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In ‘The Future of Cities,’ innovative responses to urban issues

March 4, 2017 at 4:16 PM EDT
More than 31 cities around the globe -- including Tokyo, Delhi, Cairo and Mexico City -- are considered megacities, with populations of more than 10 million people. As the number of city dwellers increases, so do problems like overcrowding, pollution, housing shortages and aging infrastructure. The online mini-documentary, “The Future of Cities,” explores the ways citizens are mobilizing to address these issues. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

By Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green

IVETTE FELICIANO: Fifty percent of the world’s population live in urban areas, but that will grow to 70 percent by the year 2050, according to the United Nations. Today, there are 31 mega-cities..metropolitan areas with more than 10 million people: Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Cairo  By 2030, the UN predicts, there will be 41.

As the number of city dwellers rises, so do problems like overcrowding, pollution, housing shortages, and aging infrastructure like mass transit and highways

OSCAR BOYSON: So is future urbanization going to be a good thing or a bad thing? If you care about people, this is the defining question of our time.

IVETTE FELICIANO: In his new mini-documentary, “The Future of Cities,” New York-based director Oscar Boyson stepped out of the commercial film and TV world to explore what governments, communities, and everyday people around the globe are doing to make increasing density in their cities sustainable for the future.

What were the central problems that you were trying to address?

OSCAR BOYSON: Cities can get a bad name as far as being dirty or contributing to congestion, carbon output, etc. But what people often don’t think about is that when we all are packed in living in dense quarters, there’s so much to gain, we’re using that as an opportunity to innovate more, exchange more ideas, use energy more efficiently, use water more efficiently, right? And let’s look at examples of how we’re using density and doing it right, and how that’s actually the best, if not the only way to save the planet.

IVETTE FELICIANO: In partnership with the Nantucket Project — an ideas incubator that hosts a TED talk-like yearly conference focused on innovations — and a private investor, Boyson set out to show sustainability projects, in transportation, energy, and water-use, that can be replicated all over the world…from countries as varied as Iceland…

WOMAN IN REYKJAVIK: Geothermal energy power plant! And Peru…

MAN IN LIMA PERU:  This is a fog catcher and it can catch up to 500 L of water a day.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Boyson put out a global call for ideas on YouTube

MAN: Hi, Oscar. Nice meeting you over the Internet.

IVETTE FELICIANO: And received more than 1300 responses from 75 countries. Many who sent Boyson ideas agreed to serve as tour guides and videographers during his 3-week-long shoot in 16 cities. Other participants sent him video they’d filmed on their own.

This man in Santiago, Chile introduced Boyson to an electric rickshaw that residents can ride for free.

OSCAR BOYSON: This is Lucas. We met on YouTube

IVETTE FELICIANO: How did you go about meeting these people?

OSCAR BOYSON: I’d never met a stranger on the internet. I’d never done anything like that.

MAN: You’re very trusting to just hop in my car and I’m going to take you somewhere in a country you’ve never been.

OSCAR BOYSON: I would show up, and somebody who’d emailed me would meet me at the airport. I would say hi, and sometimes they were a professional camera operator or someone who works in media, and other times they were just somebody who wanted to hang out and talk or show me parts of the city that they find interesting.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Over the course of two weeks, Boyson traveled all over the world to places like Chile, New Zealand, Mumbai and Copenhagen.

OSCAR BOYSON: And I think part of the deal was, hey, if you help me with this video while I’m in your city, I’m going to really take the time with the incredible editing team that helped me to make something you’re going to be proud of.

IVETTE FELICIANO: In South Korea, Boyson visited what urban planners call the world’s first “smart-city,” Songdo. This high-tech real estate has been built during the past 15 years on mud flats filled with the edge of the Yellow Sea. Sensors monitor the city’s energy use, traffic flow, and waste management system that sends trash and recycling through underground tunnels to waste processing centers.

And he also went to smaller projects in the developing world — like the cities in Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines embracing homegrown solutions to its climate change-related problems.

OSCAR BOYSON: Flooding is an issue in Makoko, so they built a school that floats by using cheap and available materials. This woman turns discarded plastic into bricks in Karachi.  In Manila they turn water bottles into solar light bulbs.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Boyson also studied American cities. He met resident Abess Makki in Detroit, where the city’s debt crisis caused water shutoffs in 2014. Makki created City Water, a phone app that allows residents to monitor their water usage in real time…or report leaks.

ABESS MAKKI: We’re no Silicon Valley, but we’re trying to become a city that brings tools and brings solutions and brings jobs back.

IVETTE FELICIANO: In Los Angeles, Boyson found one man using his solar panels and atmospheric generators to extract clean drinking water from humid air.

DAVE HERTZ: Every building ideally can make it’s own water and be water self-reliant.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Then there is the problem traffic and the air pollution it causes. Instead of building larger highways to accommodate more cars, Boyson found Seoul, South Korea, and Shenzhen, China, have replaced old highways with public thoroughfares that have bike paths and greenways. In Singapore, where 80 percent of the population lives in subsidized high-rise housing, the government charges citizens higher taxes for the social costs of car ownership, caps car leases to 10 years and also plans to build car-less city.

OSCAR BOYSON: Obviously so much of 20 century, megacities were built around the car, to service the car, which we’re learning is not necessarily the best thing for people, whether that’s air pollution or people getting hit by cars or running large highways through neighborhoods.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Boyson wasn’t able to include all of the innovative projects into his initial mini-documentary, like one of his favorite submissions from Medellin Colombia, which built a greenbelt that surrounds the city to benefit residents who have been pushed to the outskirts of the city by gentrification.

OSCAR BOYSON: And it’s giving the people the furthest away from the center of the city this place that will produce jobs, but also shared public space, shared green space. So I love that idea.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Since posting the “Future of Cities” to the Internet in December, Boyson continues to receive unsolicited videos, and he aims to produce a series of small films.

And you say in the film that the people that you met are the ones that gave you the most hope for the future. Why is that?

OSCAR BOYSON: I’d get off a plane and I’m with somebody who’s donating their time and their energy to show me around their city. Their perspective, their energy, their effort is informed just by love and interest, right. So the point of view that they’re sharing with me is totally about a citizen. If I hire a production services company in one of these cities, they’re going to show me what they think I want to see, right.  (37:16) So to have this very pure relationship with the city that I was seeing was really inspiring and a real reminder that cities are about people. They’re not about buildings, they’re not about cars. People have always made the difference. And feeling that again and again, whether it was someone I met in person or just corresponded with over the internet, was very inspiring.