Rebuild by Design: Interviews with Ricky Burdett and Hitoshi Abe

There is a growing feeling among both critical social scientists and design professionals that the two groups need to undertake a more intensive dialogue. In the New York region, some of this ...

There is a growing feeling among both critical social scientists and design professionals that the two groups need to undertake a more intensive dialogue. In the New York region, some of this dialogue resulted from Rebuild by Design (RBD), an initiative of President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. To deepen that conversation, RBD convened an international working group of experts to talk in depth about resiliency, design, and politics. The researcher Daniel Aldana Cohen interviewed the working group’s members on the challenges and opportunities cities face in a warming world, with an eye to clarifying both areas of agreement and divergent views. Here we present two of these conversations, one from the perspective of a longtime London urbanist, Ricky Burdett, who has progressively engaged with questions of sustainability; the other with architect Hitoshi Abe, who found himself suddenly confronted by ecological issues after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Sendai region of Japan where he was raised.

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Daniel Aldana Cohen (DAC): How did you get involved in the ecological, resiliency side of design and urbanism?


Ricky Burdett (RB): I’m not directly involved in urban resiliency and ecology but, as an urban researcher, I’ve studied urban change through an interdisciplinary lens, which explores the interactions between the physical, political, social, and environmental. Sustainability as a concept straddles all these issues.


DAC: A lot of your work with the Urban Age initiative has to do with the efficiency of the urban form, tackling issues ranging from carbon emissions to transportation. Is the idea that you don’t need to look at these issues as strictly ecological?


RB: Urban form has profound social, as well as environmental, impacts, and density lies at the heart of this debate. The more people live and work close together, the more they can benefit from reduced travel times and enjoy the benefits of proximity.

<i>London Panorama</i> (2012). Photograph by Luc Merceli / Flickr

London Panorama (2012). Photograph by Luc Merceli / Flickr

DAC: What did you learn from your work in London about the interactions between design and politics?


RB: Unlike many other cities of the global North, London is growing considerably in size. Its population is set to grow by nearly a million every decade over the next 30 years. So the real question is, how do you adapt to that growth?

As an adviser to the Mayor of London between 2001 and 2006, I was involved in the London Plan, the blueprint that sets the city’s major development objectives. The core principle of the London Plan is to absorb growth within its existing limits, reinforcing the “Green Belt” policy of the 1940s and promoting more intense and mixed use of available land, especially land close to public transport hubs. This is a fundamentally “resilient” approach because it allows the city to adapt organically, working with its spatial DNA and avoiding the sort of horizontal growth and sprawl that characterizes so much contemporary urban development. The plan was first published in 2004 by left-of-center Mayor Ken Livingstone. The current London Plan, which was adopted in 2015, adheres to the same basic principles and was promoted by the Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson. So strong spatial ideas can transcend political ideologies.

DAC: Design tends to move slowly, whereas politics tries to move quickly. Given this, how can a design approach geared for the long-term survive?


RB: Things can be often be done quickly as long as there is a shared agenda and a clear decision-making process. But I would emphasize the importance of who has power in cities, and over what jurisdiction. Different cities have very different systems of government.

Whether it’s a governor, mayor, or city manager, one of the key questions in delivering policy effectively is what control he or she may have over the political boundaries of the “built” city or metropolitan area. For example, the Mayor of Mexico City only controls 30 percent of the city’s 22 million people. New York City’s public transportation system, administered by the MTA, is not controlled by the mayor but by the state government, hundreds of miles away in Albany. This form of political fragmentation works against the delivery of quick and efficient urban policy. In London, by contrast, the mayor controls almost everything inside the city’s limits, excluding schools and health services.

DAC: That sounds pretty consensual. Early on, though, were there obstacles?


RB: In the United Kingdom, most funding for major infrastructure investment comes from the central government. London’s mayors have been very successful in lobbying for the city to get its fair share of resources. London is divided into 33 boroughs with different political allegiances and demographic profiles. The task of the London Plan is to create the type of consensus you have referred to.

