Session 1: Urbanisation and Slums: Old Challenges, New Approaches

James Fischelis, author of The Urban Escalator, explained why we need to rethink our approach to slums. Slums are a hub of ambition, energy and ideas, though their residents often struggle on the fringes of society. Government can provide an opportunity to move from a life of poverty to opportunity only with effective policies in place.

Fischelis called for cities to “encourage new settlers to join the escalator to prosperity by recognising their commercial aptitude”. Governments should remove excessive regulation and encourage more self builds. Policies that enable people to invest in their properties, and later gain a return, will allow residents to move up the escalator. Planning in the UK has “often broken down the bonds that people need to become more prosperous, both socially and economically”, he argued, and all governments around the world need to recognise that they must give their populations freedom if they are to enable their country to become more prosperous.

Partner of Space Syntax, Anna Rose, gave an architect’s perspective on how cities can effectively respond to the challenge of quick development in and around slums. “You need to find a middle ground between wholesale development of ‘utopias’ and mere reaction to unplanned development”. She stressed the importance of measured special intervention and urban design by governments and private planners. The most successful slums are those that have strong connections both within the slum and to the city more widely.

Session 2: The Danger of Utopia

Author and journalist Harry Mount argued that ‘utopias’ (planned urban settlements) are doomed to fail. “Man is unpredictable and chaotic and so it is impossible to design a settlement specifically to be a step onto the urban escalator” he explained. All too often, “these utopias are soon colonised by the rich middle classes because they are ‘too nice’”. This phenomenon has been seen across London time and again—from Notting Hill to Islington. Whilst slums are effective as a first-step onto the urban escalator, any planned utopia will inevitably fail to provide the necessary opportunities to poorer migrants. Utopic visions are inherently flawed as they are too slow to build whilst social circumstances can and will change rapidly. Planners, he argued, should play a limited role in the development of these areas; the answer is to make it easier to build within the slums.

The seminar also included a discussion on the changing reputation of suburbs; 80% of the UK’s population are now said to live in ‘suburbia’. The revitalisation of suburbs has been sparked by the changing nature of professional work (more people have the freedom to work at home) and the breakdown of the traditional notion of the family. Fischelis warned that we should be careful how these new builds in previous ‘no go zones’ are developed—“they need to become vibrant proto-cities, not ‘Garden Cities’”.


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.