Great Urban Design – A Radical Act That Can Transform Cities

Sustainability is a design challenge when it comes to a community’s key infrastructure assets (water, power, and transport), its buildings and neighborhoods, and the patterns of efficient /inefficient resource consumption. Can great design solutions help us break through barriers to reach our urban/regional sustainability and livability goals? Hear from some of the leaders in this field discuss how urban design and sustainability have come together in new ways and what’s ahead.

  • Bill Moggridge, Director, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (Download .ppt)


Gordon Feller

It’s a real honor for me to introduce Bill Moggridge to you. Bill is somebody who really is not just an outstanding leader in the design revolution, an outstanding thinker in all things that we touch. Not just the small objects that he’s been so instrumental in helping to make, brilliant products that we use every day, but in thinking about the grand design revolution that we’re discussing here today in cities, in regions, in nation states. Bill is somebody who I think you’ll understand is a pretty outstanding thinker and practitioner who combines those two things. Because he’s now the director of our nation’s only museum focused on design he’s playing a critical role in more than just showcasing those designs but making sure that we all understand that we’re involved in a pretty amazing shift in the way that design touches the lives of ourselves, of our children, of our grandchildren and he’s here from New York and we want to welcome him. I don’t see him here. Bill, please join us and thank you for coming.

Bill Moggridge

Thank you very much, Gordon, it’s wonderful to be here. It’s a little bit of a change for me to be at a museum because I came from Ideo which is a design firm. One of the things we actually had a chance to do was work on the first IP phone that Cisco makes; I think Gordon might know something about that.

I did like this quote that was in his introduction: “Innovation is a team sport.” I think the team sport is the important bit because if you look at anything as complicated as a city, nobody is going to be able to do it on their own, are they? I mean, your head would hurt too much. Your brain would explode. But as a designer I want to add that parentheses of innovation through design and talk a little bit about that.

I think of innovation coming from the convergence of these three areas: you’ve got the money stuff, the business viability, you’ve got the technology, the technical engineering, all of that stuff that makes things really work, and you’ve got the people part. The difference between the disciplines in my opinion is where people start. The venture capitalists or the financial person will start with the business then look for the customer and the technology. The engineer or scientist will start with something that works and then move towards the customer and the business. Whereas design, we tend to start with the people. Of course, you have to have the business and the technology as well in order to make it work, but it’s really a question of where you start in terms of the difference between those points of view. Design thinking is something where you can bring that party, that team of people together starting from trying to understand what people need and want and coming up with a solution that works by collaboration with the business team members and the technology team members.

I’ve got a few ideas here for design which I’d like to talk to you about and I’ll show you a couple of examples of each of those which is really the theme of my presentation today. The interesting thing though is that they’re all drawn from these cities around the world that happen to be most in the Southern Hemisphere. They all have informal settlements. They’ve been so attractive as magnets to people in the poor rural communities that they’ve come to these cities and they haven’t had a place to live and they haven’t had the money to do so, and so they’ve made slums, favelas, places to be, informal settlements, and that’s what I’m going to tell you about and show you about. It comes from the exhibition that we’re opening, our next exhibition from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum called “Design With the Other 90%: CITIES”.

This is going to be – and I think that this point that Ed Glaeser makes in “Triumph of the City” that these people go to the cities because they can find opportunities for themselves; they’re looking for a way of making a living, a way of having a better life. So it’s not that they get poor when they get there. They probably went there because they want to escape that poverty. But they often find themselves rather stuck in this transitional, informal slum or settlement or favela.

We’re lucky for our sponsorship for this exhibition. A lot of the research came from Rockefeller Foundation. Or curator Cynthia Smith has been going around the world for a couple of years trying to understand the design opportunities that come out of these cities, and Citi itself is the main sponsor for the exhibition.

We’re at the United Nations. Well, it seems a good place to be, and we’re opening in the middle of October, just a few weeks from now. It’s not just because it’s the United Nations though, it’s also because we can’t use this beautiful mansion where our main museum is on 91st and 5th because we’re in the middle of a renovation program, renovation and expansion. If you look at our campus we have these two townhouses on the side there to the right, and we just moved into those in order to close the mansion where the exhibitions are held in order to make 60% more space for the future. That’ll be a couple of years. But in those townhouses we have a new national design library, we have our M.A. program with students from Parsons and ourselves who want to learn about design and the history of decorative arts, and we have room for all the staff to work together.

This is enabled by the fact that most of the collections, 250,000 items, have now been moved off to a storage facility the other side of the Hudson River. In the meantime, we’re going to do these exhibitions like the one at the United Nations. We’re also working on our campaign with Wieden & Kennedy saying that design has left the building to explain itself. And we’ve got these notices on our fence at the moment. We seem to get a few giggles about the “Like many on Fifth Avenue, I’m having a little work done.”

So let me come back to those ideas about design. Design for density. Now I think the idea that you can spread out is a long time gone. It’s obvious that Los Angeles is a less green place than New York City, Manhattan, that the suburbs are not such a good idea, that we’re going to be better if we can get cities to be denser again. But we can learn such a lot from these incredibly dense places where the examples of people coming into these informal settlements, living very close to each other.

Here’s an example in Caracas in Venezuela which is a very steep hillside. There was a lot of crime in the city and the local architects found a way of building a very vertical gym, a social place where people could come for sport and enjoyment and it takes very little in terms of space because it’s vertical. One court is on top of another court, and it doesn’t take up the space; it can be tucked into the bottom of a hillside. And the crime rate has gone down incredibly since it was installed. There are several of these around and I think they’re doing something rather similar in some of our cities in the United States.

Here’s another example from Kibera in Nairobi. If you look at the formal map down there on the bottom left, this Kibera doesn’t exist. It’s just blank. Then if you look at that satellite image you find this incredible density where there’s one and a half million people in about the size of the Central Park in New York. Incredibly dense, but nobody really knows where anybody is, so local people got together in order to create a truth map – in other words, to find out where the little streets are, where the facilities are, and find out what they need to do in order to provide sanitation, in order to improve health, in order to give some infrastructure. So it’s a crowd sourced example of dealing with the density and making it more explicit.

Design for sharing; the idea of people having common resources. Of course we’re used to our parks and so on, but in these spaces they’re often more challenging. There’s an interesting example, also in Kibera, of a community cooker, where people can come together to make meals. It’s fueled though by trash. There’s plenty of trash in Kibera. You can see the guy on the top right there, he’s fueling the cooker. But they manage to burn it at a very high temperature which allows it to be used not just for plain cooking, but also for smelting; for taking materials and melting them down for recycling or actually for making things out of metal or recycled plastic using the temperature of the ovens to melt the materials.

And here’s an example of sharing information. This is a digital drum. UNICEF has installed hundreds of these in Uganda but they’re made out of the reused or recycled steel drums, just using those materials, and then putting the screens and waterproof keyboards in so they can be installed in a wall or a pedestal like that. They become a locally shared information source that anybody can use to go to the internet.

Design for local help. I think the sort of idea of us giving people stuff – we call the show “Design With the Other 90%” for good reason, because we really believe in the value of a partnership between the local resources and the people who come from somewhere else. So the local help here is exemplified in Chile, also in Mexico, in Monterrey, I think there’s about twelve settlements of this nature. So what the architects have devised you can see on the bottom left there is a structure which has got the infrastructure for living. It’s got the water supply, the bathrooms, the cooking. It just leaves a blank for everything else, so the local people who come to occupy each of those buildings then fill in their own version. So you can see in the big photograph you’ve got an infill there where the rooms are built to live in and therefore it makes it much less expensive than it would be if the whole structure was provided.

I think another form of sharing here is this favela painting. There are a couple of Dutch guys who came up with this paint idea to be spread over the surface of those houses. But they got all the local people interested and they got them to actually do all the painting and decide the details. The idea was to gain some visibility with the media so the people would then have the opportunity to point out that they didn’t have adequate infrastructure and facilities. It’s a way of gaining attention in order to gain some success, but very much generated by that local community.

I also think old and new is very important; that we shouldn’t be throwing away what’s already there. There’s a temptation to destroy everything and try and start again which is dangerous. If we take an example here, this wonderful tradition of old boat building in Bangladesh, mixture of local timbers and bamboos. They know how to make these pretty big boats and they’re sort of more like arks. They’re life boat size, they’re community size. And there’s a good tradition there of that skill. So what they’ve managed to do – I think they have a couple of hundred now of these – they’ve managed to put new technology in – solar panels for energy. And then different applications: a school, you can see that on the top left, or a library, below, a hospital. All the different things that might be needed by the community are provided by this combination of the old ship building skill and the new technology. And of course it’s proofed to the rising water. They think that 17% of Bangladesh area will be flooded by 2050, but these boats will go out with the water.

