Lab Notes I

We’re Not as Different as We Might Think

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Retrofitting Urban Life

A few weeks ago, I thought I had a pretty brilliant idea.

Reflecting on the theme Retrofitting Urban Life, I was trying to think of who would have the most unique perspective on how our cities could be retrofitted into repair.

The list of professionals and academics who immediately came to mind was long, but I wasn’t interested in an expert opinion. No, I wanted to hear from someone who would speak from gut instinct and everyday experience.

The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. I imagined how wildly diverse the plans for an ideally retrofitted city would look if designed by a bus driver versus a teacher, a shopkeeper versus an artist, or, I don’t know . . . a hot dog vendor?

So we put out the call. Through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, we asked our followers to tell us: What is one thing you’d change about your city to make your job easier?

The responses would reveal, I predicted, how difficult it is to find one-size-fits-all solutions to city making—they would offer a new, fresh perspective on how individual the urban experience is. How clever!

To a certain extent, this worked. One artist on Facebook, for example, Judith Sirreal, gave us insight into the importance of affordable, public studio space:

“Vacant office space in government buildings could be rented out at low cost for artists. We are paying taxes, everyone wants art in their neighborhoods, there is a lot of unused space, and it seems fair that there be public access to those spaces, by rental process so costs are covered. I am an artist. My current working conditions are challenging.”

A Montreal-based architect, André Cazelais, wished for a more engaged and supportive population to back his crusade for better-quality design:

“I would say that the majority of the citizens of Montreal should be willing to have and to promote good quality in architecture (public and also private buildings). Good quality in architecture for me means to have buildings that connect with the culture of the local people but also have a very small ecology footprint. These are my main values in being an architect and also to express through my work. But sometimes the citizens do not think these values are important. At the moment it takes a lot of effort and it is hard to convince the decision makers to integrate these values in public architecture. If more people had the same values as I do I could have more impact on an ecological and beautiful city through my work.”

Free public Wi-Fi was also a common request.

But to my surprise, the majority of responses were much more familiar calls: more bike lanes, better public transportation, more green spaces, cleaner streets, less traffic. They were demands that, for the most part, were also not specific to a job, a profession, or a demographic at all.

From Hansa Wong in Bangkok, on Facebook:

“In my city, the heavy traffic condition is such a creativity and productivity drawback. We really need the good public transportation to truly connect people and make people feel comfortable and convenient enough to share the space and ride together. Time is more precious than getting stuck on the stagnant streets.”

From Kerstin Kunze in Berlin, on Facebook:

“Support urban gardening on unused spaces. Set up a car-pooling network. Even Berlin already has single-occupied SUVs heading to popular working areas (such as Potsdamer Platz).”

From Cornelius Stiegler in Germany, via e-mail:

“I would love public transport to be more quiet, so I could relax more or work better on my daily commute . . . Unnecessary noise takes up a lot of brain processing power, because our brain constantly checks for important cues such as speech, alarms, etc. So even if you are not aware of that (people tend to try to ignore unwanted sounds), it stresses you out. It’s not healthy either.”

And Ivana Chvostaľová, a landscape architect in Bratislava, Slovakia, via e-mail:

“It would be definitely bike and safer bike lanes so I could safer ride to work and be healthier employee. Also cafe kiosk in the green public space near my working place so I can be more productive and effective worker. And more greenery!”

My initial reaction to this was slight disappointment.

But the more these answers trickled in, and the more I thought about them, the more poignant the situation became.

Turns out, we may not be as divided in our ideas about what matters most in a city as I thought we might be, nor are we focused on the nitty-gritty complicated bits of policy and design that we slog through every day in our jobs.

Rather, even as we’re thinking about the vastly different ways we go about our lives each day in our respective cities, the things that matter to us the most are, in many cases, those we all have in common: how we move and how our sense of well-being is affected by the environment around us.

Sure, we might not agree on the best way to move through the city, but we can agree that all of us want that daily journey to be a better one. That to most of us, it’s the basic things that matter.

Photos: (top) Interventions 1 / Gardening by Madrid-based artist SpY (spy.org.es); (bottom) Free Wi-Fi at Centre Pompidou, brendangates via Flickr, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the fourth is Retrofitting Urban Life. 

  • how trite

    You asked a bunch of urbanists how to fix cities and you got typical responses. How is this surprising? How many hot dog venders do you really think are reading your blog?

    • Anonymous

      Hi, this is Christine writing from abroad. Thanks for writing. It’s a good question, actually – thanks for posing it and giving me the opportunity to reply.

      The answer is: though I wish they were, I don’t think any hot dog vendors are reading this blog. That’s why I went out of my way before writing this post to ask them.

      My hope originally for this post was to feature answers from a variety of jobs in a variety of cities all over the world. Through my various connections I managed to cue this up – I had a shopkeeper friend in Freetown Sierra Leone that was going to mail me his reply, and friends around the world that went out to ask a teacher in Seattle, a journalist in Bangkok, and, yes, a hot dog vendor in Copenhagen, among others.

      Originally most were eager to answer, but in the end all of them backed out. This fact in and of itself would have lent itself well to a blog post, and probably deserves some analysis – what is it that stops us from putting our opinions out there in the world, despite the fact that we want to? Would the world be different if this weren’t the case? Also – why are discussions about cities something for, as you say, urbanists, and simply urban dwellers? What is stopping the pool of people actively engaged in these discussions on a regular basis from being larger and more diverse?

      But as it stood I had a task at hand, to continue on with my Retrofitting Urban Life post, and saw a lot of value in those answers that I did receive. Hopefully some of the other readers did as well.

      Again, thanks for writing and please continue to be in touch.

      – Christine