This paper was launched at the Legatum Institute on Thursday, 10 September 2015


Urban expansion and industrialisation have dominated the western world’s social and economic history for some two and a half centuries. The millions of agricultural workers who moved from the country to the city did so in the hope of securing an escape from the privations that typify a rural, subsistence economy: disease, famine and joblessness. From the mid-twentieth century onwards similar journeys—and a consequently enormous population shift—have been witnessed in societies where industrialisation is a more recent phenomenon. Today more than half of the world’s population live in cities and ‘the slum’, in its many forms, is home to nearly 900 million people. Social restlessness and economic ambition will swell these numbers in future years. Agricultural labourers in ‘developing’ societies are packing their bags and leaving the land. Natural disasters too have the capacity to drive many away from the countryside and into the town whose settled habitat offers the promise of greater security and shelter.

This transformation of living conditions and architectural context—visible for example in India’s ‘100 smart cities’ project, London’s Crossrail and São Paulo’s favela redevelopment—illustrates a great diversity of scene. But there is a common theme and architectural need. How can we secure an urban development which respects the local scene and is responsive to particular, individual needs? The history of architecture, like that of civic development more generally, reveals no shortage of grand plans. Sometimes the grandeur has tipped over into a grandiosity which brooks no contradiction. Values and ideas are as central to architecture as they are to human development more generally. Sometimes their influence in determining the shape of our homes and public buildings is so profound that it goes unnoticed. Public debate carries with it the promise of exposing such ideas to scrutiny.

Our contemporary phase of urbanisation may well provide us with a turning point in the history of architecture, planning and development. We now have an opportunity to jettison ideas that have become harmful to prosperity. The challenge of designing buildings that are both useful and beautiful is surely too important a task to be left to architects or planners alone and our solutions must therefore be rooted in interdisciplinary skills.

Obtuse regulations and bureaucratic corruption as well as our own prejudices often stand in the way of greater prosperity for slum and city residents alike. In The Urban Escalator, James Fischelis examines why some cities have met the urban influx with great success, whereas others continue on a downward spiral. Slums should, he argues, be neither shunned nor demolished, and market-led solutions can promote the integration of the urban sprawl into the wider, civic life.

Harry Mount’s thoughtful critique places the fallacy of architectural utopianism in Dhaka, Bangladesh a wider cultural context. Can communities in fact be ‘created’? Are they not better understood as the product of unconscious, unplanned development? Absence of a grand and centralising plan may in fact be proof of a discriminating intelligence— one which respects the vagaries of human experience in all its variety. In 2016 the Legatum Institute’s Architecture of Prosperity programme will investigate the idea of community and its consequences on a global scale. James Fischelis’s paper sets the stage for a series of publications that show the links between architecture, human freedom, and individual creativity.

By Hywel Williams and Alanna Putze


About the Architecture of Prosperity Series

The Architecture of Prosperity, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, evaluates the impact of the built environment on human wellbeing and the capacity for creativity. The series of lectures, seminars and conferences address the central question of why some forms of architecture promote prosperity while others are linked to vicious effects.