This article has been published by New Scientist.
NO MATTER what ambitious mayors and tech companies may tell you, cities have always been “smart” cities: evolving habitations with a huge appetite for powerful ideas.
From their earliest days, cities have not only concentrated power, whether religious, imperial or productive, but have self-consciously dramatised it too-in their towering buildings and straight streets, their marketplaces and monuments, their intellectual and political cultures. The bustle and grandeur of cities like Mecca, London, Paris and Jerusalem (or Beijing, Athens, Amsterdam and Rome) has persisted for over a millennium.
Today, national governments appear both distant from their citizens and ineffective in the face of global markets and other forces. So thinkers, policy-makers and activists are turning their attentions back to the city, that enduring polity within which the progress of the populace can be both imagined and realised, street by street, public arena by commercial district.
Do cities serve us best when they are dense and compacted, or dispersed and sprawling? How much of the “smartness” of a city comes from the technocratic brilliance of its planners and developers at the top, and how much from the emerging demands of denizens rubbing along together.
Joel Kotkin‘s The Human City is a long and lucid argument against what he regards as the current orthodoxy-that high-density living in the core, rather than suburban sprawl, is the optimal design for the modern urbanopolis.
This orthodoxy is backed by what may seem conflicting interests. Environmentalists love the dense city because it urges people out of their cars and on to public transport systems, packing and stacking people in residences designed for energy efficiency. Activists also treasure the compacted city-a place whose streets and squares make civic and political pressure visible.
Equally, the dense city can support hubs for talent and capital, providing specialised services to the world economy in what Kotkin calls glamour zones. This kind of activity requires offices, housing and leisure developments close to each other, and taken to a glittering level.
Look from the 72nd floor of The Shard in London-itself a glamour zone-and you see city constructions erupting competitively into the sky. Compelled as a necessity by the island limits of Manhattan, the vertical build is now part of the architectural showbiz that cities must conduct if they aspire to world status.
From any angle, Kotkin isn’t impressed with the dense city orthodoxy. He especially hates the way that it downgrades and patronises the suburbs. The problem goes beyond where to house the service workers. It’s really about how middle and working-class families are to retain their connection to the dynamism of urban life.
Kotkin says we should value suburbs since these are the places that generate the children who will one day walk the city’s boulevards, and dream of inhabiting its penthouses. For where is the space, time and even appetite for bringing up a family in the glass canyons of the smart and expensive centre?
Yes, urban cores are exciting, transient places-platforms for young professionals, students and the cosmocrat class to circulate excitedly on their way to the next talent-intensive gig. But Kotkin reckons cities are at their healthiest when they nurture the aspirations of their own citizens, and this means planning for dispersal as well as concentration.
The implicit approach of Kotkin is pragmatic. By contrast, Rosemary Wakeman‘s Practicing Utopia is a compelling but mildly chilling record of dogmatism. According to her book, a post-war generation of town planners believed that systems thinking and cybernetics were master disciplines, ones that could help design ideal living environments for any population.
Norbert Wiener, who pioneered cybernetics in the West, dubbed his discipline “the human use of human beings“. And as you rifle through the pedestrian flow charts, futuristic visualisations and detailed plans in this book, you find yourself returned to a time when certain people-cold-war technocrats, on both sides of the Iron Curtain-truly believed that they could use other people “to construct, literally, an entirely new world… a marvellous glimpse at tomorrow“, as Wakeman puts it.
From Milton Keynes and Cumbernauld in the UK, to Nowa Huta in Poland, Tapiola in Finland, Navi Mumbai in India and Islamabad in Pakistan, these new towns weren’t part of any suburban sprawl. Instead they were “holistic, whole-cloth, complete places“, specific in every built detail, down to the last convoluted stairwell and strip-lit underpass.
As a living experience, many of these towns didn’t go well. Cumbernauld’s town centre was once dominated by a “megastructure”, to use the architectural parlance, self-consciously invoking the space age, and inviting regular upgrades of the modules within it. Beset by an early structural fault, the megastructure was eventually demolished and replaced by a shopping mall-the bathetic destiny of many of the new town planners’ grand designs.
If we want to identify the smartness of city life, both Kotkin‘s polemic and Wakeman‘s history suggest that we can best locate it in the imaginative, aspirational and engaged lives of citizens themselves. Corporate visions for self-driving transport systems? Cities that shape their services and infrastructures around data received through sensors and algorithms? These are new town dreams that have already been dreamed, their realisations attempted. And their outcomes? Decidedly mixed.
- The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us
- Practicing Utopia: An intellectual history of the new town movement
University of Chicago Press
- The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us