Eli Kuslansky explores the concept and benefits of ’Legible Cities’ as well as a route to achieving them. 

Designing and managing cities would be so much easier if they were machines. Just pop the key in, give it a turn and away it goes. But as we all know from the long history of urban design, with its aspirations, failures and successes, cities are not automatons.

The desire to create a city that runs as efficiently as a machine has been played out countless times in countless cities since the dawn of modern urban design. It is a classic struggle best illustrated by the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses ’David and Goliath’ battle for the soul of lower Manhattan.

Jane Jacobs was an American-Canadian journalist, author and activist who organised a successful grassroots effort to protect her Greenwich Village neighborhood from Robert Moses’ plans for “slum clearance”. Jacobs was also instrumental in the cancellation of Moses’ plan to run the Lower Manhattan Expressway directly through SoHo and Little Italy – a plan he created under the mantra of efficient city layouts.

Living cities

Jane Jacobs’ most powerful and persuasive argument was that cities are living things and what makes them interesting and safe is the organic vibrancy of the streets.

With a clear-eyed, human-focused approach to urban design, Jacobs wrote that cities should be “…organic, spontaneous, and untidy…”, in contrast to Robert Moses’ prescribed city.

Jane Jacobs’ description of the organic process of how our cities run can help us define the smart city.

The characteristics currently used to define a smart city invariably focus on the hard infrastructure of smart transportation, waste removal, lighting, etc. as these are the areas where many vendors can see a clear return on investment (ROI). An intelligent lighting system or an enterprise-level computer system can be estimated, sold and evaluated due to their finite elements and costs.

This perpetuates the idea of cities as machines. The missing dimension to the smart city’s hard infrastructure is the soft infrastructure of knowledge-sharing, human and social capital, and new forms of community and cultural engagement.

Songdo – a smart ghost town

And yet, the idea of cities as machines still persists – fuelled by the underlying idea that cities can be brought under control.

Songdo in South Korea is a $40 billion project with 106 buildings and 22 million square feet of LEED-certified space – all built from the ground up.

Songdo developed a number of promising ideas: computers built into the streets and digitally advanced condos to control traffic flow and let neighbours hold video chats with each other; an efficient trash system with no garbage trucks where rubbish is pneumatically sucked out of houses and recycled to generate electricity; and the ability to do everything remotely – from opening the front door to attending college classes.

legible cities

While Songdo’s promise was to be a walkable, sensor-laden showpiece of 21st-century urban design, the reality is quite different. Like many parametrically designed and clever computer-generated designs, many feel that Songdo lacks soul and spirit.

Around 100,000 people live in Songdo – a third of its capacity. These factors lead to it being described as a ‘ghost town’.

This rigid, uniform approach to designing smart cities almost always turns out to be stifling and generic. There is a smarter way to create a smart city but finding the right model can be a challenge.

For chief digital, innovation and data officers, and city managers, the challenge is how to balance the vast operational and management needs of a city with the human aspects that make for an innovative, learning and liveable city.

This challenge isn’t being met by existing smart city models as they do not address how to engage citizens in a sustainable process or how to change the culture of a city to be more open and collaborative.

A process is needed, with a methodology and technology that reveal the hidden patterns of a city so that information and data is actionable, relevant and trackable as well as being readable by laypeople.

Enter Legible Cities

This is where the Legible Cities movement comes into play. Legible Cities is a smart city model that has been fielded by a number of forward-looking city planners, technologists and urban designers.

The Legible Cities approach uses technology, data and curated journeys to make a city more ‘readable’ for visitors and inhabitants to improve people’s understanding and experience of the city.

In one form, a Legible City is a coordinated wayfinding system designed to create seamless journeys delivered through physical signage, online and mobile.

Unlike traditional maps that have one layer of information, Legible Cities uses technology in different touchpoints – such as strategically placed street signs and displays, mobile apps and websites –so that multiple layers of information can be stacked one on top of the other for people to discover the relationships, hidden patterns and narratives of a city.

The true promise of Legible Cities, and in many cases the key to the success of a smart city, is when you add the humanistic dimensions of people’s experience, the knowledge and rich culture of museums, libraries and educational institutions, to curated journeys. This makes for a more livable, innovative and connected city. Events, activities, opportunities, transport, resources and other data linked to locations could be the content for new ways of engaging with a city.

Imagine how you would navigate a Legible City. By combining streaming data and content with experts’ opinions through channels like social media, a business-person with one free day could navigate the city guided by their personalised content via an experience map.

This article was originally published by Smart Cities World. Continue reading entire article here.


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