Making Cities More Resilient: Educating the Next Urbanists

Tonkiss_image.JPGWill an increasingly urbanized world require a generation of urban leaders with a new set of skills for approaching the problems -- and solutions -- of 21st century cities? The London School of Economics thinks that it will, and offers a graduate education program to fill the niche.

The LSE Cities Programme, founded in 1998, is the teaching arm of LSE Cities, a research center funded by Deutsche Bank. LSE Cities partners with universities, policy think tanks, corporate foundations, and other institutions worldwide to examine strategies for designing cities that perform more sustainably in areas ranging from energy efficiency to human health and well-being.

In the past two years, applications to LSE Cities' masters degree program, called MSc in City Design and Social Science, have surged. The 28 students selected for this year's cohort (from more than four times as many applications; admissions were forced to close six months early due to inability to offer more spots) represent 15 different nations and a diversity of academic backgrounds in design and the social sciences. With a faculty composed primarily of architects and urban designers who have researched in social science fields, the MSc program endeavors to produce well-rounded "urbanists," including designers who can use their craft to solve social, economic, and cultural problems; and, on the other side of the table, design-literate commissioners of buildings: policy makers, attorneys, developers, and planners.

"The key skill is to be able to communicate across disciplinary divides," says Fran Tonkiss, director of the Cities Programme (and the sole non-designer on the faculty). "I know it's very fashionable now to talk about getting out of silos of practice and policy. But in this sort of messy business of city making, it's absolutely crucial."

Tonkiss, a professor of Urban and Economic Sociology, manages program logistics, teaches students, and develops the MSc curriculum. Here, she answers our questions about crafting and providing a new type of urban design education for a new type of urban student.

Making cities more sustainable is one of the core missions of LSE Cities. How is sustainability defined and discussed in the Cities Programme?

Sustainability is a very contentious term. It's quite an easy target for critique; partly, I think, because the notion of sustainability can be somewhat neutralizing. It disguises the conflicts that lie behind sustainability and practices. Also, when defined narrowly in environmental terms, sustainability can become an alibi for what are economically and socially quite divisive programs. For example, many works of of iconic architecture being produced these days -- especially in emerging market cities -- will have an environmental pedigree, but are quite radical insertions in the urban contexts in terms of economic and social separation.

It's right to think, as the Brundtland Commission concluded, of sustainability in terms of intergenerational legacies and what we do environmentally. But it maybe masks the fact that a lot of the conflicts are going to be between generations now living, not simply between what we do now and what the impact will be on generations in the future.

We [at the Cities Programme] prefer to use the term "resilience." Sustainable urban form must be robust enough to withstand change and also adapt to change; to respond to change, and able to change over time; to be retrofitted or converted. This is true whether we're talking about a building or whether we're talking about an organizational form in the city that can adapt to change or can change its purpose or its character in response to environmental change, certainly climate change and the risks associated with that; but also in regards to demographic change and economic cycles.

It's easy for me to understand how design professionals will use the integrated curriculum to inform their design work, but can you tell me how the non-design students will utilize their design education, and how the program approaches the teaching of design for an interdisciplinary classroom?

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.