Mankind is becoming an urban species: Over half the world’s population live in cities. The main exhibition of the 10th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, "Cities. Architecture and Society", was conceived and produced on the initiative of the 10th biennale director, Richard Burdett.

"Cities. Architecture and Society" presented studies of 16 of the world’s major cities, from London and Milan to Mumbai and Caracas, outlining their present and their future in terms of both social and physical development. All these cities are huge, many of them expanding at a tremendous pace, and many of them struggle with poverty and sprawling slums. Traffic and pollution problems are colossal. Social difference and crime are an everyday threat – these cities, soon to house more than half of us, pose an immediate challenge to human societies across the globe.

Richard Burdett.

In Norway, 78% of the population lived in cities in 2007. There were no Norwegian cities in the Venice exhibition: The largest city in Norway, Oslo, has 613 000 inhabitants, on a global scale barely a village. At the same time, Norway has one of the very highest levels of GDP per capita in the world. Small, but filthy rich. What challenges do Norwegian cities face? What are the opportunities and responsibilities of wealth on the world stage? Ingerid Helsing Almaas put these questions to Richard Burdett.

London: Millennium Bridge. Photo: John Tran/Urban AgeLondon, Brick Lane: A brewery has been transformed to a meeting place for young people. Photo: Philipp Rode

Ingerid Helsing Almaas: It may be a naive supposition, but it seems as if Norway should be able to make a contribution to the global urban environment, as a model of environmental sustainability perhaps, or of civic organisation – as if there are things you can control on a small scale which is more difficult to organise on a large scale, in the huge cities. Do you think Norwegian cities have a role to play in a global network?

Richard Burdett: Well, what are the problems that the country is facing? What are the key issues affected by planning? There’s no point in fixing something which isn’t broken.

IHA: In a way we have the opposite problem to what the large urban centres are facing. What one has been trying to do in Norway, politically, is to retain social and economic cohesion in a country that tries to cover an area just less than the size of Germany, with a population of 4,5 million people. That places big demands on infrastructure, for example, that are only partially being met, and only by a very conventional road network – the railroad stops two thirds of the way up the country. But at the same time there is a great movement of people to the cities and a depopulation of the countryside, similar to what you are seeing elsewhere in Europe.

RB: Research and knowledge can impact on practice anywhere. Here at the LSE we have a research and teaching centre that focuses on cities around the world; we don’t need to experience the same problems as Shanghai here in London to be able to offer some critical evaluation. Any country can contribute to the debate on the future of cities by developing a critical discourse based on the intelligence and skills that you have at home.

"The relationship between physical form and social wellbeing needs to be better understood by politicians, designers and city-makers."

I think one can say, at the risk of generalising, that cities across the world do experience the same type of physical problems but with differing levels of intensity – take, for example, sprawl vs. density, exclusion vs. integration. But it is the relationship between physical form and social wellbeing that needs to be better understood by politicians, designers and city-makers. So perhaps a self-reflection on urban trends in Norway and their impacts on society would be a useful starting point for any research on the urban condition. Of particular significance, it seems to me, is the relationship between a city in Norway and its extended “city region”, and how the two interrelate at the level of labour markets, housing and commuting patterns. These issues underpin the long-term social, environmental and economic sustainability of a city.

Ultimately I feel quite optimistic about cities. Despite the staggering statistics of how many millions of people live in cities today, many of them in slum conditions, there is evidence that cities can be fixed, “retrofitted” and made to work. For example, Mexico City (the sprawling megacity of 20 million people) or Bogotá (Colombia’s fast growing capital of over six million) are responding in very different ways to the pressures of growth and the use of public transport. Mexico City has for too long just let the city grow outwards, building more and more roads and double-decker motorways to fuel this expansion. Bogotá, instead, adopted a low-tech solution that has made a unique difference to patterns of movement and the quality of life of its residents. The introduction of Transmillennio buses, which run on dedicated lanes and their connection to an extended network of cycleways, has created a new infrastructure of growth for this fast growing city. Before this intervention by its inspired Mayor Enrique Penalosa, average commuting times could be up to two or three hours a day. Today they have dropped by a last half with commensurate improvements on work productivity and social relations. This piece of physical infrastructure, which has positive impacts on sustainability due to energy reduction, has a strong impact on people’s lives at a very personal level. This is what I mean that we must better understand the links between the physical and the social in cities...

Photos and text from the main exhibition "Cities, Architecture and Society", at the 10th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice 2006. Photo: iha

Photos and text from the main exhibition "Cities, Architecture and Society", at the 10th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice 2006. Photo: iha

At the 10th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which I directed, we showed some interesting research developed by Sistematica and the Politecnico di Milano which illustrates how patterns of accessibility will change we have the high-speed rail network connecting European cities over the next 20 years. The studies showed how a fully developed high-speed network is far more effective and “democratic” than one based on airplane connections. By calculating the number of people that can be reached by train or by plane within four hours and then working out their average income, you get a very clear picture of the social potential of transport systems. For example some cities like Milan or Prague will double or treble their accessibility to people and job markets, and at the same time reach a population with lower incomes than those who can be reached within four-hour (door-to-door) plane journeys.