<i>Ricky Burdett at the 2012 DLDcities Conference, London</i>. © Graham Trott / Hubert Burda Media

Ricky Burdett at the 2012 DLDcities Conference, London. © Graham Trott / Hubert Burda Media

DAC: In the United States, there’s concern that environmental improvements, including high-quality densification, tends to displace people. What’s your take?


RB: London has seen a degree of gentrification and displacement in recent decades, and there is clearly a housing crisis where supply outstrips demand. But public authorities don’t enforce displacement directly, as they might in countries like China. Given the UK’s espousal of the neoliberal economy, people ultimately follow market rules and have a degree of choice. But this only applies to those affluent enough to own property in what is one of the most expensive housing markets in the world (fueled by an intense wave of investment from buyers and investors from Asia and the Middle East). The London Plan does set a minimum standard of affordable housing that has to be provided in any development over ten units. Under Livingstone, that number was near 50 percent. Under Johnson it’s lower, but varies by location. In Olympic Park, for example, nearly half of the 3,000 new homes originally built for athletes participating in the 2012 Games are “affordable” units, and the rest go at market rates.


DAC: There’s a question of how to balance priorities for the whole city, right?


RB: Very often, these issues are debated at the micro-scale of the neighborhood or the street. But a city of 8.5 million people has bigger and deeper inequalities built into its urban structure that require macro-scale thinking and intervention. There is a dramatic imbalance between the affluent “west” and more deprived “east.” Urban policy has tried to address this imbalance for nearly 30 years through investment in jobs, housing and transport. Personally, I think one is beginning to see the positive dividends with increased density, wealth creation, and opportunities move eastwards over the last decades.


DAC: Where does the idea of “resiliency” fit in your work? Do people even describe this concept in a consistent way?


RB: This concept is like the word “sustainability” when it was first used 20 years ago. It can mean everything or nothing. I take resiliency to be about how cities work in the most holistic way, across different spatial, social, and environmental layers. To be effective, resiliency needs to be the shared common denominator of all the disciplines and professions involved in city-making. The opposite of resilience is a system that cannot adapt to change. It’s fragile. It’s what Richard Sennett calls “brittle.” To me, resilience is about building dense, complex, and multifunctional cities.


DAC: Lastly, do you think design can be democratized? What might democratic design look like?


RB: I’m in favor of big-picture thinking in cities. I don’t think you can solve the problems of the city only by bottom-up, localized initiatives, however important they are. Some of the major problems we’ve been dealing with—employment, inequality, well-being, air quality, accessibility—can’t be resolved at the local level. They require a different scale of thinking and a different level of investment.

What’s interesting about London and also other cities like Barcelona, Bogotá, or Medellin, is that spatial interventions need to be part of a clear social plan. An organic, flexible city plan—one that can adapt to social, economic, and political change—is central to making cities both more resilient and also more democratically accountable.


Ricky Burdett is Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age program.


Jump to: Ricky Burdett, Hitoshi Abe



Daniel Aldana Cohen (DAC): You didn’t start your career working on ecological issues. Tell me how you got involved in sustainability and resiliency.


Hitoshi Abe (HA): On March 11, 2011, the biggest earthquake in Japanese history hit Sendai, in eastern Japan, the area where I grew up and now have an office. The earthquake and the tsunami that followed destroyed part of my hometown. A lot of my friends and relatives there are still contending with difficulties.

While I’m not currently living in Sendai or Japan, my heart is still there and I wanted to contribute to the recovery of the area. So I helped to form an organization called ArchiAid, which is a volunteer network of architects that supports affected communities who are looking rebuild their hometowns. More than 300 architects signed up to be part of this informal organization.

On a personal level, my office has been involved in various projects, especially post-disaster social housing.


DAC: There’s an argument that there’s nothing new here—it’s the same old challenges of architecture and design, the same old social and political challenges.


HA: It certainly consists of the usual challenges. But, at same time, there is nothing usual here; each case has proven to have its own distinct set of challenges. For example, some of the damaged areas boast a rich natural environment, but at the same time they are struggling with the challenges of large populations of the elderly, weakened industries, and shrinking communities. These problems are not new—they are, after all, familiar issues—but they were all accelerated at an astounding pace following the disaster.

