Ten years after, the conference organised by the LSE aims to have more involvement from students and community “to educate the next generation of city-makers”.
Urbanisation refers to processes of movement into and consolidation of cities. This year the Urban Age conference series staged annually by London School of Economics celebrates ten years of partnership with the Alfred Herrhausen Society of Deutsche Bank, and a track record of conferences in thirteen different megacities across four continents examining these processes (19 November – 3 December 2015).
“Megacities are microcosms of all the big issues of our time: infrastructure, social justice, cohesion and climate change. If you want to shape the future,” says their managing director of Alfred Herrhausen Society Thomas Mattusek, “you have to shape cities”.
But urbanisation is essentially multilateral; its shapes are rarely even-sided. When architects, politicians, activists, academics, transport policy officers, civil engineers and companies meet, talk and argue their different perspectives, it is often productive of new insights into the connection between the built environment and social reality. As Deputy Managing Director of Alfred Herrhausen Society Ute Weiland says, “we were the first to bring mayors, city planners, architects, sociologists, historians, doctors, transport planners, bankers, Non Government Organisations and others around a table together to discuss the future of cities”. “A main story here is how urbanism is re-entering policy making across the board and at different governance scales, says Philipp Rode, Executive Director of LSE Cities, whether issues around economic productivity, climate change or inequality, we are seeing a new recognition that place making really matters.”
This year Thomas Mattusek announced that next year the Urban Age visits Italy for the first time, with a pavilion and conference at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture. They will also organise a session at the 3rd UN Habitat Quito on the relationship between public and private spaces. However this year the Urban Age was staged differently – and the different format both illustrates a key challenge of academic urbanism and of the series itself. Over a period of several weeks, a lecture theatre at London School of Economics hosted five debates on issues ranging from climate change, governance, land and equity, infrastructure and investment, and social inclusion.
For the first time, tickets were distributed through a ballot that was open to the public. The aim of this openness was to have more involvement from students and community, as Director of LSE Cities Ricky Burdett says, “to educate the next generation of city-makers”. It also served to highlight the felt experience of these macro processes on the micro level, and the way they are understood in a familiar terminology, transpiring as debate and transformation that is felt and enacted by individuals and groups acting outside institutions. “The city is a place where those without power get to make a history, a culture, an economy, a neighbourhood economy,” professor Saskia Sassen from Colombia University says, “It’s a space where they can make.”
For this reason it was opportune at this moment to open up the conference series to the general public, with their own ways of responding to, complimenting and resisting urbanisation. These processes, however well analysed, are neither entirely rational nor uniform. The audience of the Urban Age is an elite audience but their subject is a wily array of habits, sensitivities, competitions and desires. As author Deyan Sudjic surmised in a statement in the conference handout, “in itself, the idea that the city is the product of such different groups is probably the biggest single ideological statement represented by the Urban Age”. Opening the conference up to additional groups is thus an interesting step. As Rode says, “The evening lectures are a very established format at the LSE to attract more diverse audiences. Having five sessions on different nights also meant different crowds each time and a more tailored thematic outreach campaign for each evening. The five themes reflected the key issues that we felt are still the big issues on the table after nineteen years of conferencing.”
There is always a process of mediation when ideas are lifted from the page. While there is no doubting that infrastructure frames the city in a way that is sometimes overpowering, a distinction must be made between the force of material intervention, and adaptive strategies that resist or precipitate these interventions, often happening at different scales or with different levels of coordination. For ideas to be properly adopted they must also be made small, real and shared, so that everyone may possess them and enact them in their own way. They cannot be orchestrated. If they do not learn to anticipate it, urban planners will find this this “noise” or “feedback” to be an obstacle, and indeed, a missed opportunity.
As architect Norman Foster of Foster and Partners makes clear, even smaller initiatives and changes have the power to make a big difference. For example, he says, a simple app that shows Chinese citizens the smog levels in their local community could serve as a catalyst for improvement. While millions of people die each year as a result of air pollution, they may be even more compelled to participate and enact change if they themselves can monitor what is happening. Additionally, the London Millennium Bridge across the Thames has had a transformative affect, used by 8 million people every year, increasing attendance at both St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern.
Emotions play another role in these settings, regardless or how rational our decisions are. European cities are currently responding to two distinct events, the recent influx of Syrian refugees, and the terror attacks of November 13 in Paris. These events will result in new policies, regulations, improvisation and garden-variety changes in behavior and habit which are not entirely be the result of rational calculations, but of other emotions, fear, panic, aversion. How can we manage these negative emotions in urban space? Can we every achieve a level of porosity that we need in diverse metropolises when people are disgusted by one another’s cooking, bothered by the noise coming from a music venue, or moved to avoid using the metro in fear of terrorist attack? It is increasingly urgent need to understand how responses will emerge from different groups, as well as what ideally those responses should be. As Executive Director Joan Clos from UN Habitat says “the security policy of the nation and the migration policy of each country will continue to affect the quality of its urbanization”, mostly without being properly acknowledged or accounted for.
This makes the task of reckoning even more urgent. As Professor Karen Seeto of Yale University foretells, climate change and urbanisation will likely be the two strongest transformative forces of the 21st century. More urban areas will be built in the first three decades of this century than any other time in human history. Three billion people will be urbanised between now and 2050, says Clos, double the current level of urbanisation. What happens to emissions as countries develop and start building new infrastructure? Cities already account for the majority of fossil fuel based carbon emissions. When new and growing cities commence building, there is brief a window of opportunity to do it properly. British Economist Nicholas Stern, Chairman, Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment argues, for cities to adapt to the pressures and transformation wrought by climate change, urban transformation must be very fast. It is necessary to make big investments both quickly and wisely.
As a result of this urgency we need to take action at multiple levels, involving more people. Nicholas Stern says those who lead, analyse and propose need to think about changing things dramatically over the next two decades. We need to find ways to communicate the value of these interventions and make them emotionally meaningful. We need to examine other key forces on urban life – emotion, desire, culture. Professor Richard Sennett alluded to this in his discussion on inclusion and living together. “People have a physical experience of the city and non verbal knowledge you cannot translate into words, Sennett says, “There are dimensions of urban order that are purely physical and non verbal. And the kind of porosity that I think ensures a kind of urban order is a bodily comfort with people in the midst of people who are different. It is something visceral like a hand extended to help the person on the train who is trying to get to work.”
The role of emotion in history and urban regulation is little explored in relation to practical matters, but constantly interrupts them. What of the tort law of nuisance, and complaint laws of odour and noise? These instruments were developed mainly to manage emotional responses to pressures of urbanisation, and had great effect on declining and rising property values, health, sanitation, and different ideas of what constitutes peace. How would the person who outstretched her hand to pack another sweaty person into the train feel if there was an outbreak of Ebola or another communicable disease in their city?
Cities are the new frontier, the first place where global forces turn into personal habit. Here terrorism, migration, war, climate change, pollution, diseases and other issues, are made concrete to people in their respective communities, and must become something that is lived and responded to, integrated into the patterns of every day life, what the late anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu called habitus. No matter how well planned or coordinated, there will always be irrationality and emotion involved people's understanding of their surroundings. In fact this may be a defining feature of urbanism. As Weiland says, we do not organise the Urban Age Conference to instruct the cities. The conference is a platform for the exchange of “best practice”. Every city must find their own solutions. They must employ their culture, their tradition, their geographic location, and their economic and political situation into consideration.”
“Estamos presentes” claimed Saskia Sassion in her keynote on inequity and who owns the city. And indeed in this anniversary Urban Age, people with ordinary concerns were in fact present. It remained to be seen who will influence the agenda and how, but a successful and cohesive urbanism which will accelerate in response to some of these challenges almost certainly depends on an ongoing communication. How can we contribute to that acceleration? It is a question that will be answered in emotional, analytical, social and physical terms, with the same sense of coordinated receptiveness, through the10 years of Urban Age to come.