100 Ideas For Cities, From A Department Of Listening To Pay-Per-Honk Cars

How to make cities better? Why not ask the people who live in them? The Participatory Cities Project asked people how to make their urban homes better, and came up with this extensive list of improvements.

When thinking about the ideas and trends that will shape the future of cities, there’s no shortage of opinionated experts to turn to, from urban planners and designers to environmental justice activists and wastewater engineers. We write pretty often about what they think.


But how often do even these experts actually ask regular people who actually live in cities what they envision for the future?

That’s what the Participatory Cities project from the BMW Guggenheim Urban Lab was all about. From 2011 to 2013, teams of four facilitators constructed mobile labs–temporary buildings in vacant and unused urban spaces–in New York City, Berlin, and Mumbai. Over a period of about a few months each, the public came to a wide-ranging series of events that prompted a pretty vital discussion of the trends affecting their urban lives. Part urban think tank, part community center, and part public gathering space, the spaces had about 100,000 visitors in total.

Curators at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City distilled the results of the discussions into a package of 100 urban trends, ranging from “auto rickshaws” in Mumbai to “Disneyfication” of the built environment in Berlin, that form the basis for a unique interactive website and physical exhibition running at the museum for the next few months.

Here are few highlights from 100 trends crowdsourced and curated from people in among three of the most innovative cities around the world.


Berliners who participated in “Rethinking Garbage” discussed how waste could be transformed into raw material for functional objects. Upcycling, the concept of reusing materials for more valuable purposes than they were originally intended, requires people’s participation to change the “culture of waste” that often permeates urban locales.

Multicultural Cities:

City centers are seeing a greater share than ever of their populations made from international immigrants. This trend has huge effects on the economic, social, and physical urban fabric. The project includes the perspective of New Yorkers, led by the Latin American and Caribbean Community Center, who mapped their personal migration stories and discussed the forces that encouraged people to move.


Department of Listening:

An imaginary city office that receives and responds to citizen feedback. The idea is the fictional, 311-like office would actually listen to concerns and make it their immediate duty to consider them. Technology is making more responsive government a firmer reality. At the New York mobile lab, visitors worked with the Participatory Budgeting Project and Community Voices Heard to talk about how to bring the idea of crowdsourced government budget that incorporates people’s real spending priorities a reality.

10,000 Honks:

The amount of honking on the congested, twisting roads of Mumbai is enough to run drivers up a wall. Noise pollution is such a problem that in 2008, Mumbai taxi drivers took an oath not to honk–an oath everyone promptly ignored. In December 2012, celebrity cricket player Sachin Tendulkar visited the Mumbai lab and proposed an awesome-sounding rule: That each vehicle would be allotted only 10,000 honks by the manufacturer. Then people would have to at least think before honking. If they needed more honks, they would have to buy them–funding noise reduction projects in the city.

Liegenschaftsfond politik (Property-fund politics):

For the last decade, the city government of Berlin has been implementing a policy of selling off vacant and unused public land in a bidding process where monetary value of the site determines how it is sold. Little community input is usually considered, but a discussion at the lab–plus a series of parties in vacant spaces–brought people together to discuss what they wanted for the spaces in their neighborhoods.

Local Food:

Local food (defined as within 400 miles from source to consumption) is still only a small bit of overall agricultural sales in the U.S, but it is gaining market share as people look for healthier, fresher, and more sustainable foods. At an event in Manhattan, New Yorkers learned what culinary delights the might experience from the borough just to the north, the Bronx. Breaking bread together, they talked about what to do to fix the broken food system. In Mumbai, at “We LIke it Spicy,” participants discussed the trends being seen in Mumbai’s local and very historic spice markets over a cup of chai.

Of course, people’s ideas are not stagnant or uniform. “A city isn’t just one kind of place. You have to be able to move between different places,” says BMW Guggenheim lab advisor Nicholas Humphrey. Experiments run at the different labs showed how people’s thinking varied depending on say, their personal relationship with the trend of “gentrification” in Berlin or “Occupy Wall Street” in New York (which had sprung up just blocks from the NYC lab, located in the East Village, at the time), or urban slums in Mumbai.

In one interesting experiment to show people’s mutability, hundreds of New Yorkers were invited to come into the lab one night for something not normally ever seen in the teeming, rushed city: “It was a hugfest. It was enforced hugging,” says Charles Montgomery, a book author who is writing about happiness in cities and was one of the four lab team members. Visitors were given clothing to wear that changed color upon touch. They were also given other happiness “interventions,” such as two cups of hot chocolate, one of which they had to share with someone at the end of the line.


By the end of the night of hugging, their ideas about cities themselves had evolved, probably due to their happier, more generous mood, believes Montgomery–judging by their answers to an “urbanology” survey that had been running daily at the facility. Whereas prior to the evening, for example, the large majority of lab visitors were against the idea of having a higher minimum wage for workers who had to work overnight shifts, by the end of the event, 90% of the participants were in favor of it. “People’s values changed,” he says–”why else would that happen?”

You can see many videos from the events that took place at the different labs by looking at the exhibit’s YouTube channel here.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire