Sudjic in The Guardian:
“The urban ultimatum:
what should our future cities be like?”
The remarkable intellectual Deyan Sudjic, has challenged us to define what is our role and how theory is dealing with urbanization processes. I would recall Lefebvre and question: Are we cynical complices of Capitalism effects or are we social catalysers pursuing the common good? Sadly, the evidence demonstrates that is or one or the other, never both.
Outside the echo chamber of religious fanaticism of all descriptions, this is not a moment in which the world is much given to declamatory statements about how things should be. Thinking about the future of the city, we are so traumatised by a century and a half of prescriptions for urbanism that have had only disastrous results that we have become cautious about making any kind of commitment to ideas or manifestos.
We are certainly more sceptical than the generation of modernist architects of the 1930s who retreated to a cruise liner sailing across the Mediterranean to lay the ground for the Charter of Athens, the document that codified a city made up of parallel slabs of housing rising out of parkland, and where work, home and leisure were divided by functional zoning.
And yet, 43 years after the dynamiting of the Pruitt Igoe social housing project in St Louis – an event that was widely seen as emblematic of the end of certainty about how the state could address the needs of the city – there is a hunger for a more positive approach to what cities could be.
The rapid growth of new megacities in Asia, Latin America and Africa, and the urgent need to revitalise European and American cities, has left no option but to find ways of addressing the wider questions facing urbanism. How can cities accommodate more people without destroying the very qualities that make them attractive to people in the first place? How can they offer more social justice and opportunity?
The Urban Age programme was born 10 years ago in the belief that the time had come to do more, in so far as such things are possible in the scrupulous world of academic research, than simply to reflect and observe. Working with its partner, Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, LSE Cities set up the Urban Age as a kind of mobile think-tank: the idea was not simply to gather data to map what the city was becoming, but to bring together all the players who so rarely find themselves in conversation with each other, yet who collectively represent the multiple and often conflicting directions of the forces that shape cities.
It is a project based on the belief that the city is shaped not just by the thinkers – the academic planners and theorists, the sociologists and demographers – but also by the politicians and developers who get their hands dirty building to win votes and make a return on their investment, along with a third group: the professionals – the architects, planners and engineers. In this last category, we should not forget the police and the judiciary who try, and sometimes fail, to keep the city safe and incorruptible.
The way that cities are governed relies on legal systems as well as political boundaries. Keeping them moving relies on the insights of traffic planners, and transport commissioners, on economic analysis infrastructure investment and waste management policies. All of these interact, and social justice depends on all of them aligning. In itself, this idea that the city is the product of such different groups is probably the biggest single ideological statement represented by the Urban Age.
In the course of the past 10 years, the urban landscape has changed radically. We have duly fulfilled the United Nations predictions contained in successive State of the World Population reports; we are indeed a majority urban species for the first time in human history. Now we must face the consequences in the increasingly divided cities of the rich world. In New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, housing has turned into an investment asset with a resultant, highly destructive impact on the vitality of city life.
The “smart city” concept may have turned into a banal marketing tool, but digital technologies really are changing the way that cities work. On the positive side, initiatives such as Transport for London’s decision to make its data on the position of every bus and train on its network available free in real time has made possible such game changers as the City Mapper App, that makes us understand the cities in which we live in ways that were never previously possible. On the other hand, one of the essential qualities of urbanity is privacy and anonymity. The indelible digital trail left by a GPS changes all that.
Cities are also the first places to feel the results of the migration from conflict zones. They are subject to waves of anxiety about their security, challenged by terrorism, civil unrest and continuing racial tension.
When the Urban Age staged its first conference in New York in February 2005, the language used to discuss cities was already changing. The Republicans had decided there were no votes in the inner cities, and had abandoned them. But after decades of decline, New York was bouncing back from its low point of near bankruptcy. Rem Koolhaas, the acerbic Dutch architect and theorist, managed to upset a room full of New York activists by suggesting that this was not an entirely welcome development. Jane Jacobs’s pioneering challenge to big picture planning had, he suggested, ended up with squeaky clean denatured streets. It was, he asserted, the ultimate irony that she had become the intellectual underpinning for Disneyland.
There were urban success stories to explore, and not just the inevitable case of Barcelona. Enrique Peñalosa, charismatic mayor of Bogotá, reflected on his traffic-taming plans for the city that reclaimed the streets for the poor, and investing not in heavy rail commuter systems that were beyond his resources, but in dedicated bus lanes.
Looking back over the 10 years, it’s remarkable how much the host cities (after New York, Shanghai, then London, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Berlin, Mumbai, São Paulo, Istanbul, Chicago, Hong Kong, London again, Rio and Delhi) have changed, and how much the challenges facing them have developed.
The congestion charge was still a novelty in London in 2005, having been introduced just two years earlier. Michael Bloomberg had just been elected to the second of his three terms in office, and failed to win the backing of New Yorkers to bring the charge to Manhattan. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 had yet to open. Now Britain is paralysed with indecision about a new runway for London.
Standing on the roof of an art-deco wedding cake on Shanghai’s Bund, after the end of the second Urban Age conference of 2005, Pudong’s skyline was still missing two ultra-tall high rises more than 500 metres high that now define the cityscape. As the conference broke up, news came through that London would be staging the Olympics in 2012, followed shortly after by the reports of a suicide bomb attack on the Underground.
Urban Age was established to find new ways to think about cities. It was based on the idea that urbanism was both physical and legal, about economics and politics, and also about the market. The issue was that these were groups of people with little in common, and indeed without much respect for each other’s point of view.
The conferences set out to get these people talking. They got Ian Blair in the same room in Berlin as Angela Merkel when, as Metropolitan Police commissioner, he defined London’s boundaries as stretching as far as Jamaica and Baghdad.
Now the conversation continues with a series of five special events at the LSE, starting this week with Nick Stern leading a panel that, in the build-up to the UN climate conference in Paris, seeks to understand the crucial role cities play in addressing the threat of climate change.
Over the years, the Urban Age agenda has crystallised. It offers a multifaceted view of what constitutes a city, based on government and economics, law, sociology and planning, but with an injection of architecture and urbanism – and seeks to create an accommodation between all these actors.
It is a process that created tensions. The moment that Richard Sennett asked Johannesburg’s authorities to consider how they might make the city’s suburban trains a less dangerous place was a confrontation the politicians had not expected.
Indeed, you could see politicians everywhere getting anxious about architects who tried to tell them how useful as an urban model the underground passageways of Tokyo were, when they knew perfectly well that their electorates would see them as nothing short of monstrous.
The Urban Age has long argued for an understanding, and a better integration of the multiple layers of government – city- as well as borough-wide, national as well as regional. In so many places, the mismatch between these various layers leaves permanent scars, and discontinuities.
And it continues to explore how best we can work with our cities, whether to retrofit or rebuild, to centralise or devolve. There are always different answers to these questions – which shows how important it is to keep asking them.
Urban Age is a worldwide investigation into the future of cities, organised by LSE Cities and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society. Its 10-year anniversary debates are held in conjunction with Guardian Cities.