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Review: Investigating the Here and Now in Design With the Other 90%: CITIES

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Installation image, Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, David J. Sencer CDC Museum, February 4-May 24, 2013.

If you ever had any doubt that where you live in the world correlates directly to your access to healthcare, not to mention your very chances of survival, Design with the Other 90%: CITIES will convince you that it does. On view now through May 24 at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum near Emory, the exhibit catalogs dozens of specific design solutions to the challenges faced by people living in informal settlements or slums from bamboo loofah wall panels to babajob.com, a social network for job seekers. These emerging and mega-sized slums are home to three out of every five people in the Global South, sub-regions of megapolitan areas found primarily in the southern hemisphere. People there live in deplorable conditions without adequate housing, sanitation, water, and power, and, without the confidence that their homes will still be home tomorrow. Located on the fringes of global cities like Bangkok, Cape Town, Mumbai and So Paulo, this population is expected to swell from almost one billion today to over two billion by 2030.

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Not immune from the same correlation, a related set of ideas about American health and our built environment has taken hold locally among professional circles in urban policy, planning and public health, led largely by the work of the CDC. Research links our car-culture and urban sprawl to disease, injury, and death by way of poorly designed transportation networks, decreasing levels of physical activity, and bad air quality. As global urban populations rise from just over 50% of all people now to over 70% by 2050, our role in planning for global growth and health matters. But our track record on urban form can hardly stand as a good example to the emerging and developing economies of the world.

Design with the Other 90%: CITIES stops short of making that connection. The exhibition takes a small-scale, incremental, action-oriented position that simply tries to help resolve the challenges of living in informal settlements. It sets aside global health policy and instead highlights very specific design solutions that range from the lifesaving and practical, to artful awareness. Appropriately, the show is organized in association with the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and is well worth the few extra minutes of security clearance required to enter the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s campus on Clifton Road. A sign at the exhibit’s entry in the CDC’s gallery space explains its goal in hosting the show: By highlighting innovative designs meant to improve the lives of all, we acknowledge our collective responsibility for both solutions and actions.

The wide of range projects are loosely organized around the following headings: Exchange, Reveal, Adapt, Include, Prosper, and Access. Vibrantly colored, overlapping images are printed on sheets of Tyvek, the brand name moisture barrier wrap for houses, which is also a familiar sight in the jumbled composition of informal settlements. Simple wood tables and cases display a variety of models, documents, and product samples. The exhibition is spread over two levels and provides a much more tactile and engaging learning experience than the companion exhibit book, also produced by the Smithsonian.

Several projects simply help their respective residents understand what is going on around them, suggesting strategies for making change and also planning for their future. One of CDC Museum curator Louise Shaw’s favorite projects is called Grassroots Mapping. It’s a kit used in Peru that includes a camera, which is then raised by a helium balloon to take aerial photographs. The resulting images offer valuable perspectives for communities, assisting with mapping for sewers, roads or other community upgrades and supporting land title claims with local governments. Related projects teach inclusive planning methods for community engagement, strategies for creating public space and better food markets. An urbanism manual from Buenos Aires illustrates the basics of how to assemble a new settlement, including practical advice about health, sanitation, drainage ways, roads, and how to lay out housing plots.

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Most of the projects on display are specific design responses to a variety of challenges, such as Design With Africa: Bicycle Modules, a set of modular metal pieces and basic bicycle parts that can be assembled with scrap wood, cable and other found materials into a bike or converted into a cart, tricycle or other innovation.

Design With Africa: Bicycle Modules, on view in Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, David J. Sencer CDC Museum, February 4-May 24, 2013. Designers: Roelf Mulder, Byron Qually, Richard Perez, and Ryan Fowler, …XYZ Design. Organizer: Design Institute, South African Bureau of Standards. Rustenburg, South Africa, 2005 – present. Bicycle components, found objects and materials, sheet metal.

Several projects illustrate construction techniques for houses, latrines and other structures. A full-scale mockup of a wall section made of sandbags stands in one corner. Other projects include buildings made of gabions, a reusable Plastic Formwork System in South Africa for poured concrete walls, brick manufacturing techniques, interlocking soil blocks, bricklaying strategies that maximize thermal comfort and seismic stability and easy-to-make wall and roof panels for thermal insulation. The Millennium School Bamboo Project is inspired by vernacular construction techniques that withstand typhoons, illustrated by a model of a Philippine school that is easy to build and maintain. The Safe Agua Water System provides pedal-power to pump water into elevated storage tanks to improve cooking and washing tasks in the home.

