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TED2018

Vishaan Chakrabarti: How we can design timeless cities for our collective future

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There's a creeping sameness in many of our newest urban buildings and streetscapes, says architect Vishaan Chakrabarti. And this physical homogeneity -- the result of regulations, mass production, safety issues and cost considerations, among other factors -- has blanketed our planet in a social and psychological homogeneity, too. In this visionary talk, Chakrabarti calls for a return to designing magnetic, lyrical cities that embody their local cultures and adapt to the needs of our changing world and climate.

- Architect, author
Vishaan Chakrabarti's book, "A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America," makes the case that a more urban USA would result in a more prosperous, sustainable, joyous and socially mobile nation. Full bio

Travel with me
00:13
to some of the most beautiful spots
in cities around the world:
00:14
Rome's Spanish steps;
00:19
the historic neighborhoods
of Paris and Shanghai;
00:21
the rolling landscape of Central Park;
00:28
the tight-knit blocks of Tokyo or Fez;
00:31
the wildly sloping streets
of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro;
00:37
the dizzying step wells of Jaipur;
00:42
the arched pedestrian bridges of Venice.
00:48
Now let's go to some newer cities.
00:53
Six downtowns built across
six continents in the 20th century.
00:56
Why do none of these places
have any of the charming characteristics
01:01
of our older cities?
01:06
Or let's go to six suburbs built
on six continents in the 20th century.
01:09
Why do none of them have
any of the lyrical qualities
01:16
that we associate with the places
that we cherish the most?
01:21
Now, maybe you think
I'm just being nostalgic --
01:27
why does it matter?
01:30
Who cares if there is this creeping
sameness besetting our planet?
01:31
Well, it matters because
most people around the world
01:37
are gravitating to urban areas globally.
01:42
And how we design those urban areas
could well determine
01:46
whether we thrive or not as a species.
01:50
So, we already know that people
who live in transit-rich areas,
01:53
live in apartment buildings,
02:00
have a far lower carbon footprint
02:02
than their suburban counterparts.
02:04
So maybe one lesson from that
is if you love nature,
02:07
you shouldn't live in it.
02:10
(Laughter)
02:11
But I think the dry statistics
02:15
of what's known as
transit-oriented development
02:17
only tells part of the story.
02:19
Because cities, if they're
going to attract people,
02:22
have to be great.
02:26
They have to be powerful magnets
with distinctive appeal
02:28
to bring in all those new green urbanites.
02:32
And this is not just
an aesthetic issue, mind you.
02:36
This is an issue
of international consequence.
02:39
Because today, every day,
02:43
literally hundreds of thousands of people
are moving into a city somewhere,
02:46
mainly in the Global South.
02:53
And when you think
about that, ask yourself:
02:56
Are they condemned to live
in the same bland cities
02:59
we built in the 20th century,
03:02
or can we offer them something better?
03:04
And to answer that question,
03:07
you have to unpack
how we got here in the first place.
03:09
First: mass production.
03:13
Just like consumer goods and chain stores,
03:15
we mass-produce glass and steel
and concrete and asphalt and drywall,
03:19
and we deploy them in mind-numbingly
similar ways across the planet.
03:24
Second: regulation.
03:31
So, take cars, for instance.
03:33
Cars travel at very high speeds.
03:36
They're susceptible to human error.
03:39
So when we're asked, as architects,
to design a new street,
03:41
we have to look at drawings like this,
03:44
that tell us how high a curb needs to be,
03:46
that pedestrians need to be over here
and vehicles over there,
03:48
a loading zone here, a drop-off there.
03:51
What the car really did
in the 20th century
03:54
is it created this carved-up,
segregated landscape.
03:57
Or take the ladder fire truck --
you know, those big ladder trucks
04:03
that are used to rescue people
from burning buildings?
04:06
Those have such a wide turning radius,
04:11
that we have to deploy an enormous amount
of pavement, of asphalt,
04:14
to accommodate them.
04:18
Or take the critically
important wheelchair.
04:22
A wheelchair necessitates
a landscape of minimal slopes
04:25
and redundant vertical circulation.
04:30
So wherever there's a stair,
there has to be an elevator or a ramp.
04:31
Now, don't get me wrong, please --
I am all for pedestrian safety,
04:36
firefighting
04:40
and certainly, wheelchair access.
04:42
Both of my parents were in wheelchairs
at the end of their lives,
04:43
so I understand very much that struggle.
04:46
But we also have to acknowledge
that all of these well-intentioned rules,
04:49
they had the tremendous
unintended consequence
04:54
of making illegal the ways
in which we used to build cities.
04:57
Similarly illegal: at the end
of the 19th century,
05:05
right after the elevator was invented,
05:08
we built these charming urban buildings,
05:10
these lovely buildings,
all over the world,
05:13
from Italy to India.
05:15
And they had maybe
10 or 12 apartments in them.
05:17
They had one small elevator
and a staircase that wrapped them
05:20
and a light well.
05:24
And not only were they charming buildings
that were cost-effective,
05:25
they were communal --
05:29
you ran into your neighbor
on that stairwell.
05:31
Well, you can't build this, either.
05:35
By contrast, today, when we have to build
a major new apartment building somewhere,
05:37
we have to build
lots and lots of elevators
05:41
and lots of fire stairs,
05:43
and we have to connect them with these
long, anonymous, dreary corridors.
05:45
Now, developers --
when they're confronted with the cost
05:52
of all of that common infrastructure,
05:55
they have to spread that cost
over more apartments,
05:58
so they want to build bigger buildings.
06:01
What that results in is the thud,
06:04
the dull thud of the same
apartment building being built
06:08
in every city across the world.
06:13
And this is not only creating
physical sameness,
06:17
