Rus in urbe

Sunday, 24 July, 2016 0 Comments

Hens are famously random. They live in the moment and their actions are completely unpredictable, as anyone who’s ever tried to herd hens will tell you. When logic suggests that turning to the right will lead to shelter and food, the hen will turn left. Hens spend lots of their time huddled together under bare light bulbs thinking up intricate escape plans. Once free, they get busy scratching out maps of the best routes to liberation. Then, they forget about it all and return to randomness, and life under bare light bulbs.

The urban hen

Paris says no to the love locks

Monday, 1 June, 2015 0 Comments

The municipal authorities in Paris have made it known that from today the Pont des Arts will be closed for one week to allow the removal of all the so-called “love locks” that visitors have attached to the structure over the years. In October, glass panels will be installed permanently on both the Pont des Arts and the Pont de l’Achevêché to prevent vandalism of this nature from being attempted again. There was nothing attractive about these clumps of metal, clinging barnacle-like to parts of the urban infrastructure around the world. Good riddance to them.

Love locks

Of watches and cities

Monday, 9 March, 2015 0 Comments

Apple is holding one of its famous product-presentation events in San Francisco today. The focus will be on the company’s Watch, which is a big bet for Apple as  this is its first major product launch since the iPad, five years ago, and the first one under CEO Tim Cook’s leadership. If we’re so good at making things like watches and phones, how come we’re getting worse at making beautiful cities? That’s the question posed by the London-based Swiss thinker Alain de Botton in “How to Make an Attractive City,” a new video from the School of Life.

The best cities are a mix of wide and narrow streets, says de Botton. A city should be easy to navigate for both humans and vehicles, with avenues for orientation and alleys that allow us to wander and experience a sense of mystery.

Big Data powers Urban Engines

Wednesday, 21 May, 2014 0 Comments

Fact: By 2050, the global population will have reached nine billion.
Fact: For the first time in human history, the majority of people now live in cities.

Put the two facts together and one gets a future in which urban transport systems are going to be strained to breaking point. Unless city planners can manage the demand for services, there will be chaos. Enter Balaji Prabhakar and Shiva Shivakumar with their Urban Engines, which is offering solutions based on Big Data and behavioural economics. The San Francisco-based company is working with the World Bank to implement its approach for the bus system in Sao Paulo; in Singapore, it’s helping the city to ease train commuters from peak hours to off-peak hours; it’s carried out pilots projects in Bangalore, and it’s being deployed on the train system in Washington, D.C.

How does it work? Urban Engines takes data from commuter transit cards and uses its algorithms to infer how commuters and their trains and buses are behaving. No cameras or sensors needed. No major technology spend required.

Wanted: a Foster of fenestration

Tuesday, 13 May, 2014 0 Comments

Dan Hill cannot be accused of inactivity. Along with writing the City of Sound blog, which stands at the crossroads of urban design, culture and technology, he’s “executive director of futures” at Future Cities Catapult, a global centre of excellence on urban innovation, and he somehow finds time for the job of adjunct professor in the Design, Architecture and Building faculty at the University of Technology in Sydney. In this piece for Dezeen on the challenges posed by crumbling city infrastructures, Dan Hill is on song:

“Though it once seemed unlikely that we would have a Steve Jobs of thermostats and smoke alarms, it turns out that’s the culture Nest emerges from. And perhaps it suggests that we also need an Isozaki of insulation, a Foster of fenestration, a Prouvé of plumbing, a Rogers of rewiring, an Utzon of U-values… and more importantly again, a development or investment model that enables service retrofit within a market shaped to value that.”

Language note: Dan Hill applies alliteration there to nice effect and the use of words beginning with the same sound, which was once popular with poets, is now beloved of rappers. The late Tupac Shakur’s If I Die 2Nite is typical: “My enemies scatter in suicidal situations / Never to witness the wicked shit that they was facin.” By the way, most of Shakur’s songs revolved around themes Dan Hill would be familiar with: violence and hardship in crumbling cities.