It has also accelerated the pace by which these communities are now forced to confront these issues. The risk of a less aggressive approach is the threat that these communities will be permanently dismantled. In my experience, the right approach starts with uncovering and paying proper respect to the unique details intrinsic to each community. Following this approach, every case is very different, and it would be a big mistake to deal with each situation under the assumption that they are simply the usual social and political challenges.

<i>Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, March 31, 2011</i>. Photograph by Direct Relief / Flickr

Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, March 31, 2011. Photograph by Direct Relief / Flickr

DAC: There is a problem in urgent situations, which you called “decision by default.” Good design takes time. But after a disaster, there’s political pressure for speed.


HA: Politics requires a quick response. Design requires more time, right? People get very anxious to see what the future holds, which starts to force a lot of decisions. Many people are less concerned about “how good it will be” and just want to get back to some semblance of what they used to have as soon as possible. Adding to this, there is a common sentiment that the introduction of architects adds an additional, yet unnecessary, component of time to a process which politicians are more than eager to expedite. The result is many decisions are made with deference to immediate results and the short term.

Many instances of “decision by default” can be found in projects for recovery social housing throughout Japan. There is a strong demand to construct social housing for the communities displaced by the tsunami. Unfortunately, the process has been delayed for almost two years, and many people are still in temporary shelters. The temporary shelters are only intended to be in place for three years, according to Japanese law, but completion of the necessary permanent housing will run into 2016.

One of the reasons for this delay is the radical increase in the cost of construction. Given the high demand for construction, supply-side costs have steadily increased, and predetermined budgets for government-initiated projects have not been able to catch up. The net effect was many projects being cancelled, significantly delayed, or rendered unable to solicit bids. To try and remedy this problem, the government started to shift its procurement strategy towards a “design build” approach. Politically, this “absolves” the government of responsibility for schedule overruns or budget escalation, as responsibility is shifted to the contractor to guarantee them. The reality is that this doesn’t really solve the issue of cost escalation, but simply hands the problem off to someone else. In this scenario, it is all too easy to imagine how quality will be sacrificed and design will be seen as a liability, so it will more than likely be left out.

DAC: Are there specific cases that illustrate what you’re talking about?


HA: There is a very small town which was really damaged by the tsunami. One of the members of ArchiAid has been helping this town as an advisor. He organized a competition for a nursery school, a junior high school, and social housing, and requested submissions of exemplary design from the architectural community. It was very encouraging that the town decided to put significant effort into the planning of these public facilities, taking a long view toward the community’s future. Unfortunately, the first realized project, the nursery school, was a disaster! The proposal was great, but the architect lacked the necessary experience and couldn’t handle the complexities of the project. So on opening day, the nursery school was wrapped in a protective blue sheet, due to technical issues, which only served to remind the residents of the disaster.


DAC: All over the world, the people who most need social housing often end up in poorly designed buildings. How can we break out of that cycle?


HA: There is no simple answer. As I said, even though the issues are generally the same, the solution is different in each case. So, to provide good housing projects under the circumstances, we need to expand the notion of design deeper into the process, and complement this with locally tailored solutions. As an example of this concept of extended design, we designed a social housing project in Sendai where we proposed a joint venture between the city and wholesale business union to build community-oriented social housing outside of the usual framework.


DAC: What about ArchiAid? Did it also succeed in working outside of Japan’s bureaucracy?


HA: ArchiAid is kind of a guerrilla action to support the recovery effort through the informal network of Japanese architects. The organization helps local communities visualize their futures, advocates for them, and offers support in their communication with the government to ensure their vision is reflected in the recovery plan. We were very successful in some areas, but in other areas we were totally rejected.


DAC: Should there be more emphasis on transforming governmental institutions, or more guerrilla operations?


