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The Way New Urbanism
Alex Steffen, 7 Apr 04

You can't get to sustainability without planning better cities, and you can't now engage in serious urban planning without trying to anticipate the effects of new technologies. But what will those effects be?

People widely disagree. Some see mobile phones, embedded computers, wireless computing and cheap cameras combining to eliminate both privacy and shared experiences of public space, to, in short, undermine urban life.

But such erosion of city life isn't the only possibility. Others see new technologies as restoring the ability of highly mobile and atomized 21st Century city-dwellers to connect to one another, to become better citizens, and to recreate communities.

A whole mess of technologies need to be considered, but it's widely agreed that there are at least six to watch:

1) Mobile phones (which are increasingly mobile computers connected to the Internet, often with cameras) and other wireless technologies;

2) GPS devices (which tell you precisely where you are);

3) GIS programs (which allow you to overlay data onto maps of the landscape);

4) Social software programs and models of cooperation (which allow large numbers of people to socialize and create information collaboratively).

5) Better databases and ever-lower-cost computing;

6) Ubiquitous computing, cheap sensors, and RFID "smart dust."

Put these together and what we get are some novel, potentially revolutionary new ways to inhabit space.

The first is the making of what have been called smart places: neighborhoods where information is tied to places, and accessible through your mobile. In the imaginatively-dwarfed standard iteration, this means your phone will tell you when the store you pass has a sale on, but it might just as well warn you when you start down a street with a high crime-rate, or buzz you when a critical mass of friends are at a nearby coffee shop.

The second is the layering of reputation capital over smart places. It's one thing to have a store invade your phone with ads for its sales. It's another altogether to be able to see what people in your online community think of the service and prices there. It's still a third to be able to access a layer of citizen-created civic data, so that when you walk by your favorite historic building you can find out where the renovation plans stand.

A third is the illumination of flows -- the making visible of the invisible. Cities are, after all, essentially giant engines sucking in materials on the one end and spewing out waste on the other: cheap sensors and digital maps can let us see those materials and wastes as they flow by, helping us mitigate our own ecological wake, certainly, but also helping us protect ourselves from pollution and other health risks.

A fourth possibility is the coming of the social city (or, as John Thackara puts it, the "Post-spectacular city") -- cities in which digital technologies combine with good urban design not to increase the number of messages with which we are bombarded each day, but rather to increase the number of chances for meaningful human interaction.

A fifth is the increasing ability to treat goods as services, that is, to use concrete objects (a meeting hall, a car, a powertool) on a rental or coop basis, close-by and conveniently. When objects know where they are, where you are, and when your schedules are likely to coincide, it becomes much easier to share hard goods with others, and both cheaper and more sustainable than buying that Prius or vacuuming robot yourself.

There are more. Indeed, the possibilities are accreting faster than our discussion of the implications are unfolding. People may spew slogans like "The trial separation of bits and atoms is over," but slogans don't tell you how to zone that parking lot, what building codes to implement or where to focus the efforts of your local community group. There seems to be a way new urbanism on the horizon, one which could prove radically more sustainable and sharply more democratic, but it's still too far to make out clearly. We'd do well to start looking more closely.

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I know that high-tech is exiting but a lot of simple low-tech changes could go a long as to reshape the city as we know it.

A simple exemple would be to "force" pepole to move closer to their jobs so that they can use very cheap, low-tech transportation : bicycle! Hey i take my bike to work every day and i live in Quebec City the snow capital, and i must say i find it very pleasant even when it's -20C. I always arrive at work fresh and oxygenated not stess out and frustrated by the bad driving skills of those with who i've shared the steets...

I'm not saying high-tech ain't good, i'm just saying that when we think about our future citys we should rethink the whole thing globally with along with low-tech like bicycles...


Posted by: Jean-Philippe Martin on 8 Apr 04

Ok - but how are urban designers supposed to cope with all of this - I have a couple of ideas in a recent article for Praxis

Posted by: anthony townsend on 8 Apr 04

Hey Anthony. Cool that you're a reader - I just read your Praxis piece this morning, and found it quite interesting. Would love to have a chance to discuss it with you sometime...


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Apr 04



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