Could you describe the perfect city of the future?
The perfect city has to come from the hearts, minds, and imagination of a large group of people that think it up collectively. In this way, you don’t get something that is great, but something even better – something I would call good. A good city relies on compromise. Here, everyone understands each other’s needs and people work together towards this goal. But perfect cities also have one problem …
… which is?
For about 2,000 years, every single culture has tried to envision a better place to live. I find the process of getting there far more exciting. To me, it is like going to the gym. If I went to the gym to look perfect, I would have a poster of David Beckham on my wall. But no matter how hard I tried – I would never look like David Beckham. That’s just not going to happen. But thinking about my body and being healthy – that is a good reason for going to the gym. And that is what I imagine when I think about a good city.
Could you explain the notion of a “smart city”?
The definition keeps shifting and changing. It is really hard to say what a smart city is because there is no official definition. If you ask ten planners, you are going to get ten different answers.
For me, a smart city is more about social justice – equality between people – and technology. In terms of the environment, things are smart if we take the earth’s metabolism, our needs, and the amount of remaining resources into account.
Can you think of existing examples of smart cities?
I think there are a lot of aspects and elements around, like little pockets. So far, no entire city has achieved the perfect template, but parts of Seoul, Beijing, or Shanghai certainly operate according to smart city principles. New York is definitely exploring this path. And Berlin also has smart city elements.
Could you name a few of those elements?
These aspects depend on the locality. What is smart to someone in Berlin is not necessarily smart to someone in Brooklyn. For instance, Berlin used to have a huge historic canvas. Generations of people have come here and changed it. So, what’s smart is a kind of respect for the things that have happened before, combined with a new layer of change that does not destroy or negate the past.
What can “normal” people like you and me do to improve our cities?
Be a part of it. Get involved. Do whatever it is that you want to do that is funky and triggers a great change. A whole host of people make up our cities, not only government officials or planners. If you want to put an urban farm on your roof, do it – that is part of what a smart city is all about.
So, it requires a stronger identification with our neighborhoods and cities?
Yes. I live in Brooklyn and there are more artists per square foot than in any other city on the planet. There are all kinds of creative people – tinkerers, hackers, engineers, architects, etc. At the same time – and just like any city – Brooklyn is changing, too. Right now, there are big development projects going on, but at the same time we have plenty of universities and technical as well as independent schools. It takes a rainbow coalition of different racial groups, different religions, and different income classes – but we all get along with each other.
In Berlin, everyone is talking about gentrification. As always, there are pros and cons to the phenomenon. In your opinion, how can we ensure that everyone gets an active say in how their neighborhood will change?
Well, there is something like an urban planning formula, so to say. You take all these creatives – artists, architects, thinkers, etc. – and offer them cheap rent. They will transform the entire area and “clean up” the place, which in turn makes the district more attractive. Once this has happened, rising rents will kick them out. Urban renewal is really cruel, in fact.
SoHo in New York is a great example of this process, or rather a really sad one. Name artists like Dan Flavin, Gordon Matta-Clark, Donald Judd, or James Turrell moved into those old industrial buildings when these blocks were still in pretty bad shape. They fixed them up – and eventually got wiped out by galleries. And then those galleries, in turn, were replaced by high-end fashion stores.
Is there a chance to reclaim such districts, once they are “lost”?
The best thing would be to just let the creatives stay. The creative class has learnt from its mistakes. It is getting smarter. With Terreform ONE, for example, we have signed a 50-year lease. So, at the end of this lease I will probably be very old, if not dead.
And there are also some enlightened developers like David Belt of Macro Sea (who realised the Dumpster Pools), for example. He is not only a developer, but also an artist. He knows how to finance a project and how to make it work. But he also understands that you can have a mission that is not profit-based. There are more and more people like this who are a bit more radical and understand the city in multiple dimensions. The culture has changed.
All images, incl. the header, by Terreform ONE
Interview by Alexandra Schade and Lilly Wolf