Design for a Crowded Planet

A traveling exhibition offers innovative solutions by and for city dwellers.

Informal settlement dwellers, SDI affiliate Mahila Milan, and architects discuss existing and new community layouts, Yerwada Slum Upgrade project, Pune, India. Photo courtesy SDI

Cynthia E. Smith is the Curator of Socially responsible design at Cooper-Hewitt, a Smithsonian Museum in New York City dedicated to historic and contemporary design and the impact of design on daily life. From August 2012 through January 2013, Smith's exhibition Design with the Other 90%: Cities was on display at Mercy Corps Action Center and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in Portland, OR. Smith also wrote and edited a book about the exhibit, which focuses on the innovative solutions city dwellers, designers, and governments are finding to deal with the immense migration of people into cities across the globe.

Jill Owens: In the foreword to Design with the Other 90%, Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation writes that the “adjacent possible” opens up new ideas rapidly. How would you define the “adjacent possible”?
Cynthia E. Smith: I think she's talking about the fact that within cities and often in informal settlements, the density and the amount of collaboration that can take place because of those connections happens at such an intense level. There are so many combinations of ways that people can take advantages of those adjacencies. For example, they often live and work in the same location, so it becomes a much more efficient place. While these locations often lack adequate sanitation, housing, access to water, etc., there are also some advantages. Some would describe, and I would agree, that these are places where people can emerge out of poverty, because there's so much happening within these informal economies. We need to build on that. A lot of people who work in this arena would say that, instead of tearing down or removing the settlements, which is too often what happens because residents lack secure land tenure, because they've migrated in and settled on land they don't own, we need to actually support those residents. Residents often have quite innovative ideas and ways to improve their conditions.

JO: You write about the interface between the informal and the formal in cities—that innovations that bridge those gaps are the most innovative and useful ones. What are some examples?
CES: To lay the groundwork for this, it's mostly because this growth, this migration is taking place at a really rapid rate. Formal governments—local and regional governments—can't keep up with the number of people moving into their cities. Close to a billion people, roughly, currently live in informal settlements, and that's projected to double in number by the year 2030. Most of that growth is going to take place in Africa and Asia, and some parts of Latin America. So how do you deal with that next one billion people who are moving into these cities? You could see it as one billion solutions, or one billion problems. A lot of these organizations working with these people see it as one billion solutions. In this exchange of information, design can play an important part in that, because we're talking about the built environment. But it goes beyond the built environment. It's really about systems, innovative systems and procedures.

There are a number of examples within the exhibition that have already been successful at doing this, where there's a design exchange that's taking place. With the SDI, Shack/Slum Dwellers International, they use a peer-to-peer horizontal exchange of information. They are in thirty-four different countries around the world, and that's expanding. In the Bang Bua Canal Community project in Thailand, the government works with the settlements in order to provide secure land tenure. So there are real collaborations that are taking place.

JO: What elements make a “good” city?
CES: Though I think this can be applied to many cities, what I'm looking at primarily are cities that are experiencing this rapid informalization. So I think it's a number of things as they're going through this transformation. One is including the people in the planning and reurbanization process. Another is developing capacity locally. There are examples from South Africa—and this is true in almost all African cities—where a large portion of the city's economy derives from the informal economy. Instead of excluding that, the cities should really begin to support that in some way, because it's not going away, and really acknowledge that that's an important part of the city.
One of the things that Capetown, South Africa, did was to provide public land for urban agriculture for the informal settlers. They acknowledged that there was an issue with food insecurity and began to provide that for the settlers, along with resources to help them create an economically sustainable way to provide for their own families and maybe make it into a business.

Something that is getting a lot of attention in cities here in the United States is creating mixed-use, mixed-income housing that's closer to work opportunities. You can imagine why this is important. When you start to move people away from where they're working, you create a new kind of poverty, because it takes so long and it takes so many resources for them to get where they need to be to make a living. You need to think of it holistically. I was just in Denver, and they're creating their social housing in this way. It's called transport-oriented design, and it's happening all over the United States. But it's also true in other expanding cities across the world. Instead of moving the informal settlements, tearing them down and moving them to the outskirts, it's much better to have people living close to where they work.


