The Smart City is only as smart as the tools that enable its users to make more efficient decisions. City-making is proven technology thousands of years old. The digital revolution had, until recently, been unable to offer a distinctly new option for building human ecosystems. Starting a few years ago we have seen the advent of a new discipline that deals with the neuroscience of cities. Researchers have measured the behavior of users in different types of urban contexts and found that traditional patterns of spatial organization seem to be the optimal for efficiency, prosperity and sustainability.

Thanks to neuroscientific research applied to urban ecosystems and architecture we now know which parts of buildings catch observers’ eyes and where does the attention focus. With those data sets we are able to determine the type of architecture that gives more pleasure and adds to a good experience, versus uninteresting . We can also measure the chemical response of our brains when exposed to different types of enclosures. Those data sets provide information about whether our brains produce serotonin and oxytocin –happy hormones- and which give us a rush of the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol, prompting a “fight or flight” response.

Advances in these fields go hand in hand with the growing ability to process the enormous quantities of data that is produced in our daily activities. Knowing the optimal characteristics of urban spaces and buildings offers a chance to redefine de design profession to better suit the needs of communities.

One area that technology has not quite disrupted yet is zoning. For all the knowledge that has been accrued regarding optimal urban form, there is still a gap between the intentions of urban plans and their corresponding zoning ordinances.

Good intentions are not difficult to put in paper, but where plans have sought to increase the quality of life, inclusion and wellbeing of the people, their corresponding zoning codes have more often than not produced bland, inefficient and costly development that has not lived up to expectations. Especially from the second half of the 20th century.

We are living in one of the most exciting moments of human history, where digital tools are enabling humans to revert potentially fatal behaviors like the use of disposable plastics, as the city of Rotterdam in The Netherlands has shown, by creating floating parks made of recycled plastics. Or the pollution of the oceans, with cleaning systems that are launched to sea and operate autonomously with minimal nuisance to the fauna. But these tools also enable us to build better ecosystems, by processing information, visualizing what is written in codes and streamlining them to produce the precise quality of urban environment that we are looking for.

ZoneIQ is the name of a new visualization tool by Gridics (full disclosure, I am the zoning code analyst for the company). At its present stage, it enables users to view an enormous quantity of data sets in layers that easily switch on and off. It is now incredibly easy to review in 3D and with a few clicks what kind of buildings exist on a given zoning district and how much development potential is there in an entire city or a single lot, per the zoning allowance established in the code. It is possible to search for unbuilt area and see incompatibilities of the code with existing conditions, or requirements that make it physically impossible –and surely also economically unfeasible- to build.

Considering what was discussed before about neuroscientific research that informs about optimal urban form, the best application of this revolutionary software is to inform planners about the outcomes of their proposals beforehand, so we can know for sure what we will achieve while writing urban codes.

Technology will not miraculously produce a better urban realm. City making has maintained constants about scale, enclosure, ecosystems, land use and other critical issues from Ur to Athens to Rome to London. Centuries before we had the tools to measure good urban practices and enable a better implementation of policy, we were building cities that accommodated trade, diversity, history and prosperity.

There are few wrinkles to iron out, which is precisely where digital tools such as ZoneIQ serve to better match the building blocks of the regulatory framework to the knowledge about human-centered urban design and produce streamlined, optimized codes that guide development in a way that is conducive to the flourishing of communities and local economies.

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I ride the bus. I don’t own a car. My family walks everywhere, from the grocery store to our baby’s day care center. I have a subscription to Citibike and use it widely. We are grateful for the free trolley service and do take the occasional Uber. Mostly, I do all those critically, thinking about the experience, comfort, location, design, accessibility and usage. I sat on a crowded bus a few days ago, and I made a point to look at the distribution of stops, the convenience of the service, the demographics of the users, and the design of cars and stops. While an overly aggressive and loud political shouting match went on aboard the bus, I thought about the arguments in the winner-take-all war between mass transit and the private car.

A few years back, I was involved in a discussion about car ads. A well-meaning friend, international leader of urbanism, complained that in her country the text for a car ad read “don’t smell like transit”. Don’t smell like transit. That’s harsh. The group concluded that it was a racist, classist, excluding text that did more harm than good. I disagreed. That text was merely exposing a pain -a very real, albeit a racist and classist one- and using it as a sales pitch. And it obviously worked.

Blaming the ad writers for exposing pains won’t make those pains go away. Advertisers conduct focus groups and surveys to define their sales strategies. And anyone who rides the bus would agree.

Comfort is severely compromised while riding the bus. The idea of efficiency of transit systems revolves around the location of stops and the continuity and reliability of service. Not on comfort. That is something we must work on. When was the last time that design contests were held for the redesign of the transit car? Do we ever talk about innovation in transit cars? Has any transit operator shifted to think of riding as an experience and designed it around the user?

