The City is Ours takes an optimistic look at urban futures

The City is Ours looks at key issues that affect Londoners and other city dwellers. Photo by David Parry/PA Wire

Pollution, crime, affordable housing shortages, racial tensions… modern cities are facing their share of challenges.

The Museum of London’s major new exhibition The City is Ours doesn’t shy away from the realities faced by the world’s estimated four billion urbanites.

Opening last week as part of the year-long City Now City Future programme, the exhibition is unflinching in its portrayal of urban failings, from the mass exodus of a housing estate in the face of skyrocketing unemployment in the German city of Leipzig, to naming and shaming the worst culprits for greenhouse gas emissions.

But it doesn’t dwell on them either.

DIY veggie patches in Detroit, metropolitan reforestation in Milan, and a participative social housing pilot in Chile are also front and centre, as if creators Cite des sciences et de l’industrie in Paris have adopted the naff management mantra ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’.

The result is, overall, an optimistic look at the environmental, social and technological impact of global urbanisation on cities, and how their inhabitants are responding.

Exhibits are split into four categories. ‘Urban Earth’ presents a data comparison of major cities from around the world, while ‘Cities Under Pressure’ is a collection of films and photographs detailing changes to our urban environments and the challenges they present.

Among the highlights in this category, The Pulse of the City collates signals from phone calls, texts and emails, translating them into a soundscape for different days in Paris, a personal favourite of lead curator Foteini Aravani.

“I really like this exhibit because it touches upon an invisible part of the city,” she says. “The bulk of data that each city produces every day, we can’t see.”

The third category, ‘Urban Futures,’ is a collection of case studies from around the world that demonstrates how innovation can improve the way a city works, from sustainability to security.

Participative Social Housing: For and With Residents follows architect Alejandro Aravena’s scheme to build basic units to address a housing shortage in Chile, then allowing families to customise and finish them off themselves, while Zero Waste is a film chronicling San Francisco’s efforts towards recycling all waste by 2020.

Digital installations rule throughout, from virtual reality positioning visitors on the rooftop of a Hong Kong skyscraper to consider the implications of building upward, to monitoring CCTV footage from within the exhibition to highlight cities’ increasing surveillance.

But perhaps the most impressive tech is Pulse, a real-time visualisation from data studio Tekja that harvests geolocated tweets to capture the pulse of London by local area.

“Every five minutes we have the London Live Update to show us how London feels; the happiest borough, the saddest borough, the most tweeted keywords, what London thinks and what we think about,” Foteini explains.

Projected on massive screens at the entrance to the exhibition, Pulse’s slick presentation lends a wow-factor addition to the exhibition, but it’s the more simplistic It’s Here exhibit that is the most powerful; an interactive map of 25 city-saving initiatives going on right in our backyard.

“It gives a snapshot of the plethora of interesting projects that are happening in London around us,” Foteini says. “From government initiatives to academic, and from grassroots to individuals, on a bigger or smaller scale, one way or another these are initiatives that improve our everyday life.”

Each is a poignant example of a city’s resilience, which, after a month of particularly hard knocks, couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

The City is Ours is on at the Museum of London until 2 January.