What I Didn’t Say About the Future

October 17, 2011

Two streetscapes in IJBurg, the newly built section of Amsterdam.

My story about the city of the future, which wound up mostly being about Almere in the Netherlands, is  in the current issue of Travel + Leisure.  And while Almere,  founded in the 1970s,  is  an extraordinary open-air museum exhibiting successive decade’s visionary schemes, it leaves something to be desired as a city. In short, it lacks the easy sociability that is the hallmark of urbanity,  especially when compared to the newest bits of Amsterdam, just across the water.

In an early draft of the story, I wrote this:

It wasn’t until I took the train to Amsterdam and spent a day exploring that city’s newest neighborhoods,  that I began to understand some things about Almere.   From Amsterdam’s IJburg district, built on network of manmade islands,  you can actually see Almere’s wind turbines across the water (a bridge is in the long range plans).  IJburg’s streets and canals are lined with an amazing assortment of very up-to-date buildings including a large development, Waterbuurt, of houses that float; a response, both visionary and pragmatic,  to rising sea levels and a shortage of land. (Architect Jan Bentham recently abandoned his revolutionary glass house in Almere for a floating house of his own design in IJBurg and now enjoys swimming from his front dock.)

On IJburg’s streets, and in its friendly shops and cafes, I sense the emergence  of the kind of spirited urbanity that’s typical of historic Amsterdam, but that Almere lacks. At a popular local wine bar, the Design Café,  I meet urban planner Ton Schaap, a genial man who orchestrated the build-out of IJburg.  He  explains his effort to imbue an overtly new,  built-from-scratch place  with the essence of Amsterdam.  Some of it is about proportions: the close relationship between the front door and the street.  It’s also about creating  “conditions favorable to street life,” like making sure that buildings on side streets have ground floor spaces suitable for retail. But when Schaap delineates the difference between Almere and Amsterdam, he says this: “The main thing is that people like other people here.”

IJburg is probably the most credible 21st century slice of urbanity I’ve seen.  But there simply wasn’t room for it in the T+L piece.   I’ll likely write  about it. Maybe when I  take a look at New York City’s waterfront and the ways we’re thinking about rising sea water in a forthcoming Metropolis column.  Probably early next year.

Another thing that I’d hoped to shoehorn into the T+L story is the exhibition, Design with the Other 90%, that’s now on display free of charge at the United Nations.  During my research for the T+L story, the term “favela chic” came up a lot.  Shantytowns, unplanned, but often quite organized, are a favorite destination for globetrotting urbanists. And they are certainly home to many more people than planned cities.   This exhibition,  organized by Cynthia E. Smith, the Cooper Hewitt Museum’s curator of socially responsible design,  is a survey of solutions that have emerged from the worlds slums and shanty towns. This isn’t a survey of do-gooder proposals from US and European design student.   Instead, it’s a collection of much needed fixes, often collaborations between slum residents and local design professionals,   mostly implemented.   Impressive projects include the Community Cooker, a garbage-fueled communal stove where the women of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, can prepare their meals and the Medellin Metrocable, a tramway that connects the city’s worst slum to the center of town.

Rather than glorifying shantytowns,  this exhibition looks at the ways that informal urban settlements can be improved by and for the people who live in them. It’s about how unplanned places can take on some of the stability of planned places. It would have made a nice counterpoint to Almere…if I could have squeezed it into that article. Very smart. Very interesting. And the fact that it’s on display at the UN (because the Cooper Hewitt is closed for renovation)  is a bonus. Go see it.

Above, the Community Cooker, Kibera, Nairobi (photo from the Cooper Hewitt website) and the Medellin Metrocable (photo from the Medellin Travel Blog).