On May 4-8th, the Festival of Ideas for the New City brought artists, designers, politicians and community organizers to downtown Manhattan, infusing the city with a commitment to creativity and dedication to place. Through a string of lectures, panels, workshops, a street fair and over a hundred art installations and openings of cultural projects, the Festival brought to mind a sensibility which first made the neighborhood a forefront for the avant-garde. For four days, a dizzying array of visionary thinkers, makers and practitioners shared ideas and projects that might help articulate what kind of city we want, as well as some concrete examples of how to get there.
The panel discussions, lectures, idea workshops and outdoor events were organized around four themes: the Heterogeneous City, the Networked City, the Sustainable City and the Reconfigured City. In the first of these panels, the Heterogeneous City, speakers addressed themes of “diversity” and “change” in the city from different angles: policy, research, design and non-profit activism. The Networked City panel debated whether we should prepare for a future city in which ubiquitous computing and social networking will determine interactions with one another and with the city, or whether that point has already arrived and now we need to safeguard our personal freedoms from the exploitation of public information by the government and corporations. Jaron Lanier‘s keynote address offered an impassioned critique of the contemporary relationship between individual creativity and networked technologies and reminded audience members that technology alone does not improve lifestyle — it is only one necessary ingredient. The Reconfigured City presented the work of artists, designers and public space experts as models for how to update existing buildings, spaces and infrastructure to more democratic and open opportunities for people to interact and pool resources. In the final panel, mayors from around the world, spoke on how they have cultivated sustainable, healthy cities by using citizens as resources and aligning with larger civic bodies. Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, presented his own superlative examples of creative civic improvement, stressing the importance of “making unfamiliar the familiar.”
Central issues that arose during panels, speeches and the world café workshops included: ambivalence about individual freedom in a socially and technologically networked city; preserving informality in the city; aligning small grass roots organizations with government and corporations more able to effect ethical policy change; and introducing more green space and open space into the existing urban fabric. Emergent themes had different implications for each speaker, but underlying all of them was an urgent demand for individual agency and creative activity. Antanas Mockus, in a keynote speech that was a highlight of the conference, expanded on this theme by describing a series of initiatives that fused well-informed philosophical insight with experimental — and sometimes whimsical — steps to change citizen behavior. When Mockus wanted to green the deteriorating streets of Bogotá without adequate funds, for example, he asked convenience stores to carry “public space kits” with grass seeds and cement so citizens could improve the sidewalks in front of their homes and patchwork together a more pleasing public space.
Essential to Mockus’s approach, and true of the entire festival, is the idea that public policy is inherently tied to creativity. There is an art to constructing an environment in which the individual and the urban environment can mutually flourish. I left the Bowery on Saturday night buoyed with the knowledge that there are many avenues to improve the city, and one is self-initiated participation. On Saturday, StreetFest — the Festival’s innovative street fair — lined the Bowery, Chrystie and Rivington Streets with stalls of locally-sourced snack stands, urban farmers, alternative transportation advocates and community art collectives. As the tents went down, performances and light projections continued through the night, melding with the energy of SoHo nightlife. It was a transition that embodied the participatory spirit that the conference speakers hoped might make a different city — a downtown taken well beyond its bounds to embrace the heterogeneity that is paramount in a thriving city.
Morality emerged as an earnest and non-didactic undercurrent to the festival. Conversations and presentations approached an informal ethic of city-making rooted in an appreciation for the historic function of the city. Antanas Mockus made the clearest connections between the life of a city and the morality of its citizens. He laid out the moral motivations that drive personal behavior and argued that for a city to have a long life span, it must have a culture of citizenship in which the public is “invit[ed] to judge aesthetics,” cultivating common sense and investment in public space and public good. John Fetterman, the charismatic mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, robustly exemplified this ethos, as he described hauling his city’s crumbling housing stock back from the brink of the landfill by employing the city’s youth to restore and repurpose the dilapidated architecture.
The ability of cities to uphold an ethical culture of citizenship requires cities to maintain their dynamism and remain responsive to constant change. Rem Koolhaas delivered the opening keynote of the Festival (to coincide with the opening of OMA’s “Cronocaos” exhibition at the New Museum). In his talk and the exhibition, he sought to break down the ethics of heritage, arguing that “world heritage is not an innocent domain related to authentic values.” In fact, authenticity itself is a social construct, and the tension between the authentic and the restored approaches schizophrenia. In some ways, the best way to preserve is to leave something alone. In a similar vein, Suketu Mehta, in the Heterogeneous City, spoke to preserving the informal ways in which citizens create a sense of place and carve out identity in the dense, diverse city. He decried the transformation of Coney Island and the displacement of the Aqueduct Flea Market in Queens to make way for a casino as examples of the city losing its capacity to accommodate difference.
Sustainable cities are dense, diverse and attract newcomers. They are the ones where people want to walk because they know they will encounter the unexpected. Jaron Lanier made a claim for visceral interpersonal experience in his keynote address: “in New York you walk down the sidewalk, lock eyes with someone and your life changes.” The energy of these interactions, of these organic synapses dispersed in the urban fabric, has the potential to make cities that do more than merely sustain themselves — cities that generate ideas, choice and productivity. To realize this potential, however, demands attention at all scales: reconfiguring spaces that don’t work into spaces that do, bringing awareness to the power of individual behavior, harnessing digital technology to expand possibility while countering observation and control, and constantly questioning the status quo. The new city should be a city that always evaluates itself, and the Festival of Ideas seized an opportunity to do just that.
Caitlin Blanchfield is a freelance writer residing in New York City.