URBAN AGE Holds NYC Conference


On 25 and 26 February 2005 in New York City, Urban Age held the first of a series of six world-wide conferences to understand the problems of the city in the 21st century. The Urban Age series of conferences is designed to form the framework for the development of an ongoing dialogue between academic experts and urban practitioners—it brings together architects, city planners, government officials, transportation experts, real estate developers, and the academics who study these areas.  While getting these various disciplines meaningfully to talk with each other is no easy task, the New York conference was unusually successful in making some inroads into this most important undertaking.


I am still abuzz from some of the presentations, ideas, and personal discussions from the weekend.  I found particularly resonant one general theme—contrary to the Rudy Guiliani/George W. Bush notion that security (be it in relation to crime or terrorism) comes from restrictive and repressive controls—that real security is based on people having a stake in their communities or societies (Jeff Fagan from Columbia University gave an particularly interesting presentation related in part to this idea) a sense of neighborhood, participation in society (Sophie Body-Gondrot’s notion that “public space embodies a sense of belonging to the wider political community through an architecture of sympathy”), or as Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia, put it, even the belief that one’s society is just.  In talking with Enrique, I actually began to suspect that this idea of his may be what actually explains the drop in crime in NYC during the latter part of the 90s:  most knowledgeable people understand that it was not because of Guiliani’s tough law and order stand (particularly since similar results were found to be true in this period in cities like Boston and Chicago, which had no such policies); I had assumed it was because the democratic administration in Washington had restored some of the social support network and poverty programs decimated by the Reagan and Bush administrations—although I knew that this was more a fictitious position than an actual reality; but I began to realize that what really happened was that the urban poor had the perception that they were being less purposely disenfranchised by the US government, and that their belief that society was more just and inclusive of them probably was what led to more “civility” in the inner city and lower crime rates.  (I also had an interesting discussion with Sophie Body-Gondrot about the role fear plays in the authoritarian [and alarmingly fascist] shift that underlies the Guiliani/Bush position on both an urban and international level—with many references to Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom.)


I loved the emphasis Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, DC, put on the power of the citizenry:  “I look at citizens just as nuclear power. Properly channeled and harnessed nuclear power can power the city, otherwise it can destroy it. It is my goal to try to channel and inspire that citizen power to drive a new agenda for our city.”  Hermann Knoflacher’s talk on transportation was fascinating on several counts:  first, just the fact that NYC is one of the most “pedestrian-ized” cities, in which 55% of the workforce walks to work, while another 27% uses public transportation;  that while NYC is in the middle of the fuel consumption by population curve for transportation (well-below the US average, but above Europe, and far above Asia), Manhattan is extremely far out on the curve, well below Europe; his insistence that one must keep the quality of transportation high to accommodate urban population density, but he noted that “small qualitative changes can have big quantitative effects.”  Nick Retsinas of Harvard, who believes that urbanization is a by-product and pre-condition of the global economy, alarmingly observed about the economic disparities of that economy , that “In the United States...eleven of the twenty fastest growing job categories are in the service sector, each of which pays less than two times minimum wage. I would suggest that if urban areas prosper, the agglomeration economies that support that growth will create even more disparities.”  Some of the shocking one-liner facts:  Richard Ravitch, in laying out the history of public transportation in the NY area, noted that 50% of all the public transportation in the US is in the NYC region; Judith Rudin, the new head of the Rockefeller Foundation and the former president of Penn, stated the astounding fact the largest employer in Philadelphia—by a tremendous margin—is the University of Pennsylvania (the opening chapter of the book she is about to publish begins with the observation that “meds and eds” are fast becoming the most significant employers in most urban areas); Bob Yaro raised the wonderfully pointed question about why there is an assumption that transportation should be self-supporting—whereas no one assumes that of police departments, schools, etc.  There were many who pointed out that success in urban change depends on the political will and courage of leaders—something I am beginning to become convinced that our current mayor sorely lacks; by way of contrast, Enrique Peñalosa voiced his philosophy that a leader should “take on as much as he can”—an approach he clearly lived by during his three years as mayor of Bogotá.


