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09 / 09 / 2004
Jean-Louis Cohen, architect: “The problem of the large cities is that there is a lot of wasted space”

The “141 Questions” at the Forum (123): “The city, a place just to live or to live as a community?" The architect, Jean-Louis Cohen, leader of the dialogue entitled “Collective public spaces: new perspectives” said that cities “are the most complex product that humanity has ever created” and that it is necessary to find the most suitable model of metropolitan democracy. He referred to the “solidarity among urban built-up areas” when talking about the population of the outskirts of the city who cannot take decisions affecting the urban centers “in spite of spending a large part of their lives there”. He reasoned that long journeys of between two and four hours a day “reduce the opportunity to take part in town life” and he emphasized that cities must avoid the “tourist bubble” which overstretches certain neighborhoods and excludes others.

Jean-Louis Cohen, architect and professor at the Universities of Paris and New York emphasized this evening at the Haima Stage that “the large cities are, now, the best and the worst, they are the most complex product that humanity has ever created, where both areas of social exclusion and encounter can be found. In any case, he stressed that there is an indisputable reality: “For the first time in history, in the cities there are more people than in the rural areas. The large city is the destination of a large part of humanity”, he explained.

For Jean-Louis Cohen, the excessive size of the population is not the main problem in the densely populated urban areas: “The problem of the large cities is there is a lot wasted space and this inadequate density causes excessive social distancing”. In his opinion, it is necessary to find the most suitable model of metropolitan democracy. He referred to the “solidarity among the urban agglomeration” when speaking about the population of the outskirts of the city. Specifically he mentioned a suburb in the center of Paris that has a population of 50,000 but every day receives more than 800,000 people. “Who must take the decisions? The 50,000 registered citizens and voters, not counting the other 800,000? More and more it is a question that does not have an answer”, he concluded.

He mentioned that the long journeys of between two and four hours per day that less well-off families have to make, "reduce the likelihood of these people taking part in town life". He also went on to explain that a lot of people have problems in contributing towards the development of their city because they do not have the time to do so nor the time to get enough information: it is very difficult for them to make their contributions: "Coexisting should make the municipal experts consult more people, in this way, overcome the inequalities produced by social and cultural distances. However, we have to admit that a lot of specialists would be needed to manage the larger cities and that the language of architecture makes it even more difficult to reach the ideal objective".

A defender of urban transport and transport for the outskirts of cities, he went on to speak of London, "which enjoys the image of being a civilized city". He also explained that the modern part was built horizontally, creating enormous distances, though this does not present a problem due to a "formidable integrated transport system". He also recognized the success that has come from restrictions put on city-center driving: "Traffic density has gone down; taxis and bus traffic can move faster and there are more resource available for making improvements in public transport. This is a solution that should be taken into consideration".

In terms of tourism, Jean-Louis Cohen said that he could not envisage any city closing itself off to what is the world' leading industry: "In China, they have already eased restrictions, with Chinese citizens now being able to travel abroad freely, which will multiply the number of tourists considerably". After mentioning the important earnings generated by this economic activity, he underlined that it is a question of avoiding the "tourist bubble", which overstretches certain neighborhoods, while not forgetting about others: "We have to get people coming from overseas to discover the attractions that we have to offer in every neighborhood of our cities. Unlike what happens in Venice, where tourists are crowded together into just three streets".