Urban planning for the billions who will live in global megacities

A new MoMA exhibit features different urban planning visions for how to plan for the billions of people who will live in megacities within the next few decades:

Gadanho invited six teams of architects, urban planners, and researchers to propose tactical urbanisms, or urban planning solutions that draw on existing (and not always legal) infrastructure and patterns in human settlement. Each team spent 14 months on scenarios for one of six cities: New York, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Lagos, Hong Kong, and Istanbul. Each city is growing rapidly, and each has tremendous inequality. The teams were selected based on their work and methodology. “I cherry picked practices that were already on the terrain, doing their own take on the idea of tactical urbanism. So they were already working with committees, researching how people were appropriating space, and proposing models for a different kind of city,” Gadanho says. “Many of these proposals are based on the idea that top-down planning has been failing people in many aspects.”

In scale and ambition, the results run the gamut. For instance, 85 percent of Hong Kong is surrounded by water, yet the city’s population is expected swell by 50 percent. MAP Office, Hong Kong Network Architecture Lab, and New York’s Columbia University reasoned that with so little land, the city has three options: develop sanctioned natural parks, extended the shoreline further into the water, or building artificial islands near the coastline. They ultimately proposed building eight new islands, each dedicated to an economic or social activity unique to Hong Kong, like fishing. Naturally, building these would create jobs.

In Istanbul, housing development in the 1970s led to a city where the middle class mostly inhabits TOKI buildings, or clusters of towers in gated communities. For the people of Istanbul, acquiring a TOKI apartment is part of a middle class dream, one that also includes owning a car, and the latest gadgets. As Superpool and Istanbul Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée see it, that consumer-driven culture could soon become a society in debt. They propose a new kind of utopia, where the TOKI clusters get retrofitted with micro-farms, solar panels, and shared car services. Called R-Urban, the services would be open-source and connected through a series of apps. It builds a sharing economy layer on top of the TOKI clusters, which reinforces, rather than destroys, the sense of community that drew inhabitants there in the first place.

After 14 months of gestation, each project is still highly hypothetical and probably only viable under a certain set of circumstances, like municipal cooperation, or the availability of funds for construction. They’re all pie-in-the-sky utopian ideals. In that light, the exhibit is a mental exercise, one that considers how to build according to what people are already doing. Governments might want to eradicate favela housing, because they can’t control it, but that improvisational style of living exists in part because of the skills and community values that already live in a city. That’s an opportunity, not an obstacle.

There will be a lot of urban planning opportunities in the future in major cities. However, there are also some major issues at play:

1. How much redevelopment is possible? This typically requires displacing people and this is difficult on a mass scale.

2. Related to #1, how much undeveloped land is available for new ideas? One of the projects at MoMA goes so far as to create new land off the coast of Hong Kong.

3. Who gets to make decisions about these new urban planning ideas? Top-down approaches from governments will not always be met with happiness. How connected are planners and others to people on the ground?

4. How are such major projects going to be funded? Even if change is desirable, the costs of major redevelopment or new land creation could be steep.

These issues aren’t insurmountable and I suspect that would be tackled uniquely in different places. Yet, going from the design stage to implementation to completion can be quite the process.

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