One of the very interesting presentations from the weekend—and the only one currently available for distribution—was given by Bruce Katz (and co-authored by Andy Altman) of the Brookings Institution.  Entitled “An Urban Age in a Suburban Nation?”, it dealt with the problems facing urban centers in a country heavily moving toward suburbanization, with states often working against the interests of their cities, and with a federal government openly hostile towards major cities.  Bruce presented a compelling case for the need for cities to form regional alliances with their suburban neighbors, and he presented the real possibilities for success presented by current trends and changes in the situation in both the cities and their closely related suburbs.  While an “American ‘Urban Age’ is possible in our suburban nation,” its success is far from assured, but rather depends “upon cities and suburbs making smart choices locally and then joining together collectively to push through state and ultimately federal policies that curb sprawl, promote reinvestment, and grow the middle class”—and it will require “political organizing and coalition building...across political jurisdictions, across disciplines, across racial and ethnic lines, and across ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states and regions.” (The full text of this excellent presentation is available at www.brookings.edu/views/speeches/katz/20050225urbanage.pdf , and I recommend it to you highly.)


The preceding are just some impressionistic recollections of some of what for me were high points of the conference.  As for the other presentations and ideas, you will just have to wait until Urban Age begins to publish some of its proceedings and conclusions.  In the meantime, here are some of the conference’s available resources and descriptive materials:


The Conference Newspaper and the more detailed Project Overview describe the program as follows:


As the world enters a new ‘Urban Age’, with over 50% of its population living in cities, new urban forms are emerging with cities of over 20 million people – the size of London and New York combined.


The Cities Programme at the London School of Economics and the Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society have joined forces to organize a sustained investigation – the ‘Urban Age’ - in how cities are changing and what policymakers need to do to improve the quality of life for the millions of urban dwellers around the globe. This is why, over the next two years, the Urban Age conferences will take place in New York, Shanghai, London, Johannesburg, Mexico City and Berlin.


While cities offer the promise of employment, social interaction and shelter, they quickly become concentrations of poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. The Urban Age conferences will address these issues, focusing on the links between the physical form of the city – its buildings, streets, houses, transport routes and amenities– and their social, economic and political impacts.


The New York Urban Age conference brought together some of the world’s leading urban thinkers, policymakers and practitioners to compare experiences and debate the key themes of urban change.


The New York Urban Age conference provided a platform to compare the social and economic profiles of two world cities – London and New York – with similar populations and different physical shapes, both facing a period of projected demographic and economic growth, both competing for the 2012 Olympics, and both offering models for urban development across the globe.


Key speakers included:


·        Sophie Body-Gendrot, Professor of Political Science and American Studies and Director,Center for Urban Studies, Sorbonne

·        Amanda Burden,Director, Planning Department,NYC

·        Ricky Burdett,Centennial Professor in Architecture and Urbanism and Director,Urban Age, London School of Economics and Political Science

·        Shaun Donovan,Commissioner,New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development

·        Jeff Fagan, Professor of Socio-Medical Sciences and Director,Center for Violence Research and Prevention, Columbia University

·        Gerald Frug, Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

·        Bruce Katz,Vice President and Director,Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution

·        Hermann Knoflacher, Professor of Transport Planning and Traffic Engineering, TU Vienna

·        Rem Koolhaas, Principal, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam

·        Dieter Läpple, Professor of Urban and Regional Economics, TU Hamburg-Harburg

·        Enrique Peñalosa,Mayor of Bogota 1997 – 1999

·        Richard Ravitch, Principal, Ravitch, Rice & Company

·        Nicolas Retsinas,Director, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University

·        Judith Rodin, President-Elect, The Rockefeller Foundation

·        Daniel Rose, President and CEO, Rose Associates

·        Marilyn Taylor, Chairman, SOM Architects

·        Anthony Williams,Mayor of Washington D.C.

·        Alejandro Zaera Polo, Joint Director, Foreign Office Architects


A full Program of the closed-door event is available at http://www.urban-age.net/0_downloads/UrbanAgeNewYorkProgramme.pdf , and a descriptive Newspaper describing the event and listing all of the participants is available at http://www.urban-age.net/0_downloads/UrbanAgeNewspaper+Insert.pdf .  A descriptive Bulletin released after the conference is most informative:  http://www.urban-age.net/0_downloads/UABulletin1June2005.pdf


And, a broader view of the Urban Age undertaking (again from the Project Outline ):




The principle aim of The Urban Age is to shape the thinking and practice of urban leaders. The two-year conference series is the first step towards the creation of an ongoing forum which will debate and influence how the city is studied, planned and managed. The series will operate as a mobile laboratory, testing and sampling the urban condition using a combination of expert presentations, site visits and opportunities for informal information exchanges. These results will then be analyzed, searching for regional patterns and global similarities that will shape the future development of cities and the processes that sustain them.




