A Reflection on What Are Cities For

Cities are expensive. Not just to live in… that much is obvious to the least of us. Something as simple as keeping a water supply, order, transit. We pay for these things but, they come from somewhere. Think about what it means to be a city, a hodgepodge of neighborhoods placed together over time, somehow finding an organization and supplying themselves with what they need.

Human life was not always centered on a city. In the middle ages towns and their guilds were enough for human life. But, as powers rose and fell, as nations became what they are today and as industries found a locus people moved where the money was to be made. In those days slums, tenements, a lack of space and what we’d now regard as decent living conditions (it’s been reported that in some parts of the UK entire blocks would have to share a toilet). That’s not to mention that lack of running water which brought its own problems including disease.

Much of that is because cities were not designed for people. Cities (as Lewis Mumford notes in ‘The Culture of Cities’) haven’t had the habit of being built around human life. Where there was a factory, there was also a slum. Boulevards were built for a few, palaces for fewer and for the rest, we know the stories.

But, if this is our history it begs the question “what are cities really for?” They’re history doesn’t answer a question we want to hear despite what we’ve come to expect from life. Those expectations, no doubt come from an increased democratization of goods, services, cheaper access to basics and a history of lobbying for change. But, those ‘positive’ forces were not the dominant forces.

Today things are certainly different. Different enough that a basic standard of living is expected. And, when that standard is shown to be otherwise we all share a moment of shock. But, things are different, cities have moved on and we are now asking questions about what a smart city is and would do. My fear is that history will repeat itself. Money most often dictates the allocation of change. A smart city might be smarter but, will it improve the lives of the people living in it? If it did, how would it do that?

To answer that question we need to ask a very basic question. What role do cities play in human life above and beyond giving us a place to rest, work and eat?

Cities at are an sum of human lives milling to and fro; people with hopes, dreams and expectations. Each one trying to build and navigate a life that with some hope will enable them to extend their lives through a family. For others they are places to succeed. Whatever they are and do, they have become environments in which life is lived. Cities, in that sense have a role in supporting human life; something contrary to the history from which they were borne.

Mumford believes that a good city acts to ennoble human life, give a platform from which living can be lived. That requires more of city than the ability to act as dormitories. They are also places where culture, the standards of a nation are upheld, like the flagship for the values of a society. To support culture they must support life, not at its most basic level but, as a social enterprise. Culture certainly comes in high forms. But, it is also clear in small districts, in places where ordinary people live. Cities should do what they say on the tin, allow collections of people to collect. It is their ability to allow crowds to form, for opinions to be expressed and for people to interact with each other that allows cultures to evolve, form and frame solutions to the problems that life poses them.

A smart city is a city that is self-aware. That’s really no different to a smart person. But, the added intelligence are the mechanics and processes that allow solutions to be formed into strategies. That is also in part the basis of the crowd model that we have started to see in the digital realm. To build a city around people, when the structures are already in place cities that support people have to evolve to support life around living, cooperation and the shared cultures that are already in the DNA of the cities around us.

Urban planning comes in many guises. There are those who would widen streets for cars, there are those who would increase the number of parks and there are those who focus on the connectivity of life in a city as means to improve the dynamic qualities of a city. I tend to err toward the latter two. Largely because these are facilities that increase the sense and experience of life that a human being feels when they look out onto the world around them.

The real question is what is the role of the city in the age? In an age where big data can answer big questions and in an age where in which it is not a stretch to support any neighborhood with the opportunity to be a part of a city increased democratization of city life; from solving problems of living to providing open platforms for discovering the depth and diversity of a city are not beyond our imaginations. Cities no longer need to be synonymous with isolation. The cultural patterns already exist; platforms like Meetup are a case in point. But, they are not supported on a level that makes access to the needs of living any easier. That is because cities are not in the hands of either the people or the departments that run them but, by a few charities and the monies that developments in areas where business wants to be. That’s not true democratization but, an extension of the baroque centralization of power for a select few in a few select areas.

A smart city supports life between all of its borders. It is worth noting a common opinion among historians that culture in the western world evolved as it did in part because there was exchange between different people. Those exchanges sparked innovations. A smart city would continue this trend, encouraging people, not to centralize in a few places but, to understand the life of the city and to be invested in it.

Cities are the new vehicle for life and that is a trend that will only grow. It is worth taking the time to reflect on what a Utopian vision of the future life of a city looks like and recover from the hangovers of the past. Cities must support communication, cooperation, a shared lived space we are all invested in and the ability for all of us to navigate more easily the abundance that any one city has to offer.

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