Are cities good for us?

Friday 26 September, 18.30 until 20.30, Barbican Cinema, Beech Street, London EC2Y 8AE UK Satellite Events 2014

Tickets are £11.50/10.50/9.20, depending on category. Book via the Barbican website.

The poet Frank O’Hara was so in thrall to the excitement of life in twentieth century New York that he claimed: ‘I cannot enjoy so much as a blade of grass without knowing there’s a subway handy.’ Much of humanity seems to share that enthusiasm for urban living: it is predicted that by 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in a city, and one in six people already live in a ‘mega-city’ (with a population of more than 10million). Neither will the exciting metropolitan life be confined to the usual suspects, with rapidly expanding mega-cities such as Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Shanghai already starting to compete as major global cities and the likes of Lagos, Dhaka and many more harbouring similar ambitions.

Yet while some may see such development as full of inspiring possibility, for others the rise of the mega-city has more troubling aspects. More than half of Mumbai’s population live in its notorious slums, and mega-cities are developing a reputation as poverty traps which attracts millions from the countryside only to trap them into a grim, disease-ridden and economically uncertain existence as infrastructure fails to keep up with population growth. Moreover, some suggest that the heyday of developed cities is already passed, with the London and Paris riots of recent years seemingly tell their own story of inequality and social alienation. It is argued that planners should focus on creating sustainable urban villages rather than sprawling metropolises as the world’s population rises to nine billion by 2050.

Do the rise of mega-cities represent a symbol of hope and opportunity for billions around the world, or a grim vision of a congested and fragmented urban dystopia? Does rapid urbanisation inevitably mean a Dickensian future or can innovation provide radical solutions to the problems of development? Can the city maintain its lure in the twenty-first century?

In partnership with Barbican’s City Visions season.

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

Dr Alice Evans
fellow in human geography, Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science

Leo Hollis
historian; author, Cities Are Good For You: the genius of the metropolis

Claire Mookerjee
project lead, urbanism, Future Cities Catapult

Christian Wolmar
writer and broadcaster, former Labour candidate for the London mayoral election

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
The Mental Life of Cities:

In 1903 the German sociologist, Georg Simmel, wrote his groundbreaking work ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ that mourned how modern life destroyed the individual spirit.

Leo Hollis, citiesaregoodforyou, May 2014

Megacities Of The Future

Paging Thomas Malthus: Your nightmare finally has arrived.

Mark Lewis, Forbes, 11 June 2007

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