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The City is Ours at the Museum of London

20 August 2017 Will Rathbone

The Museum of London is holding a year-long season of exhibitions, commissions, events, talks and debates grouped together under the title City Now City Future. At the heart of this programme lies their new exhibition The City is Ours, which looks at how and why cities across the globe are transforming, and what we as individuals and societies can do to best prepare them for a fast-approaching future.

Nestled inside a roundabout in Barbican, the Museum of London is a large complex that feels a million miles away from the bustling city streets encircling it. It’s an appropriate setting for their new exhibition, The City is Ours, surrounded as it is by contrasting elements of London: the cultural West End, the powerful City of London, historic St Pauls and vibrant Old Street are all a stone’s throw away.
 
The City is Ours is comprised of three sections – Urban Earth, Cities Under Pressure and Urban Futures. Each is filled with narratives, statistics and insights into city life past, present and future. Urban Earth concerns the origin of cities, Cities Under Pressure focuses on the different aspects that make up a city and the challenges they currently face, while Urban Futures presents a wide variety of case studies and the strategies needed to adapt our cities to cope with future demands.


The City is Ours. Image courtesy of the Museum of London

 
The opening section, Urban Earth, is a video infographic that begins by charting the rise of the city. Population is the driving force. We see the global population of 3000BC divided into city and non-city dwellers, before witnessing the enormous rate of growth that has brought us to today, followed by a glimpse into the future. It’s staggering and, without stating the obvious, illustrates how many people there are on the planet. More infographics follow, examining city layouts, pollution levels and the spread of global wealth in clear, concise comparisons.
 
Cities Under Pressure is far more interactive, and geared toward a younger audience. There remains a wealth of information on offer amongst the VR headsets, pinball tables and touch-screens. Two short films are highly effective. One focuses on homelessness and lack of social housing, while another explains how cities – Rio de Janeiro in this instance – can be viewed in totally different ways depending on where you reside. A display comparing urban population density with job density shows the contrast between London’s highly concentrated employment areas – Central London and The City – and those of Rio. This, when combined with a wider spread of residential areas, naturally leads to a chaotic rush hour and transport systems that suffer under the strain.


The City is Ours. Image courtesy of the Museum of London
 
A photograph of Ordos, a new city in Inner Mongolia built to house a million residents but with a population of only 100,000, interprets a spooky ghost town as a consequence of reckless property speculation. The merits of skyscrapers as the best method of housing large amounts of people are discussed, along with the strain on water supplies in ever-growing cities and the use of tech to connect people and global movements within cities.
 
The final third of the exhibition, Urban Futures, is full of interesting examples of forward-thinking schemes already in use around the world. A case study of Colombian city Medellín shows how the addition of a cable-car system transformed growing social unrest by allowing easy, free transport from barrios in the mountainous outskirts to the city centre in the valley. This in turn allowed residents access to jobs and spawned a number of social initiatives for children – greatly reducing the crime rate. It highlights the importance of connection over separation: by joining the less affluent and wealthier areas of the city together, social unrest dropped. Other cities, where slums and favellas surround wealthy centres, would do well to take note.


The City is Ours. Image courtesy of the Museum of London

 
Other initiatives include vast underground bike storage in Tokyo, intelligent street lighting that adjusts brightness according to motion sensors – saving energy in the process – as well as monitoring factors such as traffic data and air quality, and paving slabs that harness the kinetic energy generated by footfall to power street lighting. Bristol’s methane-powered bio-bus gets a mention, along with London’s proposed SkyCycle infrastructure project involving bicycle-only lanes built above existing train tracks – thereby reducing congestion on existing roads. Seoul’s smart system of congestion charging is something London desperately needs to consider.
 
The City is Ours is a detailed look at aspects of city living and planning that often go unnoticed by inhabitants. It promotes social harmony, and recognises the need for those in power to actively work toward transforming cities into places that meet the needs of our planet and its growing population. It also encourages individual efforts – from residents and councils – as a way of transforming urban life through grassroots initiatives. Food for thought indeed.
 
The City is Ours runs at the Museum of London, EC2Y 5HN, till January 2. Entry is free.
 
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