06 June 2011

Ivory Tower Intelligent Cities?

The National Building Museum in conjunction with Time, IBM and the Rockefeller Foundation will hold a symposia to explore the convergence of data, technology and cities.

The Intelligent Cities planners seem set to scold suburbia.  When comparing American life from the 1950s to today, it is noted that the average American dwelling grew from 983 sf for 3.37 occupants to 2438 sq. for just over two occupants.  Consequently, Americans’ energy consumption has doubled.  The clear implication is that we would save money and save the environment by using less energy if we went back to living in Pleasantville.

Such a specious conclusion ignores several key factors.  Surface transportation, aided by the interstate highway system and the affordability of automobiles allowed many middle class families to have a house with a white picket fence.  The 1950 data still reflects many households which had made due during the Depression and the austerity of World War II and the post-war period.

Another factor which Intelligent City planners wanted to examine is how kids no longer walk to school.  In 1969, half of all children walked to school.  Today, only 13% of kids walk to school and 44% get chauffeured by their parents in a private car.  The symposia facilitators point to data that shows that childhood obesity has ballooned to almost 20% of schoolchildren.  Interesting data but not necessarily a causal connection.

Urban planners would hypothesize that children are not walking to school since suburban streets do not have adequate sidewalks.  In my recollection, the sidewalks were not reliable outside of subdivisions forty years ago either.  But there is a good reason for the phenomenon of helicopter parents–childhood safety.  In 1976-77, the Oakland County (MI) Child Killer  infamously abducted at least four children and created a panic for child safety which resonates to this day.  The notion of orchestrating a play-date for anyone older than a toddler would seem absurd.  But since there is so much mobility in neighborhoods and stranger danger, it is commonplace  to have planned and supervised extra-curricular activities rather than wandering home and playing pickup sports.

Another datapoint which Intelligent City planners consider is the cost of keeping a car.  Their research shows that if someone ditches a car, they can expect to save on average $8,400 a year.  That is a pretty compelling figure.  But it does not take into account a cost/benefit analysis.

It is great when you can walk to work but that is not practical for most of the workforce.  Even if one could make some ambulatory arrangements, since we typically change jobs seven times over a working lifetime, it is dubious that the arrangement would last for long. Indubitably, IBM will intuit that much of the transit in an Intelligent City will be obviated by telecommuting. But not everyone has the privilege of being a non-essential Federal worker on a snow day Between-The-Beltways.  Of course, urban planners will point to public transportation as being the answer to congestion, wasted energy and transportation expenses.

 Aside from some large cities on the Eastern Seaboard (New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore) along with Chicago and San Francisco, public transportation is not the norm in America.  Progressive cities, like Portland, Oregon, which invested half of its transportation spending into light rail, without experiencing marked increases in ridership.  Portland supplemented the $1.5 billion that the city  dropped into the spending for light rail system by selling parks, school playgrounds and other land at below retail price to developers who promised to replace the open spaces with transit oriented development.  The forward thinking Portland planners zoned the land immediately adjacent to light rail stations for high density development, which had not materialized in a decade after the light rail was built.  It sounds like a failed strategy from playing Sim City.  This plan also discounts the allure that Edge Cities have in attracting business, but not enough density to necessitate mass transit options, much less making them financially sustainable.

A chataqua about city planning could be quite elucidating.  After all, Washington, DC was a planned city.  But Pierre L’Enfant’s plan to have two canals that run along the center of the city did not work out so well, but a century later allowed for the development of the National Mall. And L’Enfant’s idea to have the States center their interests around designated squares was ill fated.

Perhaps the Intelligent Cities symposia will surpass my skeptical expectations of meglomaniac architects who will sacrifice American consumer freedom to pursue pipe dreams directed by Big Government.

But that’s life in the big city.

No comments: