Design your own New York City neghborhood at Future Lab at MCNY

Planning and Playing in the City of the Future

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director of Center for Medicine and Public Health at The New York Academy of Medicine.

Could you design the eco-friendly neighborhood of your dreams? The new FutureLab exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York lets you find out and have fun, while you immerse yourself in the results. Whether designing your own park or making decisions about energy-efficient housing (rooftop beehives anyone?), FutureLab brings into relief the complexity of planning for urban living in a way that is as engrossing as it is illuminating.

FutureLab is part of New York at its Core, the new permanent exhibition at the Academy’s neighbor and good friend, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY). Using a dynamic combination of video, stills and artifacts, the first two segments of New York at its Core bring to life the battles fought by the city’s early urban planners as they worked to prevent and control epidemics, protect the water supply, and create a sanitation system that could accomodate the city’s rapidly expanding urban communities. The exhibit makes clear just how intertwined the history of the growth of New York City’s physical infrastructure has been with responses to public health crises

Once you step into the FutureLab, the exhibit goes a step beyond and challenges you to think about how the complexity that has historically characterized NYC must be grappled with to shape a city with a healthy, environmentally sound future.

FutureLab confronts visitors with a massive, but engaging digital display of maps and images formed from data about the city. Thought provoking texts fill the room and project the development of the city from the perspectives of housing, density, infrastructure, economic opportunities and the city’s relationship with the natural world.

Then, visitors are asked to put all of this new knowledge into practice. A surprisingly easy to use, interactive console allows you to design your own apartment building, park or street choosing from a range of options that would impact energy consumption, active living, air quality, the availability of fresh produce, waste disposal, even the type of tree or garden you might want on your roof or in front of your building. You can choose building materials, transport options, even where to put the compost heap as you create your vision. Your dreamscape then comes to life on a wall-size screen (see video below), right down to the neighbors strolling by.

As an Academy staff member, developing housing for East Harlem seemed an obvious choice for me. But in between picking out solar panels and types of cladding, it soon became clear that balancing the costs, economic and environmental impact of the new street I attempted to create was anything but simple, especially as community feedback began, in the form of virtual neighbors who strolled past my new building, critiquing my efforts.

FutureLab does not just allow you to design an environmentally friendly street, it tallies the cost of each solar panel, gym and green building material, along with the potential energy savings from your idea. You may discover, for example, that adding that rooftop garden with herbs, vegetables, trees, and yes, even a beehive should you wish, that reduces the environmental impact of your building (and will surely be good for healthy eating), sends costs sky high or possibly lead to an annoyed chorus from neighbors who think you’ve gone overboard solar panels and compost heaps. Would adding community spaces, a library and street furniture be an answer? Or, simply thinking more carefully about moving your energy savers to the roof to calm down those neighbors be a better idea.

Grumbling neighbors aside, you experience an undeniable satisfaction when you have exhausted the possibilities and completed your vision for a new NYC landscape and it is projected onto the vast backdrop, outfitted with a virtual projections of gallery that allows you to see yourself standing on your street. You can even email a version of your masterwork to yourself for future viewing.

What makes FutureLab so compelling?

Read more, see the video