The City of the Future

The authors of The Endless City put urban expansion into perspective, hoping to cast cities as a "source of mutual strength rather than mutual estrangement"
Windows look onto the slums of Johannesburg. Graeme Williams

The steady, centuries-long migration of people into cities passed a crucial milestone last year. More than half of humanity now lives in cities—and that figure will likely reach 75% by 2050. This urban shift is already visibly transforming newly sprawling giants such as Shanghai and Mexico City, as well as highly developed cities such as New York and London. This growth is also bringing titanic problems.

Now, The Endless City, a new book edited by the London School of Economics' Ricky Burdett and design curator Deyan Sudjic, aims to put urban expansion into perspective. The growth of cities, they argue, is not just a problem for local government agents or urban planners. Instead, urban growth is inseparable from major political and economic forces including globalization, immigration, employment, social exclusion, and sustainability (themes that track closely with the issues currently being debated in the runup to the U.S. Presidential election.)

The book's encyclopedic scope and the way it connects urban problems to economic and social issues make it a useful resource for urban planners and architects, as well as a broader range of designers and business people hoping to orient their products and services to consumers living in the world's fast-growing cities.

Cities as a Source of Strength

The 500-page tome is the culmination of four years of meetings, conferences, and collaborations among the members of an informal working group of nearly 40 architects, planners, designers, and academics, dubbed the Urban Age Project. Spearheaded by Burdett and Sudjic, both based in London, the project has hosted conferences in cities from Berlin to Mumbai.

In this, the group's first major book, the team seeks a vision of cities as places where "urban life becomes a source of mutual strength rather than a source of mutual estrangement and civic bitterness," according to group member Richard Sennett, a sociologist.

The book is intended as a practical resource for those looking at rapid urban growth as an opportunity despite the looming challenges and often stark inequalities. (Case in point: 1.4 billion people will be living in city slums by 2020.) Burdett, a professor of architecture at the LSE, and Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, marshal the experience and observations of a wide variety of contributors, from architects Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog, and Pierre de Meuron to green-building guru Guy Battle and urban planner Sophie Body-Gendrot.

In-Depth Examinations

Politicians, including Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of a revitalized Bogota, also contribute essays. "The key [to reading the book] is to understand what the city has become," says Sudjic. With its roll call of engaged experts, the book itself reads like a kind of free, sprawling discussion of the problems and possibilities cities represent. But, rather than overwhelm the reader with an amorphous mass of essays, The Endless City is neatly divided into six chapters, each with a distinct agenda, including an introduction and a combined glossary-index.

The first of these sections is an in-depth examination of six very different cities and the challenges facing each. Berlin, its economy stagnant, is still reeling as the mass influx of citizens anticipated after the city's reunification nearly 20 years ago failed to materialize. In contrast, Mexico City's uncontrolled expansion over the past 20 years sees 60% of its nearly 20 million inhabitants living in illegal and informal housing, creating vast, unplanned, and sometimes dangerous communities.

And just as New York is managing its post-September 11 growth, Johannesburg is searching for a cohesive identity as it has been transformed from an all-white city of about 250,000 in 1994 to a post-apartheid, multi-ethnic conglomeration of some 3.25 million inhabitants today. These four cities, along with Shanghai and London, are emblematic of the many challenges facing the rest of the world's metropolises.

"In the Beginning Was the City"

A subsequent chapter, titled "Issues," is more theoretical, packed with essays on subjects from the politics and policy of urban reform to a look at how the historical DNA of cities informs their ongoing architectural development. "Interventions," meanwhile, is a curated set of 20 innovative projects that give practical responses to many of the challenges introduced earlier in the book. Particularly compelling examples include New York's Hearst Tower, a successful environmentally conscious building; and Mexico City's Metrobus project, a bold attempt to implement a system of public buses catering to the entire metropolis to begin easing the city's infamous traffic congestion.

If there is one criticism to be made of the book, it is the occasionally grandiose tone of some of its contributors. The foreword by Wolfgang Nowak, the former German secretary of state and current managing director of Deutsche Bank's (DB) Alfred Herrhausen Society, begins, "In the beginning was the city." That extravagant tone is echoed throughout the text, distracting from the arguments. Still, the book's many essays are underscored by a comprehensive set of graphics, charts, and diagrams that are one of its chief strengths. Full-page photographs and richly detailed maps make the book instantly accessible, even if it didn't have its more thorough arguments and analyses.

The book's final section, "Positions," puts forward an agenda of smarter urban planning. The authors suggest endeavors like their own Urban Age Project (they're already putting together the next conference) can help executives avoid the planning and development mistakes of the past. Managing the coming surge in urban populations, they argue, will require the worldwide collaboration of designers, architects, and politicians. That this is the book's thinnest section suggests the majority of the endless city's story has yet to be told.

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