Cleanliness is part of the experience and it is detrimental of overall comfort. Most transit advocates will point to the squeaky clean systems in Korea or Taiwan and the (almost) clean systems in Europe as a sign that local transit systems are doing it wrong by not investing enough. The world recently watched the 2018 World Cup. Japan was one of the 32 teams. Japanese fans cleaned the stalls after using the stadiums and the team cleaned the lockers after being eliminated from the tournament. No wonder their subway cars are impeccable. Europe? Not so much, but close enough for rock’n’roll, as they say. Perhaps that is not just a matter of investing more in cleaning.

Good Public health is in the interest of the whole community and one individual’s poor habits might end up endangering the community as a whole. Think anti-vaccine activists. Good habits are manifested in a person’s behavior in public places. Societies that have conquered inequality in terms other than just monetary have successfully motivated their entire population to crusade for good habits and good public health, thus creating a good shared experience in the public realm. That is manifested in the state of public facilities that are open to all and used by all.

All this brings us to the state of activism. We are fighting hard against huge money that moves the road-building and automotive industry. Big Motordom as some call it. But to take them on as equals is futile, as is to try to convince -or coerce- more people to deliberately walk into a bad experience by using an unattractive, uncomfortable and unreliable system and do it out of conviction.

We ought to design transit solutions as experiences. Design the service. Design the routes. Integrate the stops and the cars and the streets and the buildings. Put maps, apps and shenanigans to the service of the system. Turn drivers into ambassadors. Make each ride an amusement park ride. Put some color into boring, everyday commutes. Create experiences.

Naïve? Perhaps. But we have seen costs rise and ridership stall. Maintenance, cleanliness and service have declined. Budgets do not come near what is needed to revamp old systems with underpaid operators, fragile infrastructure and unreliable cars. There is the key. Budgets have gone up. $10.3 billion has been budgeted for transit agencies all over the country. We can either keep directing investments to the same -rather unsuccessful- strategies and use the formula-allocated, likely insufficient resources to underfund system overhauls or we could use them to redesign a substandard service into an experience. Would it hurt to try something new?

In my work I have found three different ways in which experts read cities. First is through a struggle for power. Every aspect of urban life, be it public or private, ordinary or extraordinary, can be looked through a filter of domination, oppresion or colonization. Academics and intellectuals hold a virtual monopoly in this approach and the solution, more repeated by echo and redundancy than reached by creativity, curiosity and careful listening, is almost unequivocally said to be to increase the bulk of public policy and its accompanying institutions. Think of Barcelona or Quito.

The second is through the evolution of urban form and regulatory frameworks. The responsibility of shaping urban history, according to this view, belongs to politicians and those who have ended up doing their deeds: planners, developers, sports teams and other individuals or groups that configure the built environment and build community networks. Madrid or Buenos Aires might be good examples of that.

Finally, the city can be read it by looking at how it has improved humanity’s quality of life. Each discovery, invention or innovation tells the story of a brilliant mind and the surrounding ecosystem that helped their idea flourish. Florence, Bruges, Detroit or the Bay Area were not just random areas where a computer or a car were built and thrown into the market but bustling metropolises that had already reached boiling temperature and were growing incessantly when the first banker though it a good idea to fund a project, when the first business owner sold shares of his company, when Henry Ford started his assembly line or when Hewlett, Packard, Jobs, Musk et al made their first mistakes.

Those three ways of reading the city are not exclusive. They merely place the factors that define a city’s soul in different places. Depending on particular cases, each perspective can be interchangeable, overlappable and its (non existent) boundaries blurred at will. The first is an abstract view that can be endlessly discussed. To reach a final say, however, further data will always be needed. The second one charges the past and the dead with any present grievances. The problem is as long as there are dead people to shift the blame into, we are relieved of present responsibilities. The third, on the other hand, sees the story of achievements and real world progress as inspiration for the future. No intellectuals or politicians without skin in the game, just a celebration of mankind’s ingenuity and potential.

The first two have an external locus of control, which allows placing blames in external factors. The third one has an internal locus of control, which means that it gives people agency and recognizes their role in improving their own quality of life and with them the lives of their cities. How do you want to read your city?

“… to think of a persistent urban artifact as something tied to a single period of history constitutes one of the greatest fallacies of urban science.”

Aldo Rossi

 

Monuments do not define the character of a city or its people. They are, however, deeply ingrained in their history and attest to its growth, glory and gore. It is a society, at a particular point in time, that charges them with meaning and leans on them to move forward. By purging those monuments that are no longer cherished, societies aim to start anew. Most of us will remember the toppling of Lenins and Saddams after their regimes were overthrown and civil liberties were restored in their countries. The trouble is that bronze, marble and granite do not have a voice of their own, nor do they carry an immovable significance with them through the historical continuum. They merely echo the imaginary. Taking stones down without realizing (and effectively fixing) the complexities of their profound interaction with urban and social life does not prevent the resurgence of hate, dangerously symbolized by cleaned up, homogeneized, normalized figures from an horrific past.

Monuments tend to signify different things at different points in time and they may endure or disappear but their locus remains. The footprint of monuments in history is not tied to their physical existence but to the amalgam of volitions, decisions and stories that had them built in the first place and those that keep them relevant through time. That is what we know as Permanence. As Rossi argues, we – and the cities that we shape and shape us in return – tend to seek evolution rather than preservation, and in that process, “monuments are not only preserved but continuously presented as propelling elements of development.”

Permanence is closely tied to Place. Landmarks persist and become part of the collective image of the city because they have both grown with it and watched it grow. In that sense, they play a role quite similar to the ties that the people have to Place when it is collectively thought, collectively built and collectively taken care of.

The meaning of an artifact is what we make of it when we own it and lean on it to look towards the future. The inspiration to walk in the virtuous direction of what a monument reminds us of, or the lessons to be learned from its history so we do not repeat it are what give them a relevant place in our time.

As a society we are faced with the decision of whether to do away with uncomfortable symbols or lean upon the scars they left in our history to move forward, united. History does not change if we choose to ignore it, and the future is not guaranteed if we silence the past, grueling and offensive though it may be. Cities and societies can only get stronger if we strengthen our ties to Place and its landmarks.

For some it is a given, specially in the wake of Charlottesville, that monuments will come down. But the ghost of hate will still loom after taking down what symbolizes it. Reminders of a violent past are necessary, not least because they are part of a process that now affords us the liberty to reclaim that past and remove those edifices. But memory is the stuff cities are made from. Let’s not crush it, lest we forget how to build the places that house it.

For further reading on the matter, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting from Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture Of The City his reflection on monuments and permanence. I respectfully recommend reading more than this excerpt for a great overlook on the significance of urban artifacts through time and the importance of monuments for the evolution of the city and its dwellers.

How we interact with food defines how we interact with Place. From the night markets in Southeast Asia to coffee at a stall in the Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul to Hot dogs at a street vendor’s cart in New York City, Place is built around the culture of street food. The last time I looked at the powerful Placemaking capacities of place names and how folklore adds identity to Place. Food is, perhaps, as powerful if not more at the time of forging identities and making places recognizable, enjoyable and memorable.

Below are three stories that link food and Place that caught my attention today. First is chef Michael Solomonov, who places the value of belonging at a high priority. Then comes Foodlink, a food bank that has close ties, invests in and gives back to the local economy, and last but certainly not least, a story about markets, from the primitive civic places where producers would sell their goods to supermarkets and the resurgence of the farmers market.

How we buy and sell food is a reflection of the values we have as a society and an activity that informs our Placemaking efforts.

Folklore plays a critical role in how people see their places and how they project themselves in it. Place names are lockets full of stories that explain history and processes of apropriation. Dr. Sharon Blackie weaves two beautiful stories of how the Apache and the Irish relate to Place. She argues that “The myths and stories of place can help the establishment of enduring bonds between individuals and the natural world.” By naming their surroundings, communities channel the collective wisdom that allows their members to find their identities and make the world better with their unique contribution. So, could it be that finding one’s purpose and identity is directly related to belonging, engaging and contributing to community and Place?

To paraphrase Fred Kent, it takes a community to find an individual’s identity and many individuals to create a community.

I have just read Prof. Richard Florida’s article, based on a recent University of Chicago/UC Berkeley study of land use regulations stifling productivity on a whooping 9% of GDP per year. Prof. Florida argues that where not for that decrease in productivity, the Rust Belt and other hard hit areas would be far worse off. I have a few comments, for which I do not presume to have a final say, so I will leave them as questions.

  1. Wouldn’t New York’s or San Francisco’s potential triple digit growth rates be good for the environment, since everyone would choose those metropolitan areas and most of the country’s greenfields would be left alone?
  2. If we agree to the premise that land use regulations have reduced productivity and that metros like NYC or SFO would otherwise be even more attractive, does that necessarily mean that every company in the country would flock there, leaving the rest of the country deprived of any productivity and ravaged with poverty?
  3. Are we saying that the only reason recovery is underway in the Rust Belt is because large cities have been reined in by regulation? Isn’t that view contemptuous of the efforts of smaller cities and towns by assuming that every victory they get on the econ dev department is due to land use regulations in cities far away?
  4. Does the boost for Sun Belt cities that makes them more attractive regardless of their wasteful land use patterns and unsustainable dependence on air conditioning worsen negative environmental effects?