Urban hubris and the great inequality debate

Sunday 21 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Fountain Room

While tall buildings have always been the subject of some grumbling, London’s Shard, the tallest building in the European Union, has been particularly singled out internationally. For its critics, it embodies the ‘obscene wealth’ of the ‘arrogant’ City of London across the Thames. In a similar vein, one architecture critic described futuristic Canary Wharf as ‘the evil twin’ of the older financial sector, while the title of John Lanchester’s novel on the excesses of bankers, Capital, pointed to how the city itself acts as a microcosm of society’s perceived ills. For some, the Shard is itself a monument to ‘Londonism’: the idea of the capital as an elite city-state more interested in serving itself than the rest of the country. For others, suggestions that some London boroughs were planning to rehouse their poorest residents hundreds of miles away, while money poured into Olympic redevelopments such as Stratford City, perfectly highlighted the ‘social cleansing’ of the capital.

Nevertheless, it could be objected that the City has become a scapegoat for the lack of dynamism in the economy as a whole, and that, by acting as an international hub for global finance, developments like the Shard are more than contributing their fair share both to the nation as a whole and to local employment. The skyscraper cluster that is Canary Wharf might not be to everyone’s taste, but before its arrival, Docklands was so run down it was used to stand in for war-torn Vietnam in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Even now, a glance at the evolving skyline of rivals such as Dubai or Shanghai suggests the capital is far from the rich person’s plaything and planning free-for-all it is claimed to be.

Should the City of London be dethroned in favour of more even development throughout metropolitan London and in the towns and cities beyond, or is the City the guarantor of development in the regions? Are critics simply guilty of populist banker-bashing, or does London risk becoming better known as a sterile business hang-out rather than a living and breathing cosmopolitan city? Does it matter if tall buildings symbolise disparities of wealth, or does the development of cities, no matter how uneven, benefit all of us?

Listen to session audio:


Martin Earnshaw
co-editor Future of Community: reports of a death greatly exaggerated; chair, IoI Social Policy Forum

Sunder Katwala
director, British Future; former general secretary, Fabian Society

Rob Killick
CEO, Clerkswell; author, The UK After The Recession

Anna Minton
writer and journalist; author, Ground Control: fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city

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

Produced by
Martin Earnshaw co-editor Future of Community: reports of a death greatly exaggerated; chair, IoI Social Policy Forum
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