Five Debates on Cities at the Battle of Ideas

A day of debates at the Barbican curated by the Institute of Ideas explore key urban questions


10:00am, Sunday, 18 October 2015


06:45pm, Sunday, 18 October 2015

Weekend passes

Standard ticket: £100
Standard concession ticket: £45
School Students £20:
Architecture Foundation members: £45

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At a variety of levels, cities are central to modern life. While many extol the virtues of millions living together, does that make us more vulnerable, too? How should cities be designed and adapted to best meet the needs of citizens? Why is there an obsession with creating ‘public space’? Moreover, the biggest cities have populations larger than many countries – will they be the new seats of power in the future?

The Architecture Foundation is pleased to be partnering with the Institute of Ideas to support five debates addressing cities which will be held at the Barbican. The Battle of Ideas 2015 is a weekend of high-level, thought-provoking public debate taking place on the 17th and 18th of October. 

The Battle of Ideas is much larger than these five events and addresses topics from war to feminism to mortality. Architecture Foundation members can get a 50% discount on tickets to the whole weekend. (Please check the member's only email allert for the discount code). 

From devolution to Northern Powerhouse: is this the Age of Regions?

10.00 - 11.30, Sunday 18 October
Frobisher Auditorium 2, The Barbican

Regionalism is the new big idea in British politics. From granting greater powers to the Scottish Parliament after the referendum to the idea of ‘Devo Manc’ – part of George Osborne’s aim to create a ‘northern powerhouse’ in England – politicians increasingly advocate various forms of devolution to regenerate the country and re-engage the electorate. In the run-up to the general election, Ed Miliband too promised to end a ‘century of centralisation’ by passing more power to ‘towns, cities and country regions’.

Are we about to witness the birth of new city states? What about the idea of politics as embodying shared interests and principles that transcend postcode? Does devolving power to larger city-regions challenge the ideals of the modern parliamentary system, especially the notion of having a centralising sovereignty in a single place to subordinate parochial interests and prejudices for the good of society as a whole? What is the difference between contemporary regionalism and traditional local democracy?

From tsunamis to terror attacks: do we need resilient cities?

12.00 - 13.00, Sunday 18 October
Frobisher Auditorium 2, The Barbican

Many urbanists seem to have become infatuated by the perceived or even potential failures of cities, rather than their successes. In place of grand ambitions for bigger and better cities, the talk today is of ‘resilience’ in the face of manifold threats. Architects talk of ‘future-proofing’ while engineers ‘disaster-proof’. Of course, buildings in earthquake zones should have higher engineering requirements, but should we design everyday buildings with disaster in mind? Are cities under such threat that precaution should be our watchword?

In more practical terms, should resilience mean building better drainage infrastructure to remove floodwaters, or living on stilts to live with flood water? Should we design blast-proof windows and walls to protect ourselves against terrorist attack, or are we in danger of abandoning the conviviality of urban existence in favour of a survivalist mentality? Will fear of the future result in cities that more resemble citadels, or is it only right that planners and developers should factor in all possible threats?

Gentrify this: the pros and cons of urban development

14.00 - 15.30, Sunday 18 October
Frobisher Auditorium 2, The Barbican

From a media storm over the opening of a pricey ‘Cereal Killer’ cafe in Shoreditch to the trashing of an estate agent’s in Brixton, there is growing resentment across London at gentrification pricing out or excluding poorer local residents. Demands that new builds provide some provision for socially affordable housing has led to controversy over ‘poor doors’ and complaints that such accommodation is often sub-standard or circumvented by resentful developers selling to overseas buyers, leaving lucrative properties empty in London’s desperately over-subscribed market. In response to fears that young families and under-35s are being priced out of buying property, lobby groups such as Generation Rent have argued for tough measures and rent controls to help to temper the soaring cost of living in the capital.

Are campaigns against gentrification driven by a genuine anxiety around social fairness or nostalgia against changing neighbourhoods? Does regeneration generally improve residents’ lives in deprived areas or simply price them out? Should policy-makers take a more interventionist approach to preserve cultural diversity or does such interference risk killing off the entrepreneurial an drive which makes gentrified areas so desirable? Does antipathy to hipsters really have much to do with broader questions of social housing and fairness?

Do high streets still need shops?

16.00 to 17.15, Sunday 18 October
Frobisher Auditorium 2, The Barbican

In recent years, traditional high street retailers have faced many problems: the economic downturn, higher property costs, competition from out-of-town and online retailers, red tape, parking charges and business rates. While big chains may have the resources to ride out these storms or consolidate operations, the pressure on independent retailers is often enormous.

Yet should our high streets really be based on shopping? This is an opportune moment to consider what our high streets are for. For example, should we wave farewell to the traditional high street parade of shops and place a greater emphasis on leisure and other services – places to meet and enjoy activities together? Perhaps technology could play a greater role, allowing high street stores to provide services for advice about products rather than actually stocking them, with speedy delivery from central stocks or wholesalers on demand, further blurring the distinction between online and offline shopping.

From plazamania to Garden Bridge: why the fuss about public space?

17.30 - 18.45, Sunday 18 October
Frobisher Auditorium 2, The Barbican

It has long been a worry that public spaces have become steadily privatised – but nowadays, there is also an insistence that notionally private spaces be opened up to the public. Yet there seems more proscription about what and who public space is for. Often, these spaces are seen as ‘catalysts’ for something unspecified. While Granary Square in Camden has generated some liveliness around its restaurants and water-features, there are many more designated public areas where the public are noticeably absent. Newcastle’s Blue Carpet remains empty and grim; King’s Cross station’s public realm was branded ‘dull and uninspiring’; and the Project for Public Places notes that Tate Modern’s plaza ‘is a study in aggravating design’. 

As a result, some try desperately to give their plazas meaning. Cardiff’s Central Square, for example, simply proposes to ‘give a positive impression to people visiting the capital’, while Birmingham City Library’s public square has being ‘revamped’ to provide space for ‘events and happenings on the square’. Whatever it is, public space tends to be seen as an unqualified good, a designated realm where people can come together as a public. But who comprises the public that designers and politicians constantly invoke? Why has public space provision become so ubiquitous? Who is it for and should there be so much of it?