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Urban age conference in Rio de Janeiro

The London School of Economics Cities forum raises challenging questions about the future of the city and its reliance on slum as a housing solution

We are in the ‘Urban Age’, and every significant academic and corporate institution is developing a discourse around how cities are effectively shaping our collective future, for better or for worse. This was addressed at the 12th Urban Age forum in Rio de Janeiro on 24-25 October organised by LSE Cities and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society.

Before it kicked off, RUA Architetos director Pedro Rivera gave a tour of Rio’s socially oriented design projects. There was the interesting, but often contested, favela urban transit cable-car project in Complexo do Alemão; the generously conceived new leisure and learning park in Madureira; and the model public realm improvement of a part of the Rosario favela.

Along with a drive through Rio it gave some hope to the inhabitants concerning the potential of the World Cup and the Olympics for Rio: could it lift millions out of poverty, or further polarise a city prone to corruption? Will this expensive series of infrastructures benefit its inhabitants? The bus rapid transit, copying the Peñalosa vision for Bogota, may indeed, but many other initiatives are truly worth questioning, as exposed in the conference, and with reason, as the real estate bubble could well make the events a massive catalyst for gentrification rather than balancing the city.

Conferences can be dry, complacent environments where the usual suspects provide substance everyone expects, to create a reason to come from far away. Urban Age didn’t challenge this assumption fully because it was an inherently highly politicised event when the city of Rio, currently under the scrutiny of global media, was the host and co-organiser. Nevertheless, the dense programme curated by Ricky Burdett and his team, supported by Ute Weiland et al, was full of exciting choices which helped to create as lively a debate as possible. Even if not always occurring during the sessions, the breaks in the beautiful Palácio do Itamaraty allowed for unusually informative encounters.

The opening session linked to London’s Olympic project and legacy, ‘moving east’ as Ricky Burdett summarised it, as a core strategy to regenerate a whole part of a city. No news there, but it set the stage for the conversation and presentation of a range of large-scale urban transformation strategies in both developed and developing contexts, which were impressively supported by the data-rich newspaper produced by the LSE for the occasion (which will soon be available on their website and is definitely worth a read).

Making a strong impression was the number of speakers who referred to the need for a more subtle way of placemaking. At last we could say that the epoch of traditional top-down masterplanning was ending and even the dinosaurs had to acknowledge it. This was evident in the adopted change of vocabulary and sensitivity to the importance of social resilience as a factor of urban quality.

Antoni Vives, deputy mayor of the city of Barcelona, eloquently defended his vision to get Barcelona out of the current Spanish employment, banking and real estate crisis by focusing on a series of principles and linked micro-strategies, rather than big rigid plans, to allow a more organic and participatory regeneration of his city.

Suketu Mehta powerfully stated that ‘the great secret of a place is not that everyone is included but that nobody is excluded’, and Edgar Pieterse reminded us of the fact that 62 per cent of Africans live in slums with 63 per cent of those having vulnerable jobs − making highways and shopping malls will not suffice to create a prosperous African middle class in the years to come, to stabilise civil society.

Adam Greenfield’s phrase, ‘cities are cauldrons of contestations with deeply competing conceptions of the good’, implies a need to shift towards understanding bits versus atoms, in other words having less stuff and studying the relations between things more. We were also given a chance to hear Henk Ovink describe how a bid on the 2028 Dutch Olympics could be used as a way to reinvent Holland and design risk planning.

For those unfamiliar with rapidly growing cities in Latin America, we heard the compelling story of the Chilean mining city, Antofagasta, which is adopting a creative framework to avoid the atomisation of existing communities. But probably the most provocative and enjoyable moment was Deyan Sudjic’s brilliant intervention warning against prefabricated urbanism, or what he called ‘zombie planning’ in a rather unexpected parallel with World War Z.

Some would have been more eager to find more local stories but we did have a full session with Celso Athayde and Jailson de Sousa e Silva discussing the merits of social design in favelas worth preserving and learning from, should these places make the transition from the informal to the formal city.

At the end it became quite apparent that there is a consensus emerging on the question of tackling urban scale problems in developing and developed countries: we need to invest in adaptive solutions and institutional innovation to generate a sustainable source of urban dividends that are less exploitative. To quote Pedro Rivera, we need to ‘move from control to stimulus’. This is a key element that should influence policy makers and decision makers as technology allows creation of more generative urbanistic solutions when given the right framework, eclipsing the old-school static designs that need more power and money to exist and, finally, to disappoint.

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