The Bartlett


Transcript: After the crisis, should London slow down?


slowness, city, pedro, slow, london, people, spaces, pandemic, elsa, shocks, bartlett, fast, emerge, christoph, privilege, question, place, sustainable, create, order


Elsa Arcaute, Christoph Lindner, Pedro Gil

Christoph Lindner  00:06

Hello, and welcome to Building Better a podcast about the human spaces and urban landscapes that we build worldwide in order to ask the question, how can we build better? My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I'm also the Dean here at The Bartlett, UCL's Global Faculty of the Built Environment. In each episode, I'll be sitting down with other members of this community to explore new ideas on some of the world's most important challenges. And we'll be bringing together multidisciplinary perspectives and radical thinking from our world leading experts.

Christoph Lindner  00:45

In this month's episode, I want to talk about slowness. So what does slowness mean in the context of a city or a space, and this is something I've been particularly interested in, during the pandemic, which seems to have radically decelerated or even stopped many aspects of urban life while simultaneously accelerating others. To help me think about slowness, and whether or not it's something we want to aspire to, I’ve brought together two researchers from The Bartlett. Today I'm joined by Pedro Gil, an architect and senior Teaching Fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Alongside founding and directing his own architecture firm, Studio Gil Ltd, Pedro is on the Royal Institute of British Architect's Expert Advisory Group, Architects for Change, and he has been selected as a member of the Mayor of London's Diversity in the Public Realm Commission. I'm also joined by Dr Elsa Arcaute, Associate Professor in the Bartlett Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis, or CASA, as we like to call it. Elsa is a theoretical physicist who studies urban systems from the perspective of complexity science, and looks at understanding emergent patterns at different scales, from neighborhoods to cities to regions and countries. She is currently a co=investigator of an EPSRC grant looking at rebalancing the economy in the UK, and of a Newton Grant looking at assessing the socio hydrological resilience in Mexico City. So Elsa, I'd love to know a little bit more about whether you think London, the city where we live at the moment, is a fast or a slow city.

Elsa Arcaute  02:39

So my first reaction to your question is actually, I mean, is it fast with respect to what? Is it fast with respect to demographics and migration that is going on in cities with respect to its infrastructure, its land uses, housing, demolition, construction, the type of economic activities that take place planning processes, you know, I can think about a million things with respect to this question, but also with respect to ideas, conventions, and traditions. So as you were saying, I am a theoretical physicist. So mainly my input into this type of matters is trying to see how, from the local interactions, you get patterns that emerge, and you want to understand exactly what is it that drives these patterns, and how we can then change those drivers in order to get the system into a different state. So when we think about fast or slow, of course, the first reaction is yes, London is very fast city, everybody walks fast and I look into the city, for example, and I see lots of demolition going on. But in any case, what we have going on is actually different layers intervening. So we have layers that are very fast, and we have other layers that are very slow. So how these layers are coupled is the most important aspect of this.

Christoph Lindner  03:54

Yeah, thank you, Elsa. So speed is relative, and also the question of fast or slow for whom? Who's experiencing that speed? Under what conditions? And why? Pedro, do you have any initial thoughts on the question of whether London is fast, slow, or some combination thereof?

Pedro Gil  04:11

From my lived experience perspective, it feels like a fast city. But then when I travel around the world, for example, other cities in Asia, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, where the speed of things is relative, as you say Christoph, I tend to try to reevaluate my relationship with London and its pace. The occupation of people is one thing I think that a mass gathering of people, our relationship to each other, our relationship to buildings and spaces, I think that moves quickly. The other thing about speed and pace in London that I tend to observe, and again, it's when I leave it for a period and I come back, the city reinvents itself quite quickly on a superficial level. For example, advertising boards, screens, they move really, really quickly even tenancies of shops in certain areas from month to month, London can change. So in that respect, it's quite a quick city, the slowness of it, I think there are moments of pauses. And it's one of the great park cities of the world. So in London, we enjoy many parks. And that goes back to the British tradition of the garden and the estates and the green estate. That's a really interesting counterpoint to the speed of London or to the pace of London, the park. So I would say for me, in terms of my experience of it, generally, it's a fast city, maybe not the fastest on planet Earth. But it also has these moments for pause and reflection, these built environment moments for pause and reflection.

Christoph Lindner  05:45

So, while you were speaking Pedro, it reminded me of an experience of riding an escalator coming out of the tube the other day. And as we all know, when you ride the escalator, you have all those advertising posters for West End plays and hair products and teeth whitening and whatever else. And I was struck by how in this particular station, those posters had not changed since the first lockdown a year ago. So in some parts of the city, the advertising has been refreshed, it's been updated. But there are certain spaces where it's almost caught in time. And you have adverts for shows that are... that never even launched or opened, for exhibitions that have long since closed. And it made me think about how during the pandemic, we experienced one of these pauses, one of these interruptions that you described Pedro but it happened in such an unplanned, involuntary way. And it created both places and experience of slowness that we never anticipated, but at the same time, also unleashed new accelerations and change that wasn't anticipated. So even though many shops have been closed, especially local shops, have been closed all around London, during that time, as they've gone out of business, new shops have moved in, have prepared to reopen, but are not yet apparent. And so I feel like we're in this moment where we're surrounded all the time by things that are moving fast, and things that are also stuck in a state of slowness, and it's not very apparent, which is which. I'm wondering if you have had any similar experiences of this paradox or this tension between acceleration and deceleration?

Elsa Arcaute  07:23

Yes, yes and even before the pandemic, we have the shock of 2008, for example, and we also have the shock of the Olympics taking place in 2012. So looking at the system, how it responds to shocks, because of course, when we're talking about dynamics, basically what we're talking is about change. And what is it that provokes this change? So of course, we want the city to be evolving and to be adapting. But sometimes we have these shocks that we cannot foresee, right, like the crisis. And on the one hand, you have Canary Wharf, which was the banking center, readapting and trying to create new firms for FinTech and quickly really turning around things. And then on the other, you have Shoreditch, for example, this area in which a lot of investment took place in order to have the new Silicon Valley emerging there. And in the end, there was this coupling, as I was saying at the beginning of the rents going down and enterprises being able to have the firm's there, then at the same time, well, you have all these changes in the city taking place and all these new hierarchical structure of industries and the Olympic Park being you know, like something that displays a lot of artists on the one hand, Northwood retail and things, you have places like Temple that has stand still, that is right in the middle of the city. So you would say this is one place, it will be very much affected by everything that is going on. But because of its tradition, and this path dependency of why it is there, it stands still and nothing happens to it and it continues its own unique path, that is so slow. And this is the contrast that I was talking about at the beginning, right, so you have innovation or shocks to the system that you have really rapid changes, but then at the same time you have these regulations, or these traditions that interfere and try to on the one hand protect the system from risk but then the other you can also see that maybe could stifle as well, innovation. So I see this all the time, you know, like how you can then catch up and allow the new things that emerge from, for example, from situations like this, in order to really to flourish instead of just being stuck.

Christoph Lindner  09:27

I appreciate that optimism Elsa, and I do think I share a good amount of it. At the same time though. I'm also wondering how the effect of speed whether it's slow or fast affects people in their lives in their homes and their communities and in their jobs. And in particular, I'm wondering how the effect of speed is uneven in cities and can either produce or create inequalities and in the back of my mind are some of the articles that probably many of us have been reading in recent weeks about delivery drivers in lots of large cities who are just working endlessly, tirelessly with quite precarious contracts and conditions and zipping and zapping and zooming all over the city making our urban lives function, while those who can work at home or those who don't have jobs have to kind of go through an experience of endured slowness or forced slowness. And so it just strikes me that as certain businesses, essential services have remained open, and people have had to continue to work often in very intense situations, others are having radically different experiences, and so I'm wondering, what is shaping the uneven experience of slowness?

Elsa Arcaute  09:29

Yes, I think for me, this is very critical. And it's very worrying, because of course, as a Latin American woman, I am here because here I'm able to fulfill my potential, I'm able to work with people that are more open minded and be able to be physicist, a woman in science, which is, is not that clear, coming from a Latin American country. And with COVID, what has happened is that you see this gap, so it's not only inequality with respect to income, it's also inequality with respect to gender, so you see, women that have had to work from home also have had to take care of children, why the women and not the men, we go back to this same issue of traditional views, because even though you have from the one point governance that has allowed women to be accepted, and to have the same jobs as men, in the mind of people and in society, this still has to permeate and has to evolve. And the only way to do that is through interactions. It is through diversity, it is through contact with other cultures and so forth. And so COVID has exactly shut down this aspect of this interaction. Well, not only we have COVID, we also have Brexit taking place, which is terrible, right? So we have different now shocks to the system that are very, very negative, and we need to work our way around to go back where we were. So I think now with Brexit and with COVID we're two steps behind them, we really need to work hard in order to be where we were before.

Christoph Lindner  12:00

So we're in a moment of shocks and resets. And I wonder, Pedro, if we look at the public realm, and more broadly, public space in cities and as we begin to re emerge from lockdowns here in London and other parts of the world are taking tentative steps or some parts of the world that able to take some tentative steps in that direction, I'm wondering how do we use the shocks, these disruptions, these resets, to create temporalities, mobilities, socialities that are positive and nurturing and beneficial to society? Do you have thoughts on how we can use this moment of reset to do good in our public spaces?

Pedro Gil  12:47

I think it's also worth just reaffirming that social justice and climate justice are intrinsically linked they're intertwined and if we think of the pandemic as a consequence of our abuse of the planet and its resources, and begin to frame it as part of the climate justice conversation, and how, unfortunately, those that have suffered the most, through the consequences of the pandemic, are ethnic minorities, are the disenfranchised, are the underrepresented groups. That is not a coincidence. And those kinds of groups are the ones that tend to be most disproportionately affected as well by climate change. So I think that that's a really important conversation to be had about public life, public space, public realm, what that entails. So to go back to your point about resetting about shocks, there are two large reflections that I've had, that the pandemic has brought about. And the first one is how we are one planet. We are one planet and how, in an interesting way, the pandemic has equalized all of our experiences, whether you live in Latin America, whether you live in Southeast Asia, whether you live in Africa, whether you live in Europe, it's been an equalizer, and it's been a reminder that we're one planet, and that we are one esystem and consequences for one region have a global and can have a global effect. I think that in my lifetime has never occurred. So that's the first thing about we're one planet, perhaps that stark realization, and then that talks back to climate justice. The next reflection that I've had in the time of COVID is the idea of 15 Minute Cities and in a way it's a counterpoint to "we're one planet, we're one global community" that we are reframing or reevaluating what our idea of local is and how we can if we really wanted to have all of our needs met from within our very own personal spheres, for example, food growing, greener cities, the lack of commute, our social side, our commercial side, all of those things could potentially be serviced within 15 minutes or less than our own little  bubbles. And I find it fascinating that we're talking about spaces in London, in the centre of London, and I've just realized, I've not left my 15 minute bubble in about 15 months time, I live way out east London in Redbridge, and as I've just realised, the spaces that Elsa and Christoph are talking about, I haven't been to those in the year and a half, I've been in my 15 minute city bubble and functioning quite relatively well. So it can be done. But I also need to understand and check my privilege, my male privilege, my light skinned privilege, even even though I'm a Black, mixed-race individual I do enjoy light skinned privilege, and also my provision within societies as an architect. So it's easy for me to say 15 Minute City, and the challenge would be what does a 15 Minute City look like in Angola, in an impoverished region and what does 15 Minute City look like in Colombia in an impoverished region?

Christoph Lindner  16:10

So some very profound thoughts. And thank you for sharing those. And it makes me wonder, when is slowness a privilege? When is slowness an injustice? The notion of the 15 Minute City has been around for a long time. So 20-30 years ago, there are certain cities like Portland in the US who very deliberately redeveloped, revitalized downtown areas to create 15 minute living zones. And this idea is back now during the pandemic and you can imagine a version of the 15 Minute City that is about reconnecting with the local, it's about pause, it's about deceleration, it's about the bonds of community and things like that. But at the same time, 15 minutes is not a lot of time. So it's a very short amount of time. So for a 15 Minute City to work, it means you have to be able to dip and dart to shops, to the corner, to your friends, and you use the word bubble Pedro, which, of course is a word that is acquired all kinds of new meaning after the last year, and we all now live in various kinds of social and spatial bubbles. But coming out to the pandemic, you know, is a bubble a healthy thing? Do we want to live in these micro communities with these micro temporalities and these micro mobilities? Will we be losing something by not having the sprawling commute across London, the dipping in and out of different areas being in a financial district being in a commercial district being in a residential district? So I'm wondering if you have thoughts on that.

