The 8th Megacities Lecture
The Megacities Lecture 2005 was scheduled the same as the seven preceding
ones: a lecture by a renowned guest of honour followed by a Dutch expert's
co-review and rounded off with a public discussion.
Lecture by Lars Lerup
For people who know him, it did not come as a surprise that Lars Lerup’s
lecture hardly corresponded to the written text that he had produced for
the publication. Even more so than in his chapter in the booklet, he took
Houston, Texas, as an exemplary city to illustrate how human interventions
may clash with the natural ecosystem. Due to the gigantic suburbanization,
the bayous (that's what they call the swampy creeks in the south of the
United States) have been deprived of their natural beds, and as surfaces
(roofs, terraces, roads) get harder, abundant rainwater runs off without
Lerup typified the way a city like Houston colonizes huge parts of the
landscape on behalf of suburbanization as leap-frogging. Every time a
piece of land is built on, the next development will not take place in
the adjacent area, because by then that land is too expensive. For developers
it is cheaper to buy land further away. The consequence is that the sprawl
is spreading even faster.
Another striking phenomenon in Houston’s urbanization is the emergence
of what Lerup calls speed zones: the zones along the freeways that attract
the most developments. They form a dramatic contrast with the adjacent
areas where you hardly see anybody on the streets during working hours.
The emergence of such speed zones results from the absence of a zoning
policy in Houston, which makes it “the most organic city”
in the country. This metabolic system even leads to a paradoxical observation:
because zoning is absent, housing is fending off enterprises, instead
of the other way round.
The freeways, in combination with a dramatic lack of public space in Houston,
also determine the way people perceive the city: always from a moving
vehicle, thus always personalized and never commonly held. This makes
it even more difficult to realize consensus among people.
After having characterized the ‘production of suburbia’ (“It
is more than making houses, it is making culture”), Lerup gave a
view of a more promising future. A future where the house has become ‘an
environmental machine’, where there is room for nature, where higher
densities enable more public space and where the water is restrained,
instead of hastened. The bayous, according to Lerup’s concept, could
then be developed into a new kind of public environment - into a New Bayou
City, where nature and urbanism merge in a most fruitful manner.
Co-review by Dirk Sijmons
The co-review that Dirk Sijmons had prepared was based upon the written
versions of Lerup’s lecture. The first part of his contribution
concentrated on the way we, in The Netherlands, deal with the relationship
between nature and culture. The Netherlands is more like the United States
than most people like to admit. Here suburbanization also continues, although
the problems it raises are different from those in the United States.
Sijmons listed three possible situations on suburbanization. The first
is to go on producing homogeneous housing products, as has been done over
the past decade in the so-called Vinex locations. The second, is to increase
the density in existing urban areas. The last is to enable low density
living in rural areas.
Then Sijmons stressed the importance of dealing with the delta in relation
to the threat of increasing precipitation and rising water levels. The
greatest challenge will be to reserve ample space for water storage. To
keep certain areas completely free of new developments, “building
outside the city should be just as complex as building inside cities”,
The last part of his co-review was more like a direct response to Lerup’s
text and to his book Smartacres, rethinking Suburbia. Although Sijmons
fundamentally agreed with Lerup’s plea for a new urban ecology,
he had the urge to add some remarks about opportunities for a new relationship
between city and nature. In a ‘compact city’, their mutual
penetration will be very different from a ‘sprawling city’.
In the first instance, nature is supposed to surround the city, while
in the second instance, nature and city should intermingle. One of the
essential conditions for the latter is a profound reform of gardening,
Due to the extensive contributions by Lars Lerup and Dirk Sijmons, there
was very little time was left for the debate. Firstly, Lerup said that
he was pleased to notice that all the things that Sijmons had said, fitted
in so well with his own line of thought. Sijmons’ remarks on gardening,
reminded him of the fact that: architecture is inside gardening. Lerup
agreed that many suburban residents are gardening in the wrong way. “Cutting
lawn is ridiculous,” he stressed.
Then moderator Jaap Modder pointed out a possible discrepancy between
both speakers. “Dirk puts his money on the regional scale,”
he remarked. Lerup responded that this might be due to the density of
Holland. Houston, as a contrast, is a city that is dominated by individual
actions. Houston is an organic system where developments cannot be imposed;
they must come from the inside. Apart from that, Lerup characterized his
visit to the Netherlands as “carrying coals to Newcastle”.
He said that the embedded knowledge in this country is so great that the
Dutch should teach the Americans, instead of the other way round.
Will there be a Broad Acre City in the 21st century, Modder wondered.
Lerup responded that his ambitions are more modest. “It is very
difficult to move Americans and to break out of suburbia. Broad Acre City
is not where we should be heading. Above all, I do try to raise intelligent
issues, instead of giving definite solutions.”
The last question came from the audience; it concerned the rising oil
prices. “It is hardly a problem for the petit bourgeois,”
Lerup concluded, “but it hurts the poor who live on the outskirts
and have old vehicles that use a lot of petrol. They are the service people
who come to the city every evening to clean the buildings. To me the oil
prices are a wake up call to use public transport.” These remarks
concluded the official schedule of the evening. The audience continued
the discussions on a more informal note.
see also: Lecture Files
The Megacities Initiative originates from the awareness
of the future role of cities as the dominant type of settlement for humanity.
Cities will play this role not only as a matter of fact but also as a
matter of necessity, as the only other way of housing the increasing world
population. In an intensive rural occupation pattern this would certainly
lead to an ecological disaster.
The main activity of the Megacities Foundation is to organize a yearly
lecture on topics related to the megacities
In the past lectures were given by Richard Sennett, Liu Tai Ker, Richard
Rogers, David Harvey, Deyan Sudjic, Saskia Sassen and Peter Hall.
See Archive for details and full text of these lectures.
Megacities Lecture is a coproduction of the Megacities Foundation and Kenniscentrum
Grote Steden and is sponsored by:
Contributions to the discussion, as well as information on the Megacities
c/0 S@M stedebouw & architectuurmanagement,
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tel. 020-428 88 88
fax. 020- 428 88 80,