Between Venice and Quito: Bringing Together Design and Diplomacy Around Urbanization

Posted by R. Ian Klaus
October 13, 2016
A view of Busan, the Republic of Korea’s second largest city after Seoul, with a population of approximately 3.6 million as of 2010. [UN Photo]

London Design Biennale kicked off in Somerset House along the Thames in London on September 7. That same day in New York, diplomats met in the United Nations Headquarters on New York’s East River for the final round of negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of Habitat 3, the every-twenty-years United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development. The two convenings focused on the future of cities, but the impossibility of being at both illustrated an ongoing question: to what degree, if any, does the design community of artists, architects, and planners interact with the foreign policy world of diplomats, policy wonks and development and security experts? Or, to reverse the question, how many foreign policy practitioners visited Somerset House over the last three weeks of September?

The shared subject matter is clear. While diplomats in New York negotiated language regarding the importance of design and public space in sustainable urbanization, a number of designers in London presented new visions for what urban spaces, and even international relations, might look like.

In London, Fernando Romero laid out plans for a new urban space on the U.S.-Mexico border, “the first binational city to be built from zero,” as the Mexican architect put it. 

A rendering showing Fernando Romero’s border city, which features themed zones laid out in a hexagonal plan. [Photo via London Design Biennale]


Chinese and Cuban submissions, meanwhile, focused on new urban structures to expand access to both housing and technology in cities. One city-focused panel, with an agenda as ambitious as that of the diplomats in New York, took on the question of how to “design great places for the future.”

Indeed, the design community, not unlike the foreign policy world, has paid no small amount of attention to cities this year. Earlier in the year, at Venice Biennale, one of the more intriguing takes on the future of our cities was offered by the British Pavilion. “Home Economics,” as it was titled, provided five architectural propositions, designed around different windows of time: Hours, Days, Months, Years, Decades. “The way we live is changing radically through time,” the curators of the exhibition noted, “We believe that British architecture is not responding to the challenges of modern living  --  life is changing; we must design for it.”

Meanwhile in New York, an appreciation for the challenges and rapidly developing change in the urban space provided the imperative behind the New Urban Agenda negotiations. “By 2050 the world urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanization one of the 21 century’s most transformative trends,” reads the opening section of the agreed upon New Urban Agenda draft, “We are still far from adequately addressing these and other existing and emerging challenges; and there is a need to take advantage of the opportunities of urbanization as an engine of sustained and inclusive economic growth, social and cultural development, and environmental protection, and of its potential contributions to the achievement of transformative and sustainable development.”

It is not only the language  -- virtually a Google Translate exercise from Design-Speak to Diplo-Speak  --  where there is a great deal of cross over, but in the agendas themselves. The concern with informal and accessible housing, particularly in the Global South, laid out by the Pritzker Architecture Prize winning Alejandro Alavera in Venice, is to be found throughout the draft New Urban Agenda. Diplomats and development experts increasingly recognize the importance of urban space, and designers are again taking on the question of social engagement  --  yet dialogue between the two groups is limited at best. 

On crucial issues of mutual concern — climate change, refugee integration, inclusivity, security — the foreign policy world and the design community appear to be having parallel but disconnected conversations.

Late last month, the State Department and the Royal United Services Institute in London convened a group of foreign policy and design experts in the shadows of Whitehall to discuss this dynamic with a particular focus on security and cities. A number of challenges surfaced, including the lack of a shared vocabulary, but chief among them was the question of scale, both geographically and temporally. In working on products, places and processes, designers might address everything from park benches to the locations of thoroughfares that give life to or strangle a community. Meanwhile, security experts focus on everything from the communication devices of first responders to long-term questions of radicalization. 

In this Sunday, March 15, 2015 file photo, a model of a planned new capital for Egypt, is on display at the Egyptian Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. It’s a monumental, ambitious project: An eco-friendly city the size of Singapore in the desert outside Cairo to serve as a new capital, with skyscrapers and a park more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park. [AP Photo/Thomas Hartwell, File]

How can we focus the conversation in a way that ensures the right people are at the table?

One idea which we will try at Habitat III in Quito, is to borrow the framework from the British Pavilion itself: Hours, Days, Months, Years, Decades. This temporal approach can provide a framework to bridge the foreign policy and design communities’ conversations around, for example, security.

Let’s take hours. Terrorist attacks, occurring in urban spaces with increasing frequency all over the world, require immediate action in dense and complex urban spaces. Leading architecture groups in the United Kingdom and the United States have helped develop design and policy around bollards to partially address this issue. The conversation should extend to the design of public spaces in an era of urban terrorism.

Or days. The extended period after Hurricane Sandy during which lower Manhattan had no power is unlikely to be the last time a city loses power and services for days. The causes could be many, from climate change related extreme weather events to cyber-attacks that shut down electrical systems or data-related services. These are increasingly areas of concern for security and development experts, but it is in cities that mobility and security will need to be maintained in the course of such events.

In this Nov. 1, 2012 file photo, much of lower Manhattan remains dark, following Hurricane Sandy, as viewed from the darkened Manhattan side of the pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. [AP Photo]

Or, to look further out, decades. Economic, democratic, and social inclusion, and to take in many ways their opposite, radicalization, are not simply issues of political economy, ideology, or religion. In a city, they are also design issues. The urban studies lab Clustr in Egypt has identified ways in which the design of Cairo influenced the revolution of January 2011, while Social Syntax, the science-based design firm in the United Kingdom, has done extensive work linking issues of housing and inclusivity to the London riots of August 2011.

The benefits of an ongoing conversation between these communities would be numerous, and extend far beyond dialogue. As the New Urban Agenda draft makes clear, community engagement and bottom-up approaches are integral to sustainable urbanization.

Yet it is more likely to be local designers and design councils than foreign ministries and development agencies who can identify such nascent approaches. In the U.S., a sophisticated set of these design and urban planning institutions exist  --  such as the Van Alen Institute, Architectural League, Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Kounkuey Design Initiative  --  with hundreds of years of experience in assisting communities make better development decisions. These organizations know how to navigate local, state, and federal development processes, but their knowledge has rarely been brought to bear by international development agencies and institutions. Meanwhile, the trend for sharing between and among cities has only grown stronger over the last decade, and national governments are particularly well suited to encourage such sharing.

For urbanists and diplomats interested in the foreign policy implication of urbanization, Habitat 3 is the largest event in decades, with upwards of 40,000 participants expected. Habitat 4, however, will not occur until 2036. Meanwhile, as the ringing clock of Virginia’s Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway reminds us, the business of the city marches on.

Looking forward, a core group of designers, diplomats, and development experts  --  working with groups like Theatrum Mundi and LSE Cities  --  should identify opportunities to build these bridges at events that are normally the exclusive domain of one group or the other, including this year’s C40 Summit in Mexico City and next year’s United Nations General Assembly.

In this Oct. 24, 2011 file photo, cars are parked on an overfly on a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand. [AP Photo]

In an increasingly urbanized world that finds cities at the forefront of global issues such as climate change, terrorism, and shared economic growth, solutions must not only be developed locally but shared globally. To do so, designers and diplomats must work more closely together. 

About the Author: Ian Klaus serves as U.S. Department of State Senior Adviser for Global Cities.

Editor's Note: This story also appears in the Habitat III: Quito Comes to You publication on

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