The Endless City Q&A

After a tiny bit of prodding, the folks at Phaidon sent over a review copy of the recently released book The Endless City, edited by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, and containing essays by the likes of Saskia Sassen, Enrique Peñalosa, and the indefatigable Rem Koolhaas. Where will feature a review of the book soon, but first, another treat from Phaidon; the editors were asked a series of questions. The following is a selection of the highlights from the record of this Q&A.

What are the main issues that you think people should be concerned about when it comes to city growth?
The book has a section titled ‘Issues’ that we hope synthesizes the complexities of urban growth. In it, a number of the contributors outline key issues but approach them from a variety of viewpoints. For example, Richard Sennett argues that ‘over determination’ can kill the vitality and growth of urban centers. Cities need to be dynamic and its physical forms and functions need to be endowed with the capacity to respond to indeterminate, unpredictable forces. Frank Duffy applies a similar idea when explaining the urban office, so ‘adaptability’ is the central issue they both cover. Another issue the book clearly prioritizes is sustainable development. The contributions from Guy Battle and Nicky Gavron, along with the Knoflacher, Rode and Tiwari essay, all detail urban growth strategies that respond to the environment and the challenges of climate change. Another central issue summarized by the three essays by Gerald Frug, Enrique Penalosa and Geetam Tiwari is governance and civic participation – cities need to allow for a multiplicity of voices and actors as well as a variety of experiences but there needs to be an agent or authority that can intelligently negotiate this multiplicity and still get something done. Tiwari explains this with particular reference to the forces dominating the informal sector. Both Anne Power and Sophie Body-Gendrot elaborate on this as well as some of the other pressing sociological concerns that urban designers, policymakers and the general public confront in the act of city making. Of course it goes without saying that quality design is the ingredient that delivers a truly remarkable city and allows individual places to flourish. The essays by architects Rem Koolhaas, Alejandro Zaera-Polo, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron all contribute various reflections about how to reconcile a variety of factors and perspectives enmeshed within the city’s physical reality. It should be noted that many of the essays in the Cities section resonate with the broader themes in the Issues section as well. The result is a cross-sectional analysis between the six cities [New York, London, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Mexico City, and Berlin] and the global world with issues finitely referenced to specific urban conditions.

What world cities do you expect to go through the greatest changes in the 21st century?
The fastest growing cities are in Africa and across Asia and its up to the next generation to make sure their development does not repeat the mistakes of cities in the developed world – this means Lagos and Kinshasa, Mumbai, Deli and Dhaka, as well as Shanghai and Jakarta. It is projected that by 2030, over 4 out of every 5 urban dwellers will be in the developing world so this will have huge implications for the global economy. At the same time, mature cities such as London and New York City, Berlin and Mexico City need to ensure that their future growth reconciles their layered history of planning mistakes and prioritizes sustainable transport and inclusive, contained growth.

The book talks about the importance of cities learning from each other. Can you explain that? For example, what can NYC learn from Shanghai? Can small cities learn from big cities?
There are countless examples of cities looking to other cities when deciding how to invest in their future growth and health. Congestion charging in NYC wouldn’t be a viable option had London not demonstrated how it could be done, and Mexico City’s Metrobús is a stunning success modeled on the Transmilenio in Bogota and of course Curitiba. Ideas must be partnered with implementation strategies and learning often is a matter of scale. So yes, small cities can learn from big, and vice versa. The essay by Knoflacher, Rode and Tiwari describes how small cities can serve as incubators for innovation precisely because of their scale. Understanding how cities implement large projects such as the Olympics in London, doing it with the right amount of investment in public space, has a lot to do with acknowledging how the city and individual neighborhoods have developed over time and how open space serves to socially integrate people from disparate backgrounds. The contributions of both Saskia Sassen and Enrique Peñalosa emphasizes this learning, especially in the latter how urban centers in developed countries are recovering from their love affair with the car, delimiting the access of automobiles in favor of public transport. Cities in developing countries could learn a lot from this. Most importantly, in order for ideas to transfer from one city to another, there needs to be a complementary understanding about how policies, decision making and funding align to facilitate implementation. Frug’s essay explains how the power structures of the six cities vary and what impact permutations to each city’s existing systems could have on local and regional planning mechanisms.

What are the key ideas that you want people to take away from reading this book?
The 34 contributors to the book – along with the hundreds of policymakers, politicians, academics, architects, planners, and urbanists involved with the Urban Age project which forms the basis for The Endless City – all believe that cities can offer a better social and economic life for its citizens. Now that half the world’s population live in cities, there is an urgent need to take stock of the new urban condition and find an approach to dealing with it. City sprawl should be contained and there are innovative strategies for creating high density, highly liveable environments. We want to help those charged with running and making cities understand the relationship between the socio-economic and spatial characteristics of cities – and we want the general public to understand how sustainable urban development can actually improve the physical form of their cities and the quality of their lives.

Are you hopeful for the future when it comes to our cities?
Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, offers an incredible explanation for why we should all be hopeful for the future of cities. Cities offer the potential for ‘quality of life equality’, i.e. access to green, open space and social and economic mobility as well as physical mobility. Across the world, people are moving into cities at an alarming rate – and not just mega-cities but smaller cities comprising an overall urbanized region. Most importantly, the twenty-first century will be increasingly focused on reducing both the overall sum and per capita production of carbon emissions, and as emitters of 75 per cent of the world’s pollution, cities are the battleground on which the future and health of our planet will be determined.

Is there any way for ordinary people to make change in their own cities? Do you have any recommendations for someone who wants to get involved?
Ordinary people make change in their city everyday. They do this by opting for public transport instead of a private car, by holding their government officials responsible for the quality of the built environment, and by advocating for equal access to green, open space. Ensuring that there is investment in sustainable forms of transport, and that access to healthcare, education and community services does not depend on how much money you make or the wealth of your locality. Most importantly, if you don’t know what your community is doing locally to advocate sustainable urban development, then join a forum and find out. Participate.

(Thanks, Faye!)

(Photo from Flickr users thequickbrownfoxjumpsoverthelazydog and howzey. The original full-color versions can be viewed by clicking the respective photos.)

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