Two visions of 21st-Century Cities

Event: Forum for Urban Design Fall Conference Presentation
Location: Century Association, 11.03.08
Speakers: Richard Burdett — Centennial Professor in Architecture and Urbanism, London School of Economics & Director, Urban Age; Robert Bruegmann — Professor, University of Illinois
Organizers: Forum for Urban Design

Courtesy Forum for Urban Design

In back-to-back presentations, two urban planning researchers gave conflicting accounts of the future of cities, differing on the use of statistics and the desires of city dwellers. Richard Burdett, director of the Urban Age project, outlined the results of an eight-city study, recently published in the book The Endless City (Phaidon, 2008). Noting that 2007 marked the first time in history that half the world’s population lived in cities, Burdett used photos and diagrams from the book to summarize the prospects for urban design in the 21st century.

In one aerial image from São Paulo, a freeway separated orderly apartment blocks from a chaotic shantytown, or favela. Pointing to the image, Burdett said architects “mostly build ugly buildings, and only to the end of the property line, with little concern for what happens outside.” A series of maps showed the locations of the world’s fastest-growing cities in Africa and Southeast Asia. According to Burdett, São Paulo’s favela is representative of the explosive growth of the slums and shantytowns in these cities. “As urbanists, this is the problem we have to deal with… and I don’t think we have the tools to do it.”

Against this vision of endless sprawl, Burdett held up examples of highly functional urban design, including London, Berlin, and New York. Through their combination of inclusive governance structure, public transit, and high density, Burdett argued that these cities could serve as models for the developing world.

Professor Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois responded to Burdett’s presentation, taking issue with several of Urban Age’s statistics and methods. Bruegmann charged that Burdett and Urban Age had neglected the middle class’s desire for lower density and detached housing. The book, Bruegmann said, is concerned with not what people want but “what people should want.”

Referring to the high-density cities, Bruegmann observed, “It’s quite possible that these old European and American cities were an aberration.” He forecasted that future cities would look less like Berlin and more like Los Angeles, with sprawling suburbs and exurbs connected to a medium-density core by freeways.