Today, 50 per cent of the world population lives in a city. With some growing exponentially and other cities becoming ghost towns devoid of social amenities, it is high time to start rethinking our urban structures and focus on the people living in them. Urban Issues was one of the focal points of What Design Can Do this year, looking at new approaches to the questions life in the modern city brings up.

By Cassandra Pizzey and Bas van Lier

Every city has its own smells, Norwegian olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas told the audience, as she had four distinctive smells of Amsterdam on little sticks passed on through the hall. Watery, earthy and beastly smells and – the one evoking the most reactions – a mixture of dirty canal water, wet asphalt, and dog shit. Tolaas had made these city ‘smell-scapes’ of many different cities, including Berlin, which she put in a bottle, and Tokyo, that was turned into a game. To address the pollution issues of Mexico City she captured the smells and tried to find names for the different pollution odours. There is a message in these smells, Tolaas wanted us to realize. “The nose helps you to understand things beyond what you would expect to understand,” she said.

We need different views to cope with the many issues at hand in cities today. Certainly in a city like São Paulo where 20 million people live in the metropolitan region, six million of whom live outside the formal activity and structures of the city. Secretary of urban development of the city, Fernando de Mello Franco, sees it as his job to integrate these six million inhabitants in the formal city. “In order to do that we have to change from inclusion through consumption towards inclusion through production,” he said. The help of designers is no luxury in this context, he added. “Since we have so many problems we really need design to help us out.”

These problems and the role design can play to help solve them, was the topic of a round table discussion later on the day with De Mello Franco and other Brazilian delegates, several specialists in urban planning from Amsterdam and several designers. Here De Mello Franco rephrased his thoughts on the contributions design can make: ‘Design is not just about building objects, it can also be an instrument for politics and it can even change politics.’

Time for teaching

If education is a way out of social exclusion, Google is offering the tools to provide as many people as possible access to it through its Loon-project, and through Google Classroom. Steve Rura, creative lead at Google Creative Lab, explained how Loon intends to offer internet access via balloons high in the air to 2/3rds of the world population who currently have no access to the web. He then elaborated on Google Classroom, which is meant to give classes their teachers back. The project helps teachers to get rid of the endless paperwork that comes with their jobs so that they’ll have the time to actually teach again.

Build with waste

Many people means a lot of waste and architect Césare Peeren, co-founder of Superuse Studio, made it his trade to build with locally sourced waste only. Everything from used kitchen sinks to discarded windshields can be used as building material and to help designers and architects to find these materials Superuse created a freely-accessible harvest map as a marketplace for professional ‘upcyclers’. To demonstrate his way of working, Peeren showed different projects his studio built using discarded wind turbine blades. After 15 to 25 years these handmade plastic blades of 18 meters long and 16 tonnes of weight have to be replaced. 20,000 of these blades are discarded every year worldwide and that number is quickly rising towards 50,000. And apparently no one knows what to do with it, except for Superuse Studio that is. Peeren captivated the audience with the imaginative playground and street furniture his studio already made out of this clearly super useful material.

Closer to home

During the Breakout session ‘What Design Can Do for Apartment Living’, small groups worked together trying to find new ways of integrating outdated or badly-designed architecture in modern living. Named ‘The Empowered City’ a group of Dublin architects is trying to do just that in their beloved city where one third of people live in ‘undesirable’ apartments. They are tiny, badly constructed and privately owned, meaning they are difficult to manage. Work groups came up with ideas of integrating collective spaces such as currently unused rooftop terraces, ugly parking lots and unwanted street-level lots.

The vertical city

After talks of solutions for acute housing needs and previously unsuccessful projects, internationally-acclaimed architect Ole Scheeren showed examples of how housing is rapidly developing in fast-growing cities in South-East Asia. By creating vertical cities that integrate with existing buildings at ground and high level he is creating better, more sustainable and greener cities. Structures in Malaysia, Bangkok, Shanghai and Singapore are just a few examples of impressive work and new thoughts about the city. Perhaps the city of the future is closer than we may think.

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