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1. Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, London, Phaidon, 2008, posted on

Green Capitalism - Manufacturing scarcity in an age of abundance

Ricky Burdett

The End of the City

Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, The Endless City, London, Phaidon Press Ltd, 2008

Ten per cent lived in cities in 1900, 50 per cent is living in cities in 2007, 75 per cent will be living in cities in 2050, says the front of Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic’s book for the LSE and Deutsche Bank think tank, the Urban Age project. Soon, then, the urban population will be the bigger half, the definition of the infinite, the whole world in a grain of sand.

Of course, that once the city contains the majority of the population, it would cease to be a city. The very idea of an "endless city" is an oxymoron, - a contradiction in terms - the subject, the City, is at odds with the predicate "endless". The very idea of the city is bound up with its boundaries. When Heraclitus said that you should defend the law as you would a city wall, he illustrated the link between maintaining the social order within the city and defending its borders.

On closer reading, The Endless City is not really a hymn of praise to the City, but a diatribe against the city as it is, in favour of a normative argument about what the city ought to be. (1) Showing a dislike for real cities, Wolfgang Nowak of the Deutsche Bank sponsors, the Alfred Herrhausen Society, surmises that '... there is a risk that urban culture … will die out in the wilderness of future mega-cities.' (Preface, p 7)

Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode also flag up their doubts about '... the megacity, which faces severe pressures generated by its own relentless growth.' (p 8) They worry about '... the continued propagation of dysfunctional urban areas across the globe.' (p 9)

Burdett and Rode regret that the Mayor of Mexico City governs over '... less than half of the nearly 20 million people of the wider city, the rest occupying the sprawling informal suburbs of the State of Mexico.' (p 10) Mexico City, they think, '... best epitomises the tensions between spatial and social order.' By that they mean '... its endless low-rise spread, with 60 per cent of its nearly 20 million inhabitants living in illegal and informal housing … pulling the city even further apart … and pushing the poor to the far fringes of this seemingly limitless city.' (p 11)

"Endlessness" here reads as a kind of curse, not a virtue. 'Architects and planners are struggling to convince their civic leaders that intensification of the city’s central districts is the solution to its massive infrastructure deficiencies,' they write. Adding that '... the absence of any form of growth boundary or development control outside its legal boundaries makes any attempt at city planning meaningless.’ (p 11). Like Heraclitus, they dread the loss of order that comes with the loss of boundaries.

Hopefully, and tellingly, they add: ‘Having perhaps reached the limits of its horizontal expansion, Mexico City needs to … recognize that a parallel policy of region-wide growth containment, coupled with a redensification of its more central neighbourhoods … is the only way to respond to the city’s seemingly intractable spatial problems.’ (p 11) The "problems" are, at least in part, in the eyes of the beholders. To Burdett and Rode, and their collaborators in the Urban Age project, growth that escapes political control is a threat. It is the bad city, the mega-city that threatens to overwhelm the good city, that oddly eighteenth century vision of the city of civic virtue.

Burdett’s discussion of Johannesburg misses the point that however rapid its growth, it is dwarfed by the expansion of the so-called townships created by apartheid exclusion of resident Africans. These sprawling cities are, it is now understood, where people have made their roots.

Burdett and Rode laud densely populated Berlin, New York, and their own London, where the outgoing Mayor promised population growth will be contained within the city boundaries. As the London Mayoral election shows, however, Ken Livingstone was the Mayor of the central zone, but not of the wider suburbs of "Greater London", incorporated in 1965. The Mayor has still less connection to the South Eastern region, of which London is only a part. Brighton and Hove is "London-by-the-Sea", as are Eastbourne, Dover, the Medway towns, and Southend. Equally the satellite towns of Ipswitch, Cambridge, Bedford, Oxford, Swindon, Salisbury and even Weymouth, further west on the coast than Bournemouth, are part of the same economic zone of the South East.

The South East of over 19 million people is where nearly a third of the British population live and work

The prejudices of contemporary city theorists are writ large in The Endless City. Sudjic thinks that low-density urbanism is equal to ‘... the destructive selfishness of the gated-community.’ (p 44) But I do not remember seeing many gates in the low rise townships of South Africa, nor do I believe that they characterise all but the wealthier parts of the expanding low rise suburbs of Mexico City.

In truth the evidence collected by the Urban Age project illustrates the opposite of what its editors think is happening. The so-called "urbanisation of the planet" is not at all the rise of the city, but its decline. The Endless City tries to make the case for the City, but succeeds in showing that the bounded City is over.

click for the Urban Age project

Eduard Soja and Miguel Kanai explain that the ‘... newly industrialised (and urbanised) areas and populations, not always included in overall urbanization statistics, are a vital part of the growth of polycentric, networked and increasingly interconnected megacity regions.’ (p 61)

The City has burst through its boundaries, and ceased to be a city. The new urban areas are large expanses of low-density dwelling, with knots of high-density commercial centres. The boundaries between town and country have been blurred over. The discrete city has come to its end.

James Heartfield 17.05.2008

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