A Brighter Future with Cities: Review of Scientific American special edition

Following the UN declaration in 2008 that the majority of people now live in cities, there has been an explosion of city-themed commentary in magazines, newspapers and books.  The Economist and The Walrus have both run notable urban-themed issues and now Scientific American has followed the lead and dedicated the September 2011 issue to cities.  These media outlets have capitalized on the broad scope that city analysis permits – allowing musings on geography, sociology, architecture and governance to name a few.  There is also a realization, stressed in the Scientific American feature, that cities are the future.

Not too long ago cities were characterized by urban decay, riots and white flight to the suburbs, whereas they can now embody economic powerhouses that drive innovation.  City commentary also focuses on the growing ‘green’ agenda, where by virtue of having a smaller carbon footprint urban dwellers can provide lessons for responding to climate change.  It is in this context that Scientific American praises the positive role of cities and calls for public policy to provide greater support to our growing cities.  Though the magazine provides 11 separate articles, I focus on a couple of the key themes below.

Smart Cities

The article by Carlo Ratti and Anthony Townsend compares differing approaches to how so-called ‘smart cities’ develop.  A smart city is one which uses sensors and data to provide a greater understanding of how the city infrastructure is used.  This often includes building up a network of data sources to inform responses to transport, utilities and energy issues.  The authors introduce the bottom-up approach to smart cities where the data is generated by personal devices such as cell phones and social networking apps.  The example of Parisians measuring their own local air quality is provided as a good example of this informal approach to gathering data.

In contrast is a more top-down approach where smart cities are planned from scratch and cutting edge technology is built into local infrastructures at an early stage.  Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is perhaps the best known example of this large-scale masterplanning, where the expected 50,000 residents can benefit from energy efficient technologies that respond to human behavior.

Though the organic (bottom-up) growth of cities is attractive, Ratti and Townsend dismiss the power of ‘the plan’ too easily.  They state that, ‘centralized plans also make many assumptions abut what people want, causing such plans to be brittle in the face of change’.  This may be correct, but that is the fault of the planning process and not the plan itself.  The most successful and respected plans are able to provide certainty to guide future development opportunities whilst retaining the flexibility to incorporate community interests and permit ongoing negotiation at the design stage.  This is an issue that Vancouver, like many other cities, is wrestling with.

But the authors are correct to question the value of a development such as Masdar in leading us towards the smarter city.  Masdar has been planned on a clean slate (and with plentiful petrodollars).  In contrast the Canadian smart city will be retrofitted onto an existing urban form whilst also grappling with issues of social equality and budgetary constraints.  This will require a greater recognition of how top-down and bottom-up systems can operate together and to not see them as opposing forces.

Skyscrapers

Mark Lamster traces the history of the skyscraper since 9/11, a time when the future of this architectural form was heavily questioned on the grounds of safety.  Yet despite the numerous obituaries written for the skyscraper in the months following the World Trade Center attacks, the last decade has witnessed a boom in tall building construction.  Lamster quotes the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat who record that 350 skyscrapers have been constructed since 2001, a figure more than double their worldwide population.

Though the article impressively details the scale of current skyscrapers and the engineering technologies used, it ignores, in my mind at least, the key attribute of a tower – how it hits the ground.  This is a common mistake made when discussing skyscrapers in the rush to describe impacts on the skyline and the cutting edge green technologies used.  Though the 42nd floor may be of interest to the office workers lucky enough to enjoy the view, most city dwellers will engage with a skyscraper at ground level and in the surrounding public space.  If cities are to go vertical then we must pay greater attention to how tall buildings relate to the streetscape and what uses are being provided on the ground floor.

Why study cities?

Overall, the special issue of  Scientific American is a welcome addition to the ongoing debate on the future of cities.  It stresses the benefits that cities can bring from a social and environmental standpoint and places this firmly in the context of public policy decisions.  However, with the growing popularity of cities and urban studies there is a danger that the topic becomes too all-encompassing and loses focus.  The breadth of the topics covered by the magazine is impressive and helpful for shedding light on new topics.  But we cannot spread this interest too lightly at a time when hard policy decisions must be made.

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