Many renderings of new urban development projects include a plaza or similar open space, sitting somewhere in front or between the proposed new buildings. Glitzy visualizations paint pictures of future plazas teeming with life. People are lounging, meeting each other and actively engaging in public life.
But wander off to anywhere in Helsinki (or any Finnish city, really) and you will find dead plazas galore. Most of today’s plazas were planned before digital tools came into play and made adding people easy, but the story has been the same for a long time: once materialized, our plazas typically end up being devoid of the public life they’re envisioned to support.
Supporting public life is a topic we must discuss. The public and policy atmosphere is shifting towards a future of living in denser and more urban neighborhoods. This makes having high-quality public realms a top priority for livability. Thinking about why we have so many dead plazas also helps to advance the broader discussion for smarter urban planning.
Quayside, as the project is known, will be laden with sensors and cameras tracking everyone who lives, works or merely passes through the area. In what Sidewalk Labs calls a marriage of technology and urbanism, the resulting mass of data will be used to further shape and refine the new city.
But extending the surveillance powers of one of the world’s largest tech companies from the virtual world to the real one raises privacy concerns for many residents. Others caution that, when it comes to cities, data-driven decision making can be misguided and undemocratic.
To manage our cities, we need a work culture that encourages mobility, balances profits with purpose, and values autonomy. Cities need a workforce that can meet challenges where they are. My latest for HuffPost looks at how a distributed workforce can provide the fuel urban initiatives need to take off running.
City leaders have developed a greater focus on sustainability and integrating technology and data into their operations, a shift that’s reflected in a number of smart city-focused conferences aimed at expanding the industry. Partnerships aren’t only forming between public and private entities; municipalities increasingly are partnering with each other to take on big projects.
Across the nation, communities are building smarter energy infrastructure that leverages the power of data to solve problems. These projects will spur economic development, improve sustainability, enhance public safety and drive efficiencies — ultimately creating a better quality of life for citizens. For more of these projects to become reality, key stakeholders in the community, private industry and government must understand how best to work together.
Planners need to view cities, suburbs and exurbs not as discrete units but as regions, with one integrated environmental and technological system.
Millennial suburbanites want a new kind of landscape. They want breathing room but disdain the energy wastefulness, visual monotony and social conformity of postwar manufactured neighborhoods. If new suburbs can hit the sweet spot that accommodates the priorities of that generation, millennial habitats will redefine everyday life for all suburbanites, which is 70 percent of Americans.
The talent war of the future will no longer be between companies, it will be between cities. As technology untethers society, and remote work becomes the norm, people will live in the cities of their choosing, rather than the ones that are nearest to where they work. The cities of their choosing will have a certain “vibe” by offering attractive living options in tech-friendly environments.
When nation-states default on their national sovereignty, cities have to step up. They can’t wait. And they don’t need to ask for permission. They can exert their own sovereignty. They understand that the local and the global have really, truly come together, that we live in a global, local world, and we need to adjust our politics accordingly. At this moment of extraordinary international uncertainty when our multilateral institutions are paralyzed and our nation-states are in retreat, cities and their leaders are our new 21st century visionaries.
In 2008, when the smart city movement began, Robert G. Hollands asked for “the real smart city to stand up.” Since then, there has been an intense and ongoing debate around this subject, as well as a number of projects self proclaiming their “smartness.” Great steps have been taken in some leading cities to explore how we turn digital innovation into public service improvements. But how do we get citizens involved as active agents of this digital urban revolution?
The early techno scene in post-unification Berlin was something out of Mad Max. East Berlin had wasted for years, and by the time Reagan said, “tear down this wall,” a pack of club kids had inherited the empty war-torn city.
“That’s one big historical accident. Nobody could have anticipated anything like that,” says Tobias Rapp, pop culture editor at Der Spiegel. “The wall falls down and a small scene in West Berlin takes over huge empty spaces in East Berlin, so they celebrate the freedom.” A perfect experiment, reuniting kids from both sides. Rapp remembers squatting with friends, “running through this empty city looking for a party” (video).
The space was reclaimed eventually, but not before techno took root. Rapp and other pioneers have since legitimized the industry, which now accounts for a serious chunk of Berlin tourism.
Look at Detroit today, where techno began, and you’ll see 80s East Berlin staring back at you. In 2013, the city became the largest in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. It’s seen growth since, but some parts are so empty the city has a hard time providing services. Worst case scenario? Slipping into perpetual decay. In other words, becoming a giant slum that happens to be the 21st most populous city in the country.
Dimitri Hegemann, founder of Berlin’s legendary club, Tresor, sees potential. “There’s a really good moment in Detroit now because there’s a new generation looking for an alternative way to start something,” he tells Thump in this 2014 interview. “The vibe is good. We could open some doors. We share similar energies, Detroit and Berlin.”
The tale of these two cities underscores both the fragility and promise of urban settlements everywhere. Santa Fe Institute’s Luis Bettencourt asks if the challenge of slums, “the face of contemporary urbanization,” is more than just a phase. He believes a city should always enable socioeconomic creative potential. Techno’s migration to Germany ignited scenes in New York, London and Paris. Considering how club kids helped to shape Berlin, anything is possible for the city that inspired them.
Now, Detroit’s a case study on revitalization, innovative governance and co-design. Like Berlin, Detroit needs a new scene. What can the city learn from the pioneers of techno? I don’t know, why don’t we ask them?