21st century cities: B is for Backward Futures

Here’s my January series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. Yesterday I explored the Artificial Intelligence. Today we’re moving onto B.

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I love Venice Italy. It feels like it’s made by its people. Far more than shelter, the city was their outerwear. They embodied it, creating hidden niches and twisted routes, commanding and confusing outsiders.

When there, I feel like I am living in a dream. I am immersed in a distinctive urban experience filled with tactile, sensory experiences. Yet it’s real. Venice exists. How did they build a dream?

Backward futures draw upon the sensory life, the connection between people and place, and the art of crafting things that existed before intensive automation. The engine and the computer chip fundamentally changed us and how we make, use, and know cities.

The value of resourceless

During the Depression, global unemployment sat at 25% for most of a decade. People learned lessons that created the Greatest Generation. According to Strauss and Howe, the next generation will develop a similar philosophy. The conflict that pulls us out of this high unemployment may be the way we develop cities and our lifestyles.

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  •     Instead of only growth, many developed nations including Europe, China, and some American regions will be shrinking and aging. Frugality lessons will abound.
  •     For the past seventy years, cities have prospered by strong growth. For the next fifty years, quality is key, an important topic I cover in more detail in future posts.

Slow cities

Inspired by a similar movement in slow food, Citta Slow and the Slow Movement reject fast food, fast highways, and fast living in favor of mindfulness and attention. They aim to reassert mindful living and connection to the land, food, and other people as an anti-dote to stress.In bioregionalism and localism (similarly permaculture), people buy local, organically grown food, shop in locally owned stores, and connect to a regional identity based on indigenous resources and historic patterns (reference Alexander ‘Timeless Way of Building’ and Mouzon’s ‘The Original Green‘).

They create community economic development (CED) collectives to build networks for education, housing, health, and environmental needs.

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Cities for people

Jan Gehl calls this back-to-the-future approach “cities for people.” His aim: lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy cities. He cites fewer streets and highways like San Francisco, bike paths like Copenhagen’s, better streets like Melbourne, and pedestrian paths like Venice. He says cities are meeting places “by the people and for the people.” Rather than cities based on streets for cars, we have life between buildings.A people-first strategy is obvious in highly walkable cities like Zurich, New York, and San Francisco.

  •     Encourage people to stay, not take the fastest route out of the city.
  •     Make cars uncomfortable by mixing them with other traffic.
  •     Increase congestion rather than decrease it.
  •     Have lovely attractions like restaurants, shopping, public spaces and interesting streets.
  •     People like to be where there are people. Create places for sitting and watching.

Simple cities

Who knows the life of walking, biking, and carriage rides more than the Amish? What do you imagine cities would look like based on their principles?

  •     Primary uses within walking distance
  •     Narrow shaded streets to accommodate horse carriages, bikes and walking
  •     Lower scale buildings that house work and living spaces
  •     Gardens growing food, barns with farm animals, chickens, etc
  •     Making things – furniture, food, clothing
  •     Community spaces for meetings, events, entertainment and education
If we add scale to the buildings, broadband, lightrail, solar and wind power, the simple city would likely reduce our eco-footprint to half that of typical urban westerners. And still be fitting and livable for contemporary lifestyles.
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End of the suburban development pattern

New urbanism re-introduced the values of traditional neighborhoods as an anti-dote to suburbs: mixed use, tight lots, increased density, walkable streets, excellent public spaces, smaller retail/residential, cars to the back, front porches, and extra dwellings at the rear. As sustainable development interests grew, the two movements found common ground in compact growth.

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While this back-to-the-future solution solves walkability issues, cars still dominate, detracting from the original aspirations. In town centers, parking lots fill the land. In the residential blocks, people come and go in cars. Only when cars become a second, third or even fourth transportation option (after walking, biking, and buses/transit) do energy, livability, and health metrics improve.A long list of trends reduce the role of the car: communication technologies, business practices from hierarchies to networks, changing job patterns, increased energy costs, carbon emissions, desire for better lifestyles, health concerns, aging, and extended families that can relieve daycare trips.

  •     Models for refurbishing suburban neighborhoods are slowly emerging. The Sprawl Repair Manual makes unused space functional. Streets and sidewalks are connected. Residential and commercial infill large yards and parking lots.
  •     Car-free or limited-car developments are increasing.
  •     Rather than houses and buildings as expenses, make them into producers – energy, farming, home office, day care – much as the family farm or shop once serve as the center of income.
  •     Transportation shifts from auto-dominated to a mix of walking, biking, transit, and cars including car sharing.

B stands for buses and biking; both are useful backward futures.

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The untech city

I didn’t write this post as a balance to yesterday’s high-tech AI, although perhaps subconsciously I did. While AI, IT, and augmented reality extend our knowledge and experience of places, they also filter our connections to the sensory experience of place.In the backward future city, we can be more present, more mindful, more attentive to our whole self, and actively spatially engaged while frequently AI favors the brain and eyes.

For example, do you find that you sit too still when you’re at a computer? When I draw by hand, I stand and move. At a keyboard, I am in a frozen position, only my hands and eyes moving.

Cities, buildings, and work spaces should make us move. And they should fit like outerwear. Like Venice.

Next, C is for Co-creating.

Images: Copenhagen, Venice, Amish County, PA, Suburban fix from The Sprawl Repair Manual, Shrinking populations 2050