Housing in Megacities is a Mess. What Can We Do About It?

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
Six teams of architects propose empowering new solutions for urban sprawl.

The urban fabric that is our collective future is busting at the seams. As megacities from New York to Mumbai swell at speeds beyond current infrastructure and development plans, cities need smart solutions for sustainable expansion. With its new exhibition, "Uneven Growth," MoMA is helping expose the dangers of unstable and inequitable development.

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Rio de Janeiro (RUA Arquitetos and MAS Urban Design)

Despite the rise of the middle class in Brazil's burgeoning economies, Rio still suffers from a challenging topography of wealth and class, with favelas juxtaposed near high-rises and a growing population looking for more. RUA Arquitetos and MAS Urban Design's proposal for intervention doesn't ignore this instinct for improvement. The groups dreamed up Veranda Products, a line of do-it-yourself construction kits aiming to make sustainable design more compelling. They even half jokingly suggested a telenovela that would showcase the products at work.

While the items they designed, such as a hanging garden or add-in balcony, seem like small additions, at a larger scale, the team feels like they could reshape the environment.

"Instead of imposing, lets create products that are convincing," says Leonard Striech from MAS Urban Design. "Consider consumer behaviors and think about products that would make life better."

The sketch above shows these easy-to-assemble kits at work, such as the Papaya Umbrella, a playful rainwater collection system (seen at bottom left). Favelas suffer from infrastructure problems, according to Pedro Evora of RUA Arquitetos. These Veranda Products are meant to promote better possiblities for urban life.

"Any person can download and build these products by themselves," says Evora. "The idea is to promote a space for ideas. Almost a third of the city was built informally, built by the people. This is part of the culture."

A dozen teams of architects from across the globe were paired up and asked to examine resource challenges and economic inequality in six major metropolises: Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, and Istanbul. The project sought tactical, small-scale, and strategic solutions that could steer growth towards more empowering ends, a response to critiques of top-down planning and design gentrification.

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Lagos (NLE & Zoohaus)

When Spanish architects from Madrid's Zoohaus started researching conditions in Lagos, they found that maps weren't helpful; the city was growing so quickly, the guides were almost outdated as soon as they were printed. To address the unique challenges of this African metropolis, where electricity is available for a few hours a day, waterways are under-utilized and zoning and regulations are non-existent, the team developed a system that was built for Lagos, according to Juanito Jones.

"How do we address the informal markets with intelligent strategy?" says team member Lys Villalba. "Let's propose new ways to use local materials . . . the locals are the experts with the real design vision."

The result was a sprawling map of the city dotted with small stations and sheds to encourage a new informal economy, a layer of speculative infrastructure set to sync with instead of fight the sprawl. Bamboo bike repairs centers, upcycling centers, and canal stations all would give a leg up to entreprenuers.

According to curator Pedro Gadanho, these DIY solutions are tools for empowering social and economic relationships in an era of more limited resources.   

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Istanbul (Atelier d'Architecture and Superpool)

On flights into the Turkish capital, one of Europe's fastest growing cities, the rate of expansion becomes stark, and not only because you may catch a glance of the massive, centrally planned TOKI housing complexes out the window. According to Superpool member Gregers Thomsen, in-flights magazines are filled with ads selling the upwardly mobile lifestyle these middle-class starter homes promise.

To fill in the gaps in community and infrastructre found among these drab structures, the Istanbul team proposed KOTI, an alternative housing alliance that seeks to spark entrepreneurship within the sharing economy while making the areas more livable.

"It’s not just about green space, it’s about resilience and self-organization," says Doina Petrescu of Atelier d'Architecture. "We wanted to add layers to the existing TOKI developments."

Social gardens, coworking spaces, and green spaces would blossom amidst the high concrete towers, supplementing an already popular system with more livable features.

"We want people take action and be part of their surroundings," says Thomsen. "We’ve become a little fragile with everything coming to us. We can’t even grow a tomato ourselves or make simple repairs."

"These cities are too complex to 'solve' in the traditional sense," he says. "With the last two to three decades of growing inequality, some of the optimism that urban living will change your life is gone. 'Uneven Growth' takes inspiration from small actions and scenarios, tactical solutions that don't impose."

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Hong Kong (Map Office and Network Architecture Lab)

How does a city with one of the highest GDPs in the world, which sits on an archipelago of islands, absorb millions of new immigrants over time? According to the Hong Kong team, you invent new ways to expand. The Hong Kong is Land proposal would add eight new islands to the burgeoning city, which is "staggeringly dense," according to Kazys Varnelis of Network Architecture Lab, and barely has land left to legally redevelop or redivide.

While the hometown team Map Office designed the system of land expansion, Network Architecture Lab sought to address the politics of the situation with The New City Reader, a free newspaper that could be employed to create a tactical intervention and spark discussion and debate. Featuring provocative articles and features such as a Monopoly-like games that addresses issues of economic disparity, the publication is hoping to spark a debate around the kind of large-scale projects that may be required to fix some of these disparities.

"One of the things that's really broken is our ability to communicate," says Varnelis who has seen how the disparities on display in Hong Kong are mirrored globally. "That's one of the things we're really trying to address."

Dwell spoke with teams representing all six cities to learn about the problems they saw and the solutions they propose. 

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New York (SITU Studio and Cohabitation Strategies)

Glittering Manhattan high-rises and sensational headlines about real estate mega-deals obscures the other side of New York, a system of crowded housing rivaling that of the other cities in the exhibition. The New York team proposed new systems for cooperative living and adaptive housing to improve living conditions for workers. Cohabitation Strategies sought to alter perceptions of property and investment by introducing Housing Cooperative Trusts, which would build value while taking real estate away from developers.

"We think housing can be a site of social production and reproduction," says Gabriela Rendon, whose team propose an affordable housing cooperative situated around a land trust, creating incentives that support tenants long-term instead of awarding developers for short-term affordable solutions. "There's been a massive loss of affordable housing, and architecture can't fix it alone."

SITU looked at how to better utilize housing stock and steer development towards more sustainable construction. Community Growth Corporations (pictured above) offer an alternative that isn't just about accomodating density, but taking these less-valuable neighborhoods and realigning the housing stock with those living there. The system of utilizing air rights and splitting up and reorganizing one- or two-bedroom family homes into multi-unit residences would better reflect the community and allow for DIY improvements.

"It's not 60 stories or nothing, it's ways that better reflect the neighborhood," says SITU's Bradley Samuels. "We want to take the capital created with these developments and turn it over to the neighborhoods."

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Mumbai (URBZ and Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab)

Radical incrementalism sounds like a conservative approach to remaking Mumbai, until you realize how many of the city's 12 million residents are living in improvished conditions. The Mumbai team's proposal to tackle the problem of uneven growth would be to liberate land rights and encourage and allow more of the same experimentation with forms that already drive growth. The team joined in the experiment, building a home from available material while reseaching the methods used by locals to construct new structures.

"We believe it is time for radical, incremental strategies that bring together local and global experience," says Matias Echanove. "Homegrown neighborhoods are the perfect laboratory for collaborative creation and experimentation in new technologies."

As he made it clear, they aren't slums, they're "homegrown neighborhoods." The real question for development isn't about designing around them, it's about encourgaing and incentivizing in a way to take advantage of these development's energy and creativity.