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Design in the Global City


Richard Burdett, Professor of Architecture and Urbanism, LSE

Sitting where we are at the top of the Archway tower, you see the horrors of planning, but also the great opportunities of a place like this. In planning it is important to address the issue of improving an environment at the micro-scale while involving people in looking at it in the wider context.

One of the issues I’ve been involved in trying to understand is how large and complicated cities around the world work. And I think I’ve come to the conviction, with many others in this room, that the physical design of the environment is absolutely fundament for social inclusion and stability.

What I’m going to do is look at some examples of that that I’ve experienced in some of the work I’ve been doing, looking at large cities around the world.
There are problems worldwide which resonate even in a sophisticated, advanced, mature, urban society like London. Whatever problems we think we have right here in Archway, compared with other cities, the quality of life is so much higher.

I start with photographs that some of you will recognise from Mike Davis’ wonderful book on Los Angeles. On the left you see a bench, quite sturdy, well designed. It has some timber slats on the top so if you can sit on it comfortably, it’s steel and it’s located in the middle of Los Angeles. And you wonder, well, why was this relevant to this debate?

It’s relevant because it’s designed by someone to achieve something, designed by an architect, it might even have won an award, and the client is, as it happens, the LAPD, the Los Angeles Police Department. This bench was made for downtown LA, an area absolute riven with social problems, or was up to five or six years ago, where a lot of people are on the whole black, underprivileged
poor with major drug and alcohol problems - you see a couple of them there. And this bench was designed so that if you try to lie on it you fall off.

It’s designed to create a social condition and if you fall off the police in Los Angeles could pick you up and arrest you. It just raises the issue for me, for all of us involved in this question, about design having a social role. What are you doing this design for?

Well, this one has succeeded in doing what it’s supposed to do. But is this what you want to do as architects? Is this what you want to do as public figures who commission these things?

So that really is trying to bring attention to the heart of the issue, that there’s a connection between design and the urban condition which is fundamental.
Another picture of a gated community, this one in London, raises a bigger question. You can create cities which are no longer made of communities but which require controls to make them work.

The context of all this is something that perhaps in London you don’t think about very much but I think we need to because ultimately what we do in London, and this is not a post-colonialist moment in any way, does impact enormously on the rest of the world. London still has, in many other western cities, the centre stage. And it’s an interesting centre stage because, if you consider where we are today, according to the United Nations, 50% of the world lives in some form of city
or other. Only a hundred years ago or just two generations ago, it was 10% living in the cities and 90% living in the country. So we need to look where we are about to go.

Why London is relevant is that we already went through exactly the same sort of population explosions that are being experienced in Shanghai, Mumbai, Lagos and others. I think the results of this, when its badly managed, are very clear to see. And I think these are exactly the issues that we need to look at because we have a choice: as designers and as clients we have a choice of the kind of cities we build whether we do it like some parts of Hong Kong, or as we did here in
London when it had its major population explosion in the 1920s and 30s – going in 50, 60 years from merely one million to 10 million. And we have to think together about the issues of design and how it’s important.


There is an estate in Boston, quite a beautiful site, called Harbour Point, designed in the ‘70s around the ideas of Austin Newman and the concept of defensible space, creating communities sort of inspired by places like Lucca and Tuscany in Italy. You make them great and you make them public spaces
that are inter-connected, etc. But actually the designers here did something pretty incredible.


It is not easy to do this. There are four thousand units and there’s not one front door you can see. It was actually designed so that you have semi-private and semi-public spaces and to distance the private dwelling from the public realm.


This is one of the many reasons that this housing has actually been demolished, because it became socially dysfunctional. Jane Jacobs has said in a very articulated way, that the sense of safety is something completely lacking from an environment of this sort. We have to go back and make things work.

These are the issues that affect a city like Shanghai. I know it doesn’t feel immediately relevant here but start looking at the London skyline and you do begin to see that landscape emerging. In Shanghai today there are three thousand towers above 10 storeys and 10 years ago there were 300. The pace of change is enormous. What happened to the individuals living there when they
were literally told that in a few weeks’ time their houses would be ripped apart? Those are the sorts of questions I am interested in. And I’m going to come back to this at the end in terms of what architecture actually can do and why design is socially significant.

Take a look at an aerial view of Caracas in Venezuela, one of the cities of the highest level of violence anywhere in the world. We think in South London we have a problem when two teenagers are killed in a month. Here, between 100 and 150 people are murdered every weekend. It’s in the slums and it’s mainly to do with drugs and street violence of one form or another.

Now I’m going to show you a project which is a gym. It’s called a vertical gym, vertical because it’s three storeys high. There’s not much space there, but it basically takes kids off the street. Instead of shooting drugs they shoot basketball. Crime has dropped by 35%. Now this is not to say that
good design solves social problems, but it certainly creates conditions which can make a change.

An image of East London shows roads and buildings. It is important because it raises issues of what happens in cities anywhere. In the middle is what transport engineers do. I’m not being unkind. It’s what some of us have to do. And on the right is what architects, on the whole do. We create buildings with public spaces in between them which have little to do with what urban society sometimes needs. This is an extreme case, which is important to understand.

We happen to be building the Olympics there. Now the question is what happens after the Olympics and whether a project like this actually succeeds in having the grain, the connectivity and the diversity which is part of London, or whether it actually will become two completely exclusionary environments with a rich man’s territory in the middle.

You can design cities like that. There is a view from Sao Paulo which is not Photoshopped even though it looks like it’s been Photoshopped. One the one side is the barrio and slums. On the other these guys are so rich they have swimming pools on their own terraces.

Again, I’m going back to the theme which I raised before. I think these are choices that can be address at the level of design on the ground, and that certainly have a political dimension.

I mentioned before the Caracas gym in a white building. From the windows you can see the barrio.

And this building will transform what the area feels like. So when it comes to a project like this, the nature of the buildings and the uses are just as important as the nature of the public spaces. You can’t achieve something by just changing the roundabout and creating avenues. The risk then is that everything becomes a kind of shopping arcade, and I think that’s not something you want to
do there.

There are lessons to be learnt. Berlin is revitalising its city centre just by putting a swimming pool in. Maybe you can do something similar here. This sort of climate is not very exciting at the moment but there are ways of transforming the way a city sees itself.

Trafalgar Square was only seven, eight years ago, a roundabout. We did research early only to count the number of people who were actual Londoners who used the space and it was a tiny percentage. We could count that because it was the number of people wearing suits as opposed to anoraks.

What is interesting is that today of course this space has been transformed and the people in it are treated much better. It’s a dignified part of the city and used in a different way and for great events and I think that’s an important an encouraging move.

Take the whole of the embankment and the simple shift is this one - that instead of giving that much space to cars along the river you actually double the width of the pavement and give it to people, overlooking one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. You can still keep cars there but contain them so there is a  relationship between the two - Richard McCormack’s vision of what
might happen there.


So I want to conclude by saying we have a choice. We have it at the mega-scale, we have it at the local scale. We can either do the Transport for London improvement scheme or you can renovate like they have in Verona in a new project done just a year and a half ago.

I think investment in quality of design allows you to think of these things seriously in this global context, because there is a global connection between the issues that you face  here and the global, urban condition.

Harbour Point Boston.jpg
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