After the riots: what makes a city?

Wednesday 19 October, 6.30pm until 8.00pm, Mind in Croydon, Training Room, 10 Altyre Road, East Croydon CR0 5LA

After the August riots came the inquest, the exhaustive and exhausting bout of national soul-searching dedicated to uncovering the cause of, and the solution to, the implosion of urban communities. From denouncements of a ‘sick society’ and ‘mindless criminality’ to blaming the closure of youth centres and establishment corruption, commentators have found very different targets, but few deny that the willingness of inner-city youth to destroy their own neighbourhoods indicates the 21st century city somehow fails to nurture communal life.

For some, a ‘me first’ consumerist culture has taken root in the very fabric of our troubled cities, creating a pernicious ‘neoliberal’ urbanism. Excessive gentrification and infrastructural failings have led to the creation of French-style ‘banlieues’ in the outer suburbs and detached estates where the worst of the violence occurred. The most ambitious building project of recent years – Renzo Piano’s Shard – has been decried as the symbol of a shattered society, glorifying the power of the financial sector while the rest is left to decay. While few go as far as Victorian reformer Ebenezer Howard’s description of cities as ‘ulcers on the very face of our beautiful island’, many might share his vision of Garden Cities as a solution of civil unrest. Recent thinking in terms of creating ‘healthy’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘eco’ cities has often seen more enlightened urban design as the solution to the modern malaise.

Community responses to the riots, from Birmingham’s Sikhs risking their lives to protect their local temples to Peckham’s ‘peace wall’ , have offered hope for some that all is not yet lost. But how far can urban planning go in fixing the problems of society? Should architects and planners work more closely with communities and citizens to produce ‘liveable’ cities, or will this only frustrate the vision of those seeking to create large-scale urban projects for the future? Is city life now just a matter of avoiding social decay, or is there anything to be rescued in the idea of radical metropolitan transformation? In short, what makes a city, and how should we go about building them?

Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Michael Owens
commercial director, Bow Arts Trust; owner, London Urban Visits; formerly, head of development policy, London Development Agency

Finn Williams
town planner; founder, Common Office; deputy leader, Placemaking Team, Croydon Council

Tony Pierce
director, Urbisnet Consulting; convenor, Croydon Salon

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Tony Pierce director, Urbisnet Consulting; convenor, Croydon Salon
Recommended readings
After the Riots: what makes a city?

The uncomfortable truth (for some) is the one told by Jane Jacobs, New York community campaigner back in the early 1960s: that local authorities cannot construct a ‘sense of community’.

Michael Owens, Independent, 17 October 2011

The Lure of the City: from slums to suburbs

Cities, by their very nature, are a mass of contradictions. They can be at once visually stunning, culturally rich, exploitative and unforgiving.

Austin Williams and Alastair Donald (editors), Pluto Press, 20 September 2011

The Shard is a broken society's towering achievement

London's new skyscraper is a monument to wealth and power run way out of control, a flashing warning sign of disease

Jonathan Jones, Guardian Comment is free, 19 August 2011

Shoplifters of the World Unite

Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind?

Slavoj Žižek, London Review of Books, 19 August 2011

What now for the regeneration of London?

Riots always happen when cities consider themselves to be at a high point in terms of their urban development, says Dutch architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout

Kieran Long, Evening Standard, 17 August 2011

Watching my hometown burn

Croydon-boy David Bowden reflects on a week in which his old stomping ground was back on the box once more.

David Bowden, spiked, 12 August 2011

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