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Urban Visionary

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Richard Wurman is dedicated to making the complex simple.

From the March 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Meet a man with a mission to help cities better understand themselves.

Richard Saul Wurman has a passion—he wants to help you understand the world around you. Trained as an architect and graphic designer, he coined the term "information architecture" and has spent nearly 50 years championing clear communication. He has 81 books to his credit, including the best-selling Information Anxiety and the award-winning ACCESS travel guides, which map and organize content by neighborhoods, a departure from traditional guidebooks. A bear of a man, with probing eyes and a mind to match, he is constantly in motion, and always asking: Why? He has a genius for seeing patterns where others see nothing. Wurman has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim fellowship, two Graham fellowships, two Chandler fellowships, and the Chrysler Design Award, along with a host of other honors. From 1984 to 2002, he chaired the renowned TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) conferences—an annual gathering he created that attracts the world's leading thinkers. Wurman's latest project—19.20.21.—focuses on the cities of the world.

What draws us to cities? People flock to cities because of the possibilities for doing things that interest them. Those interests—and the economics that make them possible—are based on people living together. We really have turned into a world of cities. Cities cooperate with each other. Cities trade with each other. Cities are where you put museums, where you put universities, where you put the centers of government, the centers of corporations. The inventions, the discoveries, the music and art in our world, all take place in these intense gatherings of individuals.

Tell us about 19.20.21. In the spring of last year, it was announced that during 2008—for the first time in history—more people would live in cities than outside them. I thought I'd try to discover what this new phenomenon really means. I went to the Web, and I tried to find the appropriate books and lists that would give me information, data, maps, so I could understand. And I couldn't find what I was looking for. I couldn't find maps of cities to the same scale. Much of the statistical information is gathered independently by each city, and the questions they ask are often not the same. For instance, some places have median income, some average income. They look at cost of living differently and quality of life. There's no readily available information on the speed of growth of cities. Diagrams on power, water distribution and quality, health care, and education aren't available, so a metropolis can't find out any information about itself relative to other cities, and therefore can't judge the success or failure of programs. This information gives us the fundamental way of comparing cities. Countries and corporations need it to understand where to put resources. So I decided to gather consistent information on 19 cities that will have more than 20 million people in the 21st century. That's what 19.20.21. is about. We'll have a varied group of young cities, old cities, third-world cities, second-world cities, first-world cities, fast-growing cities, slow-growing cities, coastal cities, inland cities, industrial cities, cultural cities. The methodology will allow a city of any size to collect information about itself and see itself within this new world of cities. Much of this can be presented online, but we're also planning to have exhibits and urban observatories so that cities around the world can see themselves relative to others.

What are some of the cities you're looking at? It really matters little which large cities are included. The transparent methodology is what the project is about, not the specific 19 cities. What inspires me is being able to understand something, and understanding often comes from looking at extremes. So the cities that pop out are the ones that are clearly the largest, the oldest, the fastest growing, the lowest, the highest, the densest, the least dense, the largest in area. The densest city is Mumbai. The fastest growing is Lagos. For years, the largest city was Mexico City, but Tokyo is now the biggest of the agglomerations. There are cities that are basically spread out, with low density, like Los Angeles. Then there are classic cities, which you certainly wouldn't want to leave out, like Paris. I find the data on cities to be endlessly fascinating. Just look at the world's ten largest cities through time: The biggest city in the year 1000 was Cordova, Spain. Beijing was the biggest city in 1500 and 1800. London in 1900, New York City in 1950, and today Tokyo.

Cities are increasingly challenged to sustain their infrastructure and services. Can they survive as they are now? Nothing survives as it is now. All cities are cities for the moment, and our thoughts about how to make them better are thoughts at the moment. There was great passion 30 years ago for the urban bulldozer, that we had to tear down the slums, tear down the old parts of cities and have urban renewal. That lasted for about 10, 15 years, until it didn't seem to work very well. And yet the reasons for doing it seemed justified at the moment—at that moment. There are some resort towns, like Aspen, that have become so gentrified that the people working in hotels and restaurants—people who make a city function—have to commute unreasonable distances, and create traffic jams doing so. That's insane. It shows that the attempt to make things better often makes things worse. We have to understand before we act. And although there are a lot of little ideas for making things better—better learning, increased safety, cleaner air—you can't solve the problem with a collection of little ideas. One has to understand them in context and in comparison to other places.

You're an architect by training. Do you agree with Prince Charles that architects have ruined the urban landscape? That's a gross generalization. You can point to examples where architecture has ruined the urban landscape, and you can point to places where architecture has been the fundamental positive change. Look at the park that runs on the west side of Manhattan. That was done by architects and urban planners. Has it ruined New York? No. It's the beginning of knitting parts of the place together and the recognition that you're on the water, and it's a healthy thing. But there is too much bling architecture—that's the show biz part of architecture. Even though these individual buildings might be wonderful, they are not necessarily wonderful within the fabric of the city. Sometimes you can excuse them because they draw people from around the world to see them and, therefore, improve the health of the city. The classic example is Bilbao. Frank Gehry's museum at Bilbao draws millions of people and has changed this industrial Spanish city into a mecca for tourism. It's inspired other architects to improve the subway system and other buildings, and some of the wineries, and some of the hotels in and around the city. So that bling is certainly excusable. But buildings that have nothing to do with the fabric of the city, that are brought about by the client's desire to have a signature building, those are not, in the long run, healthy, because the fabric is what makes the city. Venice's Piazza San Marco was made by the fabric of all the buildings around that incredible square with just one cathedral at the end.

What do you look for when you visit a city for the first time? The terror when I land in a strange city is palpable, because there's little that tells me where I am, where I'm going, how far I have to go, how safe it is, how long it will take, and what I will see on the way. Disorientation is an anxiety-ridden issue no matter where you are. It's a feeling we all have: "Oh, my God. I'm at the airport. Where do I go? How long is it going to take? How do I know if the cab or the bus is going the fastest way? How much is it going to cost? Is it safe? What do I see? Is my hotel in the center of the city?" Orientation, the sense of place, the sense of knowing where I am, is the overwhelming desire I have when I arrive someplace. And so the first thing I try to do when I go to a city is figure out the nuggets that I want to see—the restaurants, the hotels, the museums, the shops. And I have them on some mental or real map that gives me my sense of time, distance, and location.

Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.

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