The Global View

An exhibition on cities reaches out to a wider audience through the United Nations.

Design with the Other 90%: Cities
Through January 9, 2012
United Nations Visitors Centre

New York City

Consider the following facts: There are over 400 cities worldwide with one million inhabitants, and more than 20 of them with ten million inhabitants. There are an estimated 200,000 slums around the world, and by 2030, developing countries will have more people living in cities than in villages.

“The statistics are clear,” says Cynthia Smith, the curator of socially responsible design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. “We are now a planet of cities. This massive urban migration signals a historic shift in our civilization.”

This looming urgency is the basis of Design with the Other 90%: Cities, an exhibition organized by the museum that opens October 15 in the main gallery of the United Nations Visitors Centre, in Manhattan. The choice of an off-site venue is largely logistic—the museum’s permanent location uptown, the Carnegie Mansion, will be undergoing renovation through 2013—but it is also a strategic move, to bring wider exposure to the exhibition’s global reach.

To organize the show, the Cooper-Hewitt partnered with the United Nations’ Academic Impact initiative, and met with UN staff early on, to sort through the intricacies of working with a new and unfamiliar space. Smith hopes that the new programmatic features of the exhibit, which will be open seven days a week with free admission, will attract a good slice of the one million annual visitors to the UN.

The exhibition will feature over 60 case studies and projects from Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. Smith visited many of the locations featured, to experience firsthand the different types of settlements in their various stages of urbanization.

Cities is the Cooper-Hewitt’s follow-up to Design for the Other 90%, an exhibition that highlighted design’s role in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. That show received a bit of heat from critics who suggested that it featured isolated projects and a detached view of complex global issues. While it may seem minor, the decision to change the preposition from “for” to “with” is emblematic of the current exhibit’s more systemic approach. “The most innovative solutions were hybrid ones, bridging the informal and formal city, which is increasingly required as local and regional authorities struggle to keep up with the rapid growth,” says Smith. “We changed the title to emphasize this focus.”

The new show will require visitors to trek to a different corner of Manhattan, at 46th Street and First Avenue, but Smith hardly regards the change as a setback. “With the first exhibition in the series, we found that delegations from the UN came to see the work. Now with the second exhibition, we will bring the work to the United Nations.”

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