Sustainable Cities™

Richard Burdett: The versatility of future cities

Sustainability is not only an environmental issue, Richard Burdett reminds us. It is also an aesthetic and social one. To achieve the lasting characteristics of a real city, we must be able to make the environmental, social and spatial agendas pull in the same direction.

Richard Burdett responded to the Ecotopedia enquete in an interview conducted in London on 29th July 2008.


…What are the qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?

The sustainable city of the future should be versatile, compact and beautiful.

As society and aspirations alter over time, the city has to be designed to adapt to change. Utopian cities built around fixed ideologies have never worked. The people that created Rome, New York and London certainly didn't think of them as fixed artifacts that wouldn't change over time. As urban designers, we have to be clever and think of the city's metabolism - just like a body. When it gets older and weaker, you undertake corrective surgery. Cities need to be versatile; otherwise they fossilize and die. Many cities have been designed around the needs of the car for the last 50 years. As oil costs soar, the city of the future will increasingly need to adapt to modes of transportation that are not petrol-dependent.

In order to be more sustainable, cities will also need to become more compact. Mexico City, which extends endlessly in all directions like an oil-spill, has no chance of becoming sustainable. Its overstretched infrastructure - roads, sewers, power lines - can never provide an efficient response to the energy equation. Los Angeles is the same. On the other hand, cities like Hong Kong, New York or Copenhagen or even a less obvious example like London - which has its peaks and troughs of density - have the spatial DNA to act as sustainable organisms that make the most of their urban assets. Keeping people, facilities and infrastructure closer together is the only way to reduce energy consumption and increase efficiency.

But, this is not only an environmental issue. It is also an aesthetic and social one. Cities are about people coming together, to seek work and exchange ideas. And, in a global world people can and do make choices. So the public spaces and buildings of the sustainable city need to be well designed. In effect, they need to be beautiful - a word that is rarely used in this debate. You can create a highly efficient environment in terms of CO2 emissions, but it will never have the lasting characteristics of a real city where buildings have a wonderful relationship to open space and nature - a river, a park, water, views that compensate for human closeness. In this respect, the environmental, social and spatial agendas are all pulling in the same direction.


…What are the challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?

The three top challenges are: dealing with the speed of change with intelligent urban infrastructure systems, eradicating social exclusion and introducing proper forms of urban governance.

The speed of urbanization poses one of the biggest challenges we face today. Cities like Mumbai, Lagos and Dhaka are growing by over 30 people an hour. This pace is unprecedented in the history of mankind. Where do you house such quantities of people at such a speed and what kind of infrastructure do you provide that will last for generations to come? Today, these problems are addressed with 'technical' solutions that are often bad copies of outdated western models - dominated by urban theories founded on car-based transport and spatial segregation.

Planning models of the rapidly urbanizing world need to be completely overhauled in favour of more sustainable practices that are often already deeply rooted in local traditions. For example, in a city like Mumbai - which at present holds 15 million people but may grow to 35 million by 2050 - over 60 % of the population walk or cycle to work. This is exceptionally efficient. However, the development plan for the city is based on a massive investment in the construction of flyovers and expansion of the road system that will reverse this balance. A key challenge, therefore, is to make the most of what cities have rather than blindly adopt extraneous models of planning and implementation. At the centre of the sustainable city must be a well-integrated and affordable public transport system - as we have seen implemented in Bogota, Curitiba and Medellin.

Another key challenge is the concentration of urban poverty in vast slums or ghettoes. People come to cities in search of work and opportunity; they hope to climb the economic ladder in one or two generations. This is what New York's 'melting pot' allowed generations of immigrants to do in the early 20th century and why Mumbai is known as the 'bird of gold' - you come to the city in the hope that one day you can fly and earn enough money to afford an education for your children. But, cities are becoming more closed and spatially differentiated, with ghettoes of rich and poor communities concealed behind gated-communities and slum walls. A key challenge is to design cities that are open and spatially integrated that do not reinforce social exclusion in concrete.

Good cities are only as good as their forms of governance. Without a democratic structure of governance, which recognizes the city as part of a wider metropolitan region, cities will fail to compete and respond to the needs of their citizens. Cities don't work in isolation. They are part of a complex system of regional, national and global economies and new forms of governance need to be found that strike a balance between bottom-up and a top-down approaches. The most successful cities of the last decades - Barcelona, Bogota, Turin, London, New Delhi - have been led by directly elected mayors who have set a vision for their citizens and been given the powers to implement change, without being stifled by central governments or local nimbyism.


…What are the most promising initiatives that would make living in cities more sustainable?

Despite the depressing scenario painted by global urban statistics, I am very optimistic about the potential for change in cities. Through the Urban Age programme at the London School of Economics and the research carried out for the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale, I have come across extremely positive initiatives in cities across the world - from New Dehli to Caracas, from Bogota to London. Their success depends on the deliberate actions of people who recognise that the physical fabric of the city is instrumental to their sustainability.

New Delhi, the capital of the world's most urban country, India, is perhaps the unexpected locus of inspired urban change. The city had one of the highest traffic congestion and pollution rates in the world until its chief minister, the formidable Sheila Dixshit, took the very bold decision to convert the city's public transport system (including all buses and auto rickshaws) from diesel to natural gas (CNG) and invest in a new underground system. This initiative not only changed the level of pollution overnight but also created a sense of autonomy and pride in what a city can achieve - setting a model for other cities to follow.

London's Congestion Charge, where private cars are charged 12 Euros a day to enter the city centre, has also been successful at reducing traffic and pollution. The money raised from this tax is used to improve public transport and is invested in public space projects. Thanks to the Charge, there are now 20% less cars in a large portion of central London and bus use has doubled in the last four years. Despite strong opposition from voters and his technical advisers, the then Mayor Ken Livingstone pushed through this radical policy that has changed the perception of Londoners towards the public realm.

I am fascinated by the exceptional efficiency of the integrated transport system of Tokyo, the world's largest city. With a wider metropolitan area 35 million people, over 80% of its vast population take public transport to work. Average commuting times in the vast metropolis are around one hour, less than half of what they are in Los Angeles, Mexico City or Sao Paulo (where people can spend up to four hours a day commuting to and from work). In Los Angeles, at least 80% of the population takes the car to work. Surely, it is clear which model we should be following to make cities more sustainable.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have been equally inspired by the effect that small-scale projects can have on urban lives. In a slum area of the outskirts of Mumbai, a group of young men and women have worked together to create a communal bathroom that acts as a social integrator in a struggling community that lacks any sewers or running water. The Triratna Prerana Mandal project, which received the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award in 2007, has also created a space where young women can meet and share their experiences, talk freely about male violence, sex education and health issues in a protected space in the heart of a congested city. Young boys and girls use the space above the communal bathroom as a computer and Internet room; taking the first steps into a world they would otherwise be excluded from. Like the Faro project in Mexico City - a cultural centre for young people in the heart of the city's poorest and most deprived neighbourhoods - this project emphasizes the enormous social potential of spatial interventions. These are truly promising initiatives that can make cities more socially sustainable, even in the toughest urban environments in the world.

About Richard Burdett

Ricky_Burdett_color_MK_DRichard Burdett was born in London, but he grew up and trained in Rome. Today, he is Professor of Architecture and Urban studies at the London School of Economics. He is the chief advisor on architecture and urbanism for the 2012 London Olympics, and has worked as a consultant for the Tate Gallery, the BBC and NM Rothschilds. Burdett has also played a key role in the institutions responsible for fostering an architectural culture in Great Britain - the 9H Gallery, the Architecture Foundation, LSE Cities Programme, the Mayor's Architecture and Urban Design Task Force and the British government's Urban Task Force. He has served on numerous international design contest jury panels, among them the contest held by the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, the one held by the Tate Modern Gallery in London and the Forum 2004 in Barcelona and he was director of the 2006 edition of the Venice Biennial exhibition. Burdett has curated over 40 exhibits on contemporary architecture and cities and is a frequent contributor to magazines and other forms of media, having also presented a documentary on Villa Malaparte for the BBC. His particular area of expertise revolves around the relationship between architecture, urban design and urban society - concretely manifested in the interface between urban applications, policy making and research.

Most important publications:

  • Cities: People, Society, Architecture: 10th International Architecture Exhibition - Venice Biennale (with Sarah Ichioka) 2006
  • The Endless City: The urban age project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, 2008

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014