World-Class Urbanism: A Glance at TEDCity2.0 and Place-making in the 21st Century

What defines the world-class city?

Who defines the world-class city?

These are the questions with which University of California Berkeley professor of City Planning Ananya Roy begins her headlining talk at TEDCity2.0. Roy takes the audience through an examination of the “cottage industry” of city officials, advocacy groups, and others who spend countless hours pondering this notion of world-class city identity. In municipalities across the globe, from Shenzhen, China, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, local leaders want to know whether they have the “it” factors for achieving world-class city status.

 UC Berkeley Professor Ananya Roy.  Source: TED Talks

UC Berkeley Professor Ananya Roy. Source: TED Talks

Yet Roy argues that in the pursuit of becoming a world-class city, these leaders and their upper-class allies ignore and marginalize the very people who make the city successful. She notes that we frequently define the world-class city by physical markers such as having “spectacular architecture,” or being “always under construction.” Meanwhile, these cities are run by the cheap labor of workers we cannot see, and they begin to blandly resemble each other in their race to the forefront.

TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, has been around since 1984, but has spawned a number of topic-specific events since then, such as TEDGlobal, TEDWomen, and of course, TEDCity itself. Aside from Roy, TEDCity2.0 features a number of notable speakers, including U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, and Enrique Peñalosa, former Green Party mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. The conference’s impressive lineup of presenters and its focus on “re”making the city (the four sections of the event are entitled “Redefining Citizen,” “Reinventing Urban Experience,” “Reimagining the City,” and “Redrawing Geographies”) suggest that TEDCity2.0 is a small-scale reflection of the very same chase for world-class identity that Roy discusses in her speech. So does TED as a whole reproduce similar issues as world-class cities when it comes to structural marginalization?

Perhaps this is not how it has to be. In describing world-class cities, Roy tells us that we can redefine our conceptions of them through three different approaches: solidarity, visibility, and dwelling. In solidarity, we as consumers take some responsibility for the sources of our goods, as seen through examples such as the fair trade movement. If we have visibility, we pledge to see the urban poor majority as the dominant force in today’s city-making. And by dwelling, Roy means that we should challenge the development patterns of world-class cities, which benefit the rich and often involve displacement and undervaluing of the spaces inhabited by the poor. In these ways, Roy asserts that we can envision and create the City2.0 upon which the TED conference is based.

TEDCity2.0 is clearly reaching toward Roy’s vision, as the unspoken theme of the conference seems to be “re”discovering the city as human. For instance, after Roy’s remarks, peace activist Mohamed Ali tells us how a terrorist is born, by taking us into the perspective of a young rural migrant to Mogadishu, Somalia, and showing us the denial of opportunity he faces upon arrival. Later on, Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta, recounts the story of a long-time resident he meets while campaigning for office, and the lack of investment that makes her neighborhood one of the more challenging parts of city. Overall, TEDCity2.0’s speakers encourage us to connect in meaningful ways with others. And not simply the “others” that look like us. Maybe it is these stories that will lend us the inspiration and know-how to make the world class city more equitable.

 Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Source: TED Talks

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Source: TED Talks

But there are also ways that TEDCity2.0 might not go far enough. Just as Roy describes how the invisible workers of today’s global cities need to become visible, perhaps the individuals who create TEDCity2.0 need to be seen in order for the event to reach its highest aspiration. This may mean anything from acknowledging and meeting the individuals who literally constructed the TEDCity2.0 stage to gaining a deeper history of the many people whose stories inspired the speakers that stand upon it.

There is a near-undeniable trendy and sexy feel to TED talks that makes us want to spread their messages to others through Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, yet it’s also important to ask ourselves what this really accomplishes. Is this true visibility and solidarity? While TED creates a fantastic space for exploring and deconstructing global cities, we must also think about the next steps. Otherwise, the event becomes the very epitome of what it analyses, a spectacle built upon the experiences of the underclass. If TED does alter how we think about the City2.0, the question we should ask ourselves is what exactly to do now with our new ways of seeing the world?

It’s precisely the answers to this final question that will define the next generation of planners, leaders, and activists. It’s the answers that will determine who we see at the next TEDCity event. But it will take time to see whether these are also the answers that will finally empower Roy’s urban majority to claim the numerous platforms that they have built throughout the world.

Stefani Cox is a master’s student in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, where she studies community and economic development through the lens of equitable and participatory processes. She can be reached at stefanicox@berkeley.edu.