Introduction to Urban Fundamentals

A single book shelf. That’s the size of the whole urban studies section within the flagship 5-floor Barnes & Noble store in New York. And only one book on this shelf is dedicated to technology.

Books are a good proxy for topics that are in demand in an industry — in this case, a proxy for how urban planners think. Dozens of new books are written every year on urban design improvements for pedestrians and bikes, slum reconstruction, new urbanism, and various interpretations of sustainability. Yet one would still have a hard time finding books systematically studying the impact of technology on cities. In Planetizen’s vote on top 20 urban planning books of all time, not a single one was dedicated to technology.

If that bookshelf is any indicator, urban planners in general think of technology as being of little importance to their business. The root of misunderstanding and backlash against Uber or AirBnB is hiding in plain sight on this bookshelf.

In most urban planning schools, technology is taught in bits and pieces. It’s mentioned in transportation policy, the history of urban utopias, and maybe an energy and sustainability course. Most surprising of all is that technological waves are presented in a deterministic, finite way. As if there’s a closed list of past and future challenges: cars, sprawl, smart grid, and sustainability — one that a student can learn once and be certain of in the future.

May be that’s why each generation of urban planners and city politicians approaches every new tech wave as if it was the first one ever.

Second-degree effects

Urban planners have a poor record of foreseeing the effects of new technologies. From cars to mobile internet, some trends were overhyped while some structural changes remained in obscurity and thus were under-anticipated.

If the history of city building in the last century tells us anything, it is that the unintended consequences of new technologies often dwarf their intended design (Anthony M. Townsend, “Smart Cities”).

In all fairness, it takes a long time to implement major changes in cities and an even longer time to evaluate their effects, both intended and unintended. On top of that, most disruptive technologies had nothing to do with cities in the first place. Cars or air conditioners weren’t invented to change the design of cities. The mobile phone was not created with cities in mind. What mattered were their second-degree effects. In the words of Carl Sagan, “It was easy to predict mass car ownership but hard to predict Walmart.”

Recently, the emergence of mobile internet provided the infrastructure for direct communication between residents of a metropolitan center. Something that was initially designed as a tool for personal or work communication accidentally challenged the default role of local authorities as the intermediary between residents. So far, the most evident changes have happened in the transportation industry. Startups like Uber or Lyft created an alternative car-for-hire network. Urban planners seemed to react to this in an ad hoc manner as an industry-specific occurrence rather than as the first example of a structural shift in urban governance toward increasing direct citizen coordination.

In contrast to the unforeseen impact of mobile internet on urban mobility, the expected effect of telecommunication on urban design turned out to be highly exaggerated. With the spread of the telephone and later video-conferencing, some researchers predicted that people would move out of cities, which would become obsolete. As it turned out, though, the fundamental desire for people to stay close to friends and events left cities intact and thriving.

It looks as if both exaggerated and under-anticipated technologies have one thing in common — their success or failure depends on whether they resonate with human and urban fundamentals.

Fundamentals

A dozen toilets stood in the middle of the Venice Architecture Biennale. For his “Fundamentals” exhibition, Rem Koolhaas catalogued most building blocks — from bricks to windows and HVAC systems — and demonstrated their evolution. The exhibition got mixed reviews. Architects claimed that architecture is more than a compilation of basic building elements and that Koolhaas forgot about the most important fundamental — humans.

The toilet evolution could serve as a neat metaphor for the relationship between humans and technology. Advancements in tech allow different designs, but the essential need remains unchanged.

Urban fundamentals are similar. They are derivative of human desires and needs. They stay more or less constant throughout generations and ages — the need for a comfortable shelter and the desire for a feeling of home; the need to move around the city and the desire for comfort; the need to exchange goods and services and the desire to have something pretty; the need to communicate and the desire to spend facetime with friends; and many more. Technology acts as a constraint for the form that these needs and desires could take. Changes in technology result in an opportunity for a new design or solution, but basic human tendencies do not change.

Le Corbusier, the urbanist, has a bad rep today. He’s blamed for the vices of modernism: car-oriented planning, the killing of the street. Yet back in his time, he was designing based on subjective assumptions about human fundamentals. He assumed that people would prefer to live in tower buildings surrounded by greenery and wouldn’t care about the lack of dirty streets. It’s hard to blame him for thinking so at the time. The problem was that he and his followers treated this as a religious belief rather than an experiment.

Jane Jacobs’ book was so influential exactly because it demonstrated to urban planners that a dogmatically pro-technology design could inadvertently damage other overlooked human fundamentals. Ironically, as Nicolai Ouroussoff pointed out, “The pendulum of opinion have swung so far in favor of Ms. Jacobs that it has distorted the public’s understanding of urban planning.” As a result, one blind determinism (pro-technology) was replaced by another blind determinism (anti-technology). Both are equally biased.

Anthony Townsend in “Smart Cities” explained further, “We need a new set of principles to guide us. These principles need to build not only on our growing scientific understanding of cities and how technology shapes and is shaped by them, but also a broader appreciation of human condition and how it is changing in this first predominantly urban century.” Patrick Geddes called this approach “civics.”

Dealing with technology means dealing with uncertainty. We never really know what major technological change is coming next. It could be a new scientific discovery that makes flying cars a reality, or a new security threat, or a new way to construct buildings. A city never stops at an equilibrium. It’s always evolving, and we must avoid making permanent decisions about it.

For example, conflicts between NYC and car-for-hire services like Uber or Lyft, or between San Francisco and AirBnB, were often portrayed as a conflict of vested interests. We may as well look at it as a conflict of mindsets.

The role of an urban planner is to differentiate between urban fundamentals and things that we are simply used to. For example, is passenger mobility essential for cities? Yes. Since the beginning of time, transportation technology defined city limits. Is transit-for-hire essential for cities? Yes. It provides transportation for people who don’t own transport. Are municipally run taxis core for cities? No. We’re used to them, but they are not fundamental.

Technology is good as long as it supports urban fundamentals. The challenge is that we still aren’t certain what these fundamentals are and how they stack up against each other.

In the coming years, urban planners would have to make increasingly more decisions about technology in cities: peer-to-peer resident coordination, transparency of finances, connected devices, autonomous cars, and robots entering construction and urban logistics markets... These and other technologies will challenge the status quo. In dealing with them, we need to experiment and learn more about whether they endanger or promote human fundamentals, then act accordingly.

Co-founder Apt Buildings, Inc., previously Airbnb Samara and Asmbld

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