Safe Agua Water System, on view in Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, David J. Sencer CDC Museum, February 4-May 24, 2013. Penny Herscovitch, Dan Gottlieb, and Liliana Becerra, Designmatters, Art Center College of Design; Gota a Gota designers: Stella Hernandez, Nubia Mercado, and Diane Jie Wei. Relava designers: K. C. Cho, Jacqueline Black. Collaborators: Un Techo para Mi Pa’s Social Innovation Center, Campamento San Jos community. Santiago, Chile (prototype Pasadena, CA), 2008 – present. Gota a Gota: plastic barrel, wood frame, hose, injection-molded plastic faucets, ABS plastic faucets, bicycle parts; Relava: powder-coated wire frame, plastic tubs, drain connector.

Another building project in Chile proposes incremental housing structures that allow residents to adapt and expand them over time to suit their housing needs. Each begins as a simple core that includes a kitchen, bathroom and major utility connections, and then much like the informal sheds and stilted structures that are typical of slum settlements, residents can add other spaces as needed. Other innovative structures include lifeboats and floating schools with solar panels to serve flood-prone areas of Bangladesh, trash-burning communal ovens, and schools on wheels. The Bang Bua Canal Community Upgrading is a community improvement project, organized around a new public walkway along the main canal in Bangkok which includes new housing with safer living conditions.

Knowing that wealth improves health, other projects attempt to address business opportunities for people in informal settlements, such as a microfinance project set up for safe home improvement, and a mobile phone money transfer system. Cristal de Luz teaches a self-sufficient business model for women through the creation of crocheted-covered globes. Urban Mining, a business model in Heliopolis, the largest favela in So Paulo, demonstrates a decentralized waste management process that recycles discarded materials, and combines it with concrete to form new, composite, prefabricated building materials for improved housing structures.

Some projects in the exhibition are more purely about improvements in technology, for example bio-latrines, innovations in farming techniques, systems for providing health information, better medical kits, and ways to provide internet access. One such idea is a mobile phone charger that harnesses the energy from your bike, and, through open-source design, can be brought to market for just $10. Other projects explore transportation networks and technologies more common in the developed world, like innovative bus systems and cable funiculars that link remote slums into metro transit systems and job centers.

There are a few projects that are less about answers and more about awareness, using art to communicate ideas about settlement life. 28 Millimetres: Women Are Heroes is a remarkable set of installations in settlements near Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro and other cities by artist and photographer JR. He uses a wide angle, 28 mm lens to photograph women’s faces at close range and then pastes them across entire building facades, stairs and other structures. The material provides waterproofing for homes, and the images honor and offer identity and humanity to the women in the community. Another project in Rio de Janiero by Dutch design firm Haas&Hahn is called the Favela Painting Project. It employs local youth to paint large murals that not only bring art and color to communities, but international media attention to the plight of slum residents.

28 Millimetres: Women Are Heroes, on view in Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, David J. Sencer CDC Museum, February 4-May 24, 2013. Artist: JR, with Kibera and Morro da Providncia settlement communities. Kibera informal settlement, Nairobi, Kenya, and Morro da Provid´┐Żncia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2007 – 9. Photographic reproductions on vinyl.

The exhibit as a whole can look like a scattershot collection of projects. But with meaningful depth and range, the strength of Design with the Other 90%: CITIES is its willingness to set aside, at least for a moment, the larger discussion about global health policies which, while essential to making systemic and widespread improvements to life in informal settlements, can move slowly and seem disengaged from people’s lives. Sometimes, it seems, we need to look our brothers and sisters in the eyes and help them in the here and now. Design with the Other 90%: CITIES does just that. It offers a glimpse of our own humanity.

Ryan Gravel offers an architect’s perspective to urban planning, bringing the knowledge of building dimension and design to site planning, concept development and public policy. His master’s thesis in 1999 was the original vision for the ambitious Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile transit greenway that transforms a loop of old railroads with light-rail transit, parks and trails to generate economic growth and protect quality-of-life in 45 neighborhoods throughout the central city. Eight years of his subsequent work as a volunteer and later in the nonprofit and government sectors was critical to the BeltLine’s success, which is now more than a $2 billion public-private initiative in the early stages of implementation.

Ryan is design manager for the Atlanta BeltLine Corridor design and is also working with other clients to develop their vision, such as the South Fork Conservancy’s Watershed Vision plan for 40 miles of hiking trails along Peachtree Creek. Ryan speaks internationally about the BeltLine and has been recognized for his accomplishments including the Atlanta Urban Design Commission’s highest award in 2007 and Esquire Magazine’s “Best and Brightest” in 2006.