JO: What do you think the cities in the United States and Europe can learn from cities in the developing world? That concept sounds like a good place to start.
CES: Absolutely. It's really about learning from places that have limited resources in environmentally compromised areas. There's so much that we can learn from that. There's one example that I talk about a lot in lectures, which is in Caracas, Venezuela. Urban Think Tank, an architecture firm, developed a vertical gym based on what they saw happening in the informal settlement, which is very dense. The kids had this soccer field which was unsafe, in a violent area. So they created this vertical gym on a small plot of land, and they went tall. It was four stories high, and each floor was programmed differently. They took clues from the local settlement to create this new kind of building.

They designed it as a kit of parts. What I mean by that is it can be programmed in different ways for different activities, and they can then transfer that. They're starting to build them in four other locations in Caracas. If one needs a music hall, there can be a music hall, or a market, if another needs that. Now they're beginning to talk to a city in Jordan, a location in the Netherlands, programmed differently but designed very similarly with this kit of parts. They were also talking to New York City schools at one point, because of their limited space – this can activate that kind of space. So that kind of thinking is coming out of these locations.

Another example out of Caracas [image above]: the Integral Urban Project was a team of architects, engineers, road designers, and a geologist working directly with San Rafael, one of the many vertical informal settlements in Caracas. In Caracas, the formal city is at the center, and then on the periphery, on these steep mountain slopes, these informal settlements are built. This creates a very interesting dilemma. You have these very steep hills, and people are going up and down them all the time. They have to travel this day in and day out. So how do you create a better pathway, a better way for people to get to and from their homes and the rest of the city? They devised a road that circled it, so that public transportation could get near to it, and then they created a whole network of stairs and open space, because it's very, very dense. Then within the stairs, they incorporated the infrastructure—the sanitation, water, and electricity. What was most important about this was, again, instead of removing the people while they did the work, they kept everybody in place. So while improving their conditions, they kept the social cohesion. These are real communities, where people have lived, brought up families, so that's an important criterion. Many of these successful projects answer the question: How do you keep social cohesion? Sometimes it's: How do you create social cohesion?

JO: How have cities evolved over time? How is their role changing in the world?
CES: Global cities are becoming more and more important. They're becoming almost as important as the nation-state, from an economic point of view. When people talk about places, they talk about London, Mumbai, Beijing. Because so many people are migrating into these places and they're so large, they have a lot of influence.

And cities are talking to each other. There are large organizations of cities that are trying to work together to come up with some joint solutions. That's even true here in the United States, where the most innovative developments are taking place at a city level, not at a state level or a federal level. It's because of how cities work. There's a mayor, and often the mayor has a lot of power. I'll use New York as an example. Structurally, our mayor has a lot of ability to make a lot of changes. Our mayor here changed the zoning laws. His commissioner of transportation transformed the streets to make them more bike-friendly. It's funny, talking to someone from Portland about bike-friendly policies. But for a big city like New York, putting in bike lanes and alternative transportation is a big step. And that's true all over. You'll hear about cities like Phoenix, or Salt Lake City, doing really interesting things at a city level, because they have that ability. They're not gridlocked, like everything else is.


JO: I was intrigued by the idea in your book that those who work on cities use a mixture of science, craft, and art. How have you seen those elements play out in your work with cities?
CES: I'm thinking about Design with Africa, an initiative started with money from the government of South Africa working with industrial designers to extend the conversation about how to design for the African continent. They created this initiative based on the African concept of ubuntu, which is all about working together collectively. They came up with this idea for these low-cost bicycle modules that could be used in a variety of different ways.

This again goes back to the first thing that we talked about, this whole hybrid solution between formal and informal. So they provide all the pieces that a person couldn't make themselves, like the bicycle wheels, the chain, the gears, etc. The person who gets the modules can then put it together using local and found materials. So you can come up with a cart, a small bike ambulance, a bicycle itself—just all kinds of interesting things using your own ingenuity and local materials. The reason they were thinking about this is because you don't necessarily need to manufacture a fully built expensive bicycle for parts of that area, because people can't afford it. So you really need this alternative, and this is coming directly from designers in Africa.

I have the privilege of being able to meet with all of these people who are doing really interesting, innovative work, whether they're people who are living in the informal settlements, or organizations that are working with people who are living in the informal settlements. The thing that's consistent is that these are innovative approaches, so depending on what their expertise is, or where their interests lie, that's what they bring to bear. They'll see a problem, and they'll create a solution that will call on their strengths—whether it's science, or art, or culture, or design.

All photos in this story are from Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum's Design with the Other 90% Cities exhibition.

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