Act fast, start cheap, reimagine your city: Notes & quotes from TEDCity2.0 (afternoon)

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Before Session 3 started, host John Cary stepped outside the theater and rented a CitiBike from the sidewalk kiosk. Photo: Ryan Lash

Before Session 3 started, host John Cary stepped outside the theater and rented a CitiBike from the sidewalk kiosk. Photo: Ryan Lash

Anyone in the room here today, at the glossy Times Center in Times Square, has been affected by the imagination and tenacity of Janette Sadik-Khan. It was her vision that created the much-loved pedestrian zones on Broadway and the cool new CitiBikes. In 2008, when Sadik-Khan took the job as New York’s traffic commissioner, she saw how hard it was for a pedestrian to cross many lanes of vehicle traffic to move through Times Square — and yet hundreds of thousands of people were trying to each day. Her idea: Let’s block off a pedestrian zone and … see what happens. What surprised her? “How quickly people flocked to the space. We put up orange barrels and people just immediately materialized. I don’t know where they came from. It was like a Star Trek episode.” The orange barrels soon became permanent concrete barriers and planters. Now, a pedestrian zone extends from 42nd to 47th Streets, creating 2.5 acres of new pedestrian space. And what else happened? pedestrian injuries in Times Square went down 35 percent; and paradoxically, overall travel time through the space went down by 17 percent. As she says, “It doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game between traffic and public space.” Want to reimagine the streets in your city? Take her advice: Act quickly, and start cheap.

Over 20 years, Chris Downey built a great career as an architect in the San Francisco Bay Area. But in 2008, after surgery for a brain tumor, his sight began to fail. In three days, it was gone. Yet through the loss of his sight, he says, he gained an appreciation for the city that transcends the senses. “My city experience was so much richer than my sighted experience was,” he says. As you learn to negotiate without sight, he says, you’re learning to rely on your nonvisual sense. “I was struck by the symphony of subtle sounds, and the sense of smell. Some districts have their own smell, and if you’re lucky you can follow your nose to that new bakery … or to home.” Why is the city so good for the blind? He says: “I want to propose that the blind be taken as the prototypical city dwellers in the design of cities. If you design a city with the blind in mind, you’ll have a rich walkable network, with a dense array of options and choices all available at street level. The sidewalks  will be generously wide. You’ll have an accessible mass-transit system that connects all parts of the city, so blind people get to work. We want to work.”

Robin Nagle asks: Who cleans up after us? She’s fascinated by the job of cleaning up after New York, a city that produces
11,000 tons of garbage and 2,000 tons of recyclables every day.  As she puts it: “Trash is like a force of nature unto itself. It never stops coming and it must always be in motion.” And she wondered: “Who does that job? What’s it like?” So she took a job as a sanitation worker. “It was an amazing education. Everyone asks about the smell; it’s there but you get used to it. The weight is harder to get used to, bearing the hundreds of pounds on your back. Worst, actually, is the danger. The garbage itself is full of hazards, and because you work in the street, other drivers are dangerous when they race around you.” The work led to her job as New York Sanitation Department’s staff anthropologist. She rhapsodizes over the city’s hidden cadre of sanitation workers: “Their work is liturgical. They’re on the street every day, they wear a uniform, you know when to expect them, and the flow they maintain keeps us safe from ourselves. The flow must be maintained no matter what. So in the flow of your day, next time you see someone whose job is to clean up after you, take a moment to say thank you.” [See also this TED profile of Nagle, and a photoessay of some of her favorite places in New York City.]

“This is what we do … when the police let us,” says John Pita, lead guitarist of the duo City of the Sun. Whipping their heads back and forth, Pita and rhythm guitarist Avi Snow play a blend of flamenco-infected indie rock that they perfected as street musicians. It’s perfect conference music — intensely fun to listen to and watch, while leaving space to think your own thoughts.

