When we think of smart cities, we tend to think in futuristic terms. We often use the language and iconography of futurism to express our visions of what a smart city should look like. But we should also look to the past for lessons and examples of how previous generations handled the challenges of planning and developing urban spaces.
In the mid-19th century, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann transformed Paris from a medieval collection of sprawling neighborhoods into one of the world’s first genuinely modern cities. He used the tools and techniques of his day — parks, public squares, large monuments, axial roadways, sewers, water-distribution systems and standard cornice lines — to complete the city’s transformation.
At roughly the same time, Ildefons Cerdà, who coined the term “urbanism,” was planning the expansion of Barcelona. Cerdà designed an orthogonal grid for the city’s new streets, which created a sense of order and clarity. He also had the sidewalks cut at 45-degree angles at street intersections, an innovation that created mini-plazas with shops and services all over the new part of the city. Cerdà was a transportation expert, and he planned the streets and avenues of the expansion with traffic in mind. Visionary planners like Haussmann and Cerdà serve as vivid reminders that smart cities are created by smart people. Both men had a deep understanding of the cities they were tasked with redesigning, and they used the tools at hand to bring their visions to life.
In today’s cities, “smart” and “high-tech” are not necessarily synonymous. Most smart city projects don’t require advanced degrees in engineering or terabytes of computing power. Our research shows the primary requirements for creating successful smart city projects are deep knowledge of local problems, imaginative thinking, thorough research, good planning, bold action and persistent follow-through. Bicycle sharing services in Madrid, a hundred miles of running trails in Portland, Oregon, banning automobile traffic in New York’s Central Park and providing free public transit in Tallinn, Estonia, are all examples of smart city projects driven primarily by local governments or community groups responding to the needs of citizens. In most cases, technology is an enabler, not a motivator.
In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens includes a heartbreaking scene in which a Parisian child is struck and killed by a speeding carriage. The carriage’s owner, a powerful nobleman, tosses a gold coin toward the child’s grieving father, but not before berating the city dwellers who have gathered and blaming the fatal accident on their carelessness. We’ve come a long way since then — or at least we like to think we have. Today, conversations about transportation often focus on new ways for alleviating traffic congestion, providing more travel options for commuters and making it easier for drivers to find parking spaces.
What’s often missing from the conversations, however, is safety. We all dread being stuck in traffic jams. But it’s far worse being involved in a traffic crash. “Mobility is a very human-centered problem,” says Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating deaths and injuries from traffic crashes.
“Traffic crashes kill 40,000 people annually in the U.S. and injure millions more. We can do more to prevent this suffering and we believe all of us — whether we’re driving, walking, bicycling, using a wheelchair, or riding transit — have a basic right to safe mobility,” Shahum says. Traditional solutions often fail to address basic safety issues such as maintaining physical separation between those walking, bicycling, driving, and taking transit. Some forward-thinking communities are building “complete streets,” which are streets designed to separate traffic and reduce the chances and severity of collisions.
“Complete streets” in lower Manhattan provide physical separation for different kinds of traffic.
There are many alternatives to the status quo that don’t require high-tech solutions or major capital investments. One of the most effective ways to prevent serious traffic crashes is by managing speeds, especially on streets used by those walking and bicycling. Fatalism, acceptance and complacency are some of the biggest obstacles to achieving higher levels of safety, Shahum says. “It reminds me of the early days of the anti-smoking movement. Back then, most people thought there was nothing anybody could do to curtail smoking, but look how far we’ve come in such a relatively short time.”
As a civil society, she says, there’s no reason to be complacent about thousands of traffic deaths every year. “Almost all those deaths are avoidable. New York City adopted a Vision Zero program four years ago and they’ve reduced traffic deaths by 28 percent. In Sweden, where the program began 20 years ago, they’ve cut traffic deaths in half.”
Cities of Our Dreams
The smart city movement is part of a larger digital revolution. Digital technologies aren’t simply transforming business and industry — they’re transforming each and every aspect of our lives, including the places where we live. We are experiencing a genuine shift of paradigms; a new world is being born.
Like newborn infants, smart cities will experience growing pains. No two smart cities will be exactly alike. To varying degrees, smart cities will reflect the cultures and habits of the regions or nations in which they are located. Attempts to create one-size-fits-all models, cookie-cutter templates or strict formulas for smart cities are unlikely to succeed. Smart cities will not be machines; they will grow and evolve, adapting like biological organisms to the changing environments around them. Smart cities are not a panacea. They will not solve all the world’s problems. Some will be more successful than others. Some will thrive and others will fail. There will be crime. There will be homelessness. There will be wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods.
But smart cities will engender hope. Their citizens will have a palpable sense of community. They will feel inspired and energized. They will be proud of their smart city. They will strive to keep it safe and clean. They will enjoy the wide variety of experiences and opportunities offered by the city. They will participate in governing their city and make their voices heard. They will be smart citizens.
We believe that cities have redemptive power. People choose to live in cities because they offer a social dynamism that’s hard to find in small communities.
Cities are places where people can walk out their front doors and immediately begin having conversations with friends, neighbors and even total strangers. They talk, they exchange ideas and maybe they agree to start a business together. Or maybe they decide to have lunch, visit a museum, see a movie or go for a walk down an avenue lined with shops.
Smart cities will offer the same opportunities, and more. A smart city will know when you’re sick or injured and automatically dispatch emergency medics to help you. A smart city will turn on the lights when you enter a park at night — and turn them off when you leave. A smart city will remind you when it’s time renew your driver’s license — and then help you renew it from your mobile phone. A smart city will help you find a good rehabilitation center if your mom slips and falls on the sidewalk.
In our new book, “Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow,” we describe smart city projects of varying scale and complexity. We explain how smart cities are “systems of systems” and introduce key concepts such as interoperability, open standards, resiliency and continuous improvement. In addition to writing about smart cities, we share stories of smart towns, counties, regions and nations. We hope the book will become an indispensable resource as you engage more deeply with the smart city movement and become more personally involved in planning our shared future.
Also read our article 10 Ways to Envision Smart Cities to learn more about the Smart City concept.
Mike Barlow and Cornelia Lévy-Bencheton write about the intersection of technology and social change. This article is adapted from their new book, “Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow.” It’s available from Amazon and in bookstores.
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