iPhone pictures: the future of photography?

Graduation is approaching, the future is looming. The thought of what comes after has begun haunting the mind of many an undergrad (maybe). And if you’re planning on remaining in the nurturing arms of New York, that’s one more future you need to worry about. In a burst of curiosity, contemporary urban explorer Angel Jiang ponders and reports on the future of the city.

Ask any student here about the allure of Columbia University, and the majority will cite both our location in New York City and our privileged exposure to a multitude of academic disciplines as reasons for applying. Our investment in Columbia, the city, and on a larger scale, the global economy, is the fundamental motivator for the “Thought Leadership Forum on the Future of the City.” The Journal of International Affairs celebrated its sixty-fifth anniversary with its timely publication, Future of the City, co-organized by the World Policy Institute; Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture; Planning and Preservation; and the School of International and Public Affairs. Ester R. Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University and the director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at SIPA, launched into the discussion by posing an essential question: what makes the city great?

The speakers, all-stars of contemporary urban discourse, did indeed produce a riveting “exploration of pressing global challenges” as advertised. JIA Editor in Chief Paul Fraioli introduced the forum as a response to the “important transformation of the post-war world,” in which the projected scale of urbanism in the next fifty years is both an unprecedented and pressing issue. Manhattan Borough President and likely 2013 mayoral candidate Scott M. Stringer, in an effort to maintain Manhattan as a cultural and economic hub amongst rapid globalization, got to the core of our localized concern with the urban planning discipline. To Springer, “community boards are the grass roots of our concrete jungle:” they are in charge of developments ranging from high-rise skyscrapers to sidewalks. Naturally, his plans provided a springboard to discuss democratization in politics, technology, infrastructure, immigration, and ambitious proposals for a “prototype” urban environment.

The forum did not focus on a specific problem, underscoring the importance of approaching global urbanization from a multidisciplinary approach. JIA brought together Jeffrey Inaba, Greg Lindsay, Kavitha Rajagopalan, and Saskia Sassen, among others: public intellectuals who both author the books you will inevitably read in your urban studies courses, and direct think tanks and research programs around the country.

An apparent paradox unfolded in the discussion: urbanism requires contribution from many more fields than it has historically had access to. For instance, Inaba mentioned that the World Health Organization now thinks that the best way to address aging is through an urban approach; Lindsay, advocating a technologically-driven approach to the city, maintains that “finance in urbanization will drive finance and business schools forward,” creating value through privitized city-land development schemes; Rajagopalan resonates with those interested in immigration reform, taking a firm stance to “make immigration a more equitable experience.” We all have vested interest in various incarnations of the city. Thus, our participation in urban discourse as academics, planners, advisors, entrepreneurs—but most importantly, citizens—becomes even more critical as it becomes clear that the true city is prized and hopefully here to stay.

Imagine the city as an intersection of technology and urbanism, essentially an iTunes store, with private applications programmed with open data. Visualize a New York City plus one million, replete by 2035 with sustainable infrastructure. Place yourself in a Porto Alegre-like direct democracy, taking control of our “crisis of agency.” Of course, New York City provides a “wonderful place to test these ideas.”

Sassen, like many of the other contributors, ended on a local note. The future of the city requires us to understand the dialogue between the citizen and the city. The BMW, her example of the pinnacle of technology, is a high-speed monster but one which, when placed in midtown New York City, “is reduced to a crawling worm—the city has talked back.”