Looking back at IDEAS CITY 2015


Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their dis­course is secret, their rules are absurd, their per­spec­tives deceit­ful, and every­thing con­ceals some­thing else.

—Italo Calvi­no, Invis­i­ble Cities

The the­me of this year’s IDEAS CITY Fes­ti­val is The Invis­i­ble City, an homage to Italo Calvino’s lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece of 1972. This the­me is root­ed in civic action, with each of the Festival’s plat­forms serv­ing as an invi­ta­tion to explore ques­tions of trans­paren­cy and sur­veil­lance, cit­i­zen­ship and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, expres­sion and sup­pres­sion, par­tic­i­pa­tion and dis­sent, and the endur­ing quest for vis­i­bil­i­ty in the city.

– From the intro­duc­tion to the New Muse­um IDEAS CITY Fes­ti­val 2015.

In May, six City Atlas interns set up shop with our tat­toos and stick­ers under a flu­o­res­cent pink tent for our sec­ond vis­it to IDEAS CITY, a sprawl­ing, bian­nu­al fes­ti­val of envi­ron­men­tal and cul­tur­al ideas spread around the blocks sur­round­ing the New Muse­um on the Low­er East Side. 

Two of our inter­na­tion­al team look back at the event, Francesca Luber­ti (from Italy) and Kun­tian Yu (from Chi­na), with pho­tos. We include a sam­ple of one of the event’s talks, between archi­tect Bjarke Ingels and sci­ence fic­tion writer Kim Stan­ley Robin­son, below the post.

Interns Jonah Garnick and Francesca Luberti (Ph: C. Zaccheo)

Writ­ers Jon­ah Gar­nick and Francesca Luber­ti (Pho­to: C. Zac­cheo)

Francesca Luber­ti

Being at one of the booths of the IDEAS CITY fes­ti­val was noth­ing like I expect­ed it to be. As an anthro­pol­o­gist with expe­ri­ence on the field, I have been to many fairs or farmer’s mar­kets with the pur­pose of recruit­ing peo­ple for stud­ies. Usu­al­ly, peo­ple reluc­tant­ly agree to par­tic­i­pate, and often only if some type of com­pen­sa­tion is involved. This is not what hap­pened dur­ing the IDEAS CITY street fair. Peo­ple were more than will­ing to approach our City Atlas booth; many were attract­ed by our col­or­ful tat­toos and stick­ers, but most who came by were gen­uine­ly excit­ed to learn more about City Atlas and sus­tain­abil­i­ty ideas for NYC. Young peo­ple, old­er folks, and even some chil­dren were wor­ried about the future of the city, and they want­ed to under­stand what can be done to imple­ment sus­tain­able solu­tions.

Many peo­ple were also eager to share their own ideas about what would make the city more sus­tain­able, and we had blank stick­ers to col­lect their thoughts. Some of the respons­es con­sist­ed of sim­ple ideas such as improv­ing the recy­cling sys­tem of the city, but all seemed to be valu­able and heart­felt by the peo­ple who wrote them.

Since the fair, I can­not stop think­ing about the con­cerns of an old­er man in par­tic­u­lar. This man was prob­a­bly home­less, and he was com­plain­ing about com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens always being closed and inac­ces­si­ble. He made me think dif­fer­ent­ly about com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens in the city. Was he right about com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens? Are they actu­al­ly often closed and inac­ces­si­ble? If so, why? And, for whom do they work?

Sus­tain­able solu­tions in the city should be acces­si­ble to the pub­lic, espe­cial­ly if they are designed for the pub­lic, like com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens. This rais­es the issue that we do not only need new ideas for a sus­tain­able New York City, but we also have to make sure that the ones we have are fair­ly used.

Writer Kuntian Yu (Photo: C. Zaccheo)

Writer Kun­tian Yu (Pho­to: C. Zac­cheo)

Kun­tian Yu

This year, IDEAS CITY was orga­nized under the the­me of The Invis­i­ble City, a sub­tle and inno­v­a­tive per­spec­tive to re-scru­ti­nize the city we live in.