The year that city planner Toni Griffin got hired, Architect magazine ran a cover story asking: “Can this planner save Detroit?” Of course, she knows, it’s an absurd question, the idea that one planner could make a difference. But she gamely dives in to talk about urbanologists’ favorite topic of conversation: the Motor City. When Detroit was growing, as shown in Jacob Lawrence’s astonishing series of paintings called The Great Migration, mass populations moved from the farms of the American South and the villages of Eastern Europe, seeking a better life. The city boomed. But between 1950 and 2010, as industry contracted, the city lost 60% of its population. Now, there are about 100,000 vacant parcels of land in Detroit. To put it in context: Detroit is 138 square miles (together, Boston,  San Francisco and Manhattan easily fit inside its city limits), and those 100K parcels equal 20 squares miles of vacant land — the same size as Manhattan. What do we do with all that? Community gardens are not enough. Griffin jokes: “If you just take all that vacant land and make it farmland — you can imagine the people from the Great Migration rolling in their graves. They didn’t leave the farms and come here to see their grandchildren return to an agrarian lifestyle.” Instead, as an example, she points to Shinola, a luxury watch and bicycle company. “They were drawn to the global brand of Detroit innovation, and could tap into a workforce that is still very skilled in how to make things.” She closes with 3 imperatives for fixing the city (“there are more,” she promises). 1. The city isn’t too large, the job market is too small. There are 27 jobs for every 100 people in Detroit. 2. We’re not going to be able to use all this vacant land. We don’t need that many community gardens. How can we transform the landscape for even more productive uses, such as stormwater management and generating energy? And 3. Tap the talent of locals. Help people who are already here — an 82% African American population — become business owners, acquire property, make money. “Everyone knows Detroit is bankrupt and under emergency management,” she says, “but we all agree the 700,000 residents of Detroit deserve a better quality of life.”

Shaun Donovan is the head of HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. And he leads with the unimaginably sad story of Terrell Mayes. When shots rang out in the street behind his house, Terrell and his brothers left the dinner table and headed upstairs to hide in a closet, as usual. A stray bullet passed through the house walls and into the back of Terrell’s head. Killing him. He was 3. He had a plate of spaghetti in his hand. Terrell’s tragic death, Donovan suggests, is a symptom of where he lived, in a pocket of concentrated poverty. In the US, he says, 3.9 million kids are growing up in such environments of concentrated poverty — two and a half times the population of Manhattan. And Donovan shares another sad fact: “No matter how hard their parents work, how hard these kids work in school, the single biggest predictor of their success is the zip code they grew up in. Something’s wrong when we can put a kid’s address into Google Maps and tell them what their future is.” A kid growing up in a poor neighborhood can meet with 11 different federal agencies in a day, and in the past those agencies tended to see the problems of poverty in an isolated way. At HUD, for instance, “We built housing projects, but we didn’t put grocery stores in them. Where were the residents supposed to get food? We built long hallways and dark stairwells. We didn’t think about how they promote crime.” He continues, “From the distance of Washington, you look at a neighborhood like Terrell’s and you see only problems. You miss that there are assets on the ground that can be the seeds of rebirth.” There are 4,400 neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in the US, and Donovan shares what he’s doing in Terrell’s: “inventing promise zones, where we bring those 11 agencies together to form a comprehensive approach to ending poverty.”

Lance Hosey was Inspired to become an architect by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which the hero architect remakes the world to shape his vision. “Now I look back at my young self,” he says, “and I want to slap me in my own face.” What is the real purpose of design, he asks: Is it meant to please the designer or to please the person who uses the design? From this premise, he asks us to look differently at folk architecture. “By midcentury, favelas could be the leading form of urbanization around the globe. So let’s learn from them.”