Word of the Year: littoralization

Wednesday, 20 November, 2013 0 Comments

We have to admit that “selfie” is not just a more popular choice, but it’s also easier to spell than “littoralization”. The phenomenon of people snapping smartphone self-portraits and then uploading the photos to social media websites is very much in synch with our narcissist times and research shows that the frequency of “selfie” in English increased by 17,000 percent in the last year. By choosing “selfie”, the Oxford Dictionaries were reflecting the reality of a language that’s being driven by innovation.

And “littoralization”? It means the tendency of things to cluster on coastlines. Today, 80 percent of our planet’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coastline, and of the world’s ten largest cities, all but two are on a coastline or a coastal delta. The term came to our attention when reading Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen, and he gives it a central role when explaining the origins of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when Pakistani terrorists killed 164 people in a merciless crime against civil society. Kilcullen writes, “the attack could only have occurred in a highly networked, urban, littoral environment — precisely the environment that that’s becoming the global norm.” After Mumbai, Kilcullen turns his attention to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, located on the Indian Ocean coast, and he introduces the reader to the word “urbophobia”, which was used by the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah when describing the state of the city. “If Mogadishu occupies an ambiguous space in our minds and hearts,” Farah wrote in 1988, “it is because ours is a land with an overwhelming majority of pastoralists, who are possessed of a deep urbophobia. Maybe this is why most Somalis do not seem unduly perturbed by the fate of the capital: a city broken into segments, each of them ruthlessly controlled by an alliance of militias.”

Further up the coast, another alliance of militias turned the town of Eyl into a pirate haven at the beginning of this century. The raiders would sail their hijacked ships to Eyl, take their hostages ashore and hold them until a ransom was paid. That was the piracy strategy for the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama but the crew thwarted the plan and the result is now showing in cinemas near you. Both Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader Muse deliver fine performances in the film of the story. At one point, Captain Phillips says, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.” And Muse replies, “Maybe in America, maybe in America.” Which brings us back to littoralization and David Kilcullen, who lists the megatrends — population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness — that will “define the environment for future conflict, and for every other aspect of life, in the next generation. How do we react to this? How should we think about the coming environment, how can we prepare it, and what can we do about it?”

Barcelona: The city that Cerdà helped create

Tuesday, 15 October, 2013 0 Comments

When one thinks of Barcelona and urban design, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Antoni Gaudí, but there’s a case to made that Ildefons Cerdà was the better builder. A civil engineer by training, Cerdà was also an urban planner, an architect and a health specialist: an ideal city-creator, in other words. The avenues and boulevards of Cerdà’s l’Eixample (Expansion) plan made life both pleasant and healthy for the barceloní/barcelonina used to five centuries of “rambling” on La Rambla, one of the world’s greatest people streets.

Cerdà built upon tradition and his limit of seven to nine stories for buildings throughout the plan made the entire urban “room” feel human in scale. Barcelona has broken this rule in recent decades, but when it has, high-rise buildings such as Jean Nouvel’s impressive Torre Agbar have added to the character of the city. Cerdà would be pleased with this timelapse clip by Alexandr Kravtsov.

As cities get smarter

Friday, 11 October, 2013 0 Comments

There will be nine billion people on this planet by 2050 and the number of mega cities — defined as those with more than 10 million residents — is set to rise from 24 at the moment to 100 by the middle of this century. As a result, IT that helps cities better manage their resources will be big business. Intel, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, GE, BMW, Siemens and many others are looking to use software and sensors to guide urban development by analyzing and visualizing the big data sets that will be amassed daily in cities. The goal is the “smart city,” where sustainability, technology, security and economic opportunity integrate, and the idea is to use water, power, transportation systems and communication networks much more efficiently.

To get to there from here, new thinking is needed and IBM’s “People for Smarter Cities” initiative is encouraging urban dwellers to think laterally. Take billboards. They’re ubiquitous, so why not have them do something practical along with selling stuff? How about adding a simple curve to the top or bottom of a billboard to create shelter or seating for passers by?

Enabling the future city with its smart grids, smart transport, smart waste management and smart building systems is going to be one of the major 21st century challenges, but the benefits will be enormous for the players — telcos, IT companies, utilities providers and property developers — who successfully harness the technologies needed to for the task. We’re still a long way from living in the data-driven cities that many have been envisioning, but the conversation has started.

The urban battleground

Thursday, 10 October, 2013 0 Comments

This just in via the BBC: “Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has been seized by armed men from a hotel in the capital, Tripoli.” Attacks such as this and like that on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi underline what we’ve already seen in other cities: urban environments with their hotels, shopping centres and restaurants will be the battlegrounds of the future. And the siege, with its commando-style tactics and penetration of the city’s systems, is increasingly the tactic of choice for the enemies of civilization.

In his new book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, counterinsurgency strategist Dr. David Kilcullen examines conflicts in Benghazi, Kingston, Mumbai and other cities to explain the changing face of warfare. Given the major trends of the 21st century — population growth, coastal urbanization and increasing digital connectivity — he predicts a future of savage cities, and increasing intersections between crime and conflict in the real and virtual urban environments. Kilcullen argues that dealing with these challenges will require insight and expertise outside the military realm — from urban planning to systems engineering to alternative energy technology.

How countries can diffuse urban conflict was the theme of a discussion with Dr. Kilcullen hosted last month by The New America Foundation. It’s excellent. By the way, we end our urban-themed week here tomorrow with a look at Big Data and the City.

An all-female enclave of Islamic business feminists

Wednesday, 8 May, 2013 0 Comments

Is this the cityscape of the future? “In 2050, the nouveau-riche arrivistes stake their big skyline claims on the public eye. That glassy, twisting spire, as gaudy as any Christmas ornament, is owned by offshore Chinese. The gloomy tower with 85 stories of modestly greyed-out windows is an all-female enclave of Islamic business feminists. The scary heap that resembles a patchwork quilt of iron was entirely crowd-sourced.” According to the American science fiction author, Bruce Sterling, that’s a possible (frightening) scenario for our urban destiny.

Sterling is one of seven experts commissioned by the BBC to look at ways cities may evolve. “Bruce’s Sterling’s vision of the future city,” which kicks of the series, deserves the term dystopian. “The mid-century city has created means of food production that are post-agricultural. With swordfish extinct and cattle way beyond the budget, the people eat — well, to put it bluntly, they mostly eat algae, insects and microbes. Of course this tasty goop has been effectively refined, rebranded, and skeuomorphically re-packaged as noodles, tofu, and hamburger substitute. Soylent Green is crickets.”

Interestingly, Sterling mentions Dubai and followers of his Beyond the Beyond Wired column will be aware of his interest in “Gulf Futurism“, in which a recurring theme is the ubiquity of the shopping mall. “Only engineers and architects will ever rub their hand at this dreadful prospect,” writes Sterling, not just about the Gulf mall, but about the future city. And then he hits his stride:

“These modernists are in secret collusion with the feral urban crows and hungry pigeons picking over the blast zone. For years, while a sentimental mankind clung to a museum economy, they have rehearsed another city, some angular, rational monster with an urban fabric that’s a whole lot more nano-, robo-, and geno; buildings they can shape, and that will henceforth shape the rest of us.”

His conclusion is bleak: “To tell the truth, we never liked that city. But it just keeps happening.” By the way, Bruce Sterling does live in a city, an old one. Around 28 BC, the Romans created a military camp there and called it Castra Taurinorum.

The Architecture of Density

Wednesday, 2 January, 2013 0 Comments

The urban landscapes captured my Munich photographer Michael Wolf look like collages of pixels created by graphic designers who cut their teeth on Lego. But they are very real buildings in today’s megacities, especially Hong Kong. Although these are residential silos, what makes Wolf’s images so perturbing is the almost complete absence of human inhabitants. But in many of Asia’s great cities, the concept of space, both private and public, is dramatically different to that which is considered “normal” in the West.

Hong Kong living