"What can we do to make the lives of billions more equitable?"
Ricky Burdett on the Future of Megacities
The continued development of major cities occupies an important place in contemporary art, as evidenced by Julie Mehretu’s exhibition "Grey Area" at the Deutsche Guggenheim. It’s not only the question as to how we live today in the big cities—but also how we can continue to survive in them in the future. Even today, for millions of people urban life has become more precarious than ever before. But how do the perspectives for the world’s megacities really look? Not all that catastrophic if we remain flexible in our thinking, says urbanism expert Ricky Burdett. As professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), he runs the initiative Urban Age, conceived in collaboration with the Alfred Herrhausen Society at Deutsche Bank, as well as the research institute LSE Cities. Ossian Ward met with him in London.
||Ossian Ward: We've had the Iron and Bronze Ages, but let's start with the birth of mankind's first Urban Age.
Ricky Burdett: It sounds like an apocryphal story, but about five years ago I met with Wolfgang Nowak, who is the head of Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, over a crappy cup of LSE coffee. We talked about the fact that cities are becoming more and more important statistically—while only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities in 1900, the number has risen to about 50% today and is likely to hit 75% by 2050. Yet very few of the people running our cities have any solutions, particularly when we look beyond Europe to the megacities, whose sheer scale make the problems seem nearly intractable. This conversation led to the invention of the Urban Age: a series of conferences with mayors, civic leaders, academics, and architects of various cities, in addition to a series of investigations—as we call them—into each location.
You started off by investigating six cities—New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Berlin—and since then you’ve moved on to Mumbai, Sao Paolo, and Istanbul. What can they possibly all have in common?
The Urban Age conferences more or less always cover three or four big themes: how the city is governed, how people move around, how public space and housing work—and we’re increasingly interested in the impacts of climate change. The overall theme has been a simple one: to understand what the issues for these cities are—in an international and interdisciplinary way—while trying to uncover what the grammar for success might be. It’s easy to see these situations as nightmare scenarios; the numbers are devastating and the photographs of how people actually live in shantytowns or slums are horrifying. However, there’s a positive side in that throughout the history of mankind, cities have done the opposite of brutalize human beings. On the whole, cities have had a civilizing effect, and we mustn’t forget that.
While not wishing to foster pessimism, what is the real urgency behind the Urban Age project?
Well, one in three of people moving into cities today are living in slums. What if this continues—does that mean that 40% of the world will soon inhabit slums? Is Mumbai the model, where a population the size of London’s lives with no services whatsoever? Then there are those who say that environmental degradation will further accelerate the pace towards urbanization as people flee the deserts and high-risk areas lacking in public health or hygiene. The urgency lies in the question: as more and more people live in urbanized conditions, what will the quality of life be like for them and what can we do to make the lives of billions more equitable?
Will cities ever stop growing, or is the advance inexorable?
The UN projects that this global growth will flatten out at a certain point, but perhaps a better way of answering this would be to ask a different question: will cities become too big to be good for you? I think probably not, although that depends on what their DNA is like. If you think of Tokyo and its Kanto region, there are actually 42 million people living there, twice as many as what we think of as the largest capital, Mexico City. Tokyo is intriguing because the economic and social profile of Japanese society means that the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor is relatively minimal and therefore you don’t experience it as a city of massive differences—you don’t have walls, ghettos, or gated communities, for instance. Whereas Johannesburg, putting aside the effects of Apartheid, has become a city with a no-go area at its center—Soweto and Alexandra have no public transport whatsoever and people are too afraid to go out on the street, so everyone shops at out-of-town malls that resemble Italian castles. That’s got nothing to do with size; it’s about how it’s managed.
What are the biggest obstacles to change?
There are two major issues that determine the health of cities. Clearly, a city without jobs is destined to die, but that doesn’t mean it can’t reinvent itself, as Turin has done since Fiat closed down—which at one time employed 300,000 in a city of one million. The second major obstacle is governance. The Urban Age has discovered that certain forms of metropolitan government are totally dysfunctional, usually because central government controls too much of the city or else it’s been fossilized by bottom-up politics. On the other hand, the cities that have autonomy—the money and the power to get on with things—are where we’ve seen the most positive change: in places like Barcelona and New York. I think the issue of governance and how the levels of central, federal, state, metropolitan, and local power fit together is very significant.
How can we learn from the mistakes of the past?
