The Real Urban Revolution: How We Live and How We Move

2017.06.07 15:14:34 | 2017.06.07 15:15:23

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To read about cities these days, you might think that every city in the world aspires only to be a ‘Smart City’ — a humming futuristic place where building and streets are embedded with sensors, a future in which urban services are delivered on-demand, like Deliveroo or Amazon. However, as humanity adjusts to an ever-more crowded and evermore urban world, the two big trends which will fundamentally impact cities big and small in the next couple of decades don’t really have much to do with traditional definitions of smart cities. One big trend is a desire for increased wellbeing in cities. The other is the looming revolution in urban mobility. In short, urbanites want to be well and want to move well.

I call the increasing demands of urban citizens for healthier environments in which to work and live “the wellbeing imperative’. It means that all the sensors and big data crunching that are leveraged to make city services more efficient don’t amount to much unless they improve the real quality of urban life.

Smart urban planners understand this. Consider, for example, the multi-billion-dollar BeltLine project, which creates a green belt around Atlanta, Georgia connecting 45 different neighborhoods; or the “Metropolitan Greenbelt” project in Medellin, Colombia, initiated in 2012 to provide more green spaces and recreation opportunities for citizens. Korea’s Songdo, where the NewCities Summit is taking place June 7-9, is often billed as the world’s leading Smart City. But what is truly distinctive in Songdo is the large Central Park which the city’s visionary planners designed as the heart of the new city.

Projects like these don’t make a city more efficient, or ‘smarter’. But they do make the city a more attractive, less stressful environment. They thus have a huge, indirect economic impact: by making the city more attractive and healthier, a city’s ability to attract and retain smart knowledge workers increases dramatically. There is a global war for talent out there — and it’s more and more playing out at the level of cities rather than countries. Indeed, the idea that cities must promote wellbeing as much as efficiency is the theme of the 2017 NewCities Summit.

Cities will only truly become havens of wellness if the way we move about them changes — and that is now beginning to happen. Over the last century, global cities have been largely designed around the privately-owned automobile — and even more, designed around cars which do not even move most of the time. Cars, after all, are utilized on average only 5% of the time — meaning a vast amount of urban real estate must be in the form of parking lots and parking spaces. In the U.S. alone, there are over 700 million parking spaces for the country`s fleet of 250 million cars — equivalent to the entire area of the state of Connecticut.

The autonomous vehicle revolution will change all that. There may be some debate about how soon AV’s will be widespread, but make no mistake: autonomous vehicles are coming and will change urban life forever. With autonomy, there will be vastly fewer cars on the road, as utilization rates for shared autonomous vehicles will soar. The economics of private car ownership will inevitably be trounced by the utter efficiency of shared mobility services. In 1983, 46% of American 16-year-olds had licenses: barely half that number do today. American millennials are 30% less likely to own a car than the previous generation, a trend that is expected to accelerate.

Fewer cars on the road — and all driven with robotic efficiency — will allow cities to rethink neighborhoods and even re-conceptualize the street itself. “Cities of the future must be built around people, not vehicles,” writes NewCities Senior Fellow, Mobility, Greg Lindsay. “They should be defined by communities and connections, not pavement and parking spots.”

By John Rossant, Chairman, NewCities Foundation

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