Smart architecture and urbanism

Ton Venhoeven


Today, the whole world is interconnected and mobility is exploding. People, goods, capital and information, the world is in motion and as a result, people from ranges of different cultures flock to mixed cities and neighbourhoods all around the world. Cultural  achievements that reigned our thinking for centuries, are being questioned as never before. In architecture and spatial planning the time of clear political oppositions and related style discussions is long gone, the emergence of the information society and the erosion of meaning and image by marketing, tourist and new media industries have put an end to this. In the reality of today, style’s only function is to be able to align oneself with one consumer target group against other target groups, temporarily.

In a way this is an interesting time, but there are also many challenges. We live in a world with limited resources that are cause for many conflicts and deterioration of natural habitats. In the battle for customers, many new monopolies arise, not only in the resources and pharmaceutical industry, but especially in information technology. Also there is an unprecedented amount of flash and other capital looking for hit and run profits, which sometimes makes it hard to find money for long term investment.

The economic, cultural and political revolutions of recent years will inevitably exercise big influence on the theory and practice of architecture and urban planning. The rise of non-western economies and the related worldwide prosperity, consumption and population growth, makes our current practice of architecture, spatial planning and engineering untenable.  We can no longer count on the natural environment to supply the city’s demands and absorb their wastes forever. What seemed like logical solutions for small cities in a big world with unlimited resources, no longer works in a shrinking world with exploding populations and prosperity. We need to solve the issues of our city’s metabolisms withín our urban regions, not somewhere far away.

"we need to solve the issues of our city’s metabolisms withín our urban regions, not somewhere far away"

Dealing with this new requirement is very demanding for the functional and technological side of architecture and spatial planning. The fact that attention for these aspects has been lacking in many fact free political and cultural debates in the past forty years, doesn’t make things easier. Today, planning is all about performance, smart buildings, life cycle costing, multiple business cases, smart cities, smart communities and smart people, about practically everything but style. Themes vary from urban water management to urban energy, mobility, CO2, economy, agriculture, urban resources, production of goods, information, city management, healthcare, urban trade flows and recycling, education, culture, community and urban quality of life. In short, this focus on urban performance basically affects all aspects of spatial planning, from architecture to engineering, governance and culture. But smart solutions and technology firstly require smart societies, how can we build these?

"smart solutions and technology firstly require smart societies"

Questions like this, on building societies, on the performance of buildings, cities and infrastructures have been answered in different ways in different cultural periods and circumstances. The Harappa culture who invented sewage systems, emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in China who built the great wall, national roads and new legislation, Nebuchadnezzar II with his hanging gardens, Filippo Brunelleschi in the Renaissance, Koca Mimar Sinan Ağa in the 16th century Ottoman empire with his mosques, hospitals, bridges and schools, Haussmann in 19th century Paris and the Konstruktivist movement during the Russian revolution, they all invented new ways of spatial planning in dealing with changing circumstances and changed societies with their new infrastructures along the way.

Today new planning ideas and technologies are developed in the context of so called smart cities, cities that are enhanced or even managed by smart systems. Well known examples of these are Masdar in Abu Dhabi and Songdo in South Korea, but small scale predecessors are management systems for hotels and hospitals, gated communities, espionage systems, marketing tools and armoured cars. There is an infinite number of possibilities to apply new technology, but the introduction of smart city information technology as total management systems for our cities also generates many new questions. How should we implement these technologies to make them function in an optimal way? How do we prevent monopolies in information? How do we guarantee transparent markets for all urban flows? Which culture is needed to make cities perform well under such management systems, how is this culture created and maintained? What about diversity and privacy? Which imagery and symbols are needed, who is in charge? Do we really need automated solutions and robots? How can we use smart technology to become smart ourselves and how can we prevent being ruled by machines? Or the ultimate alternative question: can’t we enhance (with or without smart technology) the inherent smartness of existing cities, communities and societies to solve our problems?

The challenges related to big societal and environmental changes are often dealt with by a combination of government power and engineering means and the measures are precedented and accompanied by iconoclastic movements and widespread destruction of human and cultural capital. Often, many iconoclastic energies were built up during long periods of opposition to change. Today, this may be different. More and better technologies are indeed needed but the information revolution simultaneously creates large opportunities for involving society’s clever citizens and organisational power. This time we can adapt much more easily to the new conditions by making use of society’s human and cultural capital and our citizen’s knowledge. A combination of top down governance, planning and engineering solutions, enhanced by advanced decision support systems, and bottom-up self-organisation, aided by information technology, will bring the amount of innovation and transition power that is needed. As specialists in engineering cities and buildings, architects, urban planners and large parts of the creative industry can not only play decisive roles in preparing the needed top down measures, they can also combine these with project initiatives and the right amount of expertise and advanced technology needed for the required transition. What will be their challenges in the coming years, what kind of smartness will they develop, what are their main tools for building new societies?

"the information revolution creates large opportunities for involving society’s clever citizens and organisational power"

Engineering society and culture with traffic and public buildings

According to United Nations figures, over half of the world’s population now lives in urban agglomerations. In 2025, that figure will have risen to the unimaginable percentage of 70%. Because of the growing world population, this means that the urban population of today will grow by 45% in just fifteen years! This unprecedented march to the city is, to a large degree, economically driven: in the cities, there is more chance of finding work. Social motivations also play a part: cities have a higher level of cultural and recreational facilities, and offer increased opportunities for human contact. Cities facilitate interactions on both the economic and social levels, which makes them an attractive place of establishment for many. Last but not least, the move to cities is strongly enhanced by ethnic and cultural conflicts in the countryside, cities are relatively safe places to find shelter and freedom of thought.

In due course, this mass migration to the city offers many advantages to all concerned, but in many cases it will first lead to frustration and ethnic and cultural tensions. To induce people to take part in the cultural life of a society, they have to be able to interact with other people and find a life partner in their vicinity, as well as  have access to affordable facilities that meet their needs. This is how communities are created. In ages past, the street in the town square with its annual market and folk festivals offered the best opportunities for this, but in today’s cities these places are often dominated by traffic, rules of the road, and parking spaces. Many communities are cut off from each other by busy traffic arteries, noise barriers and unsafe passages. Obvious, safe and everyday routes between communities are vanishing by the day. The only sure way of getting around easily is by car, but for many that is too expensive, and many others are too young or too old to drive. Even for those who can drive, it is becoming a question whether they always want to, although this may be more of a cultural issue.

"with the help of information technology, transportation modes can be integrated in flawlessly integrated mobiltiy systems that are accessible to all"

Increasing the use of non-motorised transport and diminishing dependence on private cars, even if they are driverless, is one of the biggest challenges to improve the quality of life in the cities. Ambitions to increase non-motorised transport options can be realised if cities redevelop their public transport systems in coordinated strategies that improve public space, walkways and bicycle lanes, and intensify land-use around public transportation nodes. These are the places where all transportation modes, with the help of information technology, can be integrated in flawlessly integrated, mobility systems that are accessible to all. Without such places, smart technologies that are designed to integrate the different traffic and transportation modalities are bound to fail. Real smart solutions require a strategy that enhances physical measures with smart technology.

Making actual contacts and exchange between different population groups possible means overcoming both physical and psychological barriers. One issue of accessibility is critical: pedestrian and bicycle access to individual urban areas must be drastically improved if the individual islands in the city are to be woven into truly cohesive networks by attractive routes and public spaces. Where today motorways, abandoned industrial areas and marshalling yards frustrate the relationship between communities, redevelopment can play an important role in integrating different population groups in the city, especially when paired with the construction of good slow traffic connections, traffic-restricted public space and low threshold public facilities. Inward expansion and infill development in existing communities can have similar positive effects. Concentrating residential space, employment, shopping and other facilities around functions like slow traffic hubs, public transportation and car traffic can draw new residents and visitors, infusing an existing community with new strength, attraction and vitality. This infill development boosts economic activity, the foundation for a wide variety of facilities, cultural exchange and quality of life in the community.

"redevelopment or infill development can play an important role in integrating different population groups in the city, especially when paired with good slow traffic connections, public space and public facilities"

By improving cities like this, also other smart city options can become feasible from a financial point of view: collective energy generation and smart grid, collective cooling, small scale waste recycling, integrated water management, urban agriculture, a makerspace with 3D printing facilities, integrated healthcare, day-care facilities for infants, pocket parks and many more.  Low-threshold public facilities are indispensable part of eliminating the psychological barriers between communities, population groups and age groups. Along with attractive public space, sports facilities, theatres, dance halls, hospitals and parks, community schools and other multifunctional buildings are ideally suited to take on a role as social condenser. Examples of this type of combination complex include schools with sports and health centres, schools with libraries and community centres, swimming pools with dance halls and fitness clubs, or even theatres with parks.

Social cohesion and the quality of cultural life in the city benefit from integrating different public functions into affordable combination projects, to create low threshold facilities that can be used by as many different people simultaneously as possible. This brings different target groups together in unconstrained ways, because every user visits the complex with his or her own, specific goal. Local residents and other visitors are not brought face-to-face in a confrontational way, but rather incited to benefit from the many different use options. A user of the fitness facilities will coincidentally walk past the library or the museum on the way home, while a visitor to the theatre might discover the course offerings at the community centre; elsewhere, local senior citizens will gather for their weekly bingo night. Such multifunctional accommodations offer the tenants a wide variety of opportunities for dual use of space, and this keeps the facility low-threshold from a financial perspective as well.

Looking back at architectural history, there are numerous examples of buildings and spaces that have facilitated social integration and solved engineering problems at the same time. These take many forms in many different cultures: the market hall, the shopping gallery and the kasbah, the bathhouse, the temple complex, the church, the theatre, the park, the station and the museum. In many of these spaces, shared use of interior streets and meeting spaces offer the opportunity for social contact and cultural exchange, but many of them also tackled traffic or trade issues, water management requirements or health issues. In many cultures, these facilities also function as the equivalent of the public road and the town square, as spaces for spontaneous meetings, with all around the various different functions that people claim to come for. In all examples, the typology of the buildings and the style and image of the architecture alludes to successful previous examples of such complexes, across cultural differences and contrasts. With a few smart modernisations in energy efficiency and adaptations for contemporary use and a multicultural public, the result is an architecture that can still be smart and functional in today’s reality.

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