Time and time again, we convince ourselves that the big idea of the moment will not only improve our daily lives but cure society’s ills. In England, the “garden city” movement introduced by the urban planner Ebenezer Howard in 1898 aimed to merge the countryside and the city while avoiding the disadvantages presented by both. The American version, the City Beautiful, sought to return beauty and grandeur to cities as a path to a more harmonious social order. Le Corbusier’s rigid, high-density plan for the never-built Ville Radieuse (Radiant City) in Paris pursued urban utopia through architectural discipline. More recently, the “15-minute city” is a global movement in favor of planning cities so that everyone has access to work, school, retail, and recreation within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. 

The smart city has been perhaps the dominant paradigm in urban planning over the past two decades. The term was originally coined by IBM in hopes that technology could improve the way cities functioned, but as a strategy for city-­building, it’s been most successfully deployed under authoritarian regimes (Putin is a fan). Critics say it tends to overlook the importance of human beings in the quest for technological solutions. Even when the architectural renderings were fabulous, the idea of the smart city has always had problems. The phrase itself suggests that existing cities are lacking in brain power, even though they have—throughout human history—been incubators for culture, ideas, and intellect. 

The real problem is that with their emphasis on the optimization of everything, smart cities seem designed to eradicate the very thing that makes cities wonderful. New York and Rome and Cairo (and Toronto) are not great cities because they’re efficient: people are attracted to the messiness, to the compelling and serendipitous interactions within a wildly diverse mix of people living in close proximity. But proponents of the smart city embraced instead the idea of the city as something to be quantified and controlled.

This excerpt is taken from MIT Technology Review’s article with the same title. Please click on this link to read the full article.

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