Lessons for Habitat III from the Venice Architecture Biennale

‘The future of sustainable cities has to take into account … a re-belief in planning and an understanding that the market cannot deliver everything,’ says the curator of the ‘Conflicts of an Urban Age’ exhibit, which opened in May.

London School of Economics Professor Ricky Burdett curated the "Conflicts of an Urban Age" exhibit at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale. The event opened in May and runs through November. (Alex Ulam)

VENICE — In his 1968 book, “The Population Bomb”, Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich warned that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation and widespread social unrest within decades.

Hopefully, Ehrlich’s predictions will never come to pass. But what is certain that the world is experiencing an unprecedented migration of people to cities and that if nothing is done, most of those migrants will be living in abject poverty. Indeed, at current rates, the number of urbanites living without running water or basic city services in the next 15 years is expected to double from a billion people to 2 billion.

The upcoming United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, will see extensive discussions on how to accommodate the coming urban population explosion. Meanwhile, a good place to get a preview of some of these issues is at the “Conflicts of an Urban Age” exhibit, which opened in May at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale and runs through mid-November.

“Conflicts of an Urban Age”, which is curated by London School of Economics Professor Ricky Burdett, is one of three special projects at this year’s biennale, a sprawling show that includes 88 participants from more than 37 different countries in the main exhibition. And with its wide-angle focus on documenting and quantifying the challenges affecting cities throughout the world, “Conflicts of an Urban Age” amplifies the agenda of this architectural extravaganza. Other exhibits focus primarily on physical interventions such as retrofitted housing projects, structures designed with sustainable materials and building prototypes that can be erected by relatively unskilled workforces.

In contrast to previous biennales that have focused more on state-of-the-art buildings and abstract architectural issues, the director of this year’s event, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, has devoted his show to tackling a host of pressing challenges that include informal settlements, pollution, natural disasters and migration.

[See: Addressing the informal city in the New Urban Agenda]

In fact, many of the projects in this year’s biennale seem tailor made to help fulfil Habitat III’s mission of establishing sustainable forms of urbanization. Warning about the increasing surge in the urban populations of cities in the Global South, Aravena’s speeches have included a constant refrain: “We need to build a million-person city per week over the next 15 years, for $10,000 per family.”

Density dynamics

Housed in a brick building in Venice’s giant Renaissance-era shipbuilding complex known as the Arsenale, “Conflicts of an Urban Age” consists of film-based animations and data-filled display boards that chart physical and demographic changes in cities.

“The increase in urban population has come with more than a quadrupling in the size of most of these cities, and that has incredibly negative consequences. There is a correlation between the lack of regulation and the fraying of cities.”

Ricky Burdett
London School of Economics and Political Science

One of the most significant parts of the exhibit highlights the changes to seven cities that have experienced significant population increases in the past 25 years. Much of the exhibit is based on research by the London School of Economics and Political Science, which developed the show in collaboration with Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft.

There are some very striking findings here. Along with their sizable growth in population, for instance, cities are expanding their physical footprint at even more dramatic rates. Most of the cities that the LSE surveyed more than doubled their population during this time frame, but their physical footprint increased more than fivefold. This phenomenon is especially acute in cities in Africa and Asia, where more than 90 percent of the urban population growth is projected to take place in the next 15 years.

[See: Finding a truly common vision for African cities]

When one looks at the outliers, the changes in urban density are even more profound. For example, in the past 25 years, the population in Guangzhou, China, swelled 925 percent, and yet its physical footprint increased a whopping 3,284 percent. The West is not immune from this trend. In the past quarter-century, for instance, the population of the Chicago area has increased 22 percent, while its footprint has grown 47 percent.

In his speech at the exhibit’s opening, UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos said that in some ways the rapid urbanization of recent years has helped advance living conditions for a great many people. Clos, who is also secretary general of Habitat III, singled out China, where more than 400 million people have risen out of poverty.

Of course, the unprecedented demographic changes transforming cities throughout the world also have had incredibly negative consequences. “In the past 30 years, urban planning has disappeared,” Clos said. “It is not in fashion — in fact, it is considered something of the past. And if we look at the fabric of cities, we see that in certain ways we are going backwards and many people are suffering.”

[See: Eight key trends that define two decades of global urbanization]

One way cities are regressing is through dwindling open spaces, including sidewalks, roads, public squares and parks. In fact, Clos said recently, UN-Habitat is planning on publishing the research on open space featured in a section of the biennale exhibition that uses maps and statistics to illustrate the changes.

The condition is most pronounced in cities such as Johannesburg, which has lost 32 percent of open space over the past 25 years, and Kinshasa, which has lost 44 percent in the same period. “This is another huge problem,” Clos said, “because apart from the quality of urbanization and the quality of civic life, it is a loss of economic value to cities.”

Laissez-faire planning

The research provides evidence of laissez-faire planning run amok, Burdett said in an interview at the exhibit’s opening. “The increase in urban population has come with more than a quadrupling in the size of most of these cities, and that has incredibly negative consequences,” he said. “There is a correlation between the lack of regulation and the fraying of cities.”

A primary reason that cities are losing density is because prices in many central city districts have surged in recent years, creating opportunities and incentives for developers to build sprawl. “Do I pay more for the land or go further away and get land that costs nothing?” Burdett said. “The market is buying things further and further away, because that is where the land is cheap.”

