OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Rapid urbanisation is reshaping the planet. 200,000 people move to a city every day. But why do so many of the world’s newest cities look so grim? Why don’t they provide “oxygen for the soul” the way Paris and Rome do? This was the problem raised by Vishaan Chakrabarti, a professor and the founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, speaking at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.
Chakrabarti’s family moved with $32 from Calcutta to Tucson, Arizona, and found the city to be alienating. He was a “godless globalist” — at home neither in India, nor in the US — but there was more to it than that: the city’s landscape was grim, prompting his father to quip: “And they call us Third World?” And yet as more of the world’s population moves to cities, the cultural dislocation felt by Chakrabarti is becoming more widespread, and not just among immigrants.
By the time the world reaches 10 billion people, the vast majority will live in cities, many of them second and third tier centres that have sprung up in recent years. But from India to Korea, so many of these cities are what Chakrabarti called “soul crushing,” flashing up images of endless concrete blocks and Las Vegas-style sprawl. Is this the way we want people to live?
The world before the automobile was a lovely world. It enriched the soul.
A well-designed urban world would result in greater prosperity, sustainability, equity and joy, he argued. “But to look forward, we need to look back,” said Chakrabarti, who cited Paris and Rome, but also Shanghai and Fez as cities that were built with humans — and not cars — in mind. “The world before the automobile was a lovely world. It enriched the soul,” he added.
Suburbs are “a tumour on the planet,” continued Chakrabarti, who is also the author of “A Country of Cities.” The density of urban environments means a much lower carbon footprint and a more fulfilling and communal way of living, he said. “But cities need to be great and we are currently carpeting the planet with deeply disturbing homogeneity” that is culturally destructive. He rallied attendees to support urban planning powered by a deeper mission: “To create places that are equitable, ecological, and where we can be true to our identities and live joyful lives.”
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.