Design: City As Lab

The human urge to huddle must look odd from outer space. We leave immense areas of the globe practically vacant and cram into thick ganglions of activity we call cities. This clumping has produced a set of miseries and dysfunctions that has hardly changed since the days of Gomorrah but also a history of staggering inventiveness. In this issue, we celebrate the city as a ­tennis-ball machine for innovation, spitting out ideas for how to improve itself and, for that matter, humanity. The street lamp, the cathedral, the elevator, and the aqueduct all sprang from the pressures of packing large numbers of people into a small space. So did the middle class, the mercantile economy, and the extra-narrow dishwasher. Even the American mythology of vastness is largely an urban product: The bard of the old West, Zane Grey, was an Upper West Side dentist, and Aaron Copland, the composer of Appalachian Spring, grew up in Prospect Heights.

For much of the twentieth century, hope for the future focused on suburbs and garden cities, verdant fusions of the convenient and the bucolic. But that fantasy has tarnished. Endless commutes, gasoline addiction, and the toxic effects of having nowhere to walk—these suburban discontents have helped make the study of high-density living a hotter field than ever. The intellectual atmosphere resembles the city itself: creative, exciting, contentious, and loud.

This discourse isn’t just a few academics talking at one other. BMW has teamed up with the Guggenheim Museum to create a public urban-affairs seminar that opened on Houston Street over the summer and soon will head to Berlin and Mumbai. Apple projected its design aesthetic onto the urban scale by opening iconic stores, which doubled as Steve Jobs shrines last week—partly because the iPhone and many of its most popular apps, like Foursquare and Urbanspoon, are built around citified sociability.

It is true that crowding concentrates violence, racket, and disease, which feeds the rhetoric of city-haters, but it can also make these plagues easier to tackle. New Yorkers have seized upon studies suggesting that merely living within walking distance of many other people alleviates illness, promotes longevity, and keeps off the pounds. Cities are simultaneously accelerating and attacking climate change, streamlining energy use and reengineering their coastlines into sponges to cope with rising waters. Not a moment too soon, either: For the first time, more people worldwide live in cities than outside them, and by 2030, 5 billion people will be urbanites.

Visionaries like Pope Sixtus IV and Baron Haussmann have always been tempted to treat the city as a blank, or at least erasable, slate. Le Corbusier wanted to raze Paris to make way for his “Ville radieuse,” an exquisitely rational, and completely lunatic, arrangement of parks and skyscrapers. Today the urge to start from scratch persists, from China to Abu Dhabi. The great global task, though, involves upgrading cities with convoluted histories and delicate layers of architecture. All over the world, people are tackling thorny urban problems in ways both humble and monumental. At the most basic subsistence level, “informal cities”—unplanned agglomerations of tin shacks and ditches or, in more prosperous places, of cinder-block huts and muddy lanes—have fostered a kind of low-tech micro-planning that deals with cities as they actually exist. As the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s new exhibit, “­Design With the Other 90%: Cities,” shows, architects and community workers have installed a shared open-air kitchen in Nairobi, erected a bamboo schoolhouse in the Philippines, and turned a fetid Bangkok lane into a pleasant walkway.

We’ve also combed the world for the spectacular solutions to less desperate but no less crucial challenges—ideas that New York might take in, absorb, and reimagine as its own. Some are fanciful, like a four-foot-wide house. Many are eminently practical, like Hong Kong’s single smart card that handles fees for parking and suburban and local commuter fares and can unlock your building’s front door. Still ­others offer ways to recycle and sustain: a residential compound constructed within the concrete silos of a Barcelona cement plant, a São Paulo artists’ studio whose walls sprout greenery from top to bottom.

The attitude behind all these projects is one of omnivorous optimism—an outlook that also underlies this issue of the magazine. No city can be definitively “solved” by a single strategy. One generation’s ­panacea—the high-rise housing project, say—becomes the next period’s regret. Some answers beget new problems: A fish market moves from lower Manhattan to the Bronx and releases a spray of questions about truck traffic, waterfront usage, preservationism, job creation, and so on. But with this menu of ideas, from the handheld kitchen gizmo to the multibillion-dollar master plan, we hope to show that all cities can be endlessly improved by a heterodox profusion of creativity.

Design: City As Lab