Likely it’s something to do with my inability to sit still for them without becoming distracted, but podcasts really are not my thing.
However, I do listen to two: The Good Place: The Podcast (because, you know, it’s motherforking about The Good Place), and Technopolis, (because I have a passing interest in urban planning going back to when I covered politics and planning here in Portland). I listen as I’m waking up in the morning; it’s the closest I come to being a captive audience.
The latter is self-described as “explor[ing] what needs to change for tech to help solve more problems than it creates” and tends to feature to sorts of people you’d expect for the subject matter from all along its spectrum of opinions.
This month, however, things took a turn.
Technopolis hosts Molly Turner and Jim Kapsis recently sat down with Hannah Beachler, production designer of Black Panther to discuss the Golden City of Wakanda.
For as long as there have been movies, there have been fictional visions of tech-forward futures. But few cities on film have inspired the awe of urbanists like Black Panther’s Golden City, devised by production designer Hannah Beachler. In this special bonus episode, Jim and Molly talk with Beachler about the role tech played in her meticulously crafted urban vision. Beachler, who won the Academy Award for her work in the film, helps us understand why the Wakandan city feels so right—and what she thinks some real-life tech-led urban designs are getting wrong.
In what easily is the most compelling and human episode of Technopolis to date, Beachler seems to care more about people’s lived-in lives on a visceral, experiential level than almost any urban planning person I’ve ever heard from. Tellingly, I was struck by how differently such issues are discussed when the guest is neither techbro nor technocrat but instead an artist.
(Had I a time machine, I would go eavesdrop on every single conversation Beachler ever had with director Ryan Coolger about designing Wakanda, and I desperately want to see the 500-page design document they drafted to detail life in the Golden City.)
I don’t mean to keep coming back to it, but later I found myself again thinking about that notorious Rolling Stone interview with Jack Dorsey in which he explained that Square runs so much more smoothly than Twitter because it “has to” since “you’re dealing with people’s money” and “it’s extremely emotional”. Yet he never speaks in such animated and humane terms about people having to suffer harassment and abuse on Twitter.
Something in the way Beachler talks about Wakanda, a fictional city, is more suffused with an abiding respect for people and the environment in which they live than anything in the way Dorsey talks about real life.
Anyway, the point is that while many of the other Technopolis guests have had deep curiosity about cities and technology and livability, few if any of them spoke with such meaning and passion, even when truly believing in the mission.
Beachler talks a lot about designing a city that was focused on people rather than on technology, despite Wakanda being a society more technologically advanced than the outside world, and about drawing not just from African traditions but specifically from some of her own African-American traditions such as the cultural (and, per Rosa Parks, political) significance of the public bus. Wakanda easily could have had self-driving buses, she points out, but it doesn’t. Partly because that’s a job someone can have and partly because of the human connection that exists because of it.
There’s a great bit about Steptown, that neighborhood we see full of people walking and shopping and hanging out and, yes, taking the bus (and whose name I didn’t know until this podcast). They talk about how the streets there are not paved, and how that was informed by Beachler’s observations about how when cities flood there is nowhere for the water to go, because everything is pavement and concrete.
I don’t want to recap the entire thing, although for me it’s definitely worth a second listen. I just want to really drive home how intensely curious was this episode.
One other thing struck me afterward was I started thinking about Albina Vision, an ambitious proposal to resurrect a historically black neighborhood here in Portland (“a district that was once the heart of Portland’s black community,” in the words of Bridgeliner) which decades ago was razed to the ground in favor of an interstate highway, a sports complex, and a hospital.
The idea, at least as conceived today, isn’t just to bring traditional urban redevelopment but to build upon the displaced history, as described last year by Rukaiyah Adams.
“Decades of intentional design decisions choked the vitality out of Lower Albina,” the 45-year-old Portland native says. “We designed the intentional displacement of whole communities. We designed highway systems that prioritized automobile transit. [Now] we must also intentionally design inclusion and connectivity.”
Adams was a little more deservedly blunt in that Bridgeliner post from just a few months ago.
“No one factor caused the transformation of Albina, but racism was probably the thread that carried through all of them,” Adams said. “As Portland evolves, we have to learn how to grow and hold onto our urban ethnic history and not just wipe it out.”
Getting caught up on the Albina Vision project, I started to want the designer of Wakanda’s take on the whole thing. It’s not the Golden City, and Portland can’t draw upon the vast technological and financial resources of a vibranium mine, but I feel like Adams and Beachler would have a lot to talk about.