We meet Professor Ricky Burdett and discuss the way metropolises like London, New York or Shanghai are changing, and how these changes are likely to impact citizens, consumers, trade and merchants, transport and logistics.
Ricky Burdett is Professor of Urban Studies and Director of London School of Economics Cities and Urban Age: a global centre of research and teaching dedicated to the future of cities. Professor Burdett is a member of the Mayor of London’s Cultural Leadership Board, former Council Member of the Royal College of Art and a Visiting Professor in Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. It is only part of a much longer, very fascinating conversation.
As you know, ARENI is a research Institute dedicated to the future of fine wine. We need to understand what’s going to happen in the future. And cities of course are super important for us, because cities are a major place where fine wine trade and consumption happens. The idea today is to understand how cities are going to function, how they are changing and how trade and commerce is likely to change as well inside the city.
Your question of what’s going to happen to cities or who’s moving in, who’s moving out, totally depends on where you are in the world. There’s no such thing as an international trend that is exactly the same for cities everywhere. If you are anywhere in Asia or Africa, you would be witnessing 90% of urban growth in the next 35-40 years. There’s an imbalance geographically, because in other parts of the world, like Mexico City, they have peaked. The cities have grown over the last 40-50 years and some of them have certainly stabilized.
If you are anywhere in Asia or Africa, you would be witnessing 90% of urban growth in the next 35-40 years.Professor Ricky Burdett
And then there’s another phenomenon which is closer to home, where you get the reverse. The former Soviet Union, some Eastern European countries, the rust belt of the United States; these are areas where cities have actually lost their populations. It’s called ‘shrinking cities.
Why are cities growing? They’ve always grown for more or less the same reason, which is for people to transact and exchange. To transact good – of which, of course, food and wine are part – but it’s also to transact ideas, concepts, money. To transact value in all these dimensions.
Urbanisation and rapid urbanisation are happening in Africa and Asia. It doesn’t necessary mean these are areas of great wealth. Some of this is happening in areas where they are not, in fact, well off and they’re actually low level in terms of energy. The other side of the coin of what’s happening in these vastly growing cities is that a large percentage is informal.
When I researched what a city is, or what makes a city, the definition is different depending on the source. For example, in the UK, it’s the Queen that gives you city status. When you study cities like this, do you have a definition?
The status of ‘city’ is a very important part of how decisions are made, how government decisions are made and who’s in power. Some argue that a city has to be over a 100,000 people. I think the more interesting question is around what constitutes urbanity, and urbanity can happen at a relatively small scale. It doesn’t have to be large.
The opposite is also true. You can have areas in, say, parts of China, where you have zones that go on for 10, 20, 30, 50 kilometres with hundreds of millions of people. They wouldn’t be what we would normally call a city, but there’s definitely a sort of urban agglomeration or regional agglomeration.
Is there anything that they share in common when you think about the future and how they’re going to organize life? Are there some common trends, common links between all of those urban centres?
Well, certainly they have very common impacts on people and the environment. A city symphony can make your life more civilized. In that sense, cities can either humanize or brutalize. There are definitely cities, many of them European cities, which have for generations been run as highly democratic sophisticated systems with social housing, with parks, with well-organized social and public services, which tend to make the life of people comfortable. There are other cities, and many of these are in the rapidly growing regions that I referred to before, where social difference is actually cast in stone. In other words, the whole area, say to the south, or the whole area to the east, is a sort of no- go area, because it concentrates people who are different from the others.
The other side of the coin that one has to take into account is the environmental impact. So, if you have a sprawling city like Los Angeles, as opposed to a more compact city like New York, they both have incredibly different impacts on the environment in terms of pollution. So again, I’d say there’s the social side and there’s the environmental side.
You’ve mentioned at the beginning that the areas that are going to have 90% of the urban development, like African and Asia – most of them are not wealthy yet. When we look at the different urban centres that are developing through a very commercial angle, which one is going to be wealthy enough to have a population that’s likely to buy fine wine?
That’s slightly simplifying. What is the dynamic? What constitutes cities? I mean, if you have a neoliberal social structure, which is an economic model we tend to have in many parts of the world, there are inevitably going to be extremes of wealth and extremes of poverty. I think the important point I would make here in terms of what a city can do is that they can moderate and provide a more balanced way of allowing people to earn more or less money, to be provided with the decent requirements of everyday life, to access schools or hospitals. I don’t think the city itself can in any way determine whether you’re going to have certain lifestyle preferences, tastes preferences or anything else. That comes from far more complex mechanisms. Whether you’re living in a bunker in Switzerland or in a tower block in Beijing, whether you decide to invest in a particular product is sort of irrelevant to where you live.
