Making Cities More Resilient: Educating the Next Urbanists

The Green Report

We encourage everyone to draw: on tracing paper, on maps, using computer software, and so on. I think part of our challenge is to convince our students that we're not interested in the aesthetic excellence of their work; what we're interested in is the strength of their critical analysis and how they use design work to advance an argument.

We also take a very broad definition of design. It is physical and spatial, but it is also economic and political. It's about designing institutions and policies as much as it is about designing built form. Quite often, our students will decide that the best solution for an urban problem is not a building, but something else. It may be a building, an open space, a green intervention. But it may also be a business association, a policy reform, or a planning intervention. For us, all of those measures are forms of design of city life.

In the studio we teach design with task-based practice. We ask the students to look at sites in cities through a visual and a spatial lens; through a socioeconomic lens; through policy and planning; and then using a micro, fine-grain social lens where they're really looking at how people use space and interact with each other in space. We assign these lenses equal weight, in terms of how you engage with and study urban spaces.

Your students are primarily Generation Y-ers. Do you see a meaningful shift in how this generation understands and lives in cities?

I find it incredibly exciting how many of them are interested in transport strategies. Conventionally, transport has been understood as a technical -- and perhaps even a rather dull -- discipline. But we're seeing young architects, engineers, economists, and people coming from the community sector whose primary way into thinking about the city is sustainable and accessible transport. The message that LSE Cities has been trying to disseminate -- that transport is about politics; transport is about equity -- I see being lived out in the sensibilities that these Generation Ys bring to the course.

What do you think is the least understood truth about cities among business and policy leaders whose decisions shape development?

A counter-truth which is often advanced in London is that the rich are the most crucial element in the city. It is often used as a scare tactic amongst politicians and business leaders that any attempt to regulate -- let alone tax -- the very rich will be corrosive for the city because it will lead to a flight of investment. I don't believe that's the case; otherwise everyone over a certain level of wealth would live in tax havens. Bankers are not going to leave London. In terms of the kinds of urban values which are produced through work economically but also in the life of the city, this is not the most crucial sector.

On a finer-grained level, I also think that giving people more and better living space is not too expensive, and it is very beneficial for the quality of urban life. The space standards for people of average incomes in new housing in British cities in the early 21st century are inferior -0 lower ceilings, smaller square footage -- to what is being built by the publicly subsidized sector, and certainly to what's being produced elsewhere in Europe. You will always hear from developers and planners that profit margins won't permit more generous housing. It can be done in other countries, and it has been done here in the past. I think there's a lot more potential to regulate private rental and to ensure better standards of housing, and even cheaper rents, because you will never lose a vote by cracking down on private landlords.

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Julia Levitt writes and consults on sustainability, policy, innovation, and strategy in the built environment. She is currently studying management at the London School of Economics.

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