Dwelling in a metrop­o­lis for a long time, espe­cial­ly in one like New York City, we start to take the idio­syn­crat­ic rules for grant­ed, and the vis­i­ble as the invis­i­ble. Buried by triv­ial chores and dai­ly rou­ti­nes, the city inhab­i­tants grad­u­al­ly spare less and less atten­tion to basic civic issues, like traf­fic con­di­tions, pub­lic spaces, and recy­cling. At least that’s what I thought before attend­ing the IDEAS CITY events. As con­veyed by the Ital­ian nov­el­ist Italo Calvi­no in the Invis­i­ble Cities (1972), upon which the the­me was built: Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears…

To my sur­prise, the IDEAS CITY booths drew a crowd deeply pas­sion­ate about mak­ing the invis­i­ble vis­i­ble. Dur­ing the half-day explo­ration of the street events, I watched par­ents bring their kids to learn about the sus­tain­able mean­ings cov­ered at the back of our tem­po­rary tat­toos, vis­i­tors from for­eign lands shar­ing sus­tain­able prac­tices of their cities, and young ini­tia­tors of start-up green com­pa­nies pro­mot­ing their busi­ness ideas. The street booths formed a spec­tac­u­lar idea pool with bril­liant thoughts to make the city a bet­ter place to live in. This reminds me of the MTA adver­tise­ment of the new­ly opened Ful­ton Cen­ter. It depict­ed the aston­ish­ing crown shaped “Sky Reflec­tor Net” of the Ful­ton Cen­ter, with nat­u­ral sun­light burst­ing through and light­ing up the under­ground pub­lic space. The slo­gan under­neath said, “What to give a city that has every­thing?” To me, this res­onat­ed with the the­me of IDEAS CITY. It is time to let the light shine through the cov­ers and visu­al­ize the invis­i­ble with­in the city.

Photo: Kuntian Yu

Pho­to: Kun­tian Yu

Photo: Kuntian Yu

Pho­to: Kun­tian Yu


Photo: Kuntian Yu

Pho­to: Kun­tian Yu

Among the promi­nent talks dur­ing the days pre­ced­ing the street fes­ti­val, Bjarke Ingels inter­viewed sci­ence fic­tion writer Kim Stan­ley Robin­son, and the video of their talk is below, with excerpt­ed quotes beneath. Ingels’ projects in New York include the Dry­line (for­mer­ly known as ‘The Big U’), the lev­ee slat­ed to be built around low­er Man­hat­tan, pro­tec­tion from a ris­ing sea, part of the Rebuild by Design ini­tia­tive.

Kim Stan­ley Robinson’s writ­ings demon­strate how choic­es in the present deter­mine the shape of the future, and what that future might be like. Full inter­view tran­script here

Kim Stan­ley Robin­son:  “I come from Cal­i­for­nia, and there­fore look­ing at the world today I see the world that we live in as a kind of large sci­ence fic­tion nov­el that we’re all writ­ing togeth­er.”

We can burn about 500 more giga­tons of car­bon and stay with­in the two degrees lim­it that sci­en­tists have declared might be safe and not spi­ral into dis­as­ters, but we’ve iden­ti­fied 2500 giga­tons of fos­sil car­bon already, and so that means that there are about 2000 giga­tons of fos­sil car­bon that are strand­ed assets…

So there are peo­ple on this plan­et that are gonna want to burn that, they are going to be care­less of the con­se­quences, they are gonna con­vince them­selves that it’s ok, and the rest of us are going to have to insist that we not burn the four-fifths of the car­bon that we iden­ti­fied.

Well this is alarm­ing and I think we need the tools of thought and we need ‘post-cap­i­tal­ism.’ And we need a way to price prop­er­ly the neg­a­tive exter­nal­i­ties as econ­o­mists used to put it, because those aren’t exter­nal­i­ties those are inter­nal­i­ties, and we’re real­ly just defer­ring the­se costs onto future gen­er­a­tions, but they pay a hor­ri­ble price com­pared to the price that we would pay.

…The utopi­an pos­si­bil­i­ty is still there, 7 bil­lion peo­ple can live on this plan­et in ade­qua­cy, sta­bly over the long haul with real­ly smart agri­cul­ture, real­ly smart tech, real­ly smart design, it is not at all phys­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble.

Its polit­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult and we have some bad infra­struc­ture that has its own path depen­den­cies, that we have to work through, and we have to work through it real­ly fast because we are in some­what of a lit­tle bit of a long emer­gen­cy, although that’s a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. But we have to do it real­ly fast…”


Updat­ed lev­ee plans can be seen here: