Building Better Cities With Art

National Film Board of Canada’s project HIGHRISE is an invigorating look into a future where artists serve as social intermediaries between a city’s officials, architects and residents?a future where metropolises are designed through a city-wide committee.

HIGHRISE is, as its creators tell it, a “multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment.” Headed by director Katerina Cizek and producer Gerry Flahive, the project’s first objective is to document the human experience in a world growing more urbanized. As high-rises are the leading staple for housing in this developing future, HIGHRISE, even by way of its name, chose these structures as a logical focal point.

As part of NFB’s Filmmaker-in-Residence (FIR) program, HIGHRISE’s philosophy breaks down as follows: putting people, process, creativity, collaboration and innovation first. With that philosophy serving as their moral flashlight, they’ve explored ways in which their art, in this case documentary filmmaking, can “drive and participate in social innovation.”

The work has been impressive. From HIGHRISE’s foundation the following projects have emerged:




While I won’t go too deep into each project because of how sprawling and experience-dependent they are, their respective social leanings will be explored. Take THE THOUSANDth TOWER. Six residents in an unnamed Toronto high-rise are provided various artistic tools to tell viewers about their life within an urban structure.

The THOUSANDth TOWER participants

In an engrossing mesh of storytelling, picture collages, and interactive documentary, residents give insight into their lives in a manner that might not have been possible otherwise. Each story feels almost completely removed of third party subjectivism – something most documentaries suffer from – because there is a perception that the protagonists are dictating the stories, not the filmmakers. And that’s the mark of any good project that is socially engaged: that it functions as an unfiltered sounding piece for everyone involved. In addition, this process of engagement tells a better story than a bevy of statistics or weighted speculation ever could.

OUT MY WINDOW amplifies the approach to interactive storytelling by providing 360-degree backdrops to people living in high-rises all over the world. The backdrops are fully interactive and function similar to a video game. A participant can click on the cut-out of a pastry chef living in Montreal to then hear him tell his own personal history much like a documentarian would. One can click on a musician in Havana, Cuba to see him serenade his neighbors in a 360-degree operable video located right in his living room.


What becomes instantly obvious from exploring the interactive films that make up HIGHRISE is that the high-rise buildings in question are already brimming with a sense of community. And it is just as glaring that most urban dwellers have been removed from the decision-making process that determines their living space for them. Most of the participants involved in HIGHRISE seem to be living in public housing but are committed to preserving their living space. As the man from Havana notes, the buildings in his neighborhood were built by convicts (surely as a way to save money) and are now in disrepair. Long left up to faceless committees or politicians with a penchant for social experiment, the design of urban dwellings have become alienating to the very people living in them.

ONE MILLIONth TOWER serves as a breathing example of how urban dwellers would make improvements to their living spaces if given the time and resources. Perhaps the most technologically ambitious of the projects, ONE MILLIONth TOWER has been said to reinvent the documentary format by Wired magazine. As a more advanced version of OUT MY WINDOW, ONE MILLIONth TOWER showcases an interactive world built by using open source web technology. One can navigate through and explore this world using a computer keyboard and mouse.


Working with architects, web developers, animators and a film crew, high-rise residents present improved alternatives to the realities they live in. In vivid fashion, an animated depiction of these realities manifests from a Polaroid of each neighborhood. The results are breathtaking. Through HIGHRISE’s multi-media art approach, high-rise communities are able to re-imagine the neighborhoods they live in, and, in turn, provide verifiable evidence to city politicians and stakeholders that residents deserve to be part of the decision-making process in their area. If followed to its endpoint, and if applied to other urban shortcomings such as public transportation or education, this new type of art-enabled social planning could be wondrous.

Take the example of sculptor and artist Stephen Glassman. Long have billboard signs been only eyesores that dot the urban landscape and that serve as little more than clunky sale signs. That is why Glassman came up with Urban Air. Teaming up with engineers, advertising professionals, and environmental planners, Glassman hopes that what started as an artistic enterprise can point the way to a green, global future.

Urban Air Still

Working off the existing structure of billboard signs, Glassman and his collaborators set up elevated landscapes using bamboo, steel, and, as seen, greenery. As an urban garden, Urban Air will benefit a city much more than a vehicle for advertising would. The first ever billboard went up in 1867, and it took more than one hundred years for someone to come up with an improved and creative alternative to a city concern. That person happens to be an artist. And in the vein of HIGHRISE, he’s recruited the expertise of other decision-makers to give his vision real-world dimensions.

But as exciting as Urban Air seems, it doesn’t include that element of public government critique that the framework for HIGHRISE used as one of its core values. Just as HIGHRISE’s philosophy states, Urban Air seems to be “putting people, process, creativity, collaboration, and innovation first.” But unlike the HIGHRISE project, it is only participating in social innovation and not driving it. The use of bamboo in the construction of an Urban Air billboard is metaphorically meaningful for Glassman who explains, “a bamboo forest is one plant, interconnected by a vast underground horizontal rhizome network…In this way, I see bamboo as a model for our 21st century, increasingly interconnected world.” But the interconnectedness vivid in HIGHRISE, and which he understands is the fundamental through line of our new world, is less visible in the Urban Air initiative.

Community engagement is vital to discovering how public initiatives can be improved to directly benefit the lives of city residents. Just as the urban experiments that came before it failed because of the lack of community involvement, so can Urban Air.

It is important to remember that Glassman developed the concept for Urban Air in the 1990’s as artistic symbols of the community resilience that arose in the wake of natural and social disasters in L.A. On its own the project is exciting, but it must move away from its present tagline as “a global art-in-public sitework.” Though reaching $100,000 on Kickstarter in funds – through the help of 1,565 backers – might seem like community engagement, who’s to say that those backers even live in L.A.? As is mentioned on the Urban Air website, “key vanguard professionals” were drawn to Glassman’s project in hopes of making it a tactile reality, but what about the city’s other 3 million residents? Where do they factor in? Will they ever have a say on Urban Air before it becomes a part of their living space?

The world is slowly starting to understand that tapping into a community before making sweeping changes to it works wonders. Artists like HIGHRISE director Katerina Cizek see the potential that socially engaged artists have to be important components in this new paradigm. The socially engaged multi-media approach of HIGHRISE appears to be an effective first tool in healing communities by fixing the physical landscapes they operate within. And though Urban Air is an exciting venture in a new realm of urban sustainability, it could benefit from embracing the HIGHRISE framework as it moves forward. In the process, we could build better cities using art as our chisel.

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