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Smarter Cities

Smarter Cities

Smart Cities Won't Save The Planet: We Need Low-Tech Cities

The concept of smart cities is a kind of received wisdom among planners and technologists, but our digital world of today is not sustainable.

NAMUR — Last December, the morning after Saint-Nicholas Day, my daughter was impatiently waiting for the mailman, who was due to deliver the latest issue of her youth magazine. It immediately caught my attention as its front page featured a complete dossier on what our cities of the future will be like. Vertical, green but above all, connected. The word is out, our cities will be "smart cities."

This phenomenon is already booming here in Belgium. Every year since 2013, the Agoria organization bestows Smart City Awards to cities which invest in digital technology. Antwerp, Kortrijk, Ghent, but also Liège, Namur and Houffalize have all already received awards.

The idea behind this is to think about digital technology as vital to all the challenges posed by global warming, road congestion, air quality improvement or even biodiversity loss.

The result? A multitude of sensors, screens and wifi hotspots colonize cities, connecting everything that can be connected. All kinds of objects from swimming pool boilers to war memorial spotlights, road traffic flows or the level of glass shards in recycling bins, and even trees. The collected data is then transmitted, stored and processed, allowing optimal management of everything that makes up a city.

70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050

Full car park? The GPS will automatically redirect your autonomous car to the nearest free parking spot. A full recycling bin? The garbage truck will be notified immediately and will arrive to empty it. Tree in need of water? The sprinkler will instantly activate, delivering the correct dose of nutrients.

The concept of smart cities is now discussed in all urban planning seminars and conferences. The founding argument by advocates is that 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. Yet such a vision is likely to have a colossal impact on the environment.

According to data storage company Quantum, a 100% autonomous car would emit 5 to 10 terabytes of raw data every day (1 terabyte = 1 million megabytes). But in one of its studies, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) estimates that sending an email of 1 MB generates 20 grams of CO2. With these proportions, it would mean that an autonomous car would produce 100 to 200 tonnes of CO2… every day. These figures may be just a rough approximation, but they show the enormous challenge presented by the environmental impact of big data in the future. In 2019, it was already estimated that the Internet, if it were a country, would be the world's third-largest emitter of CO2…

What if, instead, the urban population started to decline by 2050? — Photo: Jack Cohen

While the connected city can certainly provide answers to future challenges, the low-tech city — a concept that's still largely absent in urban planning debates — can offer a range of solutions and technical innovations that are just as effective and much less energy-intensive.

For instance, rather than building an underground network of pipelines and stormwater basins equipped with sensors to monitor the level of runoff water at all times and manage its flow, the low-tech city only needs an overhead network of infiltration basins and temporary immersions basins. Not only is this solution cheaper and less energy-intensive, but it also helps to develop biodiversity and reinfiltrate rainwater into the water tables.

While the connected city maintains road infrastructure and invests massively in cameras, sensors and digital panels to channel all traffic flow as efficiently as possible, the development of its low-tech counterpart relies on public spaces for public transport, bicycles and pedestrians.

Waste management can also be handled differently. While the smart city equips each bin with a connected chip which alerts the waste collector as soon as the filling level is reached, the low-tech city eliminates the door-to-door collection system by the generalization of bulk, deposit and compost.

The Internet, if it were a country, would be the world's third-largest emitter of CO2

However, the low-tech city concept doesn't work well with a high population density. Beyond human infrastructure, it also requires a large surface area dedicated to natural facilities which play a role in regulating our resources and waste. Over a certain number of inhabitants, the lack of space forces you to switch to the connected city model.

According to urbanist Carlo Ratti, this is inevitable — still because of the assumption that 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. But the inevitability of this trend can be questioned.

Indeed, for the first time in a century, the number of farmers is increasing, both in Flanders and in Wallonia, Belgium's two regions. And this is not a circumstantial effect: this rise reflects the start of an economic and demographic redeployment of our rural areas, in response to a dominant agro-food policy and its low prices which, crisis after crisis, has shown all its limits. Urban planning may be born from the attractiveness of cities, but above all, it feeds on the lack of interest in the countryside that intensive agriculture helped to create.