it's creating social sameness,
06:20
because these buildings
are more expensive to build,
06:22
and it helped to create
an affordability crisis
06:25
in cities all over the world,
including places like Vancouver.
06:28
Now, I said there was a third reason
for all this sameness,
06:33
and that's really a psychological one.
06:36
It's a fear of difference,
06:39
and architects hear this
all the time from their clients:
06:40
"If I try that new idea, will I be sued?
06:43
Will I be mocked?
06:48
Better safe than sorry."
06:50
And all of these things
have conspired together
06:53
to blanket our planet with a homogeneity
that I think is deeply problematic.
06:56
So how can we do the opposite?
07:03
How can we go back to building cities
07:05
that are physically
and culturally varied again?
07:07
How can we build cities of difference?
07:11
I would argue that we should start
07:14
by injecting into the global the local.
07:17
This is already happening
with food, for instance.
07:20
You just look at the way in which
craft beer has taken on corporate beer.
07:24
Or, how many of you
still eat Wonder Bread?
07:30
I'd bet most of you don't.
07:35
And I bet you don't because
you don't want processed food
07:37
in your life.
07:39
So if you don't want processed food,
07:41
why would you want processed cities?
07:43
Why would you want these
mass-produced, bleached places
07:45
where all of us have to live
and work every day?
07:48
(Applause)
07:53
So, technology was a big part
of the problem in the 20th century.
07:58
When we invented the automobile,
what happened is,
08:03
the world all bent towards the invention.
08:06
And we recreated our landscape around it.
08:09
In the 21st century,
08:12
technology can be part of the solution --
08:14
if it bends to the needs of the world.
08:17
So what do I mean by that?
08:21
Take the autonomous vehicle.
08:23
I don't think the autonomous vehicle
is exciting because it's a driverless car.
08:24
That, to me, only implies
08:28
that there's even more congestion
on the roads, frankly.
08:29
I think what's exciting about
the autonomous vehicle is the promise --
08:34
and I want to stress the word "promise,"
08:37
given the recent accident in Arizona --
08:39
the promise that we could have
these small, urban vehicles
08:42
that could safely comingle
with pedestrians and bicycles.
08:45
That would enable us
to design humane streets again,
08:50
streets without curbs,
08:54
maybe streets like the wooden
walkways on Fire Island.
08:56
Or maybe we could design streets
with the cobblestone of the 21st century,
09:01
something that captures
kinetic energy, melts snow,
09:06
helps you with your fitness when you walk.
09:09
Or remember those big ladder fire trucks?
09:13
What if we could replace them
and all the asphalt that comes with them
09:16
with drones and robots that could
rescue people from burning buildings?
09:20
And if you think that's outlandish,
you'd be amazed to know
09:24
how much of that technology
is already being used today
09:27
in rescue activity.
09:30
But now I'd like you
to really imagine with me.
09:33
Imagine if we could design
the hovercraft wheelchair.
09:36
Right?
09:42
An invention that would
not only allow equal access,
09:43
but would enable us to build
the Italian hill town of the 21st century.
09:47
I think you'd be amazed to know
09:54
that just a few of these inventions,
responsive to human need,
09:56
would completely transform
the way we could build our cities.
10:01
Now, I bet you're also thinking:
10:06
"We don't have kinetic cobblestones
or flying wheelchairs yet,
10:08
so what can we do about this problem
with today's technology?"
10:12
And my inspiration for that question
comes from a very different city,
10:15
the city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
10:20
I have clients there
10:23
who have asked us to design
a 21st-century open-air village
10:24
that's sustainably heated
using today's technology,
10:28
in the heart of their downtown.
10:33
And that's to cope
with their frigid winters.
10:35
And the project is both poetry and prose.
10:38
The poetry is really
about evoking the local:
10:42
the mountainous terrain,
10:46
using colors to pick up
the spectacular light,
10:47
understanding how to interpret
the nomadic traditions
10:51
that animate the nation of Mongolia.
10:55
The prose has been the development
of a catalogue of buildings,
10:59
of small buildings
that are fairly affordable,
11:03
using local construction
materials and technology
11:06
that can still provide
new forms of housing,
11:09
new workspace,
11:12
new shops
11:13
and cultural buildings,
like a theater or a museum --
11:14
even a haunted house.
11:17
While working on this in our office,
11:21
we've realized that we're building upon
the work of our colleagues,
11:22
including architect Tatiana Bilbao,
working in Mexico City;
11:26
Pritzker laureate
Alejandro Aravena, working in Chile;
11:32
and recent Pritzker winner
Balkrishna Doshi, working in India.
11:36
And all of them are building spectacular
new forms of affordable housing,
11:40
but they're also building
cities of difference,
11:45
because they're building cities
that respond to local communities,
11:47
local climates
11:51
and local construction methods.
11:53
We're doubling down on that idea,
we're researching a new model
11:57
for our growing cities
with gentrification pressures,
12:01
that could build upon
that late-19th-century model
12:05
with that center core,
12:07
but a prototype that could shape-shift
in response to local needs
12:09
and local building materials.
12:15
All of these ideas,
to me, are nostalgia-free.
12:18
They all tell me
12:23
that we can build cities that can grow,
12:25
but grow in a way that reflects
the diverse residents
12:28
that live in those cities;
12:31
grow in a way that can accommodate
all income groups,
12:33
all colors, creeds, genders.
12:38
We could build such spectacular cities
that we could disincentivize sprawl
12:42
and actually protect nature.
12:47
We can grow cities that are high-tech,
12:51
but also respond to the timeless
cultural needs of the human spirit.
12:53
I'm convinced that we can build
cities of difference
12:59
that help to create the global mosaic
to which so many of us aspire.
13:03
Thank you.
13:07
(Applause)
13:08

