Finding Solutions for Urban Imbalances: An Interview with Ricky Burdett

By Chao, Rebecca | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Finding Solutions for Urban Imbalances: An Interview with Ricky Burdett


Chao, Rebecca, Journal of International Affairs


As architectural advisor to the mayor of London, Ricky Burdett helped shape he city's skyline and steer urban development in one of the world's most global cities. He began the job on the cusp of an architectural renaissance in 2001, just after the completion of the London Eye and the Millennium Bridge, and left in 2006. During his tenure, he saw the construction of innovative green structures like the Swiss Re Tower--drolly known as "Darth Vader's helmet"--and the "Gherkin," all of which offer a break from London's traditional limestone and stock-brick buildings. Burdett curated the "Global Cities" exhibit at Tate Modern in 2007, which focused on the problems of rapid urbanization in the world's ten largest metropolises. He was the key design advisor to the 2012 London Olympics, helping to choose architects for the sporting venues and the Olympic Village, ensuring that Stratford in East London becomes and remains a vibrant part of the city long after 2012. In a conversation with the Journal's Rebecca Chao, Burdett offers a panoramic view of what makes a city global and why there is much to learn from cities like London. (1)

Journal of International Affairs: Global cities have taken centuries to reach their current scale and diversity. In your experience as an architect and urban planner, are there patterns in how global cities grow?

Ricky Burdett: For a city to be truly global it has to be resilient. It has to withstand and absorb shockwaves of social, economic and political change caused by the international flow of people, capital and information. Much of this resilience has to do with its residents, economy and political leadership, but much of it also has to do with its physical structure, such as its buildings and spaces. The New York City grid, invented just over 200 years ago, is a wonderful example, as is the organic, unplanned structure of London. The factory buildings of New York's Lower East Side or London's Georgian terraces have adapted incredibly well to new uses, allowing these two global cities to keep pace with the times. Paris, Berlin and Rome, in contrast, have struggled to renew themselves and compete as global centers.

Journal: Do you think that cities in developing countries are growing in the same way that global cities grew in the past?

Burdett: No. Cities in the Global South are growing faster and becoming larger than cities ever have before. London grew from roughly one to eight-anda-half million people between 1800 and its population peak in 1939. Mumbai, Lagos, Istanbul and Sao Paulo have grown by at least 200,000 people per year in recent decades with Lagos, for example, growing by 600,000 people per year. That is a rate of nearly seventy people per hour! The stress on their infrastructures--on roads, houses, hospitals and schools--is unprecedented. Also, many African cities are seeing population growth without the level of industrialization witnessed by nineteenth century Europe and the United States, leading to a new phenomenon in which urbanization occurs without economic consolidation. This creates a dangerous cocktail: a concentration of urban poor without the investment or social and physical services needed to sustain them. In addition, many of the cities in developing countries are becoming more segregated as they expand. The levels of violence and inequality in Sao Paulo and Cape Town, for example, are getting worse rather than better, despite relatively balanced economies and political systems.

Journal: Can you elaborate on the effect of gated communities and physical divisions within a city? How is a city's infrastructure related to social challenges like the integration of minorities or immigrants?

Burdett: It becomes clear that people retreat into gated communities or segregated enclaves to distance themselves from people or places they fear. Safety is a prime concern in cities and residents will do whatever they can to protect themselves and their families. …

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