HA: ArchiAid has been a very interesting experiment in trying to find the way to deal with big issues while employing a bottom-up approach. This created a very interesting contrast with the extremely top-down civil engineering approach taken by the government. Because ArchiAid is a decentralized network, the way we approached each project was very different, largely dependent on the community we were working with. Because ArchiAid is not hired by the government, it is not an authoritarian approach but a communication-based one. Having said that, I believe both approaches, top-down and bottom-up, government and guerrilla, are needed. Maybe it’s right to say that they need each other to initiate the process of recovery in a healthy way, and what’s really missing here is a mechanism that lets them communicate better and influence each other more deliberately.


DAC: So where should design ultimately come from? Is the idea to produce democratic design? What would democratic design even look like?


HA: I don’t know how I can translate the concept of “democracy” into the design process. I’m skeptical about a decision made by consensus being preferable to a decision guided by a design team with professional expertise, who can bring a broader understanding to the necessary decision-making.

Both top-down and bottom-up approaches, government and guerrilla, need each other to initiate the process of recovery in a healthy way.

Yes, top-down decisions can be nonsensical. They can force communities to accept poorly reasoned decisions, such as chopping off the top of a mountain in order to create the necessary land fill to raise an entire city by ten meters to protect it against a tsunami. As I mentioned before, people often accept such poor decisions by default because they simply want to return to some sense of normalcy as quickly as possible, without the added burden of having to confront the consequences over the long term. This happens with democracy. Everybody agrees to the decision by default, as they don’t want to deal with complicated things anymore. In order to plan for the future, a commitment from the community and the participation of its residents is critical, as is a mechanism to incorporate their efforts into the larger decision-making process. Also, we need good designers who can translate and communicate the communities’ visions.

To be honest, I don’t know yet what the best mechanism to achieve this would be. The “government and guerrilla” approach that ArchiAid has taken is certainly one way. It requires constant communication and debate between the top-down and bottom-up approaches. In the end, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not about a particular system in the abstract. What’s most important is who is involved, and how they are involved.

DAC: It’s fascinating to hear you wrestle with this question. It’s hard to pin down an answer.


HA: Exactly. In general, the democratic process is very much connected to the concept of “equality.” This concept is a key device that top-down officials use to force a decision. They use this concept to turn the uniqueness of localities and communities into something very uniform. Complexities and richness are reduced. This is an alarming process because it somehow operates under the guise of democratic thinking. This becomes really apparent in the case of a disaster: Should everybody be given the same food? Maybe, but if everybody has to have the same living space, it gets a little bit strange because every locality has a very different landscape, different social context, et cetera. The only other example of such egalitarian space in a healthy community is a prison, right?


DAC: One way that some people are trying to develop more flexible languages around these issues is with the vocabulary of resiliency. Resiliency and sustainability seem like terms that you’re not especially attached to.


HA: I almost feel that these words are two ways of defining the same thing, but from a slightly different angle. In order to use these words properly, you have to think about everything in connection with the larger ecology of the environment.

Let’s say there’s an oyster farm, right? And the oyster farm is enriched through the nutrients that are brought in from the forests through a river. So the industry, the forestry, and the fishermen’s business are all connected. But not only that, there’s a town in the middle. So, you have an ecology of economy, nature, and society. It’s all connected. I believe that resiliency and sustainability have to be integrated into this ecology, not set aside as independent agendas. Resiliency must be embedded in day-to-day life. In other words, real resiliency against disaster can be achieved when the ecology of the community accepts it as part of their everyday activity, not by constructing a disaster-proof community through the separation of nature by technology.

There’s a really good example of a resilient community in southern France. They have a flood every four years, but they accept the floods as natural phenomena that occur when the flowers blossom, and they turn the events into a festival. I think a resilient society accepts such changes and then sort of builds an economy around it. So I’m not saying that we should accept such a disaster, but if you try to build a seawall to protect the community against a tsunami that might happen once in a thousand years, you will lose the ocean.

Hitoshi Abe is a professor and the chair of the University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Architecture and Urban Design and principal of Atelier Hitoshi Abe, an international design practice based in Sendai, Japan, and Los Angeles.

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Featured image: From ArchiAid 311: A Pattern Book for Oshika Peninsula (2012). Source: Forgemind ArchiMedia / Flickr