Matter dictating manner

I wrote this article for Living Green Magazine.

It’s about a brilliant documentary that premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Hustwit, it is a part of a trilogy of documentaries describing the creative process of contemporary design. The first two were Helvetica (2007) – about typography and graphic art, and Objectified (2009) – about manufacturing and product design.

I’ve seen parts of Objectified and I liked Hustwit’s perspective on things and his eye for detail so I was curious how he applied that to the design of cities.

Urbanized explains how the changes in the development of modernism influenced the changes in architecture and city planning. The film frames a global discussion on the future of cities by examining a range of urban design projects around the world: in New York, New Orleans, Bogotá, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile, Paris, Bristol, Mumbai, Beijing, Masdar, Cape Town, etc.

It was very cool watching the documentary from a perspective of a traveller, an urban geographer, and.. a cyclist, ha.

Modern town panning is not based on achieving idealistic layouts, it entails redeveloping and restructuring areas that need improvements and adapting them to challenges, such as accommodating urban population growth and economic fluctuations. Everywhere there are general difficulties in managing housing, mobility, public space, civic engagement, and environmental policy.

So, with world urban population projected to reach 75% by 2050, the question is:

how to do it sustainably?

Socially sustainable cities arise when the concept of ‘equality’ and the practice of ‘inclusion’ coincide. It means achieving urban regeneration as a result of socially cohesive planned environments, so that social, economic and physical planning balance out.

Cities are extremely dynamic, they are growing and booming, and more and more people want to live in them. But while some cities are experiencing explosive growth that they may not be prepared to deal with, others are shrinking due to sprawl and the demand for bigger houses and bigger property on the outskirts. Detroit, for example, used to be a much bigger city, whose concentration, liveability and urbanity have scaled back.

The documentary looks at what goes on in the background and who makes the decisions about what shape our cities take. There are many different voices and components to consider, as contributions to urban change come from a wide spectrum of players.

Planning involves a multi-disciplinary group of people with different perspectives, different agendas and different roles – coming together to work against, and with each other to bring projects into fruition.

It is important to look at the city as compact communities: to make them rely on reciprocal support and stimulate mutual growth, so that they generate more productive and efficient societies on the whole.

To generate truly socially cohesive cities, urban environments need to focus on not segregating groups or leaving out pockets of society isolated. With regards to this, the case of the social housing project in Santiago de Chile aimed at moving communities out of slums in the film was really interesting. They prioritized the location because schools, transportation and jobs are found in certain pockets of the city, and decided that it is better to have a good square meter of well-positioned land than a good square meter of a house.

Land + infrastructure + house = participatory design, which entails allocating the budget based on the level of importance. The planners had to appoint what important elements to deliver from the get-go based on the available budget, versus what’s left for the residents to add according to their own needs (ie. determining that it is more important for them to have a bath tub rather than a water heater as they wouldn’t have money to pay the gas bill to heat the water).

Planned environment objectives focus on building communities that facilitate interaction, communication and cooperation. Segregating communities dependent on social support in subsidised housing projects likely impedes their progress and conditional integration with the rest of the society. That physical marginalization that arises affects their social assimilation with other groups.

In this way they are not socially excluded. The scheme works because it is often worse to be poor in a poor area than one that is socially mixed as poor areas accentuate general disadvantage by principle of acceptance and association. When clustered together in one location, the groups form exclusive and tight-knit bands that form ‘cultures of poverty’.

The goal is to create mixed residential conditions that will bridge the gaps between varying social divisions, income groups and classes, without the need to group different ranks in segregated pockets of society.

To become open to participatory action or practice means to empower residents through bottom-up engagement, creating community involvement – dubbed ‘popular planning’.  It is really important to systematically involve the people who have lived certain realities and figure out the best solutions from their experience, and the most strategic way to address them.

Rio de Janeiro’s favelas face security issues, as the streets there are very narrow, winding, and dark. Creating big squares where people can meet changes the perspective: violence prevention through urban upgrading.

Remember, cities grow up around logistical issues.

1/3rd of all urban population in the world lives in informal settlements – without sanitation (sewers, running water), and without electricity.

There are huge health and hygiene issues, and a failure of municipalities to create a liveable human habitat. Informal settlements are ignored for a long time, and as there is no space for growth, they just gets denser. As the growth continues, new issues arise, and they just get placed on top of issues that have been present before and not yet dealt with. All in all, it is very easy to get incredibly pessimistic just looking at the prospects.

Mumbai is soon to become the biggest city in the world, bigger than Tokyo. It now has the population of slum-dwellers roughly the size of London. By 2050 it is projected to escalate to a number equivalent to London and New York put together.

The world is changing pretty dramatically. The goal is to create cities that optimize their functionality, so that they can continue to grow organically and efficiently.

Automobile had a significant, largely detrimental, effect on cities. It changed the way cities were being designed. If the city is deigned so that every single trip has to be made by car, it is creating a lot of traffic.

As a society, we have to begin to decide whether some of our choices come at a cost.

Really important factor in people’s behaviour is what the communities are doing: making everyone aware of there they stand in relation to the greater, globalizing, communities.

After the mayor of Bogotá realized that the city needs to start investing in its people, he commissioned 24km of pedestrian- and bicycle-only connected, high-quality pathways. His goal was to raise the status of cyclists by removing the stigma that only the poor people cycle. It boosted the importance of a person on a $30 bicycle to the same level as the driver of a $30K car.

The model bicycle city is Copenhagen, not surprisingly, which has a huge network of bicycle lanes, keeping up a very distinctive policy to invite people to cycle as much as possible. People who cycle tend to be fitter, the bike doesn’t pollute and it doesn’t take up much space. All in all, it’s a really smart way of getting around the city.

The critical challenge of the future is how do you manage demography: how to intersect architecture with mobility, and create a humane environment through design.

One thought on “Matter dictating manner

  1. Pingback: Rio de Janeiro: the soul of a Brazilian Favela | skitalica's Blog

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