New Trends in Global Urbanism

The BMW Guggenheim Lab, that UFO of urban experimentation that took up residence in New York City and Berlin, has just published a helpful guide to the most recent trends in city activity.

The new PDF, which is downloadable for free by clicking on the picture at the top of this post, takes the form of a glossary of alphabetical terms like “Crowdfunding,” “Emotional Intelligence,” and “Sustainable City.” Together, the 100 terms are a great snapshot of not just the concepts inspiring contemporary urban planning but powerful ideas driving culture (which often comes from cities, it has to be said) as a whole. The slick design of the publication comes courtesy of the Korean firm Sulki & Min, the same designers who created the Lab’s award-winning logo and branding. I’m a fan of the titles’ alternating gradient of colors.

Many of the buzzwords included in the pamphlet come courtesy of crowd-sourced suggestions from the Lab’s time in Berlin. It shows the success of the pop-up project as an idea generator in itself, but the PDF also presents a sprawling collection of diverse ideas that cohere around a vague, transnational definition of urban cool that’s not always possible in less developed areas of the world — but these are always good goals to aim for.

Below, I picked out some of the overall currents I see running through the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s trend report, both for easy reading and to have some solid threads to follow toward the future.

DIY & Collaboration 

The NYC Resister hackerspace (Image courtesy Motherboard)

The new urbanism (though a more universal term might be appropriate — these ideas are as relevant for smaller areas as they are for larger) is all about individuals empowering themselves by getting their hands dirty and working together. Do-it-yourself is one of the Guggenheim’s terms, but that spirit is also apparent in the inclusions of “activist citizen” and “citizen empowerment.” The “maker movement” and the rise of “hackerspaces” see people taking the initiative to make their own goods, tools, and art. It’s all about the power of banding together in groups to foster innovation on a micro level.


The Washington, D.C. bike share system (Image via City Arts)

Technology is also empowering city residents on an individual and group level. The BMW Guggenheim Lab includes specific technologies like “3D printing,” “Arduino,” “Laser cutter,” and “Rapid Prototyping,” which have all contributed to the revolutionizing of the manufacturing and development process. 3D printers, though they’re still out of the reach of many mainstream consumers, are coming down in price, and already help to create alternative systems of product invention and design via rapid prototyping (minutely varying and testing designs through an iterative process). The machines have also contributed to some really interesting art projects.

Transportation is also getting a lift from technology with “Bicycles” (old-school technology, but still), “Bike sharing,” and the “Electric car,” all of which are contributing to the overall sustainability, accessibility, and convenience of our urban experience. Just wait for those public bikes to really hit New York City; they’ve already proved highly successful in Boston and Washington, D.C.

The Mood of the City 

The sprawl of Mumbai (Image via Discovery)

Another thread in the Lab’s list are concepts that consider the overall mood of a city — not just how its occupants feel, but the overall vibe, aesthetic, and personality of a particular urban space. Of course there is “Comfort,” but the PDF defines “Happy city” as the idea that “cultivating urban joy can dramatically improve the city on an emotional, infrastructural, and economic level.” In a statement that might feel obvious but should be considered more, they write, “Citizens who feel good about where they live are more likely to take care of it, spend money, and socialize with strangers.” Sounds good to me.

On the other side of the scale are terms like “Urban Fatigue,” “Megacity,” and “Disneyfication.” Cities obviously induce a certain amount of inherent anxiety, and the bigger, more alienating a city is, the more that anxiety grows. That’s certainly the case in megacities, which are defined as an urban space with more than ten million inhabitants — places like Mumbai, Mexico City, and Moscow. These feelings can be fought by the process of “Place-making,” or “making inclusive design decisions for the well-being of all.” I would think that another way to heighten the mood of a city is to embrace what the Lab calls “Urban Microhistories,” or the “individual or collective stories that often go unnoticed in large cities.” The more we can embrace the underlying spirit and temperament of a place and its people, the better we will feel living in it.

The Guggenheim Lab is stopping in Mumbai next, where it will doubtless learn some new lessons. The glossary will be continually updated, so watch out for a new urbanism bulletin in the future.

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