Each Urban Age conference will last for two days, with one half-day dedicated to visiting key sites of change and development within the host city.

Four core themes on will be the focus in each conference reflecting the basic human activities of living, working,  playing and moving (life in the city).

􀂃 Labour and work places

􀂃 Public life and urban space

􀂃 Mobility and transport

􀂃 Housing and neighbourhoods

In addition, a group of broader, overarching issues (governance) will be investigated. These are:

􀂃 Investment and economic development

􀂃 Planning and legal structures

􀂃 Sustainability and energy consumption

􀂃 Political economy and networking cities

In order to address local and global concerns, urban experts representing each core research theme, and a group of urban practitioners including architects, politicians, engineers and planners will travel to all conferences, accumulating knowledge and comparative experiences through participation in each conference throughout the two-year period.

The presentations and subsequent publications will employ different modes of translating information from the two-dimensional geographic scale to the three-dimensional urban design scale, thus facilitating dialogue between academics, policymakers and practitioners. A key objective of the Urban Age conference series is to identify what trends and policies are failing to respond to local needs, resulting in the continued propagation of dysfunctional urban areas across the globe. In addition to the academic experts, a group of urban practitioners, comprised of politicians, architects and engineers, will be present at each conference, supporting and challenging the notions put forth by the academics and local participants.




While the primary objective of the Urban Age conference series is to shape urban practices by engaging the various actors in a meaningful dialogue, lessons learned from discussions will challenge many existing policies and modes of operation. At the conclusion of each conference, the travelling experts will compose reflection papers, based on responses to issues raised during presentations and discussions. Experts will contribute to the final “white book on cities”, which will chart the accumulation of international knowledge and urban best practice. This “white book”, together with a digital version, will be

widely distributed to mayors, policymakers and advisors in the autumn of 2006, coinciding with the final conference in Berlin. As a final output, a BBC-produced documentary film will capture the investigation of the Urban Age themes on the ground in each of the conference cities.




Behind current debates on cities lies the fundamental question of whether free markets lead to concentration or dispersion of resources. This classic economic quandary takes on an unquestionably pertinent character when applied to cities, leading to a series of further questions: If there were no planning restrictions, how would development respond? How would the shape of the city evolve? Would the market lead to sprawl or dense concentration of buildings? In the past, the answer was simple: housing would sprawl and offices and industries would concentrate. This answer, however, has proved

errant for several reasons: the housing-preference side is too deterministic – in many markets middle and upper income people have demonstrated different preferences; and the commercial side does not respond to the massive split which has occurred between front-line service industries, which require concentration to work, and back-offices, which are cheaper to disperse. This pattern is seen throughout the developed world, and is shaping the structure of many emerging cities in the developing world. The question for architects, urbanists and mayors is how to plan and manage infrastructure and development without constraining growth, while simultaneously promoting the social and economic benefits of proximity and complexity in compact urban systems. The aspirations are clear, but the actual impact on the social economy of urban communities has yet to be understood. The process of investigation and exchange of The Urban Age will provide clues to the next generation of urban policymakers to better understand these interrelationships and successfully connect the physical arrangement of the built environment to sustainable growth.

The core knowledge areas have been designed to address these questions and how they relate to each other. Core topics will be discussed at both the larger geographic scale and well as the smaller urban design scale, while simultaneously linking them to the political and decision-making structures by which they are influenced. The specific thematic issues which each core knowledge area will address include:


Labour market and work places

Key Expert: Dieter Läpple, TU Hamburg-Harburg


Public life and urban space

Key Expert: Sophie Body-Gendrot, Sorbonne


Mobility and transport

Key Expert: Hermann Knoflacher, TU Vienna


Housing and urban neighbourhoods

Key Expert: Ricky Burdett, LSE                                                                                                                 




Six cities, representing urban regions in each of the major continents, have been chosen as partner cities for the Urban Age conference series:


New York | 25 and 26 February 2005

Opening Conference, North American Regional Conference


Shanghai | July 2005

Asian Regional Conference


London | November 2005

European Regional Conference, European Mayors Conference


Johannesburg | February 2006

African Regional Conference


Mexico City | July 2006

Central/South American Regional Conference


Berlin | November 2006

Final Conference


The main web site for Urban Age is www.urban-age.net .


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