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

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.

Brent Toderian | February 8, 2011, 3pm PST
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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.

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