In Praise of the Dumb City

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CC BY 2.0. On left: Gil Penalosa, 8 80 Cities founder, taking back the streets/ Lloyd Alter

Perhaps we are getting carried away with all this Smart City Talk; Amanda O’Rourke thinks so.

When speaking at a conference recently I alluded to my writing in praise of the dumb home and in praise the dumb box. After some discussion of Sidewalk Labs’ initiative in Toronto, I noted that next I would be writing in praise of the dumb city. Alas, I have been co-opted by Amanda O’Rourke, Executive Director of 8 80 Cities, who writes that Smart Cities Are Making Us Dumber.

She and I agree that good data can help build good cities; there is nothing new in that. Peter Drucker wrote years ago that “what gets measured gets managed.” But O’Rourke writes:

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.

She goes on to remind us that we actually know what to do to make cities better. “We already have overwhelming data on what makes cities more engaging, vibrant places for people and what doesn’t.”

O’Rourke worries, as I do, about the obsession with self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs) and reminds us of how the (non-autonomous) automobile was also once seen as the great new tech that would change cities.

For the last 100 years, we have designed our cities around the efficient movement of cars, instead of focusing on the health and happiness of people. This narrow focus on a singular technological innovation spurred billions of dollars of public investment in road and parking infrastructure that cities can’t afford to maintain. It has drastically changed and separated land-use patterns and caused severe environmental degradation; it has divided communities economically and racially.

This is why we talk about fixing our cities to work for walking, biking and transit; we can’t totally rebuild our cities but we can make a lot more room if we don’t fill it up with moving and stored cars. It’s why we stress the part of Vision Zero that talks about design, about narrowing streets and making life safer for walking and biking people; it’s about removing the focus from the car and making it work for everyone. O’Rourke writes:

open streets

People of all ages, taking back the streets/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We know the auto-centric sprawling city has had a disproportionately negative effect on those who do not drive, such as children, older adults, and the economically marginalized. We have limited their right to independent mobility, their right to public space, and their right to participate and engage in civic life.

We know how to fix it too. It is “not a technological puzzle to be solved or destroyed by the car, the smart phone, AV, AI, or whatever the next big technological breakthrough is.”

Forgive me for calling it a Dumb City, because it really isn’t. It is based on smart choices about technologies and designs that are proven and tested. And we are not stuck in the 19th century here; I believe that the e-bike, a product of new battery tech and efficient motors, is going to have a lot more impact on our cities than the fancy, high tech unproven autonomous car. Or that the smart phone and GPS are making transit better all the time.


Taras Grescoe/Screen capture

For the umpteenth time since he first tweeted six years ago, the best 140 character summation of where our cities should be going. Now that’s smart.