What if, instead, the urban population started to decline by 2050? This hypothesis would open a whole range of possibilities to the low tech city — enough to question our desire to transform all our cities into smart cities.

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In U.S., Turning Sewage Plants Into Travel Destinations

In some western states, utilities are flipping the script on waste-water treatment, transforming sewage facilities into attractive parks with streams, hiking trails and science museums.

MALTBY — Of all the places a couple might select for their wedding venue, a sewage treatment facility has to be among the least likely. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone making that choice at all. And yet, over the past several years, a number of people in the U.S. state of Washington have done just that — tied the knot in a dirty-water depot.

To be precise, couples are booking their weddings at the Brightwater Education and Community Center, on the grounds of the Brightwater Clean-Water Treatment Facility, near Maltby, Washington. To date, some two dozens nuptials have been performed at the venue — notable for its striking contemporary architecture — since 2014.

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After The Demise Of Paris' Pioneering Electric Car Sharing System

PARIS — This past summer, Parisians bid adieu to Autolib", a pioneering electric-car-sharing service that came to a premature demise after operating for fewer than seven years. But that doesn't mean the French capital is turning its back on the overall concept. There is a plan B in the works, though what exactly it will entail — what, in other words, will be built on the ruins of Autolib's signature, self-serving "Bolloré Bluecars' — remains to be seen.

Most likely, the city will see an assortment of new options, from private car-rental agencies such as Drivy or OuiCar, to scooter and even electric-bike-sharing services. Indeed, competition is heating up as new proposals flood in.

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Design And Ecology, An Ugly Truth About Green Energy

Alternative energy projects might be good for the environment. But with a few exceptions, they're awful on the eyes.

LAUSANNE — Fyodor Dostoevsky no doubt, had other things in mind when, in his famous novel The Idiot, he wrote that "beauty will save the world." And yet, a century-and-a-half later, those words have much to say about the current state of green energy technologies.

Simply put, we need energy alternatives to save our planet. But to encourage more people to embrace them, we also need to focus on aesthetics. We need to make them more beautiful, in other words. Because honestly, is anything more unseemly than a massive hydroelectric dam, or solar panels fixed awkwardly onto a roof, or rows of wind turbines breaking up the countryside? It's as if such energy alternatives have to be ugly to be taken seriously.

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Smarter Cities
Paul Molga

Can You Dig It? New Urban Experiments In Underground Architecture

Some designers can't wait to start burrowing. In Mexico, there's even talk about building an 'earthscraper.'

MARSEILLES — A half-century after the upheaval of May 1968, France's City of Light may be on the verge of another revolution, albeit of an architectural sort. No barricades required.

Last spring, the city government in Paris invited bids to refurbish underground sites like tunnels, reservoirs, parking lots, cellars or disused train stations. The bidding process is part of a project called the Subterranean Secrets of Paris, through which 40 such sites are being handed over to the imagination of architects, city planners, promoters, artists, landscape artists and even civic groups. Already, some 200 candidates have made proposals to create businesses, city farms, party venues, incubators or logistics centers under the city's surface.

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Smarter Cities
Christoph Neidhart

Welcome To Songdo, South Korea: The Smartest Of Smart Cities

Many have hailed the innovations of Songdo, a planned community near the South Korean capital of Seoul. But the city, which once served as a set for the “Gangnam Style” music video, also has its critics.

SONGDO — On Saturday morning, Mr. Lee brings the trash downstairs, one bag with combustible waste, the other with organic. His wife is already working at the cafe they own in "Central Park." There are two high-tech garbage chutes — green and red — in the collection point of the high-rise building where the Lee family lives.

