The Case for Dumb Cities

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CC BY 2.0. Old city meets new tech near Chenzhou, China/ Lloyd Alter

The Guardian Cities closes doors, goes out with a bang.

Guardian Cities is closing its doors. It was a wonderful "community of journalists, experts and readers joined by a desire to make cities better" that got funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which has been cutting back on its support for urban issues.

They are going out with a bang, and doing concluding opinion pieces making cases, including Amy Fleming's The case for ... making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of ‘smart’ ones.

The dumb city is a subject dear to this TreeHugger's heart; we wrote our version a few years ago as In praise of the dumb city. Fleming picks up on Shoshana Saxe's New York Times article which we also covered in More praise for dumb cities:

Saxe pithily calls for redirecting some of our energy toward building “excellent dumb cities.” She’s not anti-technology, it’s just that she thinks smart cities may be unnecessary. “For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas,” she says.

Fleming notes also that there are other dumb technologies and old, really old ideas that we can learn from and use.

It is eminently possible to weave ancient knowledge of how to live symbiotically with nature into how we shape the cities of the future, before this wisdom is lost forever. We can rewild our urban landscapes, and apply low-tech ecological solutions to drainage, wastewater processing, flood survival, local agriculture and pollution that have worked for indigenous peoples for thousands of years, with no need for electronic sensors, computer servers or extra IT support.

And it's not just cities:

As for dumb transport, there can be no doubt that walking or cycling are superior to car travel over short urban distances: zero pollution, zero carbon emissions, free exercise. And there’s a dumb solution to the spread of air conditioning, one of the greatest urban energy guzzlers: more plants. A study in Madison, Wisconsin found that urban temperatures can be 5% cooler with 40% tree cover.

This is something we have been banging on about at TreeHugger forever. The simple, proven solutions like planting trees, building natural wetlands. Low-tech, low-carbon, easy to maintain. We need more of this and, unfortunately, we need more of Guardian Cities.

The closing of Guardian Cities is a huge loss, especially following the sale of CityLab to Bloomberg last month and the laying off of half of its staff, and the closing of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities project. It seems that the spike of interest in urban issues that started with Citylab in 2011 and exploded after Superstorm Sandy is fading, and just becoming another issue. Guardian Editor Chris Michael says, "The Guardian, of course, will continue to focus on urban journalism," but it will be found in their news, environment and other desks. And he will aggregate it on Twitter and Instagram, which is probably where we will all end up.

Full disclosure: I wrote for the Guardian (I even wrote about dumb houses for them) and for Guardian Cities under editor Mike Herd, and was even given a regular column on Resilence, but it was too onerous to do both it and TreeHugger and I had to quit on them. Sadly, that was the end of my Guardian career.