Photo by Pavel Golovkin

Cities: How to survive

An interview with Richard Burdett on the development impulse given by the Olympics by Anna Golovkina

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An interview with Richard Burdett

An interview by Anna Golovkina

Research interests of Richard Burdett focus on the interactions between the physical and social worlds in the contemporary city and how urbanisation affects social and environmental sustainability.

In addition to his roles at LSE, Professor Burdett is a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University, a member of the UK Government’s Independent Airports Commission and member of Council of the Royal College of Art in London. He has been involved in regeneration projects across Europe and was Chief Adviser on Architecture and Urbanism for the London 2012 Olympics and architectural adviser to the Mayor of London from 2001 to 2006. He is a member of the Hurricane Sandy Regional Planning and Design Competition organised by US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Professor Burdett was also a member of the Urban Task Force which produced a major report for the UK government on the future of English cities. He is co-editor of The Endless City(2007), Living in the Endless City (2011) and Transforming Urban Economies(2013).
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Richard, as you know, the next Winter Olympics is being held in Sochi in the south of Russia. There has been much talk around this topic, but most has been negative, due to serious budgeting issues. And now, on the eve of its opening, I would like to ask you, as chief advisor on architecture and urbanism, about what happened when the Olympic Park was opened in 2012 in London.

This is the one of the most important questions that will test the success of the Games in creating a lasting legacy. When there was only a few weeks left to complete Olympic Park, the city was already enjoying the global spotlight after a long-​term period of downright opposition, seen by some as useless invasion and expense. With more than 27 million visitors a year and still one of the world’s strongest financial centres, Londoners had asked themselves ‘do we need the Games?’ and ‘what will they do for London?’ The quick answer to the first one might be ‘yes’, if we want to improve the city’s pattern of social inequality. Yet, it can take at least 20 years.

Photo by Pavel Golovkin

How is social inequality expressed in London? What examples could you give to illustrate this?

Despite being a prosperous city of nearly 8 million people, London has its own deep social and economic problems. In terms of its spatial geography, London’s western half is relatively wealthy and has better a public infrastructure and transport service, while its eastern half is more deprived. The life expectancy of a man, for example, is five years higher in west London compared to parts of east London.

Cities across the world do experience the same type of physical problems but with differing levels of intensity. It is the relationship between physical form and social wellbeing that needs to be better understood by politicians, designers and city-​makers needs of their citizens.

At the risk of generalising cities all over the world experience the same type of physical problems, but with differing levels of intensity, take, for example, exclusion vs. integration, sprawl vs. density. But it is the correlation between physical form and social well-​being that needs to be better understood by politicians, designers and city-​makers.

And how can we overcome these obstacles?

As society and goals are changing over time, the city has to be designed to adapt to this dynamic. Utopian cities built around fixed ideologies have never worked. The people that created Rome, New York and London certainly didn’t think of them as stable artefacts that wouldn’t transform in future. As urbanists, we have to think of the city’s metabolism – just like a body. When it gets older and weaker, you undertake corrective surgery. Cities need to be versatile; otherwise they petrify and die.

Photo by Pavel Golovkin

The Olympics is part of this complex urban puzzle.

Will the Olympic Games have only an economic impact on city development, or do they constitute a new engine of investment in the future of the city, like a using the Olympics territory after the Games? What will remain in London as the Olympic heritage?

Utopian cities built around fixed ideologies have never worked. The people that created Rome, New York and London certainly didn’t think of them as fixed artifacts that wouldn’t change over time.

In effect the Olympic Plan is a complicated grafting case. The £2bn shopping mall completed by Westfield promised nearly 10,000 positions to the local economy. The housing element of the private scheme was turned into the Athletes’ ‘Village’ – and has been sold on to consortia led by the Qataris and social housing groups. And the Olympic Park with its sports venues, health centres, schools, future housing sites, roads and bridges, link this formerly excluded site back into the complex web of East London. The project had became a sophisticated chess game in time and space that reflects, in an increased fashion, the normal organic planning process that regulates London’s DNA. As Tony Travers of LSE London put it “the Olympics has brought regeneration forward by about 70 years!”

Up to 2006, the 200 hectare site was mainly covered by industrial sheds and low-​level economic projects, which have been relocated as part of the government’s investment plan. The site has been cleared, millions of tons of polluted soil have been cleaned, electricity pylons and overhead cables removed, everything has been provided for what will become one of London’s new urban communities.

Photo by Pavel Golovkin

What were most important findings that you made during this period? How does a city get back to normal after such an experience?

London developed a new planning methodology for the construction of the Games and what it would leave behind for its so-​called ‘Olympic Legacy’. Many of the sports venues and facilities for the Games will be temporary, but the contribution into the infrastructure of a new piece of city has had permanent effects. Only four structures in the Olympic Park remained after 2012: the Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, the fabulous Aquatic Centre by Zaha Hadid, Make’s more modest Handball venue and the (somewhat re-​built) Olympic Stadium. The water-​polo pools, basketball and hockey stadia, and the other structures were disassembled and then relocated or their building elements were sold or recycled. Some of them were moved to Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games, or to Glasgow for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, adjusting a new dimension of sustainability to the Olympic project. After the Olympics, the wide alleys and bridges for the 1.5 million visitors were adapted to the appropriate scale for a city park. We can see the same approach implemented at some of the venues like the Aquatic Centre, where the massive and visually predominant side wings with 17,000 seats were taken out, returning the building its originally designed twisting form, accommodating only 6,000 seats. It is an appropriate size for what will work as a major swimming and diving complex for East London. A school for 2,000 students, a wellness centre and other public facilities were built for use by future inhabitants of the area and neighbourhoods. However, the energy centres working on biomass power still provide advanced heating system sector to the entire area.

Photo by Pavel Golovkin

And what happened with the empty sites after disassembling the temporary structures?

Future is in rethinking favelas as a part of the city, not as a problem, but as a solution how to maintain them and integrate and to discover from them what they want.

The most important point to make is that the land left vacant by the temporary structures after 2012 was given to create platforms for an absolutely new part of the city. It is planned to arrange more than 8,000 houses along traditional London streets, terraces and squares during a 20 – 30 year time frame, continuing outward from the Athlete’s Village and its relatively high-​rise perimeter blocks that now under construction surrounding an exquisite and inspiring landscape terrain by Vogt. Regarding this, the return on public investment is beginning to happen with growing interest from the private sector in the development potential afforded by this new East London opportunity. But, all this will only be possible if the city government keeps control and ownership of the land, and puts in place checks and balances to be sure that land values and gentrification do not push existing communities out of the local area.

Sustainable solutions should be found by modifying the DNA of current cities, modifying and aligning their spatial, social, and economic organisation in a realistic way that reflects the organic processes of urban growth and resources availability.