Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Walkshed Technologies and the Smart City
Alex Steffen, 29 Mar 10
Article Photo

There was a time when people thought the Internet would isolate us from one another, that we'd all end up spread out across the landscape in suburban enclaves, too absorbed with television and the Net to want to meet any actual people. A funny thing happened on the way to that asocial future, though: we discovered that the most important thing about the Net is that it connects people, and that connected people tend to want to meet, socialize and work together. Rather than separating us, the Net has made us more social than ever, both online and in the "real" world. In fact, the more connected we are online, the more time we're likely to spend hanging out offline with friends, family and neighbors.

As technology has suffused our cities -- think not only iPhones and GoogleMaps, but community ratings of restaurants and shops, real-time traffic reports, smart electrical grids, even hyper-local news sites -- it has magnified the feedback loop between online connection and in-person conversation: we're learning that public space and cyberspace are symbionts; technology and physical community fuel each other. The trend is only accellerating. Technology has gotten smaller, spread out and become ubiquitous in urban space. We’re surrounded constantly by data points, sensors, and layered information about everything from transit delays to weather reports to the bar where our friends are having happy hour.

As cities become smarter, urban living becomes much more efficient, and in many ways more pleasurable. With the street being a platform for technology, it becomes much easier to know where the things we want are and who has them and how they’re using them. We’re used to thinking of convenience in a 20th century way, where you get in your car and you drive around until you find the thing you want, and convenience is defined by the easiest drive with the least traffic, by the object that you buy and take home so you never have to worry about where it is (driving to the store to buy a home gym). Convenience in a smarter city is defined differently: knowing where the stuff you want is at all times so you don’t actually need to own it or make long trips to get to it. Just as search engines like Google have allowed us to find what we want, instead of having to click through the Net hoping to find something without knowing where it is, ubiquitous technology makes the city increasingly "searchable."

And, as Dan Hill notes in his seminal essay The Street as Platform, we're only just beginning to realize how smart our cities can get:

“Facilitated by networks of sensors, the data emerging from the new nervous system appears limitless: near-imperceptible variations in air quality and water quality, innumerable patterns in public and private traffic, results of restaurant inspections, voting patterns in public referenda, triggers of motion sensors, the output of heating ventilation and air conditioning systems, patterns of water usage, levels of waste recycled, genres of books returned at local libraries, location of bicycles in the city’s bike-sharing network, fluctuations in retail stock controls systems, engine data from cars and aeroplanes, collective listening habits of music fans, presence of mobile phones in vehicles enabling floating car data, digital photos and videos locked to spatial co-ordinates, live feeds from CCTV cameras, quantities of solar power generated and used by networks of lamp-posts, structural engineering data from the building information models of newly constructed architecture, complex groupings of friends perceptible in social software multiplied by location-based services, and so on. Myriad flows of data move in and around the built fabric. As many or most objects in the city become potential nodes in a wider network, enabled through the natural interoperability of systems influenced by the Internet and its open-source philosophies and standards-based protocols, this shimmering informational field provides a view of the entire city.”

As cities get smarter, we're likely to find more and more ways of improving the function of our cities, almost without effort, simply by eliminating wasteful practices:

“The invisible becomes visible, as the impact of people on their urban environment can be understood in real-time. Citizens turn off taps earlier, watching their water use patterns improve immediately. Buildings can share resources across differing peaks in their energy and resource loading. Road systems can funnel traffic via speed limits and traffic signals in order to route around congestion. Citizens take public transport rather than private where possible, as the real-time road pricing makes the true cost of private car usage quite evident. The presence of mates in a bar nearby alerts others to their proximity, irrespective of traditional spatial boundaries. Citizens can not only explore proposed designs for their environment, but now have a shared platform for proposing their own. They can plug in their own data sources, effectively hacking the model by augmenting or processing the feeds they’re concerned with.”

All this will change the way it feels to live in dense communities. Most of us only feel comfortable walking a certain distance from our homes -- what urbanists call our "walkshed." If we're restricted to only looking for things (and meeting people) in person, those walksheds can feel constricting and insufficient, even in really vibrant compact neighborhoods. But as we gain insight into the places around us and connection to the people nearby, our walksheds can unfold with possibilities. Sure, it gets easier to catch the right bus, reserve a carshare vehicle or borrow a powerdrill from the tool library, but that's just the beginning. That church we always ignored, we find, hosts a book swap; the small corner store sells spices we've had a hard time finding; though it's not advertised, parents with young children are invited to matinee shows at the local movie theater, and no one will hush you when your baby cries; people meet to practice their French every Wednesday at that cafe. Our cities are bursting with opportunities we miss simply because they're invisible from the street. Walkshed technologies make visible the invisible neighborhoods we stroll through every day.

Of course, this new future will be full of perils as well as promise, with new threats to privacy from nosy or creepy people, concerns about corporate abuse of information gathered about us (if they can gather information about our whereabouts from the Web, will insurance companies attempt to raise our insurance rates if we spend more time than average in bars, or visit fast food stands too frequently) and the reliability of the information we're depending on (take, for instance, the Google walking map above, which instructed me to walk across England by way of the island of Guernsey, though it did helpfully remind me to use caution, as the route might be lacking sidewalks). It might even be that we miss the randomness and serendipity of moving through blind spaces, of not knowing what we'll find. On the other hand, it may be that our cities become ever more interesting as their workings are made accessible to us.

Image of crosswalk courtesy of Flickr photographer Cougar-Studio under the Creative Commons License.

Bookmark and Share


Interesting perspectives. You bring to light how great the divide is between the urban and empowered, digitally connected and the rural and disempowered.

Posted by: Kathryn on 31 Mar 10

Nice post. Agree with most, but is this bit really true?

"Rather than separating us, the Net has made us more social than ever, both online and in the "real" world. In fact, the more connected we are online, the more time we're likely to spend hanging out offline with friends, family and neighbors."

I tend to feel the opposite - that while the web does have this capability, on balance, we're way more isolated than ever before. Are there numbers to back either perspective up?

Posted by: Scott Gast on 7 Apr 10

I am not convinced that the social networks the author believes to be such a boon actually stand-up. The 'feedback loop' creates such a mass of information that I find that I am only really able to gleen a superficial understanding- the 'headlines'.

How does this impact communication?

My perception is that it challenges our ability (or limits the opportunities) to develop deeper dialogues... we progessively speak to each other in cliches and soundbites.

This helps us get the basic meaning- but what happens to nuance and subtleties?

Posted by: Ben on 12 Apr 10


Thanks for the comment.

I think I take your point here, but the way I see it is that for most people in the developed world (and especially North America) most of the interactions social media could intermediate are not exactly high-quality community time. Mostly we're talking about reducing wasted trips, encouraging alternatives to overconsumption and minimizing clutter in our lives. It's not like the time spent searching our neighborhoods for the alternatives is time we would have otherwise spent in philosophical debate (and, who knows, more neighborhood focus might actually lead to more neighborliness).

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 12 Apr 10

Post A Comment

Please note that comments will remain open for only 14 days after the article is posted. While previous comments will remain visible, attempts to post new comments after this period will fail. This helps stop comment spam, so your forebearance is appreciated.

The Worldchanging comments are meant to be used for further exploration and evaluation of the ideas covered in our posts. Please note that, while constructive disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. We will also delete at will and without warning comments we believe are designed to disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it. In short, we'll kill troll posts.

Finally, please note that comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted.

Yes No







MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg