Smart Cities, Dumb Burbs

I don’t remember exactly when it started, but at some point in recent history, cities started getting smarter and suburbs started getting dumber. It began when city planners decided to revitalize urban areas, which, in many cities, had fallen into a state of extreme dilapidation.

Buildings were renovated, trees were planted, and open areas were turned into mini-parks with shrubs and benches designed to entice weary walkers to rest and take in the view. The primary focus was on appearance as this was thought to be part of the reason why so many people had fled to the suburbs in the first place.

It was true to some degree. Cities reeked of rotting building materials, untamed grime, litter, pollution, and indigents. Adding congestion to the mix made the environment unlivable. Other than the poor, most urban inhabitants were temporary occupants, either visiting a city for work or entertainment.

The rest of the time, people of means occupied the suburbs which were cleaner, less congested and safer. They had fled there to escape the depressing environment and the proximity to crime that accompanied urban living. As a result, cities began to die.

Resources were drained from cities as residents and developers focused on growing the suburbs. Residing outside of a city became the smart thing to do. And as new homes became larger and estates more sprawling, the suburban life became more fashionable.

Those who were left living in cities were associated with poverty or lack of style. As time went on, urban living’s undesirability caused residential real estate prices to fall. From both a quality of life standpoint and real estate investment standpoint, living in a city became a dumb thing to do, leading everyone who could escape to do so as quickly as possible.

But then, the concept of urban renewal hit the scene. The goal was to attract people to cities, not just to work or visit, but to live. Thus was born the concept of “livable cities.”

One example comes from an organization, International Making Cities Livable, who started meeting in the mid-1980s to discuss the idea of making cities more livable. Their early conferences focused on “the importance of making cities livable for children first, the need for public transit, bicycle lanes, and traffic calmed streets, for human scale architecture and mixed use urban fabric, for reviving the city center and creating public places where people could gather for farmers markets, festivals, outdoor cafes and community social life.”

Even though their mission has changed somewhat over time, the problems they identified and ideas they discussed live on in other organizations throughout the world. One important goal they and other organizations have identified is the need to rebuild urban communities by “replacing sprawl with compact, human scale urban fabric.”

In the U.S., quite a few aspects of our lifestyle would have to change for such a goal to be realized. Sprawl, with its dependence on motor vehicles to accomplish tasks and bring people together, has been a way of life for decades. Living in a compact environment would not only involve a change in infrastructure, but a change in the way humans travel and interact.

When this became more obvious, organizations were formed to promote the use of walking and bicycling as a means of traveling the shorter distances a compact lifestyle would involve. Distance is, primarily, what makes motor vehicles a necessity, rather than a luxury. So reducing the distance between homes, stores and workplaces would make human locomotion feasible for larger numbers of people.

Walking could easily become the norm and bicycling could replace motor vehicle travel for medium length trips and trips requiring faster arrival times. During inclement weather, public transportation could be utilized. Motor vehicles could be reserved for longer trips outside the city, thus cutting down on pollution and oil dependence.

From an infrastructure point of view, this is all well and good. We can build things closer together, create sidewalks, crosswalks and bike paths, but what’s most difficult to construct is a new mindset for how to live one’s life.

To encourage living in an urban environment, there must be a shift in thinking away from the idea that suburban living is “smart” and urban living is “dumb.” To accomplish this we must build smart cities, cities where accommodations and environment combine to make life easier to live, not just from a convenience perspective, but from a quality of life perspective.

Good health, membership in a community, and social support, as goals, must be placed on par with materialism, which is central to American culture. Living in a smaller, well furnished home must come to represent “success” in the same way as McMansions symbolized success in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

McMansions looked out of place in their neighborhoods and were wasteful in terms of their size relative to the number of occupants. In many ways, they represented the epitome of suburban sprawl. An overly large size, in relation to the lots they were built on, made them appear as if they were bursting out of their seams in an attempt to fit into available space.

Smart cities should replace the suburban residential concept of “bigger is better” with “compact refinement is chic.” This would apply to transportation as well. Vehicles could be tailored to a compact environment. For instance, luxury bicycles designed to attract more affluent residents could replace gargantuan cars without sacrificing style and social status.

Bicycles do not have to be solely utilitarian. They can be designed and built to reflect the tastes and needs of riders. Quality materials and workmanship can exude luxury in the same manner as an expensive car. Accordingly, the luxurious lifestyle so often associated with suburban living does not have to be sacrificed when changing modes of transportation.

The biggest challenge to selling the concept of smart cities would be getting average people to exert themselves. Suburban living encourages a sedentary lifestyle. Suburbanites drive from door to door, no matter where they are going. Physical effort is not part of the deal. Therefore, the idea of relying on one’s own energy to move from place to place may not be appealing.

Cultures evolve with the passage of time. Social mores change to reflect environmental shifts. And people learn to value things that didn’t exist in the past, such as new technologies. So too can cities evolve and change into something smarter and better for our health, our environment, and the quality of life of future generations.

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