Q&A

Discussion with the editors Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic

1. Why did you decide to publish this book now?

The book documents two years of research and outreach. After six Urban Age conferences in six very different cities, we discovered a near-universal struggle by both designers and urban leaders to integrate social cohesion into a well built urban environment - one that is sustainable economically as well as ecologically. The design of the built environment, the distribution of urban density, and their impacts on social inclusion and quality of life are at the forefront of political discussions in cities across the globe. More often than not, however, traditional models of urban growth fail to explain the dynamics now evident in both the networked global city, with its new economic centrality, and in the megacity, which faces severe pressures generated by its own relentless growth. Yet despite all of this, there is incredible innovation in cities, and this book documents our findings.

2. Who do you think needs to read this book? Why do you think this book is important?

Everybody should read this book - not just policymakers, academics and makers of urban form - but anyone interested in how half the world's population now live, work, play and move. This book offers authoritative essays animated by compelling graphics and stunning photography that evocatively captures the essence of urban life. At its most basic level, The Endless City serves as a toolkit that defines the terms and issues confronting the next generation of urban leaders and urban citizens.

3. What are the main issues that you think people should be concerned about when it comes to city growth?

The book has a section titled 'Issues' that we hope synthesizes the complexities of urban growth. In it, a number of the contributors outline key issues but approach them from a variety of viewpoints. For example, Richard Sennett argues that 'over-determination' can kill the vitality and growth of urban centers. Cities need to be dynamic and their physical forms and functions need to be endowed with the capacity to respond to indeterminate, unpredictable forces. Another central issue is governance and civic participation - cities need to allow for a multiplicity of voices and actors as well as a variety of experiences but there needs to be an agent or authority that can intelligently negotiate this multiplicity and still get something done. Finally, quality design delivers a truly remarkable city and allows individual places to flourish. The essays by architects Rem Koolhaas, Alejandro Zaera-Polo, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron all contribute various reflections about how to reconcile a variety of factors and perspectives enmeshed within the city’s physical reality. It should be noted that many of the essays in the Cities section resonate with the broader themes in the Issues section as well. The result is a cross-sectional analysis between the six cities and the global world with issues finitely referenced to specific urban conditions.

4. How did you pick the six cities featured in the book?

The cities correlate to the six cities visited in the first stage of the Urban Age project of the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society. The process of picking the conference cities was driven by an information-oriented selection with emphasis on extreme cases, i.e. the largest conurbations within each regional context and/or critical cases, i.e. cities that are of particular relevance for a better understanding of urban practice.

In summary, each of the six cities shares the following basic general qualities:

  • Population above three million
  • Critical economic, cultural and political role within larger geographic region
  • Exposure to strong impact of global capital flows
  • Broad variety of urban themes
  • Critical developments and projects representative for the emerging urban age

5. What world cities do you expect to go through the greatest changes in the 21st century?

The fastest growing cities are in Africa and across Asia and it's up to the next generation to make sure their development does not repeat the mistakes of cities in the developed world - this means Lagos and Kinshasa, Mumbai, Delhi and Dhaka, as well as Shanghai and Jakarta. At the same time, mature cities such as London and New York City, Berlin and Mexico City need to ensure that their future growth reconciles their layered history of planning mistakes and prioritizes sustainable transport and inclusive, contained growth.

6. What type of research went into the development of this project?

A team of experts - including some of the contributors to this book - researched the themes, ideas and data presented in The Endless City. In each of the six cities, we partnered with local institutions (research centers as well as city authorities) to delve into the pertinent issues, pouring through dense statistical information and projections, comparing it to international sources. The Data section in the book summarizes much of the research with original graphics, maps and charts and presents a comparative analysis of six cities at the same scale, a feat for conurbations of this complexity.

7. Is there any relevance for the timing of this book to be published in an election year in America?

The US presidential elections are focused on identifying leadership that is ready and capable to define a new direction for the world's largest economy. As America's political and economic dominance has recently waned, some of its cities have been long neglected. Bruce Katz and Andy Altman explain America's 'relentlessly suburban' character, yet describe how traditional suburban areas are taking on a more urban quality. Thus understanding the trajectory of cities across the world is increasingly important for Americans in today's global economy.

8. What does the book have to say about green issues? Sustainability? Preserving the environment?

This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what sustainable urban development is and how it can be achieved. Green issues are central to the essays by Nicky Gavron, Guy Battle, Hermann Knoflacher, Philipp Rode and Geetam Tiwari, yet most of the contributors detail how environmental sustainability correlates to the sustainability of a community and the urban economy. Clearly the world needs to reduce its carbon footprint, and cities - as incubators for change - offer a variety of environmentally sensitive strategies for transport and how people can live or conduct their business. Dense urban environments reduce the reliance on the car but already cities consume 75 per cent of the world's energy supply and contribute an almost equal amount of the world's carbon emissions, so a small change in environmental policies and behavior in cities can have a dramatic effect on the health of the planet.

9. The book talks about the importance of cities learning from each other. Can you explain that? For example, what can NYC learn from Shanghai? Can small cities learn from big cities?

There are countless examples of cities looking to other cities when deciding how to invest in their future growth and health. Congestion charging in NYC wouldn't be a viable option had London not demonstrated how it could be done, and Mexico City's Metrobús is a stunning success modeled on the Transmilenio in Bogotá and of course Curitiba. Understanding how cities implement large projects such as the Olympics in London, doing it with the right amount of investment in public space, has a lot to do with acknowledging how the city and individual neighborhoods have developed over time and how open space serves to socially integrate people from disparate backgrounds. Most importantly, in order for ideas to transfer from one city to another, there needs to be a complementary understanding about how policies, decision making and funding align to facilitate implementation. Gerald Frug's essay explains how the power structures of the six cities vary and what impact permutations to each city's existing systems could have on local and regional planning mechanisms.

10. What is a "megacity" and what role may it play in the future?

In principal, a megacity is one in which the urbanized area encompasses more than 10 million people. Megacities require a regional focus, however, as the population is not located solely within a city's administrative boundaries. Instead, megacities are comprised of the administrative city as well as the peripheral, often suburban, neighborhoods connected to the city center. This regional focus is highly important when making decisions about how a megacity can grow so that public transport investments are aligned with new housing development.

11. How has globalization changed the face of our cities?

Globalization is making our cities more connected and better suited for adaptation. Saskia Sassen's essay outlines the impact globalization has on our cities with arresting clarity. Detailing the decline of manufacturing and growth of the service sector across each of the six cities profiled, she describes the emerging homogeneity between certain global cities - the qualities that make the Santa Fe neighborhood in Mexico City recognizable to someone coming from London's Canary Wharf. Likewise, both her essay and that of Geetam Tiwari, as well as many other contributors, identify how labor markets, migration and informality simultaneously respond to and define the process of globalization. Zooming in, the short essays by Deyan Sudjic that preface each of the profiles in the Cities section offer a quick summary of how each city responds to the pressures of globalization and what impact globalization has on each city's physical form, economy and political structure.

12. What are the key ideas that you want people to take away from reading this book?

The 34 contributors to the book - along with the hundreds of policymakers, politicians, academics, architects, planners, and urbanists involved with the project - all believe that cities can offer a better social and economic life for its citizens. Now that half the world's population live in cities, there is an urgent need to take stock of the new urban condition and find an approach to dealing with it. We want to help those charged with running and making cities understand the relationship between the socio-economic and spatial characteristics of cities - and we want the general public to understand how sustainable urban development can actually improve the physical form of their cities and the quality of their lives.

13. How are our world cities different today than they were a century ago? How about a decade ago?

At the turn of the twentieth century, only 10 per cent of the world's population lived in cities. There has been an incredible explosion in both the size and number of cities over the past hundred years, and climate change is only going to increase the pressures cities face. As floods, droughts and an unstable environment dramatically alter the world's agricultural production, many more people will move to cities in search of jobs and shelter.

14. Are you hopeful for the future when it comes to our cities?

Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, offers an incredible explanation for why we should all be hopeful for the future of cities. Cities offer the potential for 'quality of life equality' i.e. access to green, open space and social and economic mobility as well as physical mobility. Across the world, people are moving into cities at an alarming rate - and not just megacities but smaller cities comprising an overall urbanized region. Most importantly, the twenty-first century will be increasingly focused on reducing both the overall sum and per capita production of carbon emissions, and as emitters of 75 per cent of the world's pollution, cities are the battleground on which the future and health of our planet will be determined.

15. Is there any way for ordinary people to make change in their own cities? Do you have any recommendations for someone who wants to get involved?

Ordinary people make change in their city everyday. They do this by opting for public transport instead of a private car, by holding their government officials responsible for the quality of the built environment, and by advocating for equal access to green, open space. Ensuring that there is investment in sustainable forms of transport, and that access to healthcare, education and community services does not depend on how much money you make or the wealth of your locality. Most importantly, if you don't know what your community is doing locally to advocate sustainable urban development, then join a forum and find out. Participate.