If we think about Western European cities, or big urban centres in Europe and in the US, they’ve had radical change since COVID.
What the pandemic has certainly done is exacerbate and in some case accelerate trends that have been bubbling under the surface. Even, in some cases, allowed certain things to happen, which would have taken more time. The closure of certain streets in order to allow outdoor dining. There are large swathes of central London where that happened overnight. And normally these processes would take months of planning and fights by the restaurants versus the local residents and all that.
There are things like that which are happening, but to go to the core of what you were asking about, what did the pandemic highlight? Well, the first thing it made clear, unfortunately, is that there are certain communities who suffered far more, both in terms of exposure to the disease, and then mortality rates simply because of where they were living by postcode, right? There are parts of Manchester and parts of New York, where if you happen to live in the Bronx, say, the likelihood of you getting the disease was considerably higher and with far worse consequences in terms of whether you could recover or whether you actually ended up dying. There is a profound social difference in the geography of the city.
There was this perception amongst even my world, of people involved in studying cities, that having people close together was bad for you, right? But it’s actually not the case at all. So, if you take Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, these are cities that actually responded incredibly well to the challenges of the pandemic, partly because they went through SARS a few years ago. Also, they’re very centralized and efficient systems. So that’s one thing the pandemic has highlighted.
There are some big changes that are not sometimes visible when living in a city, when change happens incrementally. For example, Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, explained in a recent interview with you that she wants to go from a capitalist city that has always been focused on work to a city focused on family. What does it mean in practice?
Well, I want Barcelona to be a city for children or for families. Barcelona is one of the most liveable and pleasant cities anyway. There is the great tradition of the great Barcelona block, its relationship to the water, to the sea. The streets are full of life. They’ve got wonderful landscaping, lots of children playing. So, it’s not as if you’re trying to transform, Phoenix, Arizona into a liveable, friendly child city. It’s actually quite realistic. And I think the sort of policies that she is putting in place also work with what I would call the DNA of those cities. You can do certain things relatively easily in places which are well-advanced. It would be pretty difficult to make Lagos in Nigeria feel equally friendly. That could take decades.
What about London? How is it likely to change in the next decade?
Well, one has to just to remind ourselves where London has come from. I mean, London 25, 30 years ago in the mid-nineties was a pretty grey, lifeless sort of place where you couldn’t get decent coffee. I speak as an Italian, so, you know, I suffered. First of all, London reinvented itself as a governance system. So, it has a director that we never had.
Having a mayor was an invention. It shows that cities can be resilient and elastic and come up with things. It also became a place where young people, international young people, wanted to come and live. The number of people who moved to London is astronomic.
While one always thinks of London as being the centre of business, finance, insurance, and all that sort of stuff, the number of tech jobs has grown exponentially. And no one had really planned that. London’s ability to attract global citizens has been extraordinary.Professor Ricky Burdett
So, despite the own goal of Brexit, and some negative impacts of the pandemic, London responded better than others. I think things will work themselves out.
When the cities were reopening, there was a big debate about who got the public space. So, as you were saying, is that the streets are the streets and the pavements are for restaurants, or are they for cyclists or pedestrians?
That’s where good planning and good regulation is incredibly helpful to manage these different requests for space. It doesn’t have to be just for one or the other. You mentioned the servicing of shops and hotels and restaurants and all that. Well, it’s very simple and many countries do this. You just allow the white van or whatever to deliver until 7:45 in the morning. It’s not rocket science. Things like congestion charge have actually been quite effective.
The average salary of people who work in the square mile in the city of London is stratospherically higher than anywhere else. But 95% people who go to work in the City of London use public transport, because there’s no other way of getting there. And there’s no negative stigma attached to using public transport. The mayor of Bogota in Colombia says you reach civilized urban life when you get into the situation where the elites want to use public transport.
We’ve seen new patterns of consumption. People buying online more, but also different ways of integrating work in life. Are those new patterns of consumption? How can we integrate the new ways of consumption in urban planning?
It is interesting to see that Amazon now has shops. It doesn’t make any sense. If I can buy whatever I want on Amazon, why do I need to go to a shop? What does that say?
What the pandemic shows is how much we miss just getting together and being in the presence of others.Professor Ricky Burdett
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