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About the speaker:

Vishaan Chakrabarti - Architect, author
Vishaan Chakrabarti's book, "A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America," makes the case that a more urban USA would result in a more prosperous, sustainable, joyous and socially mobile nation.

Why you should listen

As the designer for Brooklyn's Domino Sugar Refinery, the first mixed-use skyscrapers in Philadelphia's Schuylkill Yards project, a nonprofit artist space in Harlem, attainable housing in Newark and a contemporary urban bazaar in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Vishaan Chakrabarti is engaged in some of the most distinctive projects redefining global urban life in the 21st century. He has also advocated for more equitable and ecological cities in New York Times op-eds such as "Penn Station Reborn" and "America's Urban Future." In his 2013 book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, he illustrates through hard data and soft cartoons why Americans would be more prosperous, sustainable, joyful and socially mobile in a more urban nation.

Chakrabarti is the founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), a New York-based architecture studio dedicated to the advancement of metropolitan life. He is also a Professor of Practice at Columbia University, where he teaches architectural design and urban theory. Prior to founding PAU, he served as the director of planning for Manhattan under Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the tragic events of 9/11, during which he helped to plan the High Line, the reconstruction of the World Trade Center and the expansion of Columbia University. Born in Calcutta, Chakrabarti holds degrees from Cornell, MIT and Berkeley.

More profile about the speaker
Vishaan Chakrabarti | Speaker | TED.com