incremental. Take Bogotá. You could talk about Enrique Peñalosa, current Mayor of Bogotá, a charismatic George Clooney-like figure who introduced the Ciclovía (cycleway) and the TransMilenio buses. But he didn’t do it alone: he was one of a number of mayors who from the mid-1990s carried forward a project of what that city wanted itself to be.
In the introduction to The SAGE Handbook of the 21st Century City (2017), you pick out the quote “There is no common ‘urban’ object.” Can you unpack this?
There is a strong assumption that cities are all the same thing; that you can talk about cities as if they are exactly the same sort of organ. Therefore — and this is the danger — that solutions can be similar. Cities are like human organisms: we are all completely different. The phrase “toolkit for cities” makes my hair stand on end! I find it so problematic. Unfortunately, the more work we do around the world with LSE Cities, the more we find cookie-cutter solutions, and that’s what people like Winy, myself, and others strongly object to.
In Shaping Cities in an Urban Age (2018), you say that nearly 80 per cent of the urban infrastructure that will exist in 2050 has yet to be built. How much of it might we recognise, and how much of it has yet to be imagined?
Here optimism and the role of cities really come together. If we are creative and courageous, the imagination provides all sorts of future options. We don’t need to recycle old ideas. The World Bank funds road expansion schemes, to hundreds of millions of dollars. When Urban Age was in Mumbai, the city got a massive grant for 273 — I’ll never forget — 273 overpasses. In a city like Mumbai, you know that an overpass is just going to take you from one traffic jam to another. It’s not going to solve anything! Compare that to the city of Addis Ababa investing with Chinese loans in a light rail system. I’ve used it: it’s not extensive yet but it’s a hell of a start. That’s a completely different choice. Or ULEZ launched in London today... This decision is very important because other cities watch us. I heard just now that New York is about to accept the Congestion Charge! Cities can constitute role models. The
Any argument around sustainability must reintroduce planning as a political and a design discipline, at the heart of architects’ agendas
statistic that 80 per cent of infrastructure needs to be built by 2050 comes from Nick Stern, a colleague at the LSE, and who has become convinced over the last decade of work — and he is a pure economist — that how we make our cities physically is going to be the solution. To understand the shape of the city, or how you might extend it or expand it, I would argue strongly that you need to focus into what constitutes the built fabric of the city. In that sense I’m traditional! And Nick Stern is very clear that some decisions, particularly if they are funded by agencies that are sustainabilityblind, will lock us into patterns of behaviour that are deeply unsustainable: road-building versus rail; investing in engines which are less polluting, or not; and most importantly of all, investing in policies which contain sprawl rather than promote or allow it. There is a whole series of things that can be done which do require invention and creativity. But also courage, because you’re going against vested interests.
What did you think of the nude anti-climate change protest in the House of Commons on 1 April? Can protest be effective?
It hit the headlines, but has it made any change? Last month over a million people marched through my city to make a very clear call for a second referendum – a million people! – and literally, and I checked it, no newspaper except The Guardian had it on their front page. There is an issue of what gets prioritised within any political system: when a million people protest and nothing happens, or no-one talks about it, I think we have our values wrong.
Ricky Burdett is professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics, director of the Urban Age Project and LSE Cities. He curated the 10th Venice Architecture Biennale, was architectural adviser to the Mayor of London from 2001 to 2006, and chief adviser on architecture and urbanism for the London 2012 Olympics. With Philipp Rode he is co-editor of Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, Phaidon, London 2018.
Diana Ibáñez López
is a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins in London, and an associate of The Why Factory at TU Delft. She also heads architecture and urbanism projects at arts charity Create London.
people will be living in cities by 2030
% of all urban growth will be in Africa or Asia
% of city dwellers will live in slums without basic services in the next decade
% of 2050’s urban infrastructure still needs to be built
% of the African continent is urbanised
km of tarmac are turned into Ciclovía (cycle lanes) in Bogotá every Sunday
% reduction in traffic fatalities since the launch of Bogotá’s TransMilenio bus system