Ricky Burdett and the Urban Age

Ricky Burdett and the Urban Age

Visiting lecturer Ricky Burdett brought the world’s cities to center stage on Tuesday evening in his public lecture, part of the GSD’s yearlong Cities by Design course. Among his many titles, Burdett is professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, deputy head of the department of sociology and director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age Programme, an international investigation. His global perspective is matched by his longtime work in London, as chief adviser on architecture and urbanism for the London 2012 Olympics, adviser to the Olympic Legacy Park Company, as well as architectural adviser to the mayor of London from 2001 to 2006.

Ricky Burdett lecture posterIn his evening lecture, Burdett treated students and Harvard community members to an engaging story of the challenges facing global cities. Burdett integrated his lecture series on London into the broader fabric of the Cities by Design course with examples of London’s transformation since 2000, the 2012 Olympics and ongoing development in East London. Burdett’s four lectures on London fall among a fascinating list of global cities covered this term in the foundational Cities by Design course: Berlin, Mexico City, Rome, Detroit, and Mumbai.

In his introduction, professor of urban planning and design and chair of the department of urban planning and design Rahul Mehotra, fondly listed Burdett’s titles: scholar, curator, activist. One important role was left off the list: storyteller. Burdett filled his lecture with captivating images and stories from cities far and wide.

Burdett linked his lecture series on London to a critical analysis of the cities he has examined as leader of the Urban Age Programme and as co-editor of The Endless City. Burdett took the audience through maps and anecdotes from Athens, Mexico City, Mumbai, Bogotá, Sao Paolo, New York, and Hong Kong. He used each example to ask the open-ended but nonetheless provocative question: “What is the shape of the city?”

Burdett focused on two important measures of global cities: infrastructure and density. He offered a nuanced overview, emphasizing the physical and human dimensions of these urban measures that are often distanced from lived reality. “Infrastructure is not neutral,” Burdett asserted. Rather, it is often infrastructure that separates the informal cities of the world (nearly one-third the world’s population) from the formal.

Burdett explained that while infrastructure can be invisible, such as London’s extensive underground sewer system, it profoundly affects the reality of citizens. Burdett cited Mehotra’s work in slums in Mumbai as one example of the power of “infrastructure at different levels,” emphasizing that infrastructure can be as simple and significant as the thoughtful construction of a community toilet.

To illustrate density, Burdett compared examples of housing and job distribution in London, Hong Kong, and New York. Although a powerful visualization by the LSE appeared to demonstrate Hong Kong’s effective match of housing and job density downtown, Burdett questioned the success of this model. He posed the question, “Is that a good thing?” and probed this research by interviewing residents of the tiny apartments in the so-called “compact city” in Hong Kong. The resident interviews revealed the disadvantages and discomfort of hyper-density living. Burdett encouraged urbanists to consider measures to “balance people’s lives,” such as integrating infrastructure sensitively into slums, or developing models of density that are both sustainable and livable. 

Burdett was careful to use these global examples of infrastructure and density to inform his work in London, which used the 2012 Olympics as an opportunity for strategic city building. He explained how the Olympic games were leveraged to make “pieces of city” that could be used long after the event had dispersed.

David Henning (MUP ‘15), a student in the Cities by Design course, said, “I was impressed to see how London was able to turn a short term opportunity into long term comprehensive gains.” Through thoughtful and engaged storytelling, Burdett brought the lived experience of cities and citizens to the very center of the discussion, reminding the audience to “come back to the ground.”

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