New Delhi: The world is racing to the city, and the one group of professionals capable of housing and sheltering the massive human influx to the urban centres—the architects and the planners—freely acknowledge that they are ill-equipped to cope.
This summer, the number of people living in cities exceeded the number living in rural areas for the first time. Of the planet’s six billion people, three billion live in cities, of whom one billion live in urban slums. Twenty years from now, the total global population is forecast to increase to eight billion, of whom five billion will be living in cities, two billion of them in slums.
As the demands on the world’s planners grow, academics from around the world gathered at a recent conference and expressed great unease about their ability to prepare the next generation of architects to build for this urban future.
“Every year the urban population increases by 80 million, equivalent to the population of Germany,” said Lars Reutersward, an architect and director of the global division at UN Habitat, the UN department that looks at urban development.
“Within that, there will be an increase in slum dwellers the size of Holland and Belgium put together—35 million—every year. This is a complete disaster, and it doesn’t have to happen,” he added. “People are dying in slums every day. It is horrible. We are lacking a sense of urgency; we are not coping with the speed of it.”
The UN estimates that only 5% of the building work under way in the world’s expanding cities is actually planned; in many Asian cities, 70% of residents are thought to be living in unplanned areas—usually in badly built urban sprawls, with poor access to electricity, water and drainage.
In many parts of the world, the problem is worsened by a shortage of competent professionals.
“Seventy percent of architects come from the developed world, but 70% of the work is in the developing word. There is a total mismatch,” said Gaétan Siew, president of the International Union of Architects, at the conference on issues of urbanization organized by the Rockefeller Foundation in Italy last month. “These architects are trained to work in their own country, not in the developing world. There is mobility of architects, but with mobility you can get inappropriate solutions.”
The entire continent of Africa has 35,000 trained architects, of whom 25,000 are in Egypt. “Italy alone has three times this number,” Siew said. “You can see the magnitude of the problem.”
Even the principles guiding the profession’s understanding of how cities grow have their origins in the wrong continents, Ananya Roy, a professor in planning at the University of California, Berkeley, explained in a recent paper. “Much of the urban growth of the 21st century is taking place in the developing world, but many of the theories of how cities function remain rooted in the developed world,” she wrote.
The personalities of those entering the profession meant that many were unwilling to get involved in planning cities that work for the poor, Siew said. “A lot of the architects who come into the business want to build monuments; they want to become star architects or rich planners. We have to re-educate them so they realize that they are agents of social change.”
“It’s not just about beautiful houses. It is all about everyday people’s lives,” Siew added.
Academics from the US said many faculties were still using outmoded curriculums ill suited to the current environment. “We have to reboot dramatically,” said Harrison Fraker, dean of the environmental design department of the University of California, Berkeley.
Their words were echoed by counterparts from Asia. K.T. Ravindran, the dean of Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture, said urban planning as a profession in India had “fossilized.” “Sixty per cent of our cities have no sanitation systems,” he said. “We are clearly failing.”
Arif Hasan, an academic, architect and planner from Karachi, called the failure to educate a new generation of planners capable of confronting the problems of an urbanized world “a recipe for conflict.”
“If the present trends continue,” said Hasan, “the rich-poor divide will worsen, evictions will increase and a sense of exclusion will grow stronger, with not only the poor but also the rich living in ghettos, the rich surrounded by armed guards and security systems.”
In Asia, architects would have to fight hard to combat the force of the private developers. “Projects have replaced planning,” he said.
Solutions, conference delegates said, may lie in revising academic curricula to ensure that planning and architecture students are forced to embrace the needs of the poorest in their thinking. Or in the creation of a Hippocratic oath for planners, obliging them to include the marginalized in every stage of their work. Or even in building a global team of para-architects, made up of professionals willing to devote their retirement to coping with the billions of human beings drifting to the cities.
Others said the answer lay in thinking bigger. “We can’t do Mickey Mouse feel-good projects—digging latrines and helping 54 families to get a better toilet. This will not solve the problem,” Reutersward of UN Habitat said. “We need to focus on education, on the next generation of decision makers. We need to change minds, not build water pumps.”
But there was concern about the ability of universities, traditionally resistant to change, to transform themselves in time. “Another 35,000 arrive in the slums of Brazil every month. You can’t wait until Monday to tackle this,” Siew said.
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