Posting in Cities
Smarter water systems and smarter road networks and smarter electrical grids are all very nice. How will IBM, or any company, get cities to be smarter in planning for growth?
IBM has taken its "SmarterPlanet" theme to New York City this week, where it is hosting bureaucrats and politicians in a discussion on how to make cities smarter.
The sales pitch, from Anne Altman, who heads up public sector sales, is that urban amenities like roads, water systems, and public safety are interconnected systems that can be understood, and improved, with technology.
Fair enough, but many of our modern cities are designed to fail. That's because they're not designed as cities, but as suburbs. (Above is a shot from Google maps of cul de sacs near the center of Lawrenceville, Georgia.)
Suburbs assume low density and are so built with few amenities. This lets them be built cheaply, so people flock to them. Then they become cities and thoroughly unmanageable.
I have watched this evolve in my hometown of Atlanta and it's easiest to see by looking at the roads.
Inside the central city, mostly built before World War II, roads run in parallel. When one is blocked you go to the next. The central core clears out very quickly.
Outside the core, built after 1970, roads don't run in parallel. Instead cul de sacs funnel traffic onto major arteries, from which there is no escape. When these are clogged traffic stops. The region's network of freeways also run at oblique angles to the major road networks, so there are no alternate routes.
It doesn't take much to cause a traffic jam. An accident, a little rain, even a few cars running together at the exact same speed can cause big back-ups.
Atlanta's response to this has been to jump over planning failures and build new "edge cities" further from its center. Most start as a shopping mall, but they are quickly followed by offices, then condos and other amenities.
Each one is worse than the last, and old edge cities become ghettos. Atlanta's poor were once centered near downtown. Some are still there, but more are now just outside I-285 in former suburbs like Norcross, Smyrna and Forest Park. I fully expect new centers of poverty to develop in Duluth and Kennesaw, as malls there age thanks to bad traffic and lack of planning.
As this happens, cul de sacs that once insulated people from crime become centers of it. Some of the region's biggest drug busts in recent years have been in suburban neighborhoods. The city's drug kingpins now live in McMansions alongside its auto dealers. (The joke is you can tell the drug dealers because they're not being foreclosed.)
These trends have created a second "population boom," with younger, wealthier people taking over areas like my Atlanta neighborhood of Kirkwood, although they prefer controlling government as in Decatur or Dunwoody, so as to zone out the riffraff.
Point is it's planning, or the lack of it, and the assumption of low density that leaves you choking on the air. The best places for "congestion pricing" in the region aren't near downtown Atlanta, but along the I-85 corridor near Lawrenceville, Georgia 400 in Alpharetta, and I-75 in Kennesaw, all at least 20 miles from the city.
So smarter water systems and smarter road networks and smarter electrical grids are all very nice. How will IBM, or any company, get cities to be smarter in planning for growth? Especially when the planners don't think they're building a city, but a suburb?
Oct 8, 2009
I personally think there are enormous profit opportunities to be had in repurpuosing suburbs for higher density. As it becomes clearer that the alternative to accepting density is to become a ghetto -- it's happened in Atlanta -- it may be possible to push through some very profitable ideas. And urban planning is a great discipline for coming up with those ideas.
I live in the Atlanta part of Atlanta. The traffic is not bad. The roads are two lane. It's almost like being out in the country. Once you hit suburbs built after about 1970, however, it all changes. Everything's a cul de sac. You can only get where you want to go by using a single main road. Which quickly becomes multi-lane as more people more in. I don't want to cast aspersions as to motive here. I think what is happening is that people are plotting out suburbs where they don't expect there ever to be density. These developers are off with their money, leaving systems that can't work when density increases. There are ways to knock through cul de sacs, at least with bike paths, but no one is pursuing them systematically. Maybe PATH can. But when they even tried to run a bike path behind some houses in a cul de sacced neighborhood, a few years ago, there was tremendous pushback from NIMBYs who couldn't stand the idea of traffic, even bike traffic, near them. If you're going to live around density you're going to have to accept multiple ways for cars to get through.
...until I moved to Atlanta. Boy, was I wrong. LA was masterfully thought out compared to this mess. Chalk it up to simple non- thinking and political corruption. Most of the time, if the route you need to take to get somewhere is blocked, you're simply out of luck. I can't imagine having to commute every day in this town. (fortunately, I do not) The question is, "how do you fix it?" To be fair, Atlanta does have a disadvantage in that north of downtown, it is not the least but flat, making a traditional grid not feasible. Although I do appreciate the whole "need more services and access" sentiment, the reality is that as soon as most people get affluent enough to do so, they are drawn to places that "zone out the riffraff". And people who develop new communities will always react to that.
Once upon a time I thought I wanted to be a city planner. I gave up on the idea because at the time (the '70's) all city planners seemed to do was make great plans that were then not funded or were diverted by local politics into something more profitable for their sponsors. We do indeed have a problem around many cities that some suburbs have become "poor" neighborhoods, exacerbated by job loss in this recession. Since these suburban neighborhoods have few of the social services, never mind the public transportion, that would allow them to support a disadvantaged population, problems arise and fester without adequate help -- except a rise in police services to address a rise in crime. And yes the very design of suburbs, with their cul de sacs and limited access to roads and public transportation, adds to the problem. In fact, some urban planners are predicting tht the McMansions will not be buyable in their current form by poorer households and will end up being repurposed into multi-family homes, rehab centers, and other uses, all of which will add more people who need more services and more access. It will be a lot of work to deal with existing real estate. I'm not sure how prepared we are to do that. But we can try to avoid adding to the problem by smart planning for future developments. Smaller houses, more mixed development (houses and apartments of many sizes), and the realization on the part of towns and counties that they are going to need to address social services and road planning differently might go a long way into allowing us to take advantage of smart thinking.