London, UK, 2009.

What makes a city work?

Charles Leadbeater presents his model for 'systems and empathy'

By Imogen Willetts

Published 2 July 2014

Imogen Willetts, of the RA's Architecture Programme, reports on our recent event in which Charles Leadbeater discusses his book 'The London Recipe: How Systems and Empathy make the City'.

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  • “Gin and tonic, bacon and eggs, fish and chips,” begins Charles Leadbeater, “are all proof that the best recipes require just two ingredients.”

    Successful cities, he argues, are no more complicated than that, needing only the right balance of “systems and empathy,” the new catchy binarism to inspire London’s planners and developers.

    Leadbeater presented his essay ‘The London Recipe: how systems and empathy make the city’ at the RA, where he was joined by former Minister for London Tessa Jowell MP, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly and Deputy Mayor for Housing Richard Blakeway for a lively audience discussion.

    Little time was spent explaining and championing “systems”; plenty of investment already goes into London’s infrastructure. Instead, Leadbeater was far more interested in the urban dark matter of empathy, the ephemeral ingredient that disappears “once attention is drawn to it.” Leadbeater’s definition of empathy seemed to be a shiny, trendier version of civility. Empathy creates a sense of community; places where people feel they can relax and trust one another.

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    Image by Flickr user Joe Dunckley. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence. Some rights reserved..

  • With the exception of the empathy juggernaut that was the London 2012 Olympics, empathy exists at a very local level; Leadbeater cited small-scale interventions such as pianos in public spaces, guerrilla gardening and street food markets. He went on to ask, rather vaguely and with perhaps too much optimism, that planners create exciting, attractive, compelling and dramatic spaces “with empathy in mind,” giving civilians the structure to create communities. He admires London’s patchwork system of power, with the system of individual London boroughs acting as a barrier to homogeneity. Jowell was quick to assert that empathy requires systems; order is needed for people to have confidence to engage with places in unexpected ways.

    The empathy argument came slightly unstuck as soon as a brave audience member brought up the dirty word of “gentrification”. Huge rent increases in places like Hackney and Brixton shows that empathy comes at a premium. Leadbeater made it very clear, however, that this was not about catering to hipsters; he just wanted London to have more attractive public spaces where people feel safe. His response to the gentrification question was that any wealth created could have civic benefits; investing in housing or local amenities. Though an interesting idea, it was perhaps a bit much for the developers and planners in the audience to take in.

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    Live Site East, Olympic Park.

    Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence. Some rights reserved.

  • Leadbeater would be the first to admit that the notion of empathy in cities is nothing new: cities by nature require a certain amount of civility to keep them afloat and in many ways that’s what makes them so popular as places to live. There has been continued debate by urban theorists, from Jahn Gehl to Jane Jacobs, on the paradox of how to build for people, understanding the transformative power of well-designed public space. Writing in the 1960s, Jacobs saw the creation of communities as something that could really only be achieved through grassroots movements, so Leadbeater’s notion that systems and infrastructure are needed in this delicate "recipe" represents a shift in the way we are thinking about cities.

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    London, UK, 2009.

  • Leadbeater has ambitions for London to lead the development of digital solutions to civic challenges. He cites the example of Waze, an app where users update others on current traffic – a perfect example of empathy through technology.

    Outside of technological developments, Leadbeater accepts that though empathy cannot be manufactured, we can do a better job of building environments in which it can be created; Paradoxically both independent of and reliant on developers. Ultimately his contention was that regeneration goes beyond buildings: something developers tend to forget. While London is seeing huge scale regeneration projects in Earls Court and Battersea, let’s hope they take note.

  • Listen to the full event

    Imogen Willetts is part of the Architecture Programme team at the RA.

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