Kicking off the day’s final session, Enrique Peñalosa has something shocking to say: “A bike has the same right to safety as a $30,000 car.” He sees urban transportation not as a matter of convenience and economics but as a matter of justice, of equality for every resident. And in his own city of Bogata, Colombia, where he was mayor from 1998 to 2001, he proudly says that more than 350 km of protected bicycle ways have been created. “They are not an architectural flourish,” he says. “They are a right. We all deserve safe mobility without the risk of getting killed.” As another thought, more than 10,000 children are run down by cars each years in cities. He says: “It wasn’t always like this; we have had cities for 8,000 years. Until recently children could safely play. Now, if you shout “Look out, a car!” even a 3-year-old child knows they need to jump. Why does a car have more right than a 3-year-old child?” Peñalosa looks toward the cities we will need to build in the next 40 to 50 years, especially in developing countries, and he asks that these cities show more respect for children, the elderly. “In the new cities we will build, let’s create hundreds of kilometers of greenways! Imagine a new city where every other street would be a street only for pedestrians and bicycles.” What a fantastic opportunity for leaders in developing countries.

Alan Ricks works at MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architecture firm that collaborates with activists like Partners in Health to examine how design and building can help create health, environment, social justice. He looks at architecture as a holistic process, and shares an insight from a hospital project in Kenya. They were planning the hospital itself when they realized, as they listened and collaborated with the local team, the underlying challenge for that hospital was retaining doctors and hospital staff. “So we expanded the project to include really great housing.” What’s it all about? “Dignification” of space. Everyone deserves beauty. Architecture is valuable in showing people their own value. How the built environment is created is as important to a city as the buildings themselves. And we have to constantly ask how the choices we make can have the greatest impact in the communities we serve.

Born in the village of Gando, in Burkina Faso, Diébédo Francis Kéré was the first child in his village to be sent to school. His dream: to one day come home and build a school. Raising money from his global classmates and friends, it turned out, was not as difficult as — once back in his village, $50,000 in hand — convincing his community to let him build with traditional materials, clay and local mud. It seemed to them inappropriate to use folk materials for such an important building, but “I persuaded and persuaded.” He shares pictures of the process of laying the clay floor. It starts with fist-sized globs of local mud, laid down in place and beaten flat by a team of men with wooden pounders. Then, a team of women come in with beaters, rhythmically thrashing the floor, sprinkling on water, thrashing once more, for hours. Finally, the floor is polished with fine stones, round and round, by a team of workers on their knees. The final result, he says: “Smooth as a baby’s bottom.” The process is emblematic of his approach to building: listening to local communities, using the materials, tools and techniques that they know work, and empowering communities to shape the buildings in their own lives.

“I want to tell you the story of my mother,” says Joshunda Sanders. “She loved cities, but they didn’t love her back.” When her young son José was killed in a bus accident in Philadelphia, Sanders’ mother lost a firm grip on reality, turning Sanders’ and her siblings’ lives into an erratic, sometimes dangerous journey. It opened her eyes, as a budding journalist, to how difficult it can be to be mentally ill and poor, mentally ill and urban. (And in the African American community, mental illness can be stigmatized as a sign of weakness, and Sanders’ mother internalized this, though she was, Sanders says, “one of the strongest women I know.”) And yet living in the city makes the mentally ill visible. You see them on the street — and when you see someone mentally ill in a city, take a moment to recognize how you are transformed by witnessing them, instead of avoiding the issue. Sanders’ story is powerful and personal — offering a witness to her own resilience, yes, but also a loving and generous view of the cities and the parent who shaped her.

New Yorkers will know Iwan Baan from a famous photo on the cover of New York magazine after the Sandy blackout, or his glossy, unpeopled architecture shots. But here onstage he shares more personal images from his world travels: mind-boggling, detail-rich, colorful and juicy photos of complex, deeply unique human dwellings. In this talk with, as Chris Anderson promised, more than 150 images, Baan takes us on a world tour from the loess homes of China, cool underground homes dug into windblown soil, to a folk skyscraper in Caracas built in the skeleton of an unfinished building, to a three-story floating school in Lagos, Nigeria. After a day of thinking deeply about cities, it’s pure bliss to dive into these photos, bursting with life and ingenuity and humanity. Baan closes by quoting a friend, who says: “‘There’s a plague of sameness that is killing the human joy.’ But not here.”