I have been shamelessly behind in reading Dan Hill’s fantastic City of Sound blog over the past year for no good reasons. For anyone interested in larger questions of urbanism, design, culture, it is a must read. An older post I ran across captured a critique of an Australian National Urban Policy discussion paper from 2011, which peaked my interest because it crossed over many aspects of urban design, resilience, and the future of urban structures, all while capturing the fragility of urban structure in the midst of a Brisbane flood event. Notwithstanding my reticence for bland policy papers, as usual, Dan Hill turns the paper into a valid discussion of what urban futures could hold for visionary societies.
Within the myriad of thoughts, he brings up a question of the role of infrastructure in a city. He notes that:
the instruments of planning are not what the city is for. We don’t make cities in order to make infrastructure. We make infrastructure in order to support cities; it’s a secondary, supporting activity. Cities are about exchange—of commerce and culture, principally.
This is a strange idea to engineers (and even architects) of all sorts. Are we designing and constructing grandiose structures, or are we building structures of wonder that fit in the environment? If we designed a dam to be not an instrument of itself, but a representation of the needs of its users, what shape would it take? Well, it would likely still hold back a lot of water and perhaps produce hydroelectricity, but it would probably also facilitate ecological processes such as fish passage. Such ecological goals are only being retrofitted in the past decades or, in the case of many large Western U.S. dams, not at all.
For cities, it makes sense that infrastructure should respond to the desires of the citizenry while also pushing the boundaries for new social goals. Individual and organizational decision-making is supremely shaped by the infrastructure that surrounds us, which usually lasts far beyond its projected lifetime. So we must not approach infrastructure design to believe that it can quickly morph to align with new social visions. Instead, it needs to reflect intelligent assessments of our long-term social goals for cities and societies to the best of our ability. Granted, no one has a crystal ball. But, broad goals can usually be outlined at a geographic scale equivalent to provinces, states, and large municipalities.
Investments in infrastructure are not the ultimate goal. Even more, in regions of the world where infrastructure investment is growing increasingly difficult (think U.S.), the symbiotic loop between individual decisions and existing infrastructure can be used as a tool for planning. How can we entice urban residents to make decisions that improve infrastructure, such as planting gardens, supporting green roofs, or funding smart transit. Likewise, how do we incorporate the influence of existing infrastructure on individual decisions? Can we understand how transit patterns will affect the impact of urban resident behavior not only on economics, but more importantly on urban livability and sustainability? At heart, it is simply understanding what motivates urban resident to undertake the choices that they do. These are the true questions for visions of future cities.