Looking back at IDEAS CITY 2015

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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.

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

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8Rr2v9VL2E]

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:


Main Photo: Writers Jonah Garnick and Francesca Luberti, taken by C. Zaccheo