The WDC International Design Conference, taking place from 5 to 6 March 2018 at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, will host 13 renowned architects, designers, urbanists and artists who will explore urban design strategies that can improve quality of life for cities and their citizens, including sustainability, mobility, clean energy, public spaces, waste management and citizen engagement. In the lead up to the Conference, WDO spoke with Wade Graham about some of the characteristics of modern cities and the ways we can make them more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.


In your book Dream Cities, you explore seven key ideas in urban design that have shaped the foundations of today’s cities. In this age of rapid urbanization, climate change and technological advances, what new urban styles and typologies are emerging? How have they shaped us and how are we shaping them?

Actually, one of the findings of Dream Cities is that we are continually reproducing old typologies, perhaps high-tech versions of them, even as we build new cities from the ground up—skyscrapers, giant shopping malls, gated suburbia, and high-tech fantasy habitats that purport to be environmentally sustainable but are really just luxury consumer options. There is largely a failure to either find new typologies more suited to the challenges of climate change, exploding populations, poverty, and inequality, or to rediscover and rework older, functional typologies such as medium density, walkable urbanism, at scales that will make a difference—that is, beyond the confines of a few, privileged, historical neighborhoods in a few prosperous cities.

One of the targets of UN SDG 11 is to improve the share of the built-up area of cities that is open space for public use. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of accessibility to public spaces and the impact of this on our communities?

Cities need a balance of objects and matrix, solids and voids. Buildings can only do half the work. Well-designed open space is critical to this balance, but thus far we have relied on the real estate market to provide it, which means the majority of urban inhabitants still don’t have access to high-quality open space. Space, not just buildings and services, must be a public priority.

What city do you see as an exemplary or fascinating model for the future? Which ones are getting it right?

I haven’t been to Utopia yet, but I see meaningful, if limited, attempts at solving problems in cities all over the world, large and small, from Berkeley to Stockholm to Ciudad de Mexico—even New York City, with its efforts to curtail car dominance.  I hope this conference will shine a bright light on innovations all over the world that can be combined and emulated, and most importantly, scaled-up to effect the lives of millions of people, not just thousands.

What’s going on in Mexico City that appeals to you? What does Mexico City have to offer to the world in terms of urban design that is truly unique?

Mexico City has extraordinary challenges: massive population, sprawl, pollution, inequality, and regional fragmentation—but these are shared by all global megacities. It also has deep traditions of functional, neighborhood-level urbanism that can help guide a regional-scale rethinking of the megacity. It can show what works on a small scale, and try to apply these lessons across the Valle de Mexico.


Wade Graham is the author of Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World and American Eden. He is a landscape designer, historian and adjunct professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

Don’t miss hearing more from Wade Graham and the line-up of 13 other speakers during the ‘Future of Cities’ conference via Live Broadcast on WDC Mexico City 2018 Facebook on 5-6 March 2018 as of 10:45am EST.