Architect Richard Burdett was chief adviser for architecture and urbanism for the London Olympics. He is professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) and editor of best-selling book, The Endless City, a study of the growth of six of the World's international cities (New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin), exploring key structural, economic and social factors.
© Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd
A million more people could be calling London home by 2050. Where are they going to live?
RB: It’s a good thing that London is growing, because if you don’t have growth, you don’t have ways of feeding the economy. In Milan and Berlin, people have been moving out. But we need to make new “pieces of city” that relate with and integrate into London as it is today, rather than creating ghettos like “gated communities”. London’s past “mixity” makes it more resilient than other cities at absorbing people from many different backgrounds. When we make a new piece of city, the plan must be to include that variety.
Where, and how, are we going to make these “new pieces of city”?
RB: There is so much unused brownfield land in London. You could fit two Amsterdams in the Thames Gateway. From the days of Michael Heseltine to Mayor Ken Livingstone, London has focused on development in these areas where land is available and public transport is good — think of Barking, Stratford or Canary Wharf.
Good public transport is crucial because to reduce emissions, we need to reduce car use. Stratford had a large amount of under-used land right next to a really well-connected rail station. We spent £8 billion or so on the Olympic Games, of which about £2.3 billion was on regeneration. I think that was a smart investment for the long term.
What’s happening at the Olympic village?
RB: The Olympics provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for London, but the real regeneration effort is starting now and may take 30 years to complete. The challenge was to make a new piece of city, a necklace of interconnected places, each with homes, offices, shops and leisure centres. Unless you mix things together you get lifeless dormitory towns and alienating environments.
Don’t try to reinvent, just repeat the pattern in a more contemporary way. Good new areas of housing should duplicate the qualities of places like Camden, Chiswick, Notting Hill or Earl’s Court. They have good transport, a mix of housing, and, at their heart, essential shops.
Why does a computer geek prefer to live in Shoreditch? Because they go to a café and meet people. Why does a banker like the City? Because there are like-minded types. Cities are about mixing people up. A city works best when people live, work and play close together. Look at Rome. You go out of the front door straight into a beautiful city, buy a loaf of bread, go to school and walk to work. It’s all on the doorstep. London has the same potential, it has the grain of a European city.
What part does transport play?
RB: From the window here you can see the Shard, a building with space for 10,000 people, three minutes from a major transport hub. It only has 47 parking spaces, all for disabled people. The rest will use public transport. London was the first city that invested in a major public transport system, 150 years ago. Okay, in parts it’s old and creaky. But it’s an amazing piece of engineering. Crossrail will add to that. Most cities would die to have transport like that.
London is now being designed to work around it, we’re building new homes around transport hubs. And it’s working. Fewer driving licences are being issued to young people, and more people use buses and the Tube than 10 years ago.
What sort of housing should we build?
RB: Up to 90 per cent of our million new Londoners will be from abroad, so we need young architects from the UK and around the world to design apartments in terraces — a bit like Notting Hill, when those big terrace houses used to have five or six flats in them. We could combine the great tradition of London housing with something unashamedly contemporary, six- or seven-storey buildings around a courtyard, all with an active street front.
That’s how the Olympics site was thought out — between the velodrome and the Olympic village, there will be new streets, and their design will go back to the grain of the great streets of Georgian London.
Who’ll pay for all this?
RB: Because the Olympics had a massive injection of funds, the Government could afford to take a very long-term view, to create a really valuable asset for future generations.
Most developers can’t afford to do that. The UK is one of the world’s richest nations, so our Government should keep on investing in these urban areas so that developers don’t have to bear all the costs of creating a “place”. With the Olympics legacy, London has set the world a very good example and we can build on this. In cities, it is vital to take things slowly and do it right. Instant cities never work. We’re not Shanghai, we don’t have to make 10 million new homes in 10 years.
If you were in charge, what would you change tomorrow?
RB: I would get experts from around the world to tell me how to solve the affordability problem. Holland, Singapore, Denmark and Sweden have found ways to make housing accessible to young people. In those countries more people rent, and receiving government subsidy has no stigma attached.
We should increase the rental sector, so more people have access to the rental market with the possibility to buy. And we should be as creative with our financial mechanisms as we are with our designs.
As an urbanist, I would make sure that all developments have streets connecting to the next area, and that every building has a front door on to the street, to create neighbourhoods. Housing alone isn’t the solution, neighbourhoods are.