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Along with the swelling barrios and informal settlements that are transforming many cities in developing nations, enormous new enclave-type developments also are reshaping the urban experience. At the back of the exhibit is a section of eerily lit computerized images that Burdett refers as “instant urban solutions.” This wall of shame includes places such as New Sadr City in Baghdad, Shenzhen Dream Centre in Shenzhen and Mohammed Bin Rashid City in Dubai.

“We are showing the dangers of trying to totally design from the top down — new town, eco-towns, free-trade zones,” Burdett said. “The unique thing that ties them all together is this enclave mentality: They will never adapt to change.”

Existing centres in many of the so-called global cities also are losing diversity as a result of massive real-estate shopping sprees by sovereign-wealth funds and corporate entities, according to Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology at Columbia University who attended the exhibit’s opening.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

Research that Sassen has compiled for a UN-Habitat project shows that corporate purchases of major properties in the top 100 recipient cities rose from more than USD 600 billion between 2013 and 2014 to more than USD 1 trillion between mid 2014 and mid 2015.

“Those who are buying the property — they have incredibly creative lawyering,” Sassen said. In many cities, especially in the developing world, where there is less land regulation, “These barracuda lawyers are going to be shaping the future of landownership law,” she added.

Anticipating growth

So how can we reverse the seemingly inexorable march of neoliberal-inspired patterns of urbanization that are making inequality a built-in feature of cities throughout the globe?

Burdett said that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, the exhibit showcases various types of interventions that have helped. The best plans appear to be those that anticipate growth, such as the 1850 vision for Barcelona by the Catalan Spanish urban planner Ildefons Cerdá, which is highlighted in the exhibit with a reproduction of historic plans and a large-scale photograph of the city as it exists today.

Burdett also cites London, where he served as architectural adviser to the city’s mayor in the early 2000s, as a city that has been successful in managing growth. Unlike many other European cities, London’s population has experienced a tremendous population increase — 31 percent in the past quarter-century.

[See: The E. U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What’s it saying?]

However, Burdett said that 95 percent of new development has occurred within London and that the city’s density has declined only by 2.5 percent. In addition to strict land-control policies, most notably its famous greenbelt boundaries where development is restricted, Burdett said that one way London has been able to retain density is by granting incentives for building atop brownfield sites and new developments near transportation hubs such as King’s Cross Station and St. Pancras. The exhibit highlights these with photographs and accompanying explanatory text.

Along with highlighting the effectiveness of urban plans, the exhibit devotes wall space to showing strategies for mitigating the effects of sprawl. There are photographs of a Chinese-financed light-rail system that serves the slums of Addis Ababa, which to Burdett’s knowledge is the only mass transit system in Africa serving a city’s informal area.

Shanghai offers another example of how new infrastructure is helping to bridge the gap. Graphics in the exhibit show that the city has lost 27.5 percent of its density since 1990. However, Burdett says that a massive investment in public transport, including in a 566 km metro system, is stitching together far-flung areas of the city. Shanghai also has new building codes that have allowed the construction of 35,000 towers, many of which have replaced lower-lying apartment buildings in central city areas.

[See: Between Habitat II and III, China changed everything]

Still, Shanghai has major challenges ahead. For instance, its “floating” population, consisting of those who do not have full rights as citizens of the municipality, has increased tenfold in the past quarter-century, to almost 10 million residents.

Grass-roots solutions

With so much unplanned and unregulated growth having already taken place in recent years, many of the most effective urban interventions will come from grass-roots efforts.

A section of the exhibit provides informational briefs on local projects from urbanXchanger, a programme funded by Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award initiatives that pairs local partners with design professionals from Germany. The display includes staircases built from tires in Mexico City, community gardens planted on the outskirts of São Paulo and a street-art project aimed at revitalizing public spaces in New Delhi.

[See: How street art is rejuvenating Indian cities and rebuilding lives]

A visitor leaving the “Conflicts of an Urban Age” exhibit to explore the biennale’s vast exhibition halls will find many more examples of such low-cost urban interventions that emphasize the use of inexpensive, sustainable building materials. These include an exhibit of Paraguayan architect Solano Benitez’s prefabricated brick panels, which are designed to enable unskilled labourers without masonry training to participate in the country’s building industry.

Elsewhere is an exhibit of once-fenced-off areas around water tanks in Medellín, Columbia, that have been repurposed as public spaces. And Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Wang Shu has an exhibit that consists of bricks panels and tiles that tell the story of his efforts to preserve rural Chinese building traditions.

Of course, such local initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. The exhibits underscore a few key points: To really grapple with the challenges ahead, governments will need to invest more in infrastructure, and large-scale urban planning initiatives will need to address future growth. Hopefully this exhibit will expand the audience for the issues that will be discussed at Habitat III in October and revive faith in the efficacy of well-thought-out urban plans.

[See: In Uganda’s small but fast-growing cities, ‘one planner is not enough’]

“Conflicts of an Urban Age” certainly helps define the problems and provide a context for the many architectural interventions on display throughout the biennale. As Burdett says, “The future of sustainable cities has to take into account the issue of the form of the city, the investments that you need to make, a re-belief in planning and an understanding that the market cannot deliver everything.”

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Alex Ulam

Alex Ulam is a journalist who focuses on architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning issues and housing.