By Megan Brown
After our class on smart cities and PlanIT Valley, I found myself pondering what it would really be like to live in such a city. I believe in the importance of Living PlanIT’s aims, but I fear that in our pursuit of sustainability we overlook some of the less technological factors that improve quality of life, and that the desire to be cutting-edge outweighs aesthetics. It seems to me that we have become so focused on designing novel public transportation systems and energy-efficient cars that we have forgotten about walking. After all, what is more eco-friendly than using your own two feet? Keeping the pedestrian in mind would encourage designers to think on a more intimate scale, promote healthy behavior and build communities. This does not mean sacrificing the convenience of cars or public transportation but rather combining those amenities with some of the pedestrian-friendly characteristics of older cities to create spaces that are both modern and comfortable.
Some of my favorite places to wander are older European cities. Most of them were built before the automobile, so many of their streets are only wide enough for people and horses. They feel cozy and inviting, compared with LA where one feels alone on the sidewalk. When you are flanked by shops, cafes and low-rise buildings rather than fields of pavement, walking is an adventure, not a chore. Though most of these cities can be disasters to drive in and I would not recommend copying their layout, many of their strengths can be adapted to the modern city. For example, even a wide lane bordered by skyscrapers can feel inviting if the sidewalks and median are lined with trees, the buildings are tiered and the ground floors are active commercial spaces.
Another strength of the older city is the use of open central spaces, both green and hardscape. The Italian piazza and Central Park in New York both encourage people to get outside and congregate. In its rendering, PlanIT Valley was surrounded by a beautiful landscape with only a sliver of greenway running through it. If that greenway were enlarged and allowed to permeate the city, it could become a place that people choose to congregate and walk every day.
Finally, when laying out the streets, planners should not be afraid of right angles, nor of having a variety of layouts and scales for different parts of the city. Many older cities that have grown organically are comprised of everything from meandering alleys to large throughways. Sometimes poor layout can be confusing, but variety keeps cities dynamic. PlanIT Valley’s pervasive hexagonal layout feels forced and prevents changes of scale. That layout may work for some parts of the city, but I imagine people tiring of them and cutting corners, creating paths in the grass. Rectangles do not have to be boring.
With the construction of smart cities and new developments, we have an opportunity to help people live happier lives. Technological advancements will undoubtedly have a positive impact, but some of the most powerful changes may be the simplest.