Another example here of planning: there was infrastructure of buildings that were structured forty years ago which have become very dilapidated, awful places to live, just by lack of attention. This is in Buenos Aires in Argentina. And the result of that is that one could say, “Tear it all down and start again,” which is in fact what they did forty years ago. But instead they had a look at the opportunity to revise the structures and the buildings by changing what was already there and adding to it. And they found that they could do that at 30% of the cost of starting again. One of the interventions that was important was to try and make sure that the areas where these housing estates were positioned were properly linked into the city streets, so you can see those dotted lines as new interventions to make sure that the flow of people coming through: pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, would be able to move into this area rather than feeling they had to go around it, and it was a blocked off, prison camp-like place.

And design for participation. I think participatory design is such an important and valuable idea; that you learn such a lot by working with the people who are going to use the results rather than doing it for them. Here’s an excellent example of town planning in Diadema in Brazil. You can see the condition of the streets on the left at the top, and the “after” on the right. This was really a combination of the local government and all of the occupants of this particular favela. They managed to develop a way that was participatory design; people saying what they needed, how they needed it, developing the city to become very successful.

Then I couldn’t resist just going away from the structure of the city for a moment and thinking about services, health services. After all, health is such an important aspect of any city, and here’s an example of participatory design for the volunteers to distribute medical information. Of course, a lot of the recipients are rather resistant to the idea that you might need an injection or a pill or something to prevent a disease because of long-held beliefs that a different kinds of medical practice is appropriate, so by engaging the participation of the locals themselves to explain and help with the distribution of the medical kit, they found that they had much greater success in terms of getting people to accept the value.

Then I think mixed transportation, that’s also very important. That we tend to be a terribly wheels community here, don’t we? I mean, perhaps we can blame that on Norman Bel Geddes, the famous designer who came up with the GM pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair, which was so attractive the President then put through the idea of throughways and freeways around the country. Bye-bye railways, bye-bye lots of other forms of transportation. Couldn’t we have much more mixture? An interesting example here in Gwangju in China. They had a terrible traffic problem because a very fast expanding city, and traffic jams all the time, so they just took the center four lanes and made them busses only. So it’s like a metro system, in effect, in that it’s dedicated to the public transportation. It’s fast, but the main thing is that it’s so much cheaper. It’s like 30% of the cost of putting in a metro system. So they’re able to get very effective transportation linking into bicycles, to pedestrians, and to other forms of rail transport.

Here in the Medellin in Columbia a very mountainous area, these funicular railways, you can see this on the left at the top “before” and then below once they’d installed it, so getting the access to these very difficult to access places using a different form of presentation as well as the running up and down those endless steps that was the previous approach.

I think local materials. I mean, why would we be shipping everything all over the world if we can grow it locally? That perhaps is another nice principle of design. I like these bamboo schools in the Philippines. There are so many more typhoons now with climate change, and so they ask that they can design a school that’s capable of resisting a 150 mile an hour wind. That’s a tall order. But they find that with the tradition of bamboo and the skill of building it, and the resilience of the material which is incredibly strong and flexible, they were able to achieve that with this design, so a lot of those schools are built like that.

Then bricks in Africa, in Uganda, this is an interesting thing where they take bricks and they just compress regular soil. So you take rocky soil, put a little bit of concrete in, add a little bit of water just so it’s not crumbling, and then compress it. There’s a machine where you grab a handle and pull it down and bang you’ve got a brick. And that doesn’t need firing, so you don’t have to use fuel, probably wood, in order to fire the bricks. But it’s adequate structurally and absolutely local. You can see the picture of the machine there that they use for doing the compressing, just done by a couple of guys.

So those are some ideas. I hope they spark some interest. They might be relevant for some of your consideration of what happens in our highly developed Western cities. Perhaps we can learn a lot by this combination of the world that’s overcrowded and new and experimental and much more sophisticated in historical existence.

Thank you very much.

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