What experiments in urban development can teach us about society

Photo: JackDayton at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Following on from this post about speeches that were prepared, but never delivered (except perhaps in parallel universes where all possible actions take place), it is really interesting to look back and think about the same thing in an urban setting, and what that could mean for urbanism going forward. This 99% Invisible podcast episode on Unbuilt structures looks back in history at structures in San Francisco and New York that were proposed but never built.

What is interesting is how tied to their time period these proposed ideas are. At some points in our history, we’ve been focused on Tayloristic effectiveness and shaving off seconds of time spent commuting, at other times it’s been all about urban spaces that can generate happiness and increase quality of life.

Since cities are by now the dominant form of dwelling, already holding over half of the world’s population, what we value and design for in cities is really what we value in society as a whole. This becomes even more pronounced given how important cities are in the political process as well. Federal systems are paralyzed, and cities need to step up to fill make their own future. This, interestingly, is true both in the US, with a Congress in deadlock and some strong mayors taking action (see this earlier post on Bloomberg), and in developing countries. In some countries, such as Nigeria, the government might be very weak, but the cities develop their own structure and institutions, formal or informal. Lagos is an example of a city that has been said to be like a country in itself. The FT had an op-ed on the metropolitan revolution recently, and there was an interesting BBC Analysis podcast on whether the UK could learn from the US in this regard.

So should cities be like factories, only aimed at increasing output? Or should they be places for discussion and improved human knowledge? There have been some interesting recent experiments in urban redesign that I think provides us with some ideas of what we seem to value most for our cities.

On the smaller level, we find successful “reclaimings” of derelict parts of cities, such as the High Line in New York, which has rejuvenated a large area by the creation of a park at an old elevated rail track, high above the usual city bustling. London has its Olympic village in East London, which is hopefully driving development in this long-ignored area.

In the category of more extreme urban redesign, which gets closer to full societal redesign, we see for example this city on wheels in Fast Company. This raises a lot of interesting questions about what a city should be. Another interesting concept is that of seasteading – creating fully functioning societies on the sea, outside the borders of existing countries. A bit of extreme libertarianism, perhaps, but quite a nice utopian vision.

Some of these redesigns are too expensive to be considered appropriately. But perhaps we can take hope in how well small, temporary societies can be created. Here, for example, Good magazine described what the Burning Man festival can teach us about how society can be quickly created and upgraded.

Photo: Aaron Logan [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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