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Urban life runs on adrenalin. On unpredictability. And on eternal compromise. From Chennai to London and from Medellin to Miami, PORTICO examines the art of the urban.

Words Lucy Jolin Photographs Nick Turpin

The urban life: love it or loathe it, it’s the future of our civilisation. Already, 3.9 billion people live in cities, and by 2050 that number, according to the UN, is likely to increase by another 2.5 billion – nearly two thirds of the global population. Mega-cities of more than 10 million inhabitants, like Delhi (25 million) and Tokyo (13.5 million inhabitants) are becoming increasingly common.

But what kind of urban should we be aiming for? Clean, green, safe? Edgy, exciting, unpredictable? Or a mixture of the two? As cities evolve, fracture points appear. How should spaces be used? Whose rights are more important?

A case in point is developing on the beaches of Chennai in India. Conflicts arise when established practices, such as fishermen drying their nets on the beach, are suddenly regulated by the authorities – with the rise of a bourgeois code of aesthetics, they are considered to be an eyesore by the leisure-driven, middle-class families.

But when consultants come to Chennai with PowerPoint presentations filled with images of irrelevant references such as Miami Beach, they’re simply not applicable, says Dr Pushpa Arabindoo, lecturer in the Department of Geography and a co-director of the UCL Urban Laboratory. “A great city is not an identikit city,” she says. “It’s so much more than the ‘clean and green’ models frequently cited by urban practitioners as the ideal.

“You start subscribing to a Western sense of imagination that does not work socially or culturally in the context of Indian cities. In India, public spaces have become very contentious. Different social groups and classes are making claims based on a single, homogenised understanding of what the public spaces should be. So to me, a great city should have a sense of public consciousness, but we should be tolerant to allow these different imaginations of the city to prevail.”

This is a hard thing to plan for, points out Dr Matthew Beaumont, senior lecturer in English and author of Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. Streets, he says, are the veins through which the urban life-blood of commerce, companionship and chaos run. But engineering a good street is an almost paradoxical enterprise, he points out. “The best streets, invariably, aren’t planned. The ideal model, whether you’re planning it or simply trying to make an existing one work, is ideally a street in a city with a long history. And I think attempts to impose a culture on a particular area which doesn’t respect an organic history is doomed to failure.”

Big state, big business

Different cities will have different – and very individual – solutions. In 2004, the Colombian city of Medellín faced huge problems; national policy removing protection of the city’s industries resulted in high unemployment and a disenchanted younger population ripe for exploitation by cocaine barons. In 1991, Medellín witnessed 6,349 killings – 381 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants – the highest murder rate in the world. In 2004, the city authorities decided to build a cable car that connected the poorest areas to the rest of the city, at the top of steep hills. It transformed an hour’s tough uphill walk to a 15-minute ride. Other infrastructure projects such as “library parks” – a combination of public library, park, and community centre – followed.

These days, Medellín is still a “difficult city,” says Professor Julio Dávila, Professor of Urban Policy and International Development, and director of the Development Planning Unit at UCL. But it is also a city transformed; the murder rate has fallen, the city is attracting new visitors and is no longer a byword for urban chaos.

For Dávila, Medellín is a prime example of how thinking about creating great cities needs to change. The city’s success is a powerful argument, he says, against the Reaganite narrative that holds big state interference to be corrupt and inefficient. This approach might be relevant in places where the state has long had a presence, but in Latin America, Dávila argues, the state barely existed in the first place. “So for me, the political imperative was to show a local government that is enlightened, powerful and can do relatively simple things. Here was a state saying, ‘No, we are not going to privatise, we are not going to let the market just take over, that the market is the best leveller – when we know it’s not true’.”

UCL – part of the fabric of London for almost 200 years – will soon have a chance to shape London over the next two centuries. The UCL East project will create a major new campus for UCL at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where the new buildings will be a centre for cross-disciplinary activity, focused on creative intersections of experiment, arts, society and technology. Proposals for several new activities are being developed in discussion with local communities, including a legal advice centre and social history learning centre.

The project echoes one of London’s most successful city-building initiatives. “The analogy is with what happened after the Great Exhibition of 1851,” says Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research). “The profits of that went to build the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and what is now Imperial College. That was called ‘Albertopolis’ after Prince Albert, so what we’re planning is being referred to as ‘Olympicopolis’. We want UCL East to offer a new kind of university environment, focused on the facilitation of collaboration, connection and open innovation with local and global communities.”

Diversity within density

But a great city isn’t just diverse in its solutions: it’s also diverse in population, economic activity and built environment – “diversity within density”, as Professor Emeritus Richard Dennis observes, which is simply “lots of different kinds of people in a very small area”. That diversity drives it; change within a city is often feared, he points out, especially change that might impact negatively on the value of the property we own. “But it’s change that is intrinsic to capitalism – constantly making new stuff, having new ideas, creating new things, creating new places and re-creating old places – which inevitably means that places can’t stay the same.” What is good for the city may challenge us as much as it delights us.

And strangers are nothing to fear, says Matthew Beaumont, citing writer and activist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. They’re a vital piece in the jigsaw of the great city. “One has to be wary of both extremes – both a nostalgia for the dystopian city and an affirmation of the sanitised, privatised, unaffordable city,” he says. “But the key, for me, is this idea that streets should be open to strangers.

“There’s a sense of collective responsibility and shared enterprise which actually exceeds and is more positive than that of a closed, provincial, socially homogenous neighbourhood. Real safety, paradoxically, comes from the presence of strangers who aren’t regarded as alien, other or threatening, but are seen as absolutely integral to the organic functioning of the streets. There’s a collective sense of vigilance and openness to new experiences. A great city is all about people watching one another, not about the Neighbourhood Watch.”

In India, public spaces have become very contentious. Different social groups and classes are making claims about how these spaces should be

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Julio Davila at the Olympic Park. “I knew the Olympic Park very well when it was not an entirely nice place. It was fantastically well located, but not many jobs existed – and yet it has been regenerated in the most amazing way.”

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David Price in Russell Square. “Bloomsbury was very intellectually driven, but it was very cut off from the West End. That’s what led to so many innovations there and it’s why so many educational institutes – like UCL – started in Bloomsbury.”

  • Contents 2015/16Contents 2015/16
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  • InboxInbox
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  • Free RadicalFree Radical
  • Alumni Network launchAlumni Network launch
  • Jeremy Bentham SpeaksJeremy Bentham Speaks
  • The Strong RoomThe Strong Room
  • Extra CurricularExtra Curricular
  • CloisteredCloistered
  • Life, the Universe and EverythingLife, the Universe and Everything
  • This Radical LifeThis Radical Life
  • Paper ChasePaper Chase
  • Beautiful BacteriaBeautiful Bacteria
  • CitiesCities
  • Hello London!Hello London!
  • Lessons for lifeLessons for life
  • In Bentham’s footstepsIn Bentham’s footsteps
  • This idea must dieThis idea must die
  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 2. 2015/16
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