Making the most of bigger cities

Published 20 September 2012 03:33, Updated 20 September 2012 04:16

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Population growth is the greatest challenge of the next 25 years, renowned international urbanist Ricky Burdett says.

A professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics, he was chief adviser of architecture and urbanism for the London Olympics and is sharing his knowledge and lessons learned from the games with planners and policymakers around the globe.

Burdett says governance is the key to adequate planning for rapid growth but the challenge needs to be addressed by residents and planners as well as politicians if new generations are going to have basic infrastructure such as electricity, sewers, clean water, housing, schools and hospitals.

Embracing urban density is essential as traditional suburban planing does not allow for well-distributed services, rather, it results in a fragmented society and with scattered housing, hospitals, schools and workplaces, which are increasingly impractical and reliant on cars.

Burdett made his first visit to Australia in September for the Property Council of Australia’s annual growth summit in Melbourne, where he shared his impassioned views on how effective planning and governance can promote positive growth and social equality.

Burdett’s appreciation of cities stemmed from his London heritage and upbringing in Rome. While he trained as an architect, he found it was the dynamics of how cities work, what makes people love or hate them, that would guide his career.

While population growth is widely acknowledged as inevitable, attitudes towards expanding cities and increased housing densities have been met with apprehension, which Burdett puts down to negative attitudes towards change. But it is the lower socio-economic demographics that are often hit the hardest when cities change, creating social isolation.

“In 25 years, 75 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities,’’ he said, noting that the United Nations predicts the greatest growth in the coming decade will be in cities with fewer than 1 million people.

“The greatest change in cities today affects those who do not really have a choice, and are forced by economic or environmental factors to move into cities, often at the bottom end of the ladder,’’ he says.

Many growing cities are becoming more socially unequal and Burdett says this can be managed through better planning. For example, 60 per cent of residents in Mumbai live in slums. The city is growing at a rate of 40 people an hour, while London grows at about one person an hour.

By 2050 it could have the combined populations of Paris, London and New York living in poverty next to the rich.

While Burdett sounds strong warnings, he is optimistic and says history shows societies can cope when challenged with rapid growth.

He credits the 202-year-old Manhattan grid, Idelfonso Cerda’s Barcelona and Baron Hausmann’s work in Paris as sustainable models that have supported expansion for many decades. Each exudes its own character and charm but the three cities championed resilient and flexible development, backed with efficient public transport.

Burdett says Australians need to accept that spread-out cities and vast space come at a cost. “The level of sprawl, car dependency and dispersion in the Australian city is significant and, despite recent successes, there seems to be far more to do to deal with these profound behavioural and structural challenges,’’ he says, noting US cities Portland and Seattle has shown the “petrol-guzzling culture” can be overcome.

Burdett agrees that many people are wary of growth but he believes well-designed urban density can have “enormous” social and environmental advantages.

“Density also promotes intellectual exchange and economic activity and environmentally, it is a no-brainer,’’ he says. “Reducing the need to travel by private vehicles is critical to the global ecological equation, considering that cities today contribute more than 75 per cent to the world’s CO2 emissions.’’

Effective growth planning and well-maintained density also promotes equality, intellectual exchange and economic activity.

Burdett says greater proximity and density can provide exactly what cities are good at – mixing people of different backgrounds.

Creating a sustainable community was the key to creating London’s venues for the 2012 Olympics, including the Olympic Village, in the previously under-invested East End.

The Olympic precinct was designed with a clear legacy plan based on new development zones following the games.

Burdett says the ongoing evolution of the Olympic sites will avoid the inequality between the affluent west side of London and the east. The sites will be developed with infrastructure largely in place, making the most of the billions invested in the lead-up to the games.

The village, to be converted into 3600 apartments, was designed to blend and become part of the city.

“What we’ve been doing with London, and the way we have been thinking, is not that different to the challenges and the issues which have to be addressed by the leaders of Mexico city or Melbourne or Sydney for that matter,’’ he says.

“We have choices to make about meeting the challenges and make the right or wrong decisions about making cities more socially and more environmentally sustainable.”

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