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In my mind, my hometown will always be a city of 24,000 people. It’ll also be supported by three major manufacturing companies. And it’ll always have a certain, intangible something. Of course, today West Bend has 5,000 more residents despite the demise of all three manufacturers. And every time I return, that certain something isn’t quite the same either. It’s like waking from a dream I can’t entirely reconstruct.

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The City 2.0

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TED is currently in full swing, and the program this year has an entire section devoted to the city. Fitting, given that this year’s TED Prize went to a city-centric project, one that hopes to crowdsource ideas to solve urban problems and reinvent cities. It’s predictably named The City 2.0. The site has a flashy splash page, but the innards still need some work—tapping in my current city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent me to a generic index page that encouraged me to “get connected” with other aspiring urban planners in my area, but responded to my clicks with little more than a broken Google Maps interface and some “COMING SOON” dialog boxes. For now, it’s long on pizzazz and short on details.

The TED Prize website fortunately has more on what The City 2.0 hopes to accomplish:

For phase I, the website (www.thecity2.org) will focus on helping individuals in forming cross-disciplinary groups to:

  1. determine the issue they want to tackle (i.e. traffic, lack of trees);
  2. determine a solution;
  3. develop an action plan;
  4. work to implement the solution;
  5. share the story of their success or failure with others.

Companies and organizations will be able to offer their tools to site users for use in executing their action plans. Ten micro grants of $10,000, coming out of the $100,000 TED Prize money, will be awarded in July 2012 to ten local projects that have the best hope of spurring the creation of their City 2.0.

To be clear, that’s $100,000 to be equally split among ten groups. Not a lot of money to tackle problems that probably need millions, even billions, of dollars thrown at them. Thankfully, there’s more:

As the site continues to grow and the overall platform grows we expect to:

  1. expand the functionality for individuals to connect and act;
  2. develop and design templates for knowledge sharing between new ideas formulated on the site and preexisting projects;
  3. build out our resource section with new local and global partners;
  4. introduce technology solutions for non-web based communities;
  5. expand our financial incentive program with larger grant offerings for active projects
  6. establish local and/or global gatherings on the City 2.0.

That’s a little better. This part of the project should have a longer-lasting impact than the small pot of grant money. Local civic groups often don’t have the skills or wherewithal to build a connected platform to publish their ideas and solicit feedback. The City 2.0 could provide that. But soliciting ideas is just the beginning. Many other hurdles stand in the way, and from what I can see The City 2.0 doesn’t propose how to address them.

The most obvious barrier is money. The City 2.0 acknowledges that to be successful it needs “companies and organizations willing to offer empowering resources” and “financial support”. It seems to me they are simply hoping companies and philanthropists will step forward and reward the best projects. That’s papering over a big problem.

The next issue is how to choose the best project. The City 2.0 says in its intro video that it will “combine the reach of the crowd with the power of the cloud”. Both crowdsourcing and the cloud are hot topics these days. Crowdsourcing in particular can give people a voice who otherwise may not have spoken up, and it leverages the law of big numbers to extract a handful of singular, stand-out ideas. But the real problem with crowdsourcing solutions for cities is more fundamental than that: Who decides which ideas to implement?

Lior Zoref, a crowdsourcing advocate, gave a TED talk this year about the wisdom of crowds in which he was joined on stage by an ox. After the gasps died down, he asked everyone to guess the weight of the animal and submit it to a website. At the end of his talk, he announced the average of the audience’s guesses: 1,792 pounds. The real weight of the cow? 1,795 pounds.

It is an impressive demonstration, but one that doesn’t sell me on the crowd’s ability to reinvent the city. That’s because crowd wisdom cannot apply to projects like The City 2.0. With the ox’s weight, there is one right answer. The crowd’s wisdom can be unambiguously verified. But with ideas and concepts like those solicited by The City 2.0, there is no right answer. And you certainly can’t distill an “average” idea from them all. Ultimately, a panel will have to pick the winners and losers. Those panelists will have enormous sway over the outcome of The City 2.0. If they are experts in their field, what’s to say the winners will be revolutionary, or even substantially different from their own work?

If winners are picked by popular vote—which I highly doubt—that, too, is no guarantee that the most promising proposals will be selected. People don’t always know what they want. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” Steve Jobs once said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” There may be wisdom in crowds, but genius is usually confined to individuals.

I suspect it’ll take true genius to remake the city. We’ve been spinning our wheels in recent years, rehashing concepts of the city that have been around for decades, even centuries. Those ideas may have worked well in the past, but they didn’t have to contend with airports, globalization, or climate change. Today’s best solution may be unlike anything we have come to expect from cities.

I’m sure The City 2.0 will fund some great projects, but we won’t really know how they work until we really try them. Not small bits here and there, but big implementations. Trying on that scale takes money, and the only organizations with the money to do it are governments.

Does that mean it’s back to the old way, sitting through planning meetings and zoning boards? Maybe. Crowdsourcing is a great way to gather ideas, but implementing them takes community and persistence and enthusiasm. It’s possible that a website could create that community, but I’m skeptical—most social media tools piggyback on existing, real-world social bonds. I know I sound pessimistic about The City 2.0. I’m not entirely. I hope that the project will uncover a work of genius that would have otherwise been ignored, but I’m not holding my breath.

Photo from The City 2.0.

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Aerial view of Carrollton, Texas

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If you think American cities are sprawling now, just wait until 2025. In that time, the U.S. population will grow by 18 percent but the amount of developed land will increase 57 percent. Up to 9.2 percent of the lower 48 could be urbanized by then. And while that number includes cities and the infrastructure to support them—roads, rail, power lines, and so on—that number does not include land impacted by farming, logging, mining, or mineral extraction.

That 10 percent of the lower 48 could be crawling with people is a stark reminder that our nation—while immense—is not immune to the pressures of development. It’s also acknowledgement that despite years of hearing about the resurgence of American cities, sprawl is still king.

Today, it feels like much of what drove the suburbanization of America since World War II has changed. Incomes aren’t rising nearly as fast as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, incomes have stagnated or dropped in recent decades. Soaring gas prices and congested freeways have stolen some of the automobile’s glamor, too.

Yet two studies show that while the outlook in the U.S. may have changed, our desire for suburban living has not. The study’s results differ slightly—the 2004 paper says we’ll add 25.8 million hectares (64 million acres) by 2025, the 2009 manuscript says 22.4 million hectares (55 million acres) by 2030—but their conclusions are the same. American cities will continue to sprawl, adding more land per person than in the past.

In recent decades, the locus of suburbanization has shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the South. With its warmer weather and lower costs of living, the South has grown faster than any other region in the U.S. since 1980. Development has been fueled by flat, cheap land and abundant freeways, which has pushed land demands well above the national average in some states.

That boom also meant the South was hit hard by the housing bust in 2008. But that doesn’t mean the market for suburban housing has disappeared. Living the burbs is still cheaper than the city, and since real incomes for most Americans have suffered in recent years, development will continue to chase lower land prices. The recession and housing slump may have put a damper on suburban development, but I’m guessing it’s just a temporary blip.

Another factor that should conspire against suburban development—higher gas prices—also doesn’t seem to have much of an influence. The 2009 study suggests development rates won’t take much of a hit from high fuel costs. To simulate rising gas prices, the study’s authors reduced the forecasted development rate in states where it was highest—primarily the car-centric South. Only 5 percent less land was converted from rural to urban uses.

It’s possible things could change—perhaps fuel costs will rise even higher, or maybe the home downsizing trend that’s in its infancy will mature. But I think we should prepare for a future filled with suburbs. In the South, where most of the development is happening, land continues to be cheap and easy to access. The same warm weather that drew many people there will also keep them in their cars. Nobody likes walking in the South’s sweltering summers, even if it’s just from the steamy parking lot to the over-air conditioned mall.

The question then is, how can we make the suburbs more environmentally friendly? Encouraging compactness would be a good start, even just at the subdivision level. Hopscotch development inflicts ecological damage well beyond its immediate footprint—there are many plants and animals that cannot survive surrounded by a sea of humanity. Dispersing job and commercial centers is another option, helping to reduce the number of miles people have to drive on a day-to-day basis.

In the end, though, we’ll have to push for more ecologically integrated development. We’ve seen small steps in that direction already—most new subdivisions must deal with run-off from rainstorms on-site rather than shunting it to an overburdened creek. It’s a start, but not enough to offset America’s suburban future.

Sources:

Alig, R., Kline, J., & Lichtenstein, M. (2004). Urbanization on the US landscape: looking ahead in the 21st century Landscape and Urban Planning, 69 (2-3), 219-234 DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2003.07.004

White, E., Morzillo, A., & Alig, R. (2009). Past and projected rural land conversion in the US at state, regional, and national levels Landscape and Urban Planning, 89 (1-2), 37-48 DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2008.09.004

Photo by La Citta Vita.

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