Great Cities Are Like Great Books

Bandung 2012

Bandung 2012

You’re no use to Toronto if you only know Toronto. You’ve got to leave and see other places. Great cities are like great books. As a planner, you have to see as many as you can.  – Joe Berridge, Urban Strategies

A doctor spends years learning the intricacies of the body. An artist spends years learning their craft. But how does one become a person with a deep knowledge of cities?

One answer is to travel. Last year as graduate students we had the opportunity to sit with Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies and Ricky Burdett, the Director of the LSE Cities program in a small student seminar after a large public lecture, and both of them gave the same advice. That as young planners seeking to develop our skills, we have to leave Canada for a few years and immerse ourselves in studying the great metropolitan cities.  Both of them also strongly advised me to learn Arabic.

When I went to Bandung this summer, I thought a lot about this advice.  While I think there are caveats to travel – that you must do so responsibly, ethically and intentionally and not with a selfish desire to collect ‘cool experiences’, seeing the tremendous social capital of Bandung (theories around social capital began in Indonesia) was a lesson that travel has the potential for good. Visiting Singapore was another tremendous education.

I read a WashingtonPost piece this week about a growing trend of Americans leaving the States and going to Asia and the ME to work. Though the article is about people moving out of America because they can’t find employment locally – I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Though Canada has always been home, perhaps at some point to be a well rounded planner it is necessary to take one’s anxieties about major moves and reframe that into intentional learning in a new location. In the meantime, I’m lucky to be close to an academic library, and right now there is a stack of books in my room about Indonesia and Cairo, and how faith is negotiated in cities (questions that I find particularly compelling) more generally. As I read and continue my studies, I hope to share thoughts here with you. I was in Toronto recently for my convocation ceremony, and being in the city again and having long chats with friends and mentors over chai and good food was an energising and inspiring reminder that though the unknown is scary, it’s a gift to be young and at the beginning of your learning and contributions.

(Below, notes from the seminar I mentioned above.)

Ricky Burdett

  •  LSE started a program that combines city design and social science. It’s the only school of social science that bring these issues together
  • Book: Living in the Endless City. Also has a website that is updated quite regularly
  • Discipline of understanding cities is about two dimensions: macro and micro. People may be thinking at one scale and not think about other scale at all. Cities are aging.  European cities are aged, but African cities are very young cities.
  • Importance of being interdisciplinary in dealing with issues. It has the risk of being an amateur of many things and a specialist of nothing. But that is what is necessary for good cities: need to know a bit of everything.
  • Design is one of many components.
  • In many cities, people show much more interest (than is shown in Canada) in what other cities are doing. City builders look internationally to see what other places are doing. Expecially in when sitting in relative comfort of Toronto, important to look at Bangkok.
  • You don’t want to have no idea what is going on rest of world. Need to bring where you are into your understanding of the rest of the world. Be an actor, know what’s going on.
  • We talk about phenomenon: but not the shape of cities.
  • Mexico city: endless city because it doesn’t end, but also not classical form of European cities.
  • 7-8 years of LSE Cities research is framed by three statistics:

a)2% of earth’s surface is occupied by cities.
b)53% of world’s population lives in cities.
c)33% of city dwellers live in slums

  • People move because they have a better opportunity of quality of life for children.
  • Mumbai like living in bird of gold because if things work you come in at the bottom, move up and then you fly. No doubt that urbanization comes with massive benefits if you channel urbanization properly.

Q: Where do planners fit into the developing world?
A: What is role of someone whose role is formal planning regulation in places of informal planning regulation? There is space but it requires a different way of doing planning. 75% of world’s CO2 emissions are produced by cities. As economy improves, people expect dignity of basic amenities and “modern facilities”. Not difficult to find tower blocks in new age cities. Don’t believe in one normative approach of cities, of someone saying “do it this way, and any other approach is wrong”. If wanted to be normative though, New York is good. It has continuous housing stock, and urban fabric. Very little possibility of resilience in totally zoned cities.

Mexico City, 2005.

This shows how we go from social to environmental. In 2005, there were 4 hour commuting times per day.The more city is spread out, the more infrastructure spreads, therefore can’t support a bus. Infrastructure of 22 million people is spread this way. Think about what kind of police officer and nurse will you be with those kind of commute times? What kind of family will you have? Think of your social life and what you are like as a parent.
Convenience mentioned as something as very important in HK. Everyone wants to be 12 minutes from work. In Rome, restaurant and friends are important. So context is always important.

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