Event review – TEDCity2.0

TED-LogoTEDCity2.0 was a day-long event which took place on 20th September 2013. It brought together people interested in the future of cities, including urban planners, politicians, architects and city dwellers, and invited them to open their minds.

The curators of the event, Courtney Martin and John Cary, explained in a blog article that they wanted to involve both the ‘usual suspects’ and new speakers. They wanted each speaker to bring something different, and asked them to think outside the box in preparing their talk: that is, not just using their expertise, but consider how others see their subject. The result, they hoped, would be a blend of design and glorious synchronicity, a spontaneous coming-together greater than the sum of its parts, leaving audience and speakers alike inspired to think differently about cities.

The reports of the morning and afternoon sessions show that the curators were successful in creating a fascinating event. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it seems to have majored on how people sometimes seem to be treated as an intrusion into cities, and how that can be changed.

Urban planning: beauty or function?

Ananya Roy, urban planner and Berkeley professor, started the day by talking about the way planners design beautiful buildings, without considering how they’re going to be used. Similarly, later on, Lance Hosey, an architect, talked about the purpose of design. Was it, he asked, to please designers or users? This theme was echoed by Shaun Donovan, head of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. He provided a shocking statistic: at present, a child’s best predictor of life chances is the postcode in which they live.

Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed talked about how a chance meeting with a constituent had opened his eyes to the fact that most people don’t care about shiny new airports, but about derelict buildings in their area, and young people on the streets. Eric Liu, a teacher of civics, provided a timely reminder of what could happen if people forget about the importance of civics.

Mohamed Ali, from Mogadishu, Somalia, argued that young people in cities are a problem only because they have nothing to do. If there is youth unemployment, they will turn to crime and other less savoury ways of making a living. Is it possible to encourage them towards entrepreneurship? He thinks so. And Toni Griffin, urban planner in Detroit, agreed. The problem with Detroit, she said, is not that the city is now too large, but that there are too few job opportunities. Her work has focused on creating more.

Alan Ricks, an architect, discussed a project in Kenya to rebuild a hospital which had problems retaining staff. The solution? Beautiful staff accommodation to give the staff more dignity and a bigger stake in the hospital. And  Diébédo Francis Kéré would agree. He empowers local communities to shape their own buildings to give them a bigger stake.

Putting people in control

Jeff Speck championed the idea of the ‘walkable city’, and Janette Sadik-Khan, traffic commissioner for New York City, described her experience of creating pedestrian spaces. Enrique Peñalosa discussed how he set about creating cycle ways as mayor of Bogota, Columbia.

On a more individual level, Jason Sweeney, who suffers from vertigo, dizziness and panic attacks, described how he seeks out a city’s quiet places to protect himself. Joshunda Sanders talked about the experience of growing up in a city with a mentally-ill mother, and how cities can exacerbate mental health problems. Chris Downey, a now-blind architect, described how a city would improve for everyone if designed for blind people: wider pavements, accessible mass-transit system, and walkable streets.

And one recurring theme was citizens and individual taking control. Catherine Bracy talked about Code for America, city hackers who create and recreate apps, solving local problems. It is, she said, a way in which ordinary people can make a difference. Robin Nagle, an anthropologist, discussed other people who make a huge difference: garbage collectors. Emily May talked about a TED project, ‘Hollaback’, responding to street harassment, a problem which is experienced by 99% of women at some time. And Dennis Dalton, a professor at Columbia, talked about his experience of bringing together ‘town and gown’.

Widening impact of technology

In all these case studies, we found technology playing an increasing role. We started this research journey by calling out ten trends we believed will influence city management outcomes. TEDCity2.0 speakers have also highlighted the trend towards consumerization, mobility, transparency and globalization of cities.

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