Your Best City Ever! The Proliferation of Self-Help Urbanism

From 2011 to early 2013, the BMW Guggenheim Lab traveled to three cities—New York, Berlin, and Mumbai—holding workshops and events as part of a mobile "urban think tank." The project outlined 100 trends facing each city—300 trends total—that the Lab's organizers think will define the cities of the future.

An exhibition of the findings, called Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab, is up at the museum's New York location until January 5, or you can simply browse trends from each city online, from bike sharing to placemaking to improvements in water quality.

Personally, I enjoyed learning about the different cities and the unique challenges they face. I discovered that Mumbai, for instance, has far and away the most interesting innovations, from an idea to limit the number of honks a car can produce over its lifetime to the concept of reclaiming a city's history through mythology.

But what struck me about most of the lists was the need to qualify some of the most basic concepts about living in cities into "trends." I mean, comfort, green space, slums? People have been dealing with these things forever, right? At least since the dawn of, uh, civilization?

This list is part of a phenomenon I've been witnessing over the last decade or so. Due to the influx of people moving back from the suburbs, or perhaps because of the urban dwellers who are choosing to stay put, all of a sudden we seem to feel like we need more direction when it comes to how to live in these cities. We're looking for assistance—from advice (apps) to group therapy (conferences)—to deal with the perils of contemporary urban life.

I call it "self-help urbanism."

Last year's TED Prize went to The City 2.0, for example, hoping to recognize and reward several innovative ideas for the future of the city. The Atlantic Cities hosted CityLab earlier this month, examining "Urban Solutions to Global Challenges." And I'm guilty of perpetuating this model, too: For four years I led an initiative called GOOD Ideas for Cities, generating designer-led solutions to civic problems.

But it's not just the institutions that are preaching self-help urbanism. In a way, our smartphones serve as the ultimate way to help us cope. Foursquare and Yelp help us dictate the right places to be, HopStop or Google Maps help us get there with the least possible emotional duress. Last year, TimeOut New York published a guide to urban apps that would "make you a shrewd city dweller." My favorite is Type n Walk, which uses your phone's camera to place video of whatever you're about to walk into behind your texting window: "The smarter, safer way to type while walking." (Or you could just, like, not text while walking?)

We even want our choice of city to be confirmed by some kind of data: From the best places to live to America's most hipster neighborhoods, the endless livability lists cause us to believe that certain cities are more likely to produce happiness and that our own future joy or pleasure can be mathematically calculated. We're worried when our city doesn't rate as high as we think it should. Wait, my city has a lower quality of life than Ft. Collins, Colorado? Should I move there instead?

And, of course, there are actual guides to city life, including an actual self-help book called—I kid you not—Get Urban: The Complete Guide to City Living, that promises to convert the reader from a "complacent suburbanite to an exhilarated urban dweller."

In our quest to find solutions, we're also inventing new problems. Like Segrification. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But it's one of the 100 urban trends facing our cities, according to the BMW Guggenheim Lab. Here's how they define it: "A combination of 'gentrification' and 'segregation' that describes the phenomenon that occurs when rising rents cause families to move away or prevent individuals of diverse socioeconomic brackets to have access to affordable housing." See also: Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization. (If this was a urban jargon drinking game you would have just pounded your Miller Lite.)

For someone who is concerned about cities, this was the equivalent of Googling some health problem and discovering some brand new disease on WebMD. Whoa, segrification? WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? DO I HAVE IT?

Of course we need urban scholars studying our cities, and maybe, in some cases, inventing words to describe more accurately what's happening there. (Richard Florida coined the Creative Class a decade ago, and we still use it!) But in our quest to find ways to improve where we live, are we trying too hard to diagnose and remedy our urban afflictions? It's like our conferences and symposiums have turned into the Atkins Idea Festival or TEDxMacrobiotic—we'll try anything we can do to get our city in shape, fast!

Which reminds me of another term in Participatory City that tripped me up: Urban fatigue. Definition: "A condition common in city dwellers, where city life results in increased anxiety, fatigue, stress, and overstimulation. Stress produced by the demands of city life is one of the leading silent epidemics of the modern era, with serious physical and psychological effects."

Come on, really? Personally, I would just call it LIFE.

[Top image: New York City, Design architect: Atelier Bow-wow, Interior view showing the interactive installation Urbanology, Photo: Roger Kisby © 2011 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation]