Enough With 'Smart Cities'—We Need Cities Done Right

Instead of adding layers of tech, we should be getting back to basics.

Woven City for Toyota in japan
A woven smart city for Toyota in Japan.

Bjarke Ingels Group

We have long complained about "smart" everything, writing in praise of dumb homes, dumb boxes, and dumb cities. We are not going to do that anymore: The use of the word dumb is ableist. We are also not alone in complaining about the silliness of "smart." Writing in Yale 360, Jim Robbins explains why the luster on once-vaunted smart cities is fading and looks at some of the smart city proposals on the boards and in the dumpster. He quotes Boyd Cohen, a professor and climate strategist at EADA business school in Barcelona, about what has to come first:

"Urban planning, says Cohen, may be the single most important way to reduce fossil fuel pollution and consumption. Effective urban design—density, walkability, mixed use so people don’t have to drive long distances, and efficient, clean electric or hydrogen public transportation—is the foundation. “Then you layer in tech,” he said. “Technology around renewable and distributed energy. And to make our buildings more energy-efficient. If you tackle energy consumption and transportation and urban planning, you have gone a long way toward solving the climate problem.”

Easy! And not really dissimilar from what I have concluded: The single biggest factor in the carbon footprint in our cities isn't the amount of insulation in our walls, it's the zoning.

Robbins notes there are some smart city ideas that are useful, including smart pollution sensors in London that show polluted spots to be avoided, although it seems getting rid of the dirty vehicles that are the source of the pollution would be more sensible. Or smart garbage bins that signal when they are full, although getting rid of single-use waste that is what is mostly filling those garbage bins might be more logical in these times. Or "smart parking" systems that advise drivers where there is an open space when we might suggest getting rid of cars. In summary, almost every smart solution listed here is fixing a problem that could be solved in a simpler, low-tech way instead of adding a layer of complexity and "smart."

Instead, we have to peel back the layers and get back to basics.

Courtyard interior
Heatherwick proposal for Toronto.

Sidewalk Labs

Civil engineer Shoshana Saxe made the same point in an op-ed for The New York Times—titled "What We Really Need Are Good 'Dumb' Cities" in print and "I’m an Engineer, and I’m Not Buying Into ‘Smart’ Cities" online—that was critical of the now-canceled "smart" district proposed for Toronto by Sidewalk Labs.

"Rather than chasing the newest shiny smart-city technology, we should redirect some of that energy toward building excellent dumb cities—cities planned and built with best-in-class, durable approaches to infrastructure and the public realm. 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."

So did Amanda O'Rourke of 8-80 Cities in her article "Smart Cities are Making Us Dumber." She wrote:

"Embracing evidence-based, data-driven decision-making and using technology to capture that data is a laudable goal. My problem with the idea is that it’s often presented as a panacea. There is an underlying assumption that technology is the key to unlocking the smart solutions our cities most desperately need. To believe this is to completely miss the plot."

Amy Fleming went there in The Guardian in "The case for ... making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of ‘smart’ ones." Fleming wrote:

"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."

We Need Cities Done Right

Here are a lot of very smart people praising "dumb" cities, in a negative reaction to the word "smart." We spent some time around our virtual water cooler trying to come up with a non-ableist alternative to "dumb" and the best we could come up with was "simple." But that is the wrong approach. As Robbins points out, the bloom is off the "smart city" rose. We don't need to look for opposites and antonyms. We should be positive about cities done right.

Architect Michael Eliason has been writing a lot about urban design lately on his new website Larchlab, so we asked him for his opinion about smart cities. He tells Treehugger:

"Like the promise of fully autonomous vehicles, the era of smart buildings seems to be waning. I believe this is for the better. We have had the technology to build affordable, climate-resilient neighborhoods for decades. Today, we can design buildings that are incredibly energy efficient, meeting passivhaus [standards]; with adaptability and flexibility that open buildings provide; prefabricated and decarbonized with mass timber. These buildings are less expensive to maintain, less expensive to operate—and can be a key component of low-carbon living in high-quality neighborhoods. Instead, we have had decades of politicians ignoring the data on climate change—prioritizing gizmos instead of sustainable mobility, socially and economically diverse ecodistricts, and car-free spaces. If we are to seriously tackle adapting to climate change, it is these types of things we will need to prioritize."
Small buildings in Munich
Small buildings with single stairs in Munich, Germany.

Lloyd Alter

In a recent post, "What's the right way to build in a climate crisis," I tried to lay out the plot of cities done right:

  • Density done right: As I noted in The Guardian about the Goldilocks Density: "Dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity."
  • Height done right: As architect Piers Taylor noted, "Anything below two stories and housing isn’t dense enough, anything much over five and it becomes too resource-intensive.”
  • Design done right: As Eliason noted, we have to change our building codes to permit more flexible designs. "Many are the smaller, fine-grained urbanisms that make for great cities we talk about so often," he wrote. "They can be family-friendly, with a diversity of unit types, and are both space and energy-efficient."
  • Upfront and operating carbon done right: As Emily Partridge of Architype notes: "By using materials which use less energy to produce and are made from natural materials, such as timber and recycled newspaper insulation, instead of steel, concrete and plastic insulations."

And of course, we have to end with the best urbanist tweet ever, coming on 10 years old, as Taras Grescoe notes:


Taras Grescoe/Twitter