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Cities. They’re where it’s at, y’all. Notes & quotes from TEDCity2.0 (morning)

Posted by: Helen Walters
"Cities are where hope meets the street, y'all." Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed, speaking at TEDCity2.0. Photograph: Ryan Lash.

“Cities are where hope meets the street, y’all.” Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed, speaking at TEDCity2.0. Photograph: Ryan Lash.

TEDCity2.0 is a day-long TED event for urban innovators, organizers, stewards and builders–and it’s happening right now, with a hub event taking place at the Times Center in New York City, and 138 self-organized TEDx events also being held in 48 countries, including Vietnam, Malawi, Mexico and Egypt.

Here’s what happened in the morning sessions:

Just what is a “world-class city” anyway? That was the question posed by urban planner and Berkeley professor Ananya Roy as she kicked off the day. Creating one, complete with shimmering towers of glass and steel is a fervent quest of city planners around the world… and yet, she argues, it’s entirely the wrong focus. Instead, we need to celebrate and embrace the invisible majority  so often ignored or overlooked in the quest for “world-class” status.

In Mohamed Ali‘s hometown of Mogadishu, Somalia, 70% of young people are unemployed. They have nothing to do, and they grasp opportunities wherever they arise. Sometimes, those opportunities come from less-than-savory sources. Terrorist groups, for instance. Instead, we need to think about inspiring young people to be entrepreneurs. That, he argued, is how we can “empower young people to be creators of the economic opportunity they are so desperately seeking.”

Eric Liu at TEDCity2.0 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Eric Liu at TEDCity2.0 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

“I’m a teacher and practitioner of civics in America,” Eric Liu announced as he walked on stage. Then he asked us all to wake up. It was a dark joke… it turns out, our lack of care or thought for the mechanics of civics have insidious effects. “Those who do understand how power works, how a bias becomes a policy, how friendship becomes a subsidy or a slogan becomes a movement wield disproportionate influence and are happy to fill vacuum of ignorance of the great majority,” he argued. We must bypass these monopolies of control, and use cities as a laboratory for experimentation and innovation.

As many as 99% of women experience street harassment at some point in their lives. Emily May certainly has, and she took the stage to talk about Hollaback, a TED City 2.0 Prize-winning program to help solve the problem that now operates in 65 cities in 22 countries. “Together we tell the story of a global epidemic,” said May as she urged the audience to take action and get involved. “We’re fierce, we’re loving and we’re coming to a town near you.”

“Cities are where hope meets the street, y’all,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed as he took the stage. He shared a charming story of meeting with a constituent when he was running for office. His pitch fell flat; she didn’t care about his shiny airport, fancy restaurants or the presence of Fortune 500 companies in the city. She cared about the derelict recreation center near her house. She cared about young people scaring her if she left the house. And she cared about being worried about taking a bus at night. Reed shared the way he’s approached redefining Atlanta and described how he took the lessons to heart. “She helped to make a mayor and she changed a city,” he concluded.

At the start of the day, co-host Chris Anderson asked his mighty twitter army to tell him: What do you love about your city? He jumps onstage now to read some answers:

Urban freestyling on the TED stage, you say? That’s right. Bklyn Beast came along to jump, literally, all over the TED stage with extraordinary energy and athleticism that inspired whoops from the audience and baffled confusion from your correspondent.

A break for caffeine and snacks and then we’re right back at it. “The worst idea we’ve ever had is suburban sprawl,” said Jeff Speck, who came on stage to champion the idea of the walkable city. He shared the impacts within cities that had successfully adopted walkable principles and excoriated the car, lyrically describing it as a “gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device.”

Jason Sweeney at TEDCity2.0 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Jason Sweeney at TEDCity2.0 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Jason Sweeney suffers from vertigo, dizziness, tinnitus and frequent panic attacks, conditions he shared with us as he took the stage. You can feel the audience reach out to buoy him up. But these unnerving experiences are also the reason he focuses on finding quiet spaces within cities such as the one in which he makes his home, Adelaide, Australia. He shared his TED City 2.0 Prize-winning project, Stereopublic, and even challenged the TED audience to be quiet for 30 seconds. It’s really startling what you hear when you stop to listen.

Benjamin Franklin as hacker? What? That’s the case Catherine Bracy made as she described the influence the founding father has had on Code for America, the organization that champions civic hacking in cities. Describing wonderful moments of civic hacking in cities from Honolulu to Mexico City, she makes the case that regular people can do more than protest or sign a petition to make an impact. Even if you have no programming experience at all, you can still get involved. “Hack with us,” she concluded. Inspiring.

From the moment retired political science professor Dennis Dalton joined the faculty of Columbia university in 1969, he was keenly aware of the “wall of separation between the town and the gown.” But in 1993 he spotted “a crack in the Ivy League wall” when three local Harlem residents began to audit his class. It was, he described, a revelation, as all involved were newly exposed to different experiences and ideas. The surprise for this audience: when it turned out that all three of those class auditors were in the room. They stood, to great applause.

Felice Belle at TEDCity2.0 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Felice Belle at TEDCity2.0 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

“Writer, teacher, technophile and pop culture enthusiast” Felice Bell concluded the second session of the day, reciting a beautiful, lyrical paean to the city and its residents, “the nurses, the morticians, the drummer, the front man, the unemployed, the unseen price tags on individual life.”

Watch all these talks in the TEDCity2.0 archive »