"The integrated city-region, with a constellation of smaller towns and cities well connected by rail transport, seems to me a relevant model for Norway."

The potential of an integrated city-region, with a constellation of smaller towns and cities well connected by rail transport as in Germany, seems to me a relevant model to the Norwegian condition which, as you say, is heavily reliant on plane travel. The benefit of the polycentric German city network is that the region as a whole performs like a “megacity”, with individual centres of economic, cultural and creative activities that have the potential of mutually supporting each other.

The case of London, as a complex, large and relatively wealthy city, is also instructive. The mayor Ken Livingstone has just implemented a new climate change policy which will aim to reduce carbon emission substantially in the next decade by tackling energy waste in London’s households and investing in new forms of energy generation, including heat and power. Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York has just announced a similar plan which includes a possible Congestion Charge zone for Manhattan. It is interesting that cities are trying to outdo each other the Climate Change game, in many ways overtaking their national governments in innovative sustainable policies. So, London is now embarking on a programme of retrofitting all its social housing stock with improved insulation and has recently extended its Congestion Charge zone which has reduced the number of private vehicles on the road in the centre by about 20%, as well as seen 100% increase in bus use over the last four years. Many cities around the world are studying these models.

Mexico City, Ecataepec, 2006. Photo: Scott Peterman

Barcelona. Photo: Jordi Todó/Tavisa

Johannesburg. Plein Street, Down Town, Gauteng, 2004. Photo: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

From the main exhibition at the 10th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice 2006. Photo: iha

IHA: Eyes on Western Europe – is it true to say that the current urban development in China, for example, or in India, is based on Western models?

RB: I would say that today cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Mumbai or New Delhi - urban regions that are growing at an astronomical pace – are often based on outdated western urban models from the 1960s and 1970s. But while many western cities have gone full circle and rediscovered the social and economic benefits of smart growth, transport-orientated development, mixed-use and compact urban form, many of the cities of the Global South are planned on the flawed principles of zoning, car-dependency and increased segregation. New Delhi’s “new” masterplan envisages a constellation of shopping malls around the city as a “good thing”. In Britain, it is extremely difficult to receive planning permission for out-of-town shopping centres due to their negative impact on travel patterns, energy use and negative effects on local economy.

Many of these fast developing countries seek to celebrate their newfound affluence by celebrating the freedom afforded by the private car. One must avoid a “holier than thou” attitude here by going beyond a trite critique. The key issue to me lies in the difference between car ownership and car use. In London, for example, many people own cars but because of the relative efficiency and distribution of the underground and bus service, over 40% of people get to work using some form of public transport. In fact, the financial heart of the capital, the City of London, has over 95% of workers using trains and the underground, so more millionaires use the tube in London than in any other city in the world. Cities like Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Mexico City – and perhaps even some of your Norwegian cities – can learn from this model.

The link between density and complexity is another aspect that mist be considered when one looks at the way so many megacities are developing today. Rather than building on the rich and intense physical fabric of their own urban cultures, many cities follow a pattern of development that create alienated, one-dimensional public spaces that do not possess the depth and character of a true urban place. Perhaps today, western cities can still offer a model of how the public spaces of the city are places of tolerance and inclusion. This is not the case in the new public environments of Johannesburg, Mexico City of Shanghai. What many of these cities lack is the basic human right to occupy space safely, to afford the luxury of being on your own in the public realm. You are not safe in Johannesburg, you cannot walk on your own, and the effect of that is that people abandon the city centre and have gone to live in new suburban centres elsewhere, where the only way to get in and out of your property is though electronic gates, three metre high walls and barbed wire. When this happens to the urban landscape, no-one walks on the streets, so many roads are built without pavements. In this way you develop an emerging physiognomy of an “anti-city”, where difference becomes more important than being together, which is ultimately what cities are about. Western social democracies – like the UK or Norway – can provide positive models of the significance of public space.

Kristin Halvorsen, Norway's Minister of Finance 2995-2009, Socialist Left Party. Photo: Rune Kongsro

IHA: The Norwegian Ministry of Finance has just been presented with a report on the peer review of what is to become a national policy for sustainable development. Now, whilst it is commendable that the work on sustainability is anchored in the Ministry of Finance, it is curious, seen from the point of view of the planning profession, that the report doesn’t mention physical planning. Not even in connection with transport or biological diversity. So your strong reminder of the close links between social well-being and physical environment is very prudent. This leads to another important question: the status of the public planner. In Norway the 20th century image of the benevolent gentleman planner, laying out avenues with a grand vision and who sorting out what’s best for people, has up to now been an ideal. I think everyone recognises that that model is not viable anymore, but when controversial developments are proposed, the profession still calls for tighter planning control. Much of the development currently going on in Oslo, for example, is private. And the only aim of private development, at least in our context, is investment. All arguments are financial. How have the recent city projects that you’re referring to come about? Are they publicly initiated? Are they part of a public-private collaboration?

