The Future of the City: A Review of the RPA's 20th Annual Conference


This is a guest post by Gabriella Levine

George Orwell was wrong. Although he said advanced technology would create authoritarianism, it actually leads to decentralization and democratization.

That was the message of Julia Vitullo-Martin, the director of the Center for Urban Innovation of the Regional Planning Association (RPA) at the RPA's annual conference, "Innovation and the American Metropolis," held in New York City on Friday, April 16th. And it was an idea that animated everyone who came for the event, from policy makers to technologists: populations are expanding, but through creative technological innovation, society can compensate. Read on for a recap and video of William McDonough's keynote...Population expansion in the metropolis
The critical questions of how to grow towards smart urbanization and how to implement these technological innovations were addressed at the RPA. The majority of population growth will occur in urban and industrial places: Adolfo Carrion, the keynote speaker, and the director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, said that the American city is the nexus of necessity and innovation: 85% of jobs are in urban areas, 90% of productivity happens in metropolitan areas, and by 2050, 75% of Americans will live in metropolitan areas (in other words, American cities will have to compensate for 120 million more people).

That seems daunting when getting on the subway at rush hour is already a superhuman feat due to of the dense throngs of commuters. How will New York City, for instance, sustainably support even more people, as we rapidly approach a population of nine million? How can urban planning lead to increased affordable sustainability and stronger, opportunistic, wealthy cities?

Architect William A. McDonough, speaking at the RPA assembly, April 16, 2010 at the Waldorf-Astoria, NYC.

We need to play catch-up ball
America already has many systems that need work: healthcare, education, the financial sector, housing and urban development patterns, and possibly the political system. Furthermore, with regards to the transportation system, "America needs to play catch-up ball", said Robert Yaro, the President of the RPA. He pointed out that America still lacks even the high-speed rails found in Europe, Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and even Morocco.

Gerard Mooney of IBM believes that New York City can be the number one green city, and transportation is the building block to economic viability. But in order to achieve this status, New York needs to make some changes. Change is critical to US urbanization, and this must be fueled by the production of green technology, sustainable infrastructure / transportation, and affordable alternative energy.

Open-source data
One way the NYC transportation lags behind many cities, including Boston, Portland, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, and London, is that there is not real-time, digitalized transit information. In order to achieve this, we need open data.

Chris Dempsey of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MDOT) explained that after Boston opened MBTA data to the public in November 2009, people unconnected to the DOT jumped on the data -- within weeks, they produced real-time data feed interfaces, for example, transportation updates for phones and desktop, and digital displays for subway and bus stations.

Open source data increases the efficiency of city travel and transit, and the collection of transportation data can be used to study what works well with regards to congestion pricing, healthcare systems, and Information Technology systems.

Additionally, public data collection and monitoring, including GPS information in people's cars, and the implementation of security cameras in places such as stop lights, toll booths, and building entrances, could also allow for transit efficiency and better use of public space in urban areas. The sharing of information will also help coordinate industry, research, and educational institutions.

New York City needs to catch up to other cities in these regards, but Yaro acknowledged that people are trepidatious of open data collection domains, fearing an intrusion of privacy and privileges.

Interagency Integration
Yaro stressed the importance of information sharing and communication between small companies (such as start-ups of smartphone apps), between federal agencies, and between cities. At the moment, open source applications are inefficient -- there is not enough sharing of code, leading to redundancy.

We need to think of communication in a whole new way, and the government must be involved in developing common applications. He said that the Internet is a command post in the global economy, and human intelligence must be used to implement communication in tactile ways, and to integrate all modes of transportation.

New York City also needs better pricing mechanisms, including using web based technology to connect all transit systems, for example, with mobile and single pass payment methods (already used in cities in Japan and Korea). Similar to integration of transit systems, Thomas Prendergast, President of New York City Transit, emphasized that shared infrastructure ( taxi and car sharing, for example) is necessary to improve surface transportation efficiency.

In order for sharing of information and communication to improve, private sectors and small companies must take advantage of opportunities for federal partnership and funding. Many RPA members emphasized the need for decentralization and integration of funding. Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City DOT, emphasized that there is federal money for transportation technology start-ups, and Belcher stated that "Government's work is God's work". However, Belcher also stated that unfortunately, critical change will require big tax increases.

Change we can believe in
The emergence of technology and transportation innovations are crucial to sustainable growth of US metropolitan areas. American urban regions must keep the existing systems in place, but the US is facing a crisis as we move towards lagging behind the rest of the world (technologically, economically, politically, and in areas of education and healthcare). Change is critical to US urbanization, but as Sadik-Khan said, "Authentic signs of hope are on the horizon."

Read more and attend the conference virtually at

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The Future of the City: A Review of the RPA's 20th Annual Conference
George Orwell was wrong. Although he said advanced technology would create authoritarianism, it actually leads to decentralization and democratization. That was the message of Julia Vitullo-Martin, the

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