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.

Questioning the value of an outsider’s perspective in MoMA’s “Foreclosed”

MoMA’s exhibit Foreclosed certainly seems to be provoking a lot of strong reactions (see Brian’s previous commentary here).  Diana Lind, editor in chief of Next American City, questions both the motives and the practicality underlying MoMA’s re-imagining of the American suburbs:

Foreclosed seethes with disdain for the suburbs, and the lack of an empathetic understanding of how the suburbs function and are changing, ultimately makes the exhibit look less visionary than ignorant. As an urban dweller who is deeply frustrated by the social, economic and environmental consequences of sprawl and car-centered communities, I too want to see clever ways of retrofitting these parts of the country. But saying that, I wish the exhibit had improved upon the suburbs rather than suggest transforming them beyond recognition.

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). To Bergdoll, the last great American architect to live and work in the burbs was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was based in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park at the turn of the 20th century. This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them. [emphasis added]

For all their problems, suburbs clearly “work” on some levels.  (If they didn’t, suburbs would hold little attraction for to the millions happily residing in them.)  Lind’s specific examples of cultural clueless-ness on the part of the MoMA-commissioned architects are well worth pondering.  She suggests that failing to consider what aspects of suburbs work (and how) results the same sort of ham-fisted, bureaucratic approach that destroyed thriving urban neighborhoods in the mid-twentieth century:

[MoMA’s] radical visions that are so insensitive to the suburbs remind me of the Modernist public housing projects that were once foisted on inner cities. Created by well-intentioned but essentially ignorant architects and planners, those buildings made sense in theory but not in practice. They didn’t respond to the rhythms and needs of the people who would be housed there, because the architects didn’t really respect or understand the lives of poor people. MoMA should have found some architects who could love and live in the suburbs, showing us the way to make the most of suburban housing instead of wishing it didn’t exist.