June 26, 2017

Taking the city’s pulse: we need to link urban vitality back to the planet

Taking the city’s pulse: we need to link urban vitality back to the planet

Back in the 1960s, the influential urban planner and journalist Jane Jacobs put American cities under the microscope. Jacobs was aiming to explain, and suggest ways of remedying, the hollowing out, or “doughnut effect”, which left previously well-functioning city centres rundown and devoid of new blood.

The effect was less dramatic in Australian cities, which had few, if any, residential populations in their central business districts until comparatively recently. And many of the innermost suburbs that surrounded the CBDs were industrialised and yet to feel the decline of manufacturing.

Of course, today the situation is completely reversed across Western cities. The emergence of the service economy and explosive growth of professional classes are promoting gentrification and squillion-dollar property values.

Jacobs’ conditions for a vibrant city life were that districts must serve at least two functions to attract persons of different purposes around the clock. Further, blocks must be small, with many opportunities for pedestrians to interact and a diverse range of buildings. Finally, there needed to be reasonable density. The idea was that “vitality” had a lot to do with chance encounters.

Digital entanglement

Digital interconnectivity is increasingly taken to be a measure of a city’s vitality. Ekaphon Maneechot from www.shutterstock.com

Jacobs’ encounters have now been supplemented if not entirely supplanted by social media. Enter some Italian researchers who hit upon the idea of mining “big data”. In this case, they used mobile phone calls cross-referenced to satellite-derived records such as Open Street Map to gauge where precisely this feverish activity was happening across six of Italy’s large cities. (In corroboration of Jacobs’ thesis, the best places were found to be “day end points” with concentrations of office workers at large, as well as small streets and blocks with historic buildings.)

There’s a sense that this “interconnectivity” is becoming a signal of city vitality/vibrancy. The two elements are becoming entangled like subatomic particles.

Moreover, it’s a natural fit with the vogue for blending IT with strategic planning. The new ministerial portfolio, cities and digital transformation, exemplifies this.

Smart city buzz

You don’t have to venture far into urban policy space before coming across the idea of the “smart city”. There’s a near-continuous run of conferences on the topic and even a Turnbull government plan. The plan features, among other measures, a blend of big-data thinking, with “better benchmarking of city performance”, and the prescriptions set out in Edward Glaeser’s 2013 book, Triumph of the City.

Glaeser views cities as places where human ingenuity can flourish and skills are developed and refined – a combination driving economic and technological advance. He believes increased densification, including a “vertical city” with yet higher stacks of buildings, is integral to achieving these objectives.

Glaeser, however, illustrates complexities in this debate. Jacobs opposed the view that high-rise cities create beneficial interactions. And concern is growing that increased reliance on digital communication will radically reduce urban human interaction.

Reckoning with a cantankerous planet

High-rise cities face particular problems in a warming world. zhangyang13576997233 from www.shutterstock.com

Smart cities need to be “resilient” if they’re to counter, for example, Paul Gilding’s “great disruption”. This includes life-threatening heat, desiccation and killer peri-urban fires. High-rise cities may prove to be the least adaptable human constructions in an era of fundamental change and add considerably to the urban heat island effect

Should an economic perspective – like this, for instance – remain the main if not the sole focus for cities? This in a year when atmospheric carbon reached an irreversible 400ppm; the Great Barrier Reef’s coral is bleaching; wildfires have destroyed towns and cities in Canada; India has recorded its hottest day on record 51°C; Paris has been heavily flooded; and sea-level rise threatens to inundate Silicon Valley, the spiritual home of start-ups – not to mention our home-grown variety of storm surge, erosion and flooding.

Is there something we’re missing? In the rhetoric surrounding smart cities it’s difficult to unearth specific reference to the natural world and its current plight. And when there is, it’s often a few throwaway lines about the value of green space in protecting biological diversity and threatened species.

Contrast this with the growing awareness of the benefits to our psyche of exposure to the natural world (even acting as a boost to productivity in the workplace).

Set these observations against the revelation that today’s children – the inheritors of the smart city – are spending less time outdoors than prisoners. This has occurred in a generation for whom the environment is unlikely to be mainstream given that their reality is ultimately what appears on a screen. Digital connectivity in low-amenity vertical communities is likely to prove a poor substitute for the kind of city Jacobs advocated.

Reconnecting kids and others requires rejigging our perspective, as well as starting to look out for vestiges of wildlife that has sought refuge in our cities. And providing for local food production is as big as big data itself, but that’s something for another day.

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