by Michael Keller

Hope Floats

This Nigerian school is set to rise. The floating structure was built by Dutch and Nigerian architecture, design and urbanism firm NLÉ to serve the slum neighborhood of Makoko, much of which exists on stilts above a lagoon in the port city of Lagos. Looking to mitigate the compounding problem of massive population movements to urban areas and the realities of climate change, NLÉ built the school as a prototype for a broader urban planning initiative called Lagos Water Communities Project.

Their design conforms to the local necessity of building houses on stilts above the lagoon with flotation platforms crafted from 256 common plastic barrels. This will allow the three-story primary school to rise along with sea level due to climate change or rainfall. The architects also designed it to provide natural ventilation, water from a rain collection system and power from rooftop solar panels to occupants. The almost 2,400 square-foot bamboo and wood building can safely hold up to 100 students.

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China’s Villages Are Dying. A New Film Asks If They Can Be Saved

Ou Ning used to hate the countryside.

He had a comfortable life in Beijing where he worked as an artist. Yet in 2013, the 45-year-old packed his bags and traded his apartment for a centuries-old house in Bishan, a small village in China’s Huizhou region. He brought with him his mother, younger brother, nephew, fiancé and her son.

Ou Ning is the subject of the documentary Down to the Countryside by filmmakers Leah Thompson and Sun Yunfan. The 12-minute film follows the artist-turned-activist as he tries to bring economic and cultural development to a village struggling to survive China’s rapid urbanization. He’s part of the emerging “back-to-the-land” movement in China.

The urban population in China has grownfaster than any other country. Today 54 percent of China’s population lives in cities, up from 42.5 percent in 2005. And villages are rapidly disappearing. In 2002, there were 3.6 million villages. In 2012, the number had dropped to 2.7 million, according to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. The government is happy about the trend: Urbanization has always been at the center of the country’s economic development agenda.

Citizens are reportedly happy too. For many, moving to cities — or having their children work and live in cities — is a sign of success. “We met some senior farmers — they’re very ashamed of the fact that they are still farming,” says Sun.

When Sun and Thompson walk you through Bishan in their film, young adults are noticeably missing. On screen, an elderly woman is all smiles as she counts off who’s moved to cities: “The children of that [villager] live in Wuhu city. This one, Beijing. The son of this one works in the military in Beijing.”

And when the children go home for theChinese New Year, they tell the filmmakers they don’t plan to return to the village for good. They complain of low salaries and a lack of opportunity to make use of their education.

Continue reading and watch the video.

Photo: Most of Bishan’s young adults have moved to big cities to find jobs, leaving elders and children behind in the quiet village. (Courtesy of Sun Yunfan)

World Urbanization Prospects, the 2011 Revision

Africa and Asia together will account for 86 per cent of all growth in the world’s urban population over the next four decades, adding that this unprecedented increase will pose new challenges in terms of jobs, housing and infrastructure. Africa’s urban population will increase from 414 million to over 1.2 billion by 2050 while that of Asia will soar from 1.9 billion to 3.3 billion, according to the 2011 Revision of the World Urbanization Prospects, produced by the UN Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

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City Life Changes How Our Brains Deal With Distractions

City life requires a lot of attention. Navigating a busy sidewalk while processing loud storefronts and avoiding rogue pigeons may feel like second-nature at times, but it’s actually quite a bit of work for the human brain. Psychologists do know that quick walks through the park can restore our focus, but they’re still getting a handle on just what urbanization means for human cognition.

A new series of behavioral studies offers some of the richest evidence to date on the mental exhaustion of urban living. In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, a group of British psychologists reports that people who live in cities show diminished powers of general attention compared to people from remote areas. With so much going on around them, urbanites don’t pay much attention to surroundings unless they’re highly engaging.


Tessa Bunney: Hand to Mouth (Carpathian Mountains, Romania)

When she started photographing rural life in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania in 2003, Tessa Bunney was attracted to the many unique cultural differences she discovered there — rough-hewn tools and farm implements that had been used for generations, old-fashioned fabrics and textures, and a cohesive way of living in accord with the seasonal conditions of their harsh environment. However, a mere five years after she started her documentation, many of these age-old cultural practices and artifacts are disappearing. 

The primary reason for the change is that the Romanian government wants to be accepted as a member of the European Union, and so they must require all Romanians to adhere to strict new policies and safe practices prescribed by the EU.

The Romanian government’s interpretation of EU policy has resulted in the banning of horse carts and hand milking of cows. No animals are to be kept within 200 meters of the house. If they decide to strictly implement these rules it will be the end of the family farm. No animals will mean no hay and the landscape will change forever.

At the moment the Maramures landscape looks much the same as it always has. The old people are still making hay, picking plums and growing vegetables. But, everyone we spoke to has at least one child working in Italy, Spain, France… And tractors, quad bikes and grass cutters are appearing everywhere.


Large (Wikimedia)

Painting Breaking Family Ties in 1890, Thomas Hovenden portrayed an American reality: “The 1890s saw the decline of small family farms and the necessity of young sons leaving the land to make a living in the city or on what little was left of the frontier…, and,” as the Smithsonian American Art Museum points out, “the composition gave American families a visual record of their own turmoil.”

The built-in corner cupboard, the plain and fraying tablecloth, and the mismatched hand-turned chairs speak to the longevity of the family.

The worn oilcloth flooring and plain white tea set (in stoneware, or possibly enamel, to judge from the opacity) speak to their poverty.

It is, as the Smithsonian American Art Museum puts it, one of the “indoor scenes of everyday life that won him great success and popularity”—but not, in this case, a timeless sort of genre scene.

Instead, the picture marks the transition in the 19th century towards urban life, a transition which might well have echoed his own immigrant’s experience moving to the United States.


Epochs last an awfully long time. We’re talking millions of years. Well, some scientists are kicking around the idea that the earth has entered a new one. Technically, we’re still in the Holocene period. But perhaps, these scientists say, humans have so influenced the direction of the planet that we should think of this as a new epoch called the anthropocene. Check out the above video for a  visualization of this idea.

In connection with the NPR Cities Project today, NPR Blogger and astrophysicist Adam Frank suggests that the anthropocene is really the epoch of the city. Just look at the east coast from way up in an airplane, he says.   

-Franklyn Cater


Earth Day, All Day, Every Day

Earth Day was April 22, but that doesn’t mean we stopped thinking about our beloved planet. To acknowledge and celebrate the environment, Sasaki designers from all disciplines presented quick presentations on sustainability, offering a unique glimpse into each individual’s perspective on the topic. The result was a fun and engaging event with a breadth of ideas too inspiring to keep to ourselves. 

For her Earth Day presentation, Sasaki architect Emily Goldenberg shared her thesis research on growing populations and the significant increase in dense, informal settlements around the globe. Understanding how to accommodate these densities and settlements, as well as design for future growth, is a significant concern. In addition to her research, Emily shared design ideas and projects that test solutions for these populations.