A new science for cities

A talk given to the Leaders and Chief Executives of the Key Cities, Brighton, 24th October 2014.

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We hear a lot about smart cities as the solution to the needs of urban places. But although technology allows us to live remotely and speak to each other from deep forests and mountaintops, humanity as a species has become more and more urban. The more that we could be apart, the more we have actually come together.

Perhaps we need to understand that smart cities is not a new concept: cities were always smart – if they weren’t smart we wouldn’t have them.

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Human interaction – the purpose of cities

The future of cities will not be resolved by technology alone – we need to direct the technology towards the ultimate purpose of cities: interaction between human beings for social and economic purposes.

Cities are intensification of opportunities for such interactions, which also have impacts on resources.

Again, we hear that cities consume greater levels of resources and generate greater levels of emissions – but we need to review this in per capita terms which, when you do the analysis, shows that cities consume fewer resources per capita and generate fewer emissions.

Cities are the best places to trade socially and economically. Crucibles of innovation in the sciences and the arts. But only if we get them right. And, for most of the last hundred years – despite all best efforts, cities haven’t been got right.

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If your city has one or more of the following, then it will be underperforming:

  1. one-way streets
  2. roundabouts
  3. staggered pedestrian crossings
  4. a shopping mall that looks inwards, with blank walls to the outside.

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These features are the product of the 20th century science of cities – a science that has given us transport modelling which costs thousands and thousand of pounds to operate and may be more wrong that it is right – creating models that take weeks to run – weeks we don’t have – and that may not include the full network of connections that real people use because these models are so unwieldy that it isn’t possible to include them all.

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Yet models that have the power of authority – to prevent change, to stall development – that preserve the very negative nature of connectivity that is severing our cities: the one-way systems, the roundabouts and the staggered crossings that work against the very human interactions that cities are there to support.

A thought: we need to make better use of our limited resources – now more than ever when budgets are tighter. I would like to leave you with an idea: that every asset should have not one purpose but at least two or, ideally three. That a concourse through a railway station is also the walking route home for a child from school – is also a place for business meetings. One asset: three purposes.

20th century planning separated land uses into zones, separated cars and pedestrians, separated the movement of cars from places for people. It gave us ring roads, subways and shopping precincts, housing estates and business parks that have divided and fragmented the city rather than connect and integrated. This was well intended but misplaced and has had unintended, negative consequences. One asset: one purpose.

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21st-century planning must be different – radically different – seeing movement and place as the same thing, occurring on the same streets. Our one-way urban highways need to be transformed as boulevards. Inward-looking shopping malls need to be opened outwards to the wider city.

The naive claims of retail agents, that doing so will make them leaky, need to be challenged. What nonsense is that? That we should worry that sentient people might wish to find a simple way out of a shopping centre? We need to look at it the other way round – these same people need to find a simple way in to the shopping centre in the first place.

Why do you think we got high streets in the first place? With their gentle widenings to allow space to bring animals and goods into town to trade? Places to go to and move through and have life occurring along them? Trade occurs through friction between moving and stationary people. We need to allow for this friction to occur.

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This means vehicles in towns. Parking on the streets. But, at the same time, space for pedestrians to walk, space for sitting, space for bicycles. No more roundabouts and subways. This is not impossible – we just need to plan for it.

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And if you don’t believe me, then simply look further afield – at the way that cities in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and throughout the world – like Darwin – have transformed their built environments – making radical decisions that defy conventional transport planning – but that have created places for people that serve the ultimate purpose of cities: to facilitate the interaction of human beings.

It is in this direction that a new science for cities should be directed – one based on the study of human behaviour patterns. Yes, we need to model movement – but the movement of all people: on foot and on bicycles as well as in vehicles. And we need to model more than movement: awareness, contact, interaction and transaction. Finally, we need to model the consequences of this for economic wealth, social cohesion and environmental impact.

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