RB: I think the trend that you are describing in your country, in Norway, of progressive erosion of the public sector, is what we went through in Britain under Mrs. Thatcher in the 1980s and early 1990s, and now we’re coming out the other end. You will find that the public sector investment, even in the planning world, is beginning to creep up again. In the 1970s, the vast majority of British architects worked for the state, for central government or local authorities. Today it must be less than ten per cent. The critical question for us is has this shrinkage of the public sector made things worse or better. London presents an interesting case study here. The city starting pulling itself together from the mid-1990’s onwards, just at the time that London suffered from political and financial underinvestment. Following the abolition of the Greater London Council by Mrs Thatcher in 1985, London didn’t have a government; it was being run by its 33 boroughs and controlled by central government.

Yet some of the most interesting developments were initiated at that time. The Tate Modern, and the redevelopment of the South Bank, happened on an ad-hoc basis, without any sort of central government intervention. The Tate Gallery of Modern Art decided to build a new museum –the Tate Modern now visited by 5 million people a year - which triggered the construction of the Millennium Bridge linking the City of London to the South Bank. The entire has now transformed with thousands of Londoners and visitors using the South Bank as a cultural boulevard along the River Thames. Even the massive office development at Canary Wharf, whatever else we think of it, represents an unplanned project that was due to the “courage” of a single developer rather than the intelligence of government planners. The argument here is that if there is a sense of what that city is trying to be, I think you can steer the private sector in very direct ways. You need policy instruments to do that, but you don’t need enormously centralised planning. Critically these policy instruments should be more qualitative than quantitative. There’s a balance to be struck here between bureaucracy and vision. I don’t think large centralised planning departments are the solution.

Sao Paulo: Favela Paraisópolis. Photo: Luiz Arthur Leirão Vieira (Tuca Vieira)

Bogotá. Photo: Giovanna Silva

IHA: So if the condition is a shared vision of the city and what it is to become: from where is that vision initiated, and how is it sustained?

RB: There is absolutely no doubt that a strong city mayor is important. The mayor has to be the person who sets, interprets and articulates that vision. If you look at the London Plan, the city’s main planning document, it is a series of statements and aspirations that reflect Ken Livingstone’s views. The London Plan does not have grand drawings and perspectives; there is no physical view of what might happen to the city. It’s a series of very clear written aspirations, about multi-culturalism, about diversity, about fairness, about environmental aspirations which guide and steer the way the city develops.

IHA: My impression of local government in Oslo, for example, is that the local government is always in a defensive position – that has to do with the need for re-election – and they are primarily laying claim to the status quo, The right to say: ”This is the way it is”, before someone else pipes up and says: ”No it’s not”. They talk about how it should be, but not about what the city will become. In other words, planning is chiefly used as a rhetorical tool.

RB: You are saying that local politics by definition freezes the potential for dynamic growth. Bottom-up politics can lead to a sense on NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) culture which stifles change. There’s no doubt in my mind that a strong local politician, who embraces a physical vision for the city is critical to urban success. For example, if you did not have the succession of powerful mayors in Barcelona – Narcis Serra, Pasqual Maragall, Joan Clos, and now Jordi Hereu, Barcelona would not be Barcelona. Perhaps Ken Livingstone offers another example, as do Rudi Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York. The mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, is using the city platform to enter national politics just as the mayor – now Governor - of Sao Paulo, José Serra, is looking to enter the next presidential election race. The city is a stepping-stone from local to national politics. Without a strong mayor, and good governance, the city is weak. That’s why nothing happens in Indian cities. They don’t have mayors. They’re all controlled by central government.

IHA: And so what should the architectural profession do?

RB: Get in bed with mayors: Richard Rogers with Ken Livingstone. Oriol Bohigas with Pasqual Maragall. Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel etc., are all adept at this game.

IHA: The National Association of Norwegian Architects, NAL, is currently trying to formulate an architectural policy for Norway, which we haven’t had for the past 15 years, and when we did it was about aesthetics…
RB: The RIBA, for example, is now absolutely clear that political lobbying must be at the core of what they do, not just promote aesthetics. Perhaps more importantly, we need to completely overhaul the education of the architect. There is nothing wrong with doing a beautiful building, don’t misunderstand me, but there’s a lot wrong with doing a building which is beautiful and anti-urban or anti-social. Future generations of architects must be taught to understand that.

IHA: So if we get into bed with the bed with the mayors, what do we give them, if not beauty?

RB: You help them develop a vision for the city.

IHA: There should be architects willing to work in the ministries.

RB: Yes. Your minister of finance should have an architectural advisor! I am sure there are many excellent candidates in Norway.


Richard Burdett is the founder of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the only programme in the world to bring together social sciences and physical planning. He was director of the main exhibition of the 10th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, ”Cities. Architecture and Society”.