Innovations to make future cities far more livable?

From folding cars to robotic walls: 5 innovations to make future cities far more livable

Big cities across the globe will soon be getting much, much bigger. As architect Kent Larson shares in this future-focused talk from TEDxBoston, 90 percent of the world’s population growth is expected to happen in cities. But while newly established cities tend to sprawl to accommodate growth, Larson envisions that the metropolises of the future will look more like cities of the past — for example, Paris — with tight-knit neighborhoods offering residents everything they need within the radius of a 20-minute walk.So how will we live comfortably with even more people crammed into even smaller areas?

(via TED Blog.)

I love the idea of cities becoming more like what they were in the past, but it is clear that there is a struggle being waged – albeit subtly and even at times subconsciously – between different visions of what the city of the future will be, and this TED Talk is an example…

The talk outlines several innovations to make city dwelling far more livable that architect Kent Larson and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab are working on, though their Changing Places research group and City Science Initiative.  But the 5 innovative research projects looked at in the blog post have little to do with creating a city “more like cities of the past — for example, Paris — with tight-knit neighborhoods.” Instead, they seem to focus on maintaining a city much like cities of today — or maybe 1980 — and in particular on maintaining the whole structure of private, individual ownership, of already existing capitalism, as much as possible:

  • A tiny car that can be parked anywhere
  • Headlights that communicate with pedestrians for the ubiquitous autonomous cars
  • Bikes for elderly and disabled: Persuasive Electric Vehicle (PEV)
  • An apartment that changes, thanks to robotic walls
  • Do-it-yourself sunlight for tiny apartments

Don’t get me wrong — all of these sound cool and interesting, particularly to a techno-nerd like me. And they sound like positive developments.  But they are all innovations designed to improve or ameliorate conditions produced by the all-conquering private automobile/mode of transport and a notion of living space that emphasizes private space for individuals and nuclear families above all else.

That is not the Paris — or New York — of the past, more like the LA or Chicago of the present (or maybe 1980, before the problems of urbanism really started cross-fertilizing with neoliberal policies to produce the situation in which we now find ourselves).

Not tiny cars nor autonomous cars with smart and sexy headlines, but effective public transit solutions are what we need, along with a return to a mode of living in which work, consumption and living spaces were not separated by such distances, where people could easily walk to most things.

Having robot walls and the ability “to program a personalized sunlight plan for their apartment, using their cell phone” sounds okay.  But consider the solutions of the past to the tiny, crowded living spaces and lack of sunlight for the majority of urban dwellers in New York and Paris and elsewhere — like Central Park.  Public space, shared space, communal space to provide the room to stretch out, and to enjoy the sunlight, which private quarters didn’t and couldn’t provide.  I’d rather have my city parks refurbished and maintained, and expanding in number, size and variety, than have “programmable sunlight” in my apartment, as its walls shift to give me some sense of space in the property I rent (because, let’s face it, you are I are not going to be able to buy a place to live in the City of Tomorrow).

As cities grow, as the number of people living in urban spaces increases, and as environmental issues weigh ever more heavily, the only way to accomodate those numbers in anything remotely pleasant and healthy is going to be to recreate all those shared, communal and public solutions that have been disappearing: laundromats instead of a private washing machine and dryer in every apartment; large, effective public parks.  Cafes and bars that function as de facto living rooms and meeting halls (very common, for example, in NYC at the beginning of the 20th Century). Cheap and healthy dining halls for walking people. Public baths.

And that electric bicycle for the elderly and disabled? I suspect most elderly and disabled would rather have effective public transit, though they might welcome the bicycle as an addition.  The real market for that PEV: “the businesswoman who has to wear a suit to the office, but wants a workout on her way home.”  And don’t make any mistake:

these innovations are all about the market, for developing new products for the City of Tomorrow rather than innovating for real livable cities that combine the best of modern technology with the best of the “cities of the past.”

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