Pedro Gil  17:34

It's probably a combination of the two and what the living situations and living conditions of a pandemic have shown us is there are alternative ways. I actually think that the idea of slowness is quite underrated in Britain. And in London, I would say as having grown up in London, I believe the idea of slowness is actually underrated. That there's an attitude that you've got to move fast, like a shark, you've got to keep moving, you've got to keep swimming, because that's the only way to be productive. Or, that's the best way to be productive, when in fact, we do, as people, need time for... time and space to reflect. So I do think it will be a combination of a redefinition of what local means. But local from an environmentally sustainable point of view. And a socially sustainable point of view, with the option of visiting other regions of your city. It's that modal alternative, I think that's that's where I think it becomes interesting.

Elsa Arcaute  18:40

I definitely love the idea of being able to have everything at hand. So as I was saying, I come from Mexico City, so London for me actually, it's small, compared to this other city, which I used to travel from one place to the other, north south... I was looking yesterday at Google Maps, and it will be 20 kilometres [laughs] between one place and the other inside the city. So for me coming to London, it's like oh, my God, you know, like things are closer now than before [laughs], but thinking about this 15 Minute City it's very much as Christophe was saying, this idealization for the privilege, right? So we think about places, you know, in developing countries, the way cities have grown, and the way cities need to adapt is really how you couple this system of transport with the economic opportunities so that people don't need to be traveling for hours and hours in order to get to their jobs. It's not that they decide, oh, I want to go and have an art class on the other side of the city. I need to live here because I cannot afford living close to where I work. So I think one needs to reflect about this issue of how this evolution and the fast pace of cities, it's really you know, positive feedback for the wealthy and privileged individuals. So how we can then couple the system in order not to be leaving people behind and in order to really be giving this opportunity so that maybe I will have to sacrifice a bit more. But this is in order to be a more inclusive city. So I very much think that it is important to have mixed spaces and to have spaces of interactions between diverse groups. And it's the only way forward, you know, not only with respect to creativity, artistic or technological, but also with respect to this change in views and ways people look at the evolution of society, you know?

Pedro Gil  20:28

Infrastructural investment is crucial, and infrastructural investment, not in the way that we've been doing conventionally that we have to find new ways of creating this infrastructure that can facilitate this redefinition of what local is going to be. For example, with the GLA, the GLA are very invested at the moment in converting empty retail spaces into community uses. And there's a lot of conversations and research and action and projects that are beginning to permeate throughout London, into how we can re-animate or revitalize or reuse high streets and city centers for more than just buying and selling. Because they do have a really important social fabric and it's trying to make the most of those. And I could see that kind of a model being quite successful in Latin America. So I just wanted to make that point as well about the importance of infrastructure and investment, but not that not the traditional conventional sense that also needs some thought leadership and what that looks like.

Christoph Lindner  21:44

You are listening to Building Better: the Bartlett Podcast, a podcast brought to you by The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. If there's a question about life and research at the Bartlett, you would like us to answer e-mail us at Bartlett dot comms@ucl.ac.uk or tweet @BartlettUCL. 

Christoph Lindner  22:07

Now a lot of what you've been talking about, Pedro and Elsa, reminds me of the family of slow movements that have been around now for quite a few decades. So I'm thinking of the Slow Cities Movement, the Slow Food Movement, those are maybe two that are best known. And over the last several years, we've seen a proliferation of those movements to expand into Slow Fashion, Slow Media, Slow Family, and now even Slow Science and Slow University - Slow Scholarship. And in those movements, a lot of the interest is in pushing back against the accelerating forces of contemporary life and saying that we do better work or have better lives, better communities, if we simply decelerate, if we slow down. Now caught up in some of the examples that you've shared are tensions between privilege and injustice. And I wonder whether, looking to the future, we want to continue advocating for these kinds of slow movements, or whether we need to recalibrate our thinking about slowness, so that it is more nuanced to enable it to address some of the exclusions or inequalities that are built in to the privileged condition of slowness. So what I mean, because that's quite abstract, let me give you an example: I remember a few years ago, going in to a restaurant in Berkeley, California that advertised itself as "slow fast food". And I went in specifically to find out what is "slow fast food" and what does it taste like. And what it turns out this restaurant was doing is it was presenting Slow Food in the form of organic burgers, organic milkshakes, very expensive, you know, sourced locally, all of the right ingredients and labels and practices that you want with slow cuisine, but available to you in a fast food format. So not a lot of space to sit down, you get your food to eat quickly, and you get out of there. And it made me think that what they're basically offering was vicarious slowness - you get to continue to be fast and superficial in your life, while someone else does the slow, hard work of being slow for you. And it seemed to me that that little moment, actually described a much larger pattern at work around the world, where many of the spaces and moments where we can be slow come at the cost of others doing that work that labor, or even that kind of creative activity for us.

Elsa Arcaute  24:31

It's very funny that you bring up this question of fast food Christoph, because I asked my son this question. I have a 12 year old boy, and I kind of share my academic life as well with him. And I asked him, "what do you think about London being fast or slow?" And you look at me and he said, "with respect to what?" and I said, "well just answer the question" and then he said, "well, London is a fast city, it's a fast city because you can see buildings going up and down, but it's a fast city that doesn't think about how to get fit in the proper way. So it is like somebody that goes running, running, running, but then at the same time is eating hamburgers all the time. So basically, [laughing] it's a city that is not thinking about being green and sustainable". So this is my 12 year old son [laughing] giving me this this advice. And I'm thinking, well, exactly this is what it means it means let us pause to strategically design, what is it that we're going to accelerate so that it can be adaptable, you know, for the future and sustainable. And so in Latin America, of course, this is something that never happens, you know, most of the time is like in many different places, you have these terms in which people need to show that they have produced something. And so many times, it's just housing for the sake of it, even though it's not useful, you know, sometimes just in the middle of nowhere, instead of building really, something... a transport system or something that will really benefit most of the people and not only the people that are already benefited by the transport system. So we did some analysis. And you could say how, for example, in a city in Brazil, you put this BRT system, you tick the boxes, right, so So, you know, during my term, I've done great, you know, I created this BRT system. And then you look closely, who are the people that are benefiting from this system, but it is the people that were already, you know, in the high income bracket. And so slowing down in this sense is really about thinking of how what you're doing is going to impact the rest of the people. That's the way I think about slowing down, slowing down to create something that will be sustainable, so slowing down to think about the future. But it doesn't mean that then you will take everything in a slow pace, you slow down to accelerate later. 

Christoph Lindner  26:48

In previous podcasts, one of the things that really emerged when we were talking about space is that what's wrapped up in the design and experience of space are questions of power. Space is about power. And I'm wondering, in this conversation, if a similar theme is emerging, that speed is also about power, who has it who doesn't have it, how it's experienced, or whether it's something that's done to you?

Pedro Gil  27:12

Slowness is a privilege at the moment, because it in the way that we're talking about it, it's actually the concepts that we're discussing, are emerging from or originating from artistic or theoretical backgrounds. They're not really practical lived experience backgrounds, so they're artistic or creative endeavors or perhaps philosophical endeavors. Whereas really what we're trying to get to is practical solutions that help the planet be a better place. And that issue of practicality I think, if we are going to be... if slowness is going to be sustainable, and sustainable in all its guises, socially sustainable, economically sustainable, environmentally sustainable, then it must be able to adapt itself to many different environments across Planet Earth, and many different cultures and many socio economic backgrounds. It is partly about infrastructural investment. It's also a literacy about the planet. I don't think... me personally, even as an architect, I've got a long way to go about my literacy, about the things I do, the way I practice the way I operate, they could be done better in terms of environmental sustainability, I think there's an element of climate literacy there that needs... that work needs to happen. And then really thinking about what's the social benefit of slowness for disenfranchised and often underrepresented communities. And maybe slowness is problematic, maybe that word because it originates from philosophical and artistic endeavors. That maybe it needs to be framed in a different way. And I do think that in Latin America slowness, or whatever that ends up being, has got tremendous potential. Because one thing that we are in Latin America is hugely entrepreneurial, everyone is entrepreneurial, partly because of the state system, because the safety nets that we enjoy as privileges in the UK aren't always there in terms of health care, in terms of social housing, you have to rely on yourself and your own wits to get yourself out of holes. So entrepreneurialism is something that I think could be linked into what was slowness could be about in other territories.

