What are the real forces shaping our cities?

25 February 2016

Portrait of Sally Stewart

by Sally Stewart
Communications and Media Manager

Sally joined the school in June 2013 following nine years as a journalist. She is responsible for publicising the aims, activities and achievements of the school and has extensive experience in digital and social media, and also in video and radio jo...

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Can citizens control and mould their cities? Or are there simply too many people, too many conflicting needs and desires, and too few effective ways for members of the public, authorities and businesses to collaborate?

Opportunities to truly work together on shaping a metropolis are few and far between. The Greater London Plan of 1944 followed the destruction of large urban areas throughout the entire county of London in The Blitz. It presented the chance to correct the “perceived failings of unplanned and haphazard development that had occurred as a result of rapid industrialisation in the nineteenth century”.

How to secure the best kind of urban growth in already mature cities is a subject taxing city planners around the world. Overcrowding, pressures on transport and rapidly changing skylines all point to growth that is outpacing a democratic form of control.

These issues were just a few of those under discussion at last week’s Oxford City Debates: 'Urban Governance and its Discontents', organised by the Oxford Programme on the Future of Cities, which drew speakers from academia, architecture, the arts and the public sector.

The first debate, Making the City: Spontaneous VS Planned?, saw Bruno Moser, Head of Urban Design at Foster + Partners, Reinier de Graaf, Partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and head of its thinktank AMO, and AbdouMaliq Simone, Professor of Sociology and Urbanism at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, take to the stage.

Bruno Moser began by questioning the role of architects and designers compared to the driving forces of governments and business. ”Politicians are under pressure, they’re keen to produce results but are less interested in the long-term impact of their actions. Businesses make cities grow with their decisions on where to invest, expand or close down. Architects define the narrative and try to shape the experience of being in a place. We work with in constraints, but we love constraints, they’re what give us challenges.”

Discussing the incredibly rapid growth of Dubai and Jeddah, he said an abundance of land and money had created a new kind of “high-rise suburbia dependent entirely on the car", which made it impossible to explore the cities on foot, “even if you’re brave enough to face the traffic”. But despite these seemingly intractable problems, he said there was hope, with Dubai’s chair of public transport having managed to cut car use, and Jeddah following this example with the launch of a competition to design a new metro system, offering a “unique chance to improve the public realm” (a competition that Foster + Partners won last spring). The ambitious transport plans for the city aim to increase the percentage of Jeddah’s population living within a 10 min walk of transport nodes from 12% to 50%, and include transport plan for Jeddah, which includes metro, ferry, bus and cycle networks, along with public spaces.

But it’s not just sprawling megacities that have problems. Closer to home, England’s historic towns are creaking under the pressure of providing housing for burgeoning populations, with a conflict between market forces and the ability of planning authorities to find and designate the space for new homes. Mr Moser said many places suffered from poor use of space in their centres; King’s Lynn, for example, has too much space in its centre taken up by surface car parks. Another issue, he said, was out-of-town retail parks, viewed as a nuisance by many. Is there a way to connect them into the fabric of the cities they serve?

AbdouMaliq Simone looked deeper into the relationship between cities and their citizens, and questioned whether people can recognise something of themselves when they look around. He also questioned the benefit of harnessing vast amounts of data in order to make cities run more smoothly – rainfall, traffic flow, water usage – saying such practices could “introduce more uncertainty than the certainty they promise”.

And what of the world’s most efficiently functioning cities, such as Singapore? Places where things run most smoothly, said Reinier de Graaf, had “negated the distinction between the public and the private”. They were run with the efficiency of private corporations, he said, with business interests a prerequisite for public office, adding: “The Singapore model is hard to argue with.”

Of attempts to bring order to chaos, such as Rio de Janeiro’s huge urban command centre, built by IBM, he said: “We know in ever greater detail what the problem is, and we know ever less what to do about it. I find it increasingly dispiriting that the real solution is doing nothing. It is somehow better to watch than to act, and there I reach a point in my thinking where I start to think any action would be preferable over resignation.”

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.