TEDCity2.0: Citizenship, Quiet Spaces, Raw Wisdom, and the Science of Design

Since 2005, TED, the organization famous for its annual conferences and online repository of talks and performances, has awarded the annual TED Prize to a project it believes can change the world. In 2012, the $1 million prize was awarded not to an individual or project, but to an idea: The City 2.0, a more sustainable and more just city of the future. TED’s City 2.0 initiative, birthed from the prize, encompasses grants to promising projects, an online platform for sharing stories of the new city, and the TEDCity2.0 conference, held last Friday in New York City along with more than 100 simultaneous TEDx events around the world that tuned into the talks through a livestream.

TEDCity2.0 brought together 20 local and global leaders from the realms of government, technology, design, art, and business to discuss how to build a better urban future. Alan Ricks of MASS Design discussed the architect’s role in building community dignity as well as functional and beautiful spaces; architect Francis Kéré described his utilization of local materials and skills to create community-owned facilities in his hometown in Burkina Faso; Catherine Bracy of Code for America encouraged non-techies to engage in civic hacking through an expanding network of local brigades supported by the organization; and NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan explained how they are bringing their respective agency’s resources to bear in creating safer, more sustainable, and more equitable cities.


Eric Liu at TEDCity2.0 | Photo by Ryan Lash

Eric Liu, a “civic entrepreneur” who previously served as a speechwriter and a deputy domestic policy advisor for President Bill Clinton in addition to writing on democracy citizenship, presented the work of his organization Citizen University. Liu aims to reform the teaching of civics, a subject he believes has lost its luster, to better equip citizens for participation in the public process. According to Liu, the ordinary citizen of today is illiterate in power, lacking an understanding of how influence is turned into policy and allowing their power to remain dormant by subcontracting the business of politics to a professional elite. Liu sees the city as a laboratory for self-government where this revival in civic power is most likely to take hold thanks to its scale and more nimble structure in relation to the federal and state levels.

While Liu is looking for citizens to speak with a louder voice, Jason Sweeney is continually searching for quiet. An experimental artist based in Australia, Sweeney is the creator of Stereopublic, a project to crowdsource quiet spaces in cities worldwide and compose ambient music that responds to the specific environment. Sweeney is an unlikely lover of cities: he experiences intense anxiety from prolonged exposure to the hustle and bustle that characterizes many healthy urban centers. Stereopublic is his attempt at creating a “sonic health service for built environments.”


One quiet place in New York City | Image via Stereopublic

Dennis Dalton advocated for breaking down the walls that separate academia from community, a pursuit made evident by his endearing choice to spend his retirement, after a long tenure as a professor of political science at Barnard College, teaching philosophy to his granddaughter’s elementary school class. While still teaching at Barnard, Dalton’s lectures on political philosophy, specifically the life and ideas of Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi, were regularly attended by a group of local Harlem residents. Dalton drew upon their experiences and memories in his scholarship, “infusing [his] lectures with some of the raw wisdom of our city” and stitching together the oft-divided town and gown to the benefit of his enrolled and auditing students. And true to his goal of “hustling ideas in the streets,” Dalton, at the behest of his cohort of community students and friends, took his lectures beyond the campus to a public audience at the Apollo Theater. At a time when the role of the university, specifically Columbia University and New York University, in its neighborhood and city is continuously debated, Dalton’s commitment to the interchange of ideas in spite of supposed barriers is a model for using knowledge from all sources to enhance an educational environment.

A number of architects at the conference used their TED talk to reject the idea of the architect as a single visionary entitled to carry out his or her artistic objective. One such speaker was Lance Hosey, who advanced an architecture based in the science of design. Hosey asserted that studies of beauty — in the built environment, human form, and painting — have uncovered ideal proportions and patterns which can inform all design to create healthier, more livable environments. He pointed to fractal patterns that occur unintentionally in formally and informally designed environments, namely Brazilian favelas that arise from ad hoc design based on the innate sense of beauty of their many co-creators. While I was not fully convinced by the suggestion that the source of this sense lies in a biologically inherited vision of the landscape that birthed the first humans (the African savannah), his fundamental conviction that design must create compelling places for the people who will use them, not a place to satisfy the art of the designer, is a continuously welcome reminder.

The roster of presenters at TEDCity2.0 also included UC-Berkeley Professor of City & Regional Planning Ananya Roy, Iftiin Foundation founder Mohamed Ali, Hollaback! Executive Director Emily May, Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed, urban designer Jeff Speck, architect Chris Downey, NYU Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies Robin Nagle, J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City Director Toni Griffin, former Mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa, photographer Iwan Baan, and journalist Joshunda Sanders. Performances included capoeira, parkour, and dance by Bklyn Beast; spoken word by Felice Belle; and guitar-driven music by City of the Sun. Videos of each TEDCity2.0 session can be viewed here.

Jonathan Tarleton is a writer, activist, and urbanist with aspirations to contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive urban environment. He is a former digital editorial assistant at The Architectural League and has made his way to Brooklyn from his roots in Georgia and North Carolina.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.