Elsa Arcaute  29:46

Yeah, I think Pedro you're touching on something very, very important, which is this idea of being slow, it's actually having the privilege to be able to be slow, right? So as you were saying, you know, in Latin America, you cannot slow down because the government is not going to help you. So you're not going to have any help that will enable you to then enjoy life and things and things like that, right? So this idea of being able, for example, to source and be more conscious about climate change, or these type of things is is something that relates to me being able to afford and have a system that works like that, right? So for example, if you think about things related to the way people use the materials to do things. In Mexico, you would have traditionally, for example, this fruit that will sell that would serve as a pipe to get things out of the cactus in order to extract the liquid. But of course, then you have the Coca Cola bottles, the plastic ones that you have everywhere, because it turns out that soda drinks are very cheap compared to having clean water. And so people will be buying soda beverages instead of buying water because it's cheaper, and it's tastier. And so then you will see this plastic bottles replacing this other traditional way of doing things that come from natural resources. And why is that? Because it's cheaper, and so people end up doing things in a way that will most benefit, you know, like their economies and try to get them ahead of where they are, because there is no proper governance behind in order to help, no proper social system in order to help the citizens. So yeah, so in a way, being fast, can give you power. Fast in terms of being creative, innovative, and so forth. So you can be fast in order to produce more if you equate this to, but then on the other hand, being slow is actually something that is from the privilege, one side, so it's a bit of a tension and contradiction.

Christoph Lindner  31:47

So we've covered a lot of ground and it's been fascinating to hear your thoughts moving us through questions of privilege, slowness, vicarious slowness, involuntary slowness, speed as a form of power. But what's really inspired me listening, Elsa, and Pedro, to your comments, and your insights, are the ways in which you both are advocating for a more equitable, sustainable, inclusive future. And I'm just wondering, if you look at the built environment, particularly from a global transnational perspective, what do you... what is one thing that you think we need to do better? How can we build better over the long term?

Elsa Arcaute  32:28

Right, so this is a very difficult question, because of course, the one thing, we will need to change so many, so many things, but I think the first thing is to think about building so that is not about optimization, but it's about adaptation. So one... what something that that has a role now can adapt quickly into another one in order to have a more sustainable future. So that would be my one thing. It's not about optimization, but about adaptation towards inclusive inclusivity and sustainability,

Christoph Lindner  32:59

And Pedro?

Pedro Gil  33:00

I would say, we need to really be at the core of our thinking, always be moving towards people, places and planet, the three P's people, places and planet. We don't talk enough about people, I think we tend to talk about buildings, spaces, grounds that we tend to forget about people. And in the way that I try to work, we're always trying to design for people; working for people, people as collaborators, people as genuine co authors, so I think people and communities need to be at the heart of policy, but also design authorship.

Christoph Lindner  33:47

You have been listening to building better the Bartlett podcast. This episode was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett Communications Team and edited by Cerys Bradley. 

Christoph Lindner  34:01

It featured music from Blue Dot Sessions, with additional sounds recorded by Paul Bavister. 

Christoph Lindner  34:07

I was joined today by Pedro Gil and Dr. Elsa Arcaute.

Christoph Lindner  34:11

If you would like to hear more of these podcasts, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. Or you can follow us @BartlettUCL. This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's Global Faculty of the Built Environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise to events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone. 

Christoph Lindner  34:43

We'll see you next month.

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