To Make a Smart City, Start with its People

By Anonymous

Our discussions in class about sustainable cities have ranged from
optimizing the built environment’s use of natural and financial resources to raising standards of living for inhabitants so they may thrive in a global
market, all in light of climate change and the private sector. However
important technology, buildings, infrastructure, and transit are to shaping
cities, their inhabitants are often overlooked. The density of people, their
relationships, and behavior determine in large part whether or not cities
are sustainable.

In a given location, striking a balance between the number of people
and the available infrastructure is important in achieving a sustainable
city. On the one hand, as we saw in the TransMilenio case, overburdening the transit system leads to inefficiencies and i nadequacies. On the other hand, encouraging settlements in areas far from economic centers and disconnected from city centers, as the Living PlanIT case demonstrated, is also inefficient because they require infrastructure, transit, and buildings that do not serve a large enough populace. Thus, an optimal level of density exists such that resources are used efficiently and people may lead productive lives.

A recent New Yorker article highlighted the importance of interpersonal
relationships to mitigating the impacts of climate change.1 The author
cited a study comparing fatalities in two similar Chicago suburbs during
last summer’s heat wave. Conditions that proved deadly elsewhere were
endured in one town because of the support and assistance neighbors
provided one another. Thus, community resilience to climate change not
only helps people survive extreme weather conditions, but also
exemplifies attributes of a competitive, resilient city.

Furthermore, personal behaviors affect a city’s sustainability. Sustainably designed buildings, transit, and infrastructure will only achieve the desired efficiencies if they are used in the same manner for which they were intended. For instance, while a building may incorporate energy- and resource-efficient fixtures, renewable energy sources, or efficient
envelope construction, user behavior ultimately determines whether or
not the building actually consumes fewer resources. Inhabitants who
open the windows during extreme temperatures, use excessive hot water, or adjust the heating and cooling system beyond designed seasonal temperatures will undermine a building’s potential efficiency. Therefore, people’s choices and behaviors are key determinants in enabling a city to realize its maximum possible level of sustainability.
In order to create and maintain a competitive, sustainable city,
inhabitants need to maximize resources through sufficient density, work
together to be resilient to changing environmental conditions, and align
behaviors with sustainability goals. While upgrades to infrastructure,
building systems and design, and transit may be concrete and tangible
steps the private sector may take to improve our urban environments and the planet as a whole, individual end users will ultimately determine
whether or not these places are sustainable. To achieve lasting
sustainability, the private sector may instead want to focus its efforts on
ongoing operations beyond the initial conceptualization of sustainable
practices to encourage smart growth, community development, and
consumer education.

1 Eric Klinenberg. “How can cities be ‘climate-proofed’?” The New Yorker 7 January 2013:
32-37. Print.