NEW YORK CITY—The Big Apple may not be as gritty today as it was even a decade ago, but it—and several other large urban areas worldwide—could benefit from a deeper examination of how it can better meet the needs of its nearly 8.4 million inhabitants.

So say two of the world's most recognizable icons for luxury and culture—the BMW Group and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation—which convened a gathering in the lobby of the Guggenheim Museum here Friday to provide details about the city's forthcoming BMW Guggenheim Lab, part of a social science project that aims to solicit input directly from the streets on how to improve urban living. BMW and the Guggenheim plan to establish similar temporary labs in nine different cities globally over the next six years.

Whereas cultural institutions such as the Guggenheim are often seen as ivory towers that gaze down occasionally on the masses, "the lab shows we can roll up our sleeves and get involved in the community," Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim museum and foundation, said Friday.

New York's lab kicks off the project with a structure to be located at 33 East First Street, on the border of the city's Lower East Side and East Village neighborhoods, from August 3 to August 16. The city has owned the site—which is currently little more than a field of rubble—since 1934 following a project to widen Houston Street, a main thoroughfare running east-west across southern Manhattan. This inaugural 230-square-meter lab will function like an open-air theater and be situated beneath a rectangular canopy made of carbon fiber and covered in semitransparent mesh. The space below the canopy is designed to host formal lectures, hands-on experiments, film screenings and other events. A series of smaller wooden structures to be placed in close proximity to the main lab will provide space for a cafe.

The labs in New York and elsewhere will "actively investigate how to make the world's urban environments more livable," said Jim O'Donnell, chief executive officer of BMW North America. One of the goals is to make each lab a "beehive of activity that engages the city in which it is located," he added.

The theme for the first three-city cycle—including New York, Berlin and an unannounced site in Asia—is "Confronting Comfort," billed as "an exploration of how urban environments can be made more responsive to people's needs, how a balance can be found between modern notions of individual versus collective comfort, and the urgent need for environmental and social responsibility." Every two years the project's theme will change, as will the lab's design. The New York lab will travel to Berlin about a year from now.

The project is an experiment to better understand what a large city would look like if inhabitants who are most affected by decisions were in on making the decisions, said Omar Freilla, a South Bronx native who is one of the New York lab's coordinators as well as a developer of neighborhood cooperatives.

Once the lab leaves New York, the site will likely be used as a place to display temporary art, said Jonathan Kuhn, New York City Parks and Recreation Department director of art and antiquities.

Whereas the project could be dismissed as merely an academic discourse among a group of society elites, the group promises to address concrete issues such as sanitation as well as bridge diverse social classes via open discourse. Given how developed the world has become, "we can't plan new cities," said architect and New York lab coordinator Kristian Koreman. "We can only change the ones we have."

Slide Show: A look New York's proposed lab