ULI UK: An Audience with Leo Hollis

Despite it being a cold, dark Friday 13th December morning, over 40 guests joined ULI UK for An Audience with Leo Hollis at the offices of Grosvenor. After an introduction from our host, Jeremy Newsum, Leo and Giles Barrie took a fascinating tour around the world of the 21st century city.

Leo, the author of Cities are Good for You – a book which explores the slums of Mumbai to roof-top farms in Brooklyn – revealed why we have misunderstood how cities work for too long. He reassured us that even though our urban population looks set to continue to increase this does not mean that things will get worse and in fact, our urban future is something we should look forward to.

Leo’s argument is that traditional notions about cities are wrong. Cities are made out of people, not buildings, and therefore there needs to be a re-evaluation of the role of ‘trust and equality’ and that means giving city dwellers the public space to learn to live together and learn the fundamentals of citizenship. Our relationships with cities need to change and the rules of engagement need to change too.

Humans might create cities but it is a misconception that they are therefore rational and organised – cities are deeply irrational and the way we interact and behave within them is therefore irrational too. Cities are made of people – so we need to design them with people at their centre. People are inherently social and so creating opportunities to interact will develop a culture of civility and politeness and result in a richer, more productive and happier environment.

City dwellers need to share their space better. Leo worries that the increasing prevalence of private open spaces reinforces ‘a geography of difference’ and compromises the ability of an individual to  learn to become a citizen. An environment where people are not trusted can lead to ‘explosive moments’ that result in civil unrest.

Leo also argued that the idea of a burgeoning new class of top down ‘creative stormtroopers’ is wrong and he sees the future of cities as one that is driven from the ‘bottom up’ where providing the opportunities and space for entrepreneurial individuals to grow is key. Leo worries that the arrival of the big corporates in  London’s TechCity will see the small start-up entrepreneurs squeezed out. He also sees the concept of the ‘Smart City’ as a being oversold, along with our current obsession with technology, and suggests things might ultimately go full circle.

Leo was asked how he would plan the perfect city now – his answer, ‘don’t confuse the ‘what with the how’ and entrust the people with the liberties and freedom to make that city breathe’.