Accelerated city transformations

At the close of the 2012 Urban Age conference in London, the urbanist and social theorist Richard Sennett argued that the tendency to build large-scale new cities and neighbourhoods is depriving us of the social and creative energies of traditional urban form – often referred to as cityness. He returns to this theme in this newspaper for the Urban Age conference in Rio de Janeiro by framing the debate on cities as a contrast between efficiency and sociability. This duality is at the heart of the investigation of the interrelationships between the social and the physical in cities, which since 2005 have shaped the explorations of the Urban Age programme at LSE Cities.

For the Rio Urban Age conference we have focussed on the impact of radical transformations in cities that have reshaped – at times drastically – the spatial, social and economic landscape of urban centres across the globe. We have used the opportunity of Rio’s intense pace and scale of change to reflect on the social and creative energies of urban form at different scales and levels, in an attempt to understand how they affect patterns of everyday urban life, in positive and negative ways. We are interested in finding out whether the streets, blocks and infrastructure networks being built today are guiding us to more equitable, efficient and more civic lives, or are working against the grain of that elusive quality of cityness, fostering divisiveness and inequality in the rush to build and compete.

This publication is designed to contribute to the debate with texts and research by over twenty leading urban commentators, academics, policymakers and practitioners investigating the recent transformations of cities like Rio, London, Barcelona, Mumbai, Bogotá, Hamburg and Cape Town. It contains new research carried out by LSE Cities, comparing the social, economic and spatial characteristics of Rio de Janeiro with other global cities, and provides detailed analysis of the changing physiognomy of cities and projects in selected urban areas. The objective of the newspaper and the conference it supports is to ask a number of key questions. What are the drivers of these physical transformations and the global political economies that are emerging behind these building programmes? What long-term dependencies are such transformations putting before us and how flexible are these forms to social and economic change? How are citizens demanding different infrastructures and questioning the traditional role of markets and the State in delivering big projects?

These same questions were being asked over 150 years ago when London’s Victorian reformers saw fit to improve the health of their citizens by constructing a major sewerage system under their city. What they found was a London subdivided into small territorial interests, unable to take the necessary metropolitan decisions that such a land-thirsty city transformation required. In delivering the project, the Victorians created a new metropolitan authority, the predecessor to London’s first government, the London County Council, founded in 1889. Put in simple terms, the project had the ability to concentrate power away from the vestries and later normalise this new-found power into governing Londoners in the name of greater utility.

Critics like David Harvey and Deyan Sudjic have commented on how these large-scale technical interventions barely conceal a social programme – from Haussman’s Paris to Robert Moses’s New York. More recently, Carlos Vainer and other commentators have identified similarities with some of the developments taking place in Rio. To implement ‘big’ plans of large ambitions – from the Rio 2016 Olympics, the UPP pacification programme, the restructuring of Porto Maravilha and investment in major Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines – the City and State of Rio de Janeiro have developed new institutions to deliver these projects that can be seen to question the ‘right to the city’.

London has confronted similar issues as it created its own ‘top-down’ institutions to deliver the 2012 Olympics, ensure its legacy and bring about lasting regeneration in the deprived zones of East London. The Olympic Delivery Authority, and the recently formed London Legacy Development Company (chaired by the Mayor), as Andy Altman explains, are charged with sweeping planning and decision-making powers, even though they have worked in partnership with boroughs and local groups. Despite some level of criticism of democratic deficit, broadly their operation has been applauded for getting the job done. Hamburg’s HafenCity and experimental IBA initiative – both designed to tackle issues of deindustrialisation and the needs of large migrant communities (most notably Muslim Turks) – provide relevant models of intervention and delivery that take into account the need to ensure continuity of the urban fabric and the everyday needs of existing (and not just new) communities. All issues which resonate in the urban reality of Rio today.

Brazil’s democratic commitment to the right of the city has been followed by many, including Edgar Pieterse writing in this newspaper, who have long admired the country’s 2001 Statute of the City. This national law seeks to prioritise the social use over the commercial use of land and to democratise the decision-making process in cities through compulsory participatory governance models. Yet, the reality on the ground is different. A large proportion of the urban public believe that mega-projects are tampering with strategic priorities through what Julia Michaels calls a favour-exchanging populist system, putting the private interest over the public good – tensions that exist as much in New York, London and Amsterdam, as Susan Fainstein argues, as they do in Rio de Janeiro. Despite the significant generational improvements in Rio’s social and economic life – decreasing levels of inequality and absolute poverty, homicides at a historical low, and GDP per capita double from its 2001 levels – the anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares defines the fine-grain cracks that are appearing in Brazilian society and account for the recent popular discontent and uprisings in Rio, São Paulo and other cities. How can planners, policymakers and designers deal with such contradictions?

The dilemma emerging from London in the 1850s and Rio in the 2010s is how to balance the large economic benefits that often accrue from large-scale projects to the individual and communal rights of citizens. As David Harvey writes in the classic The Right to the City, parts of which are reproduced in this newspaper, we need a ‘collective right to reshape the forces of urbanisation’. There is a very practical dimension to this call that has repercussions to the way projects are designed, procured and delivered. Part of the problem lies in the temporal conflicts that exist between democratic and project timelines. All too often, the collective right of decision-making cannot be practised because the time frame of project cycles do not run apace. A city such as Rio that has not seen major transport investments in over twenty years is having to think of who should be connected and how in the space of only seven years – the project cycle of an Olympic Games. Democratic processes and strategic planning take much longer.

A second challenge of accelerated transformations occurs when the physical and social fabric of the city has to catch up with structural adjustments and transformations in the economy. Neighbourhoods and skills sets can become rapidly redundant, leaving local populations economically isolated, resulting in unemployment, alienation and increased income inequalities. This trend informs a second line of investigation addressed by the texts and research in this newspaper. LSE Cities has looked at how public transport infrastructure impacts on deprived and disconnected neighbourhoods, and how investment in new mobility systems – like Rio’s BRT, TransMilenio in Bogotá and Crossrail in London – can bring people closer to their places of work. In addition to the effect of transport improvements discussed by Enrique Peñalosa, the publication also explores how spatially targeted policies are able to concentrate investment in lower income neighbourhoods. In this regard, the Mayor of London’s attention to the deprived area around Stratford and the Lower Lea Valley in East London, where the 2012 Olympics were located – the poorest districts in the capital – can be compared to Rio’s ongoing project to ‘urbanise’ or upgrade all of the city’s favelas by 2020. To urbanise favelas means to reconnect them (socially, politically and economically) to the city so that the distinction between asphalt (city) and hill (favela), which was at the heart of the stigmatisation of residents of the latter for over thirty years, is challenged. This reconnection or opening of the favelas to the city is occurring in multiple ways. Sandra Jovchelovitch concentrates on the role that cultural groups play, acting as bridges to the outside world, and reflects on the relative porosity or openness of particular communities in Rio. Sérgio Magalhães and Fabiana Izaga focus on the role of the State in recovering the territory of the favela from the para-state of drug traffickers, allowing some measure of normality to resume. Suketu Mehta sees their urbanisation as the replacement of para-state power with the speculative power of real estate. Rather than urbanisation programmes leading to greater equity, Mehta sees them as leading residents to the inequalities of a free economy. By eradicating one form of inequality do city transformations lead to new ones? The role of the city policymaker or planner therefore becomes more paramount, which takes us to the third critical dimension of accelerated transformations.

Rio’s current urban renaissance, just as London’s resurgence that started over twenty years ago and Barcelona’s that goes all the way back to the 1980s, share a common starting point. They are driven by a period of mass investment associated to a growing city economy. London’s recent transformation was underpinned by the globalisation of the financial services industry and Rio’s to the income from oil and gas and its indirect services economy. The role of the urban policymaker is to steer this investment into sustainable paths. The question is less about economic growth or population growth, but about how this growth rebalances the city. This rebalancing is both spatial as in London’s East-to-West asymmetry and Rio’s North-to-South, but also temporal. How are we to rebalance the interests of future against those of current generations?

In this context, the need for strong planning systems that are both visionary and democratic offer a new life for ‘big-picture planning’, as Deyan Sudjic intimates. As the Urban Age considers the spatial and temporal dynamics of big planning during periods of accelerated change, it is time to reconsider the best models that deliver, as Richard Sennett argues, both efficiency and sociability.

Savvas Verdis is Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and consultant at Siemens. Ricky Burdett is Professor of Urban Studies and Director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age Programme at the LSE.