Truly Smart Cities are Actually “Dumb”

Montreal

Earlier this year Sidewalk Labs (Google) opted out of building a “smart” neighbourhood in Toronto due to local pressure (protests work!). What the “smart” neighbourhood wanted to do was monitor and control the activities of occupants and visitors, which would have likely violated many laws. The business plan was even more outrageous since it set out to mire the city in debt by loaning money to the government to pay for the construction. These so-called smart initiatives are really the privatization, through surveillance capitalism ,of the urban space by massive corporations.

If we want resilient, robust, and nice places to live then we ought to get inspiration from the past. Ice in the desert without AC? That’s possible with technology dating back hundreds of years. We need to take a look at work at the past and implement those solutions in modern ways.

As for dumb transport, there can be no doubt that walking or cycling are superior to car travel over short urban distances: zero pollution, zero carbon emissions, free exercise.

And there’s a dumb solution to the spread of air conditioning, one of the greatest urban energy guzzlers: more plants. A study in Madison, Wisconsin found that urban temperatures can be 5% cooler with 40% tree cover. Green roofs with high vegetation density can cool buildings by up to 60%. Or you could just think like a bug: architects are mimicking the natural cooling airflows of termite burrows. Mick Pearce’s 350,000 sq ft Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, completed in the 1990s, is still held up as a paragon of dumb air conditioning: all it needs are fans, and uses a tenth of the energy of the buildings next door.

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What Cities can do Right Now to be More Sustainable

bus

People can make changes in their everyday lives to help the environment, like reusing items or simply by buying fewer things. If a bunch of people make positive changes together the impact is bigger. This is what you can do in your city today.

Cities the world over are changing tiny aspects of how they do things to make a big impact. Many of these changes are inexpensive and relatively easy to implement. If you have a moment today you ought to send your local politician a quick email asking for one of these changes.

Local governments are also consumers, and the day-to-day tasks of running a city require supplies and services. Purchasing policies can be written to ensure city purchasing is less harmful for the environment. For example, the city of Boulder, Colorado, has an Environmental Purchasing Policy that guides the city’s procurement towards environmentally friendly products, even requiring certain items like stationery and toilet paper to be made of recycled material.

Though on a larger scale, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts found that its Environmentally Preferable Products Procurement Policy saved more than US$18 million in fiscal year 2017 and more than US$12 million in fiscal year 2018. “Organizations are already having a huge impact through purchasing. If they can leverage that influence to support other goals of the government or organization, that’s a win-win,” says Sarah O’Brien, acting CEO of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council.

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Walkable Towns are Economically More Productive

housing

Any visitor to a North American city knows that a lot of the geography is designed for single occupant car-based transportation. Anybody who’s spent months in any of these places knows that this car-focused design has been an unmitigated disaster. People are dying, the planet is being killed, and so many other problems stem from building cities for cars.

That badness all being acknowledged, we are at turning point of urban design. The evidence for making our streets for pedestrians over cars is overwhelming; cities which life easier on people are witnessing demonstrable benefits. Those benefits are quantifiable and more research comes out every month highlighting the benefits of desiring for people. Over at Strong Towns they have compiled a great article outlining some of the benefits of pedestrian friendly design.

The cost of paving sidewalks for people is minuscule compared with the cost of paving wide roads for cars, installing traffic signals, paying the salaries of traffic cops, etc. Even the cost of providing enhancements to pedestrian space such as trees and benches pale in comparison to what we spend when we build around cars.

Furthermore, the wear and tear caused by foot traffic is also negligible compared with the wear and tear caused by car and truck traffic, meaning that long-term maintenance costs for walk-friendly areas are also much lower than for auto-oriented places. (Ironically, most cities spend exponentially more on their roads while utterly neglecting their sidewalks.)

In short, a simple sidewalk could serve millions of people traveling on foot for decades, even centuries, with only a small amount of up-front investment and minimal maintenance costs for the city — yet it would support dozens or hundreds of local businesses. The same length of street designed primarily for cars would cost exponentially more to build and keep up and would only serve a handful of businesses.

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Let’s Outright Ban Cars in Large Cities

small car

Vehicles have been used to kill a lot of people throughout 2017, sometimes it’s an act of terror and other times it’s drivers being startlingly incompetent. Either way, people who walk are under threat from vehicular traffic in our cities (remember that everyone is a pedestrian). This past weekend in Toronto 11 people were struck in less than half a day by cars. The car-friendly designs of cities also make it easier for vehicular terrorism, safe streets can thwart some terrorists.

Why do we design our cities around cars and then allow people to drive recklessly? We shouldn’t.

Let’s try something seemingly radical: let’s say no to car culture in big cities.

Of course, the cities we have today could not ban cars tomorrow. No current public transportation system functions well enough to carry an entire city population. Not everyone can walk or ride a bike. Too many taxi drivers would be out of work.

We are not ready, but the car-free city is being tested in bits and pieces around the world. We should learn from all of them, and apply those lessons as soon as possible.

Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center by 2019. Madrid has a goal of 500 car-free acres by 2020. In Paris and Mexico City, people are restricted from driving into the city center on certain days based on the age of their cars or the number on their license plates. Inside Barcelona’s superblocks, all car traffic that isn’t local is banned. Over 75 miles of roads in Bogotá, Colombia, close to traffic for a full day every week.

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After Going Green, Cities Need Turn Blue

wind turbine

Cities need to work with their local ecosystems and not against them. This is evidently true when it comes to waste management and overt displays of green initiatives. There is a harder aspect of ecological thinking for cities and it’s usually beneath our feet: water.

Water systems are complex in every direction – getting drinking water in and storm water out. The way cities plan for water issues is more important than ever before as we enter a time of water scarcity and extreme weather. What we should be doing (and smart cities already are) is designing our urban spaces with the flow of water in mind.

“We need to acknowledge that the water is eventually going to do what the water wants to do, and shift our approach, as human populations living on the Earth, from one of trying to dominate nature to one that acknowledges the power of nature and works in synchrony with that,” says English. “We’ve already set ourselves down this path of dams and levees and water control systems, and it’s really hard to turn back. But we don’t need to keep replicating that. We don’t need to make the situation worse. It’s time to step back from the approach of control and fortification.”

“Cities that today start to embrace water and take advantage of the skills of water, will be the cities that have a better performance economically and socially and politically in 20 to 30 years,” says Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, a Dutch firm that has found designing around water to be more than a niche market. “When situations change—and that’s happening now, the environment is changing, the climate is changing—cities have to react. You have to change the skills and the performance of the city to give a reaction to this situation, and the reaction should be not fighting it, it should be living with it.”

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