Last Tuesday, the Urban Land Institute, in partnership with the Cambridge University Land Society, welcomed guests to a ‘fireside chat’ with Jonathan Rose, author of ‘The Well-Tempered City’, the best-seller looking at what modern science, ancient societies and human nature can all teach us about the future of urban life.
Cities have existed for thousands of years, but humanity still has yet to perfect them. The issues they face, from unaffordable housing to unsustainable development, will become all the more pressing as we move into the future, with nearly two-thirds of the world’s population expected to be city-dwellers by 2050.
Chaired by Baroness Couttie, former leader of Westminster city council, with contributions from Jeremy Newsum, former group chief executive of Grosvenor, the session explored how we could tackle these challenges in a holistic way.
The point that really hit home was how much London has suffered from a lack of long term planning, which is evident in the daily headlines on the capital’s ‘housing crisis’, with the next generation of workers being priced further and further out, or being forced to quit the city altogether.
Looking to Asia, Rose noted cities like Hong Kong and Singapore both have plans lasting over 50 years, which are revised every five years to make sure they are still meeting their populations’ needs.
The long-term plans gives both Hong Kongers and Singaporeans a sense of direction for their city and confidence in decision-making process because they are involved in the vision. Despite both being far from perfect democracies, their citizens still know why decisions are made. Rose claimed throughout history the best cities have been those that successfully fostered a sense that ‘we’re all in this together’.
Outside of the Far East, Rose pointed to a few more examples around the world that London can look to for inspiration, including its cousin – and sometime rival – New York. A signature accomplishment of Michael Bloomberg, the previous mayor of New York, was the development and implementation of the city’s first sustainability plan.
Had Bloomberg dubbed his sustainability plan a ‘masterplan’, Rose suggests it simply would not have been as warmly received. The narrative around sustainability was crucial to driving engagement. Again highlighting the importance of inclusivity to success, Rose stated every section of society need to feel they have a part in their city’s story, especially the businesses and services that drive the local economy.
Looking more broadly, a key trend Rose sees emerging is the shift from cities being uni-centric to multi-centric. Old Oak Common was held up as an opportunity to create a new centre of activity in London, and having a multi-centric set-up will be critical to meeting long-term population demands Rose argued.
But these new centres must be greener, and not the old concrete, steel and glass monoliths that marked the 20th century. Touching on ‘biophilia’ – the theory that humans have an innate need for proximity to nature – Rose noted a welcome trend toward more eco-friendly cities, which can be best found in the sketches of architects and others. Rewind to 50 years ago, and the future of urban life was imagined to be an endless of concrete jungle. Now, you’ll find green spaces crammed into every nook and cranny.
Rose ended with a warning for cities that do not foster a sense of togetherness. Rising inequality will lead to greater political turmoil, he said, threatening hard-won prosperity. In the age of Brexit and Trump, the warning may have felt all too real for some.
Words by Rob Enright, Blackstock PR