"Intelligent City Model" Complements Smart Growth - Doesn't Replace It!

Brent Toderian's picture

Having read articles lately on Planetizen and elsewhere on how the "fresh new concept" of Intelligent Cities is replacing the stale old term "smart growth", I was moved to write a comment regarding the latest such article which compared smart growth to urban renewal in terms of its stale-dated coolness, and suggested that smart growth may be passé because of its successful take-over of main-stream thought and practice. Given how the media is picking up and running with this kind of narrative, it feels to me that there is a need for planners and urbanists to push back somewhat, and reposition opportunities in the smart cities movement as compatible with, and even a part of, the broader goals of smart growth and sustainable and resilient cities.  

Here is an expansion of the comment I posted previously.

I must say I find this recent narrative of Intelligent Cities replacing Smart Growth odd and slightly concerning - is this an example of our short attention span leading us to conclude that a worthy long-term or never-ending goal, like sustainability or smart growth, is no longer shiny and new enough and thus must be replaced with a fresh, new buzzword?

Comparing smart growth to urban renewal seems really off-base - urban renewal was rejected because it was fundamentally wrong, not because it reached a best-before-date for coolness. And to suggest that smart growth is old news because it's now common-place, ignores the facts that far too much of our policy and practice in North America still supports dumb growth. Smart growth may be common in our language, but it's not common enough in our real practice. We've got A LOT of work to do to make smart growth common-place.

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that one reason this article isn't resonating with me, is perhaps because it is targeting a U.S audience. It doesn't feel reflective of opinion or reality here in Canada, and I doubt it is reflective elsewhere around the world. Does that suggest American planners have a shorter attention-span? I don't think so, having much respect for many American planners I've worked with over the years. Is it that growth in America has slowed down to the point that the Smart Growth term seems irrelevant, whereas in Canada and elsewhere the economy and thus development activity is stronger, thus doing growth smartly is still completely relevant? One planner in California suggested to me that he worries that US cities are "grasping at straws and trying anything new, as the American system of city-building is broken".

I wonder if it has a lot to do with the fact that big companies like IBM, Siemens and Cisco are out at many planning conferences these days, hard-pitching their expensive smart-city products as solutions to our planning problems in cash-strapped cities. Although many such products sound useful, this feels like part of the "technology will save us" movement, which in its worst moments, uses up city funds while giving cities "permission" not to make the hard choices that will really work to make us more resilient and successful. This seems more common in America than elsewhere, where the feeling that the marketplace will respond and provide products to fix problems, still has resonance.

At a conference late last year in Spain, I found myself on panels discussing new technologies that will improve cities, surrounded by tech-company reps hard-pitching to a global audience. I likely disappointed them, by stating that in my opinion the "technologies" that will do the most good, are not new - compact, mixed-use, walkable communities; bikes, separated bike lanes and bike sharing; transit; small scale innovation like wheeled-luggage; simple techniques that we've forgotten like passive building design; or globally-understood tech like district/neighbourhood energy based on renewable resources. But those big companies weren't selling those products. They were selling smart city solutions.

I love when new and provocative ways of looking at cities are put on the table, and believe in the need for better methods of measuring and monitoring data on real impacts and change. I think "smart cities" can be a very good addition to the discussion on better cities. Ironically, the smart city movement might help us understand the impacts of our inaction around sustainability, even as we continue to show the lack of will to do the right things about it. But it's unfortunate and wrong to characterize it as a replacement for broader and more important concepts like smart growth, sustainability and resiliency that remain critical over the long term. These terms shouldn't be allowed to go "out-of-style". I hope planners everywhere reject the suggestion that one replaces the other, and work to integrate them into a narrative that is both sophisticated and persuasive.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



intelligent cities versus smart growth versus common sense

This article is a useful reminder that everything new is often old. As Brent Toderian points out, we do not need new technologies to "fix" our cities in North America. We need to relearn how to build the cities that have worked well in the past, and get back to the timeless basics of city building, whether we call it smart, intelligent or otherwise. Perhaps "intuitive" is the better descriptor. Another way of saying this is that we already know many of the ingredients for creating sustainable, adaptable, resilient urban environments. It is not rocket science. We just need to remember our collective history and open our eyes to the examples that surround us, then figure out why we no longer do these things and what the impediments – regulatory and market – are to achieving this. Slavish faith in "new" technologies is not going to save or repair our cities. Nor did slavish belief in land use zoning as the master tool. Common sense and a more flexible regulatory planning environment that responds to and enables smart/intuitive design will.

The New Urbanism movement has laid claim to much of this territory for some time. I prefer to call this by its former name, which quickly fell out of favour but in my view is more accurate: Neo-Traditionalism. For me, this term does not imply that new cities need to look like the old ones, nor does it mean that contemporary design and new technologies are rejected. On the contrary. It's more about understanding and re-using the underlying urban design rules of thumb that are tried, tested and found to support cities that achieve a high degree of livability, sustainability and adaptability to changing circumstances.

As I wrote more than ten years ago in a call-to-action article in the Millennium issue of Plan Canada*, Canada's national planning magazine, we planners need to re-learn the tradition of civic design.

* see Plan Canada Vol. 40, No 1, December 1999 - January 2000 for the full article

Smart Growth = Implementation, Intelligent Cities = Technology

Smart Growth is a time tested, successful urban design/planning approach that has no expiry date as long as vibrant, resilient, pedestrian oriented communities have no expiry date. Its principles are applicable in both exisiting and new neighbourhoods. Smart Growth is about implementing green land use strategies. Intelligent Cities appear to provide technologies in cities for services and planning data (ie, how many people cross the street). Technology can enhance the quality of life in cities, but not replace the fundamentals of mixed use, green land use planning known as Smart Growth. It is not an either/or scenario. More sustainable cities are the foundation for the technologies of Intelligent Cities. Thank you Brent!

Gloria Venczel, BES, B Arch, MRAIC, MCIP
Cityscape Design Inc.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Personally I would prefer "walkability"

"Walkability" is a term that you wouldn't need to explain to your non-urban-planning-oriented grandmother.

"Smart growth" by contrast, is jargon - a term that has no meaning outside of what people in the planning and related professions give it.

"Sustainability" is environmentalist jargon- its literal meaning (what actually is likely to be sustained) is not at all the same as its meaning in the planning/environmental professions (what should be sustained for environmental reasons).

In defence of 'smart growth' as a term (kind of)

I too read the original article and was concerned that 'intelligent cities' was not at all the same thing as 'smart growth'. So I'm glad Brent has made this point. Michael Lewyn says he doesn't like the term 'smart growth'. However, in the context of this article I don't think that's the point. Its the support for the principles behind it. However, to people who do follow urban planning (readers of this website) smart growth encapsulates what the majority of us strive for - walkable, mixed use, denser neighbourhoods that reduce reliance on the car and reduce our impact on the environment. 'Walkability' does not cover all these issues and could be misconstrued - a park or open space may be 'walkable', as may a low density suburb, so long as there are sidewalks.

On the other hand, Lance Berelowitz suggests neo-traditionalism may be the best term. Now I am not an architect so correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds like an architectural style to me, not a way of building a sustainable community.

To me, the beauty of the term 'smart growth' is that it requires a definition which can encompass more than a more specific word or phrase can. And in the end the definition is more important than the actual words - at least in planning circles where most people understand at least some of the jargon.

This is an important point because if you think about it, the actual words, 'smart growth' don't make a whole load of sense. If this is 'smart' am I implying the other options are dumb? Not a good way to start off a consultation discussion! And it also implies 'growth' is implicitly a good thing which we can keep doing indefinitely, so long as it is not dumb growth - which I find highly problematic.

Which proves that outside of the planning world we should be using a multitude of easily understood descriptive terms to get our point across in a language that everyone can understand.

Tim Barton

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