Lee holds his identity card over the sensor. The hatch opens. Inside, he places the bags, which he purchased at the supermarket for about fifty cents. At the collection point, there are other bins for glass and plastic bottles and other sorts of refuse. A sign overhead warns: "24-hour video surveillance." Sensors in the garbage chute determine whether Lee has properly separated his trash and used the correct bags. If the machine accepts the deposit, they will be sucked through the pipe system under high pressure from a central station.

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Giacomo Tognini

How Tiny Andorra Became A Major Hub In Smart Cities Movement

ANDORRA LA VELLA — Perched in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, Andorra — with fewer than 80,000 inhabitants — is as small as it is remote. And yet, the European micro-nation is playing a big part these days in the field of urban studies, the Andorran daily El Periòdicreports.

Researchers with the City Science Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made the country a hub for research on smart city concepts that can improve the world's cities. And while that may seem a bit counterintuitive given Andorra's size and location, the MIT team thinks the the principality is actually the perfect place for a "living lab" — a small city where urban innovators can experiment with ideas and concepts for urban planning.

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Smarter Cities
Olga Yurkina

Sounds Of The City: Why Urban Acoustics Matter

In Switzerland, some local governments are turning to sound specialists to make cityscapes easier on the ears.

BERNE — It probably has happened to you one time or more. While you're walking somewhere in a city, you suddenly feel the desire to stay a while longer in a particular spot. And for no obvious reason. It's just a place among others, maybe a greyish alley or non-descript city square.

And yet, something invisible about that spot gives you a sense of well-being. The sound of rustling leaves. The birds singing. The lapping of a water fountain. The charm, it turns out, isn't something you can see or feel. It's what you hear — the soundscape.

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Building With Bottles On A Panamanian Island

COLÓN ISLAND — As the world continues to bury itself in plastic bottles, a few pioneers are coming up with clever ways to put all that refuse to good use.

One of those people is Canadian innovator Robert Bezeau, who decided after a visit to Panama to build an entire plastic-bottle village — presumably the first of its kind — on the island of Colón, just off the Central American nation's Caribbean coast.

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Laura Weissmuller

Communal Living, An Alternative To Real Estate Status Quo

MUNICH — For a communal housing project, there are bound to be endless discussions over commons areas before the foundation stone has even been laid. There are also financial questions such as "can I sell the apartment if I have to?" But the most pressing point is just how many people will be living more or less on top of you for a very long time.

To many people, this description of communal living sounds like a personal nightmare. But there are houses being developed in conjunction by multiple future owners who won't be given immediate occupancy by a property developer as is normally the case. The future owners also forgo the possibility of making a sizeable profit with their property later on.

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Smarter Cities
Richard Hiault

Wooden Skyscrapers? A New Market Rising In Eiffel's Iron Shadow

France has long been an innovator in building materials, from the steel splendor of the Eiffel Tower to concrete to surprisingly resistant wood. Environmental factors hold sway.

PARIS — Canadian architect Michael Green thinks the sky's the limit for buildings made with wood. And it was in Paris, with a project called the Baobab Tower, that the "high priest" of wooden high-rises hoped to prove it.

Controversy surrounding the Tour Triangle (Triangle Tower), a conventional skyscraper planned for the French capital, ended up killing Green's 35-story (120-meter) project — at least for now. Paul Jarquin of the company REI France, which collaborated on the Baobab Tower plan along with an architecture firm called DVVD, insists the project has only been postponed.

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Smarter Cities
Paul Molga

Applied Mathematics To Design The Perfect Future City

"The city is a complex form for which there exists no equivalent in nature..."

BOSTON — Scientists are seeking to apply the complexity of urban systems into an equation, in the same way as with atomic structures or galaxies. The objective is formidable: to develop the perfect city.

Franz Ulm and Roland Pellenc, two specialists in the atomic structure of cement at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), discovered some amazing correlations by comparing the density of different cities to the periodic table. Translated into a curve, the Chicago grid structure forms an identical design to the crystalline pattern of argon, while the birthplace of grunge music, Seattle, whose incoherent structure confuses tourists, is similar to its gaseous form, flowing unchecked.

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