A Pedestrian Perspective on Smart Cities

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.

PlanIT Valley Take 2 (Clickable)

PlanIT Valley Take 2 (Clickable)

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.

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2 thoughts on “A Pedestrian Perspective on Smart Cities

  1. Megan, your post raises a crucial question about how to harness our enthusiasm to fill the blank canvas offered by the opportunity to build a new planned city. If we challenge traditional notions of what a city should be, does this enable innovation that leads city design to be meaningfully better (however one may choose to measure that), or just different for the sake of being different? Designing a planned city without building upon the most appreciated elements of organically grown old cities that have lasted for centuries seems, well, wasteful.

    Baldwin Park, Orlando, incorporates many of the principles you describe with the aim of creating pedestrian community. Baldwin Park was conceived as a Traditional Neighborhood Development “inspired by the past” and based on the principles of New Urbanism, which it articulates as mixing “residential, commercial and civic uses in close proximity, creating pedestrian friendly neighborhoods that make it possible to limit vehicle trips.” (http://www.baldwinparkfl.com/) The apartment I stayed in was built over a row of commercial enterprises and I could access both the grocery store and local duck pond in five minutes.

    Notably, the Baldwin community is not gated; there are over 25 entries and exits for vehicles (which are parked behind houses, not on the street). Therein lies the hitch – while the community itself is pedestrian, many people still drive to work (though downtown Orlando is only 3 miles away). Admittedly, a pedestrian neighborhood does not a city make. But, if you can get a community of people accustomed to driving to convert to being pedestrians in their “home” sphere, it seems reasonable that in reasonably dense areas, with the suggestions Megan makes, this behavior could extend to commuting and work life as well.

  2. Megan, as someone who likes to walk around cities a lot myself, I couldn’t agree more with your post. One aspect of a better urban experience that we have not yet touched on in the class is the importance of encouraging urban residents to live a more healthy lifestyle with frequent exercise.

    While there are clearly some benefits of the Broad Group’s planned 200-story Sky City building, with apartments, office space, retail space, and schools all in one building, there is something very confining about riding an elevator all day long. With the pollution as bad as it is in China these days, many residents might be perfectly happy staying indoors all day long so that they are breathing filtered air, but there hopefully will come a day when the pollution situation in China improves, and people want to spend time exercising outdoors. Hopefully urban planners are able to find a way to encourage residents to walk 15 or 20 minutes to work in the morning rather than take a taxi or the subway.

    If the recent obesity trend in the developed Western world, most notably the United States, is any guide, China will one day be confronted with an obesity epidemic of their own as household income increases and residents rely more on subways, buses, and cars instead of their own two feet and bikes to get around. There are clearly benefits to having a more mobile and interconnected workforce, but regular physical exercise is critically important, particularly if governments increasingly bear the healthcare costs needed to treat those with health conditions associated with obesity.

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