Bold Urban Visions

Urban Re:Vision© Illustration by Nate Williams

Imagine a city that functioned with the seamless ingenuity of nature: the interconnected systems—from school, to store, to street, to restaurant—benefiting and feeding one another without depleting resources.

Re:Vision, a group that has launched a series of urban design competitions, has asked contestants to think boldly about what that model city might look like. The first part of the competition, Re:Volt, looked at intelligent urban energy. The second, Re:Route, focused on transportation. Three additional contests are underway: Re:Store, about urban economy; Re:Connect, about urban planning; and finally, Re:Vision, remaking a city block into a thriving mixed used area.

Stacey Frost, who founded Re:Vision, says the response has been impressive. These designers, she says, understand how to work with existing infrastructure. "It isn’t sexy," says Frost, "but somebody has to look at the whole system. You’re maximizing resources. The closed loop has tremendous opportunity for revolutionary design."

Sarah Atwood, a winner in the Re:Volt competition, proposed an "Active Energy Play Space," which harnesses kids" energy as they scamper across playground equipment to power LED lights that keep the playgrounds lit at night. Another winning design team offered "Cell Block," which takes city blocks from inefficiency to zero impact through a nature-based, replicating cell model.

"The hardest part was designing systems that are at the intersection of functionality, good design and affordability," says team member Kate Randolph. The group brought together existing green technologies, from generating hydro-power from gray water, to creating biofuels from local restaurants and growing living roofs. In each of the completed contests, certain trends arose. In the case of Re:Volt, it was combining energy systems—wind, solar, hydroelectric. De-signer Brian McLaughlin’s "Recharge" system involved solar arrays and wind turbines that respond to weather patterns.

Stacey Frost, the founder of Urban Re:Vision.

For Re:Route, it was a focus on human-powered energy, mass transit and greater integration of technology. Kaytea Petro, one of the winners behind the "UrbanPOD" concept, said the way her team approached the problem of transportation was radically different. "Under the traditional model, you would start by designing a bus system: getting out a map and configuring routes," Petro says. "Under the systems thinking model, you start by saying, "We need to get people around the city quickly and cheaply with minimal traffic. How can we do that?""

Ant colonies were one source of inspiration, and one of the group’s most innovative designs involved a city-wide wireless network that allows users to shop from kiosks for later deliveries to consolidate shipping routes and eliminate unnecessary car trips. Another team’s "Intelligently Integrated Transport" design would enable city residents to alert a central computer via cell phone that they needed a ride so that buses could be routed efficiently, according to the needs of actual passengers. "At its best, sustainable design is about designing components that perform multiple functions and thereby add value toexisting products or services," says team member Bob Batz.

As of press time, the Re:Vision team had not yet chosen a host city where the winning block design will be put into effect. The team was offered Moss Point, Mississippi, but declined, since that city has only 15,000 residents. "We weren’t sure we could do the project there and have it be economically viable," says Frost.