The Quito Papers: A New Manifesto for Urban Planning in the 21st Century

A group of leading academics and practitioners have come together to draft a new manifesto for urban planning in the 21st century.

Courtesy LSE Cities

In 1933, a group of prominent functionalist architectsled by Le Corbusierdeveloped the Charter of Athens, a result of the International Congress of Modern Architecture. The document became a manifesto of urban planning in the 20th century, influencing the design of cities from Paris to Delhi to Beijing to Brasilia. The Charter of Athens laid the groundwork for many of the most common urban planning and design elements that shaped the formation of cities in the pre- and post-war era, including: the dominance of the automobile in planning (hence the large freeways), cluster housing, and the separation of city functions (including the development of central business districts). The central premise of all of these endeavors was to cleanse, organize, and maximize efficiency in the city.

Fast forward to 2017. Fifty-four percent of the world’s population lives in cities, with much of that growth concentrated in the developing world. In many cases, populations in these cities have doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled at the same time that public space has diminished. Moreover, according to UN Habitat,“75 percent of the world’s cities having higher levels of income inequalities than two decades ago,” and the widespread foreign purchasing of properties that house capitalnot inhabitantshas become commonplace.

Clearly the Charter of Athens is no longer a viable or sustainable model for urban planning to address the unique needs of cities. And a group of leading academics and practitioners in the fields of design, planning, and sociology from the London School of Economics (LSE), NYU, and UN Habitat have come together to draft a new manifesto for urban planning in the 21st century.

Originally rolled out in October in conjunction with the The United Nations Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, The Quito Papers serves as a call to action for architects, urban planners, and policymakers to rethink, redesign, and readdress our approach to the city. Now the researchers leading the projectLSE Cities Director Ricky Burdett, leading urban sociologist Richard Sennett, and Columbia University professor of global sociology Saskia Sassenare taking the project on tour with a series of panels related to the release of both the short film The Quito Papers: Towards the Open City and an abridged version of the report (the full version is due later this year). At a session hosted at LSE earlier this year, the authors of the report gathered to talk through their research and why a new approach to the planning and design of cities is urgent.

Operating from the central premise that our global future is urban, Burdett, Sennett, and Sassen lay out three areas for consideration:

1. The city of the 21st century needs to be open

The cities that resulted from the ideas presented in the Charter of Athens tend to be closed both physicallythrough gated communities and other exclusionary spacesand metaphorically, with their design making more disadvantaged socioeconomic groups feel isolated from the nodes of power and economic opportunity in the city (think the peripheral slum areas found in many cities throughout Africa and South America). Attempts to rid the complexity inherent in urban environments has resulted in bland cities today that, as Sennett put it during the LSE session, are “building the past with the money of the future.

The Quito Papers encourages cities that are instead open and inclusive, that reverse the social and economic exclusion and segregation that the Charter of Athens enabled. To create environments that bring people from different walks of life and different parts of the city together, the Papers claim, we need to reimagine the way our cities are run, designed, and lived in. Cities also need to be experimental and willing to prototype solutions that might fail.

Sennett proposes that designers and planners should focus on certain key themes in order to apply a more open cityapproach to their work. Firstly: porosity. Focus on and design for the edges of cities and communities, rather than just the center (Medellins strategy of holistic planning interventions in impoverished areas on the outskirts of the city is a good example of what this can look like in practice). Secondly: synchronicity. Combine functions and activities within a given area in a non-linear, mixed-use fashionlike in Mumbai, where healthcare clinics and childcare centers are directly adjacent to public food markets.

Caracas Venezuela. Courtesy Urban Age

2. Design really does matter

In addition to reconsidering approaches to planning and zoning for the city of the 21st century, the design quality of the metropolis itself really does matter, from how wide the streets are to how tall buildings are and how deep of a shadow they cast on the surrounding area.

As far as planning itself, rather than rejecting the inherent complexity, disorder, and ambiguity of cities today, Burdett says urban designers should move away from the inclination to create predictable design outcomes and instead create infrastructure that allows the city to be both messy and flexible over time.

One successful example that Burdett points to is Copenhagens ‘Finger Plan’, a 1947 masterplan to accommodate incremental growth along designated fingersthat are directly linked to transit and interspersed with green space.

Courtesy Urban Age

3. Return the city to the people

According to Sassen, the structure and format of the city proposed in the Charter of Athens has naturally lent itself to finance-driven planning, oftentimes at the expense of public land, which is often controlled by a privileged few.

Both city officials and urban planners and architects have a responsibility to plan in a way that considers the quality of life of all people living in the city. Sassen, during the London panel, noted that the city is the space where those without power get to make history. And never have we seen this more clearly than today, with the wave of political protests springing up from Birmingham to Melbourne to Accra. (A group of New York-based architects and urbanists recently published an open letter to Mayor de Blasio outlining strategies for him to more effectively open up public space in the city for public gatherings related to freedom of expression and civic action).

As far as the socioeconomics of the city are concerned, Sassen says that cities need to be designed for relocalizationwhether its in the form of urban manufacturing, urban agriculture, or local banking. From a design and planning perspective, this means moving away from an emphasis on the city center and the central business district and towards neighborhoods and the connectivities between them.

Kilamba, Luanda. Courtesy Creative Commons (CC)


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