Over 130 years ago during the Industrial Revolution, London went through exactly the same tribulations that Shanghai and Mumbai are currently experiencing. Around the corner from the LSE, Drury Lane was one of the worst slums the world has ever seen. It had high density—with seven or eight people to a bedroom and ill health – due to poor air and lack of good food, which is exactly what happens in many third-world cities today. It also lacked infrastructure, with open sewers running in the streets and spreading disease. In that sense, we as Londoners have been here before, but it’s also true in the case of Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Paris—and many other major Western capitals. Most of these cities dealt with similar problems by implementing a series of enlightened policies, which in the case of London included the Victorian improvements engineered by Joseph Bazalgette—although you’d never have thought that someone who did nothing more than build sewers would still be talked about a century later, would you?
In terms of architecture or town planning, London is fairly chaotic—there was no "Haussmannization" or New York grid. What do you do with a messy place like that?
A city like London is loose, funky, and organic—it offers much more resilience and flexibility as it adapts to change. Take the Tate Modern. Here is a building that we all more or less ignored, in a part of town that was once considered the back end of London—and now it has five million visitors a year. 200,000 people cross the bridge from the rich north side every weekend to what is now acknowledged as the very center of everything. Haussmann’s beauty and rigidity is such that you couldn’t do that in Paris, so in this sense, London is a model of how to absorb considerable change as well as people from completely different backgrounds. That’s something we’re very interested in at The Urban Age: how does the physical planning of a city relate to its layering of different cultures and immigrant populations and adapt to its different cultural, commercial, and residential uses?
What is possible nowadays, especially in locations where, to the outside eye, it seems as if there is no solution?
Let’s take a concrete example of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, a city of 8 million people, a large proportion of whom live in favela environments. Between 2003 and 2005, the mayor of Bogota was able to transform his city in three ways: by introducing a series of bicycle networks, by designating bus lanes, and by choosing the best architects to design schools, libraries, and public spaces. The sense of civic pride and uplift is a reality and it happened there.
Do these radical solutions require special leadership or big-name architects to get them off the ground?
An enlightened mayor is probably the most important person in shaping a city. All the best architects in the world—Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas—will say that without a good client you have nothing. The role of architects in the future of cities is a difficult one— they are trained to be enamored by the object they have just produced, just as they are paid to stop the design of their much-cherished building at the boundary of land ownership. That’s why you end up with objects without any relationship to one another. I can count the number of architects able to transcend that position on the fingers of two hands. Richard Rogers, for example, has spent his life not just designing iconic buildings like the Pompidou Centre or Terminal 5, but also writing about the city. Somewhat lesser known is Oriol Bohigas, the Catalan architect responsible for the 1992 Olympics who called his profession an "urban vocation," which is a very powerful term.
How can artists help—and why do they respond to these issues?
Outside of my LSE life I have had contact with artists through the shows I’ve curated, such as Global Cities at Tate Modern in 2007 or through helping to select artists for projects, for instance a major commission at the Olympic Village. I think we need to use them more in The Urban Age, for sure, but their most important contribution is making us rethink the public realm, – understanding what works as a courtyard in a housing block in East London or in Mumbai for that matter. For the shortlist of our Sao Paolo award, we chose a sociologist, Jeff Anderson, who was working with some young artists to re-envision the favelas, adding color, shapes, and texture to the environment.”
Tell me about the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award.
We realized that we were missing the grass-roots projects, so Deutsche Bank inaugurated the prize, which is endowed with $100,000, to foster one initiative that brings together people from different constituencies and improves the environment. In Sao Paolo we awarded it to a multi-story building [Cortiço Rua Solón] that used to be a destroyed structure in the middle of the city. It had been occupied by a number of families. The university’s Faculty of Architecture went in there and worked with them to civilize the environment and make it work. And in India we split the award between a redevelopment of the waterfront in Mumbai [Mumbai Waterfronts Centre], which was once a rubbish dump, and a simple communal bathroom in the middle of the slums [called Triratna Prerana Mandal] where women can go (without men) to use the toilets but also to talk about issues of violence or attend classes. This is more important than any government program, and $50,000 is pretty big money for them. The award is really beginning to have an effect, and we hope to continue this for the next few years.
The latest development of the Urban Age agenda is after the new research center LSE cities that you're opening in January.
After five years both Deutsche Bank and LSE felt that we just touching on a raw nerve, but were just beginning to scratch the surface of something bigger. LSE has realized that an understanding of cities deserves the same stature as an understanding of the economy or the understanding of health care. The most positive development was that Deutsche Bank, through Josef Ackermann and Wolfgang Nowak, agreed to contribute to funding it. We will continue the Urban Age conference every year, widen out our research to connected areas, such as climate change and social inclusion, as well as build on the Masters and PhD programmes within LSE, opening up our doors to future urban leaders.
The first six Urban Age conferences are brought together in Ricky Burdett's book The Endless City, edited with Deyan Sudjic and published by Phaidon Press.