Smarter past, smarter future: lessons for smart cities

The smart city is much discussed as a sustainable urban development model. However, as discussed in former posts on the blog, “smartness” is in the eye of the beholder. Smart cities of the past can help us plan smart(er) cities. Especially, examples of former and traditional engineering, construction and design can provide a well of examples of what works in the art, craft and science of sustainable cities.


Babylon forever? Its Hanging Gardens can inspire green cities more than the Tower of Babel! Picture by Timo on Flickr. Creative Commons Non-Commercial 2.0 Attribution 

Learning from the past

My starting point is the city which my surname vaguely recalls: Babylon. Regardless of whether they were historical or mythical, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon provide a great source of inspiration for green cities. The Hanging Gardens were the ancient version of vertical green cities. Various species of trees and reeds were planted around the city and on green roofs, the whole being irrigated in ingenious ways, probably allowing to grow food and mitigate heat islands in the inner city. Today’s examples of Hanging Gardens include the Swedish Plantagon model of modern food-producing, multi-functional buildings. The green vertical city, promoting density, height, and vertical greenery could be said to be a derivative of the mythical Babylonian model. Being an urban utopia, the green vertical city could potential fail to address some socio-environmental issues linked to high-rise modernist estates built in the brutalist style, such as the Red Road Flats in Glasgow or the poorer “banlieues” of Paris. The green vertical city, too densely could turn into a Tower of Babel instead. But utopias die hard: famous brutalist estates like Robin Hood Gardens in London and the Cité Radieuse in Marseille are still prized by aficionados and residents alike, and often provide affordable housing in times of developer-led regeneration… Perhaps these estates and other high rises can be retrofitted to better integrate urban green qualities.

Without trying to build too high and replicate the ill-fated Babel skyscraper-of-yore, a great colourful report by Arup shows how to integrate green building envelopes in today’s cities. Think green walls, green roofs, urban trees, garden allotments, rooftop farms (e.g. Eagle Street in Brooklyn), pocket parks, swales, hydroponics, aquaponics – the whole shabang… Benefits of green building envelopes include: wellbeing and health; place-making and attractiveness; aesthetic quality; air quality; urban heat management; acoustics and noise reduction; stormwater management; biodiversity; and urban agriculture.

Relocalising food production could also help. Medieval urban gardens in Italy catered for recreation as well as food production, although it is uncertain whether periods of urban food production were actually a sign of sustainable design or of conflicts between rural and urban societies. Monastic walled gardens, although often located in quiet, remote locations, could also be found in cities, such as in Norwich. Country houses in the UK often had their walled gardens for food production, with production peaking the 19th century, although some are still used today, such as at Abbots’s Hall in Stowmarket, also in East Anglia. The walled garden could be an inspiration for contemporary suburban or peri-urban/exurban locations, with due thought to issues of access and ownership. Contemporary Berlin and New York for example, feature many innovative urban farms. You can also grow food in bomb shelters from the Second World War, as the Growing Underground movement.

Our forefathers knew about energy too. WebEcoist mentions smart energy production techniques such as the early Persian wind mills and wind towers. Windmills and watermills have been used throughout the centuries. Engineers of the past were experts at channelling, transforming and conserving energy, both through smart engineering and design. Solar design was practiced in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Although abandoned at around 1300 AD for unknown reasons, the southern-facing Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in South-Western Colorado were skilfully designed. Traditional building design across the Middle East also had a high environmental performance, thanks to complementary design elements such as courtyards, shading, corridors, plantations, wind towers, high windows, and wall thermal mass, amongst others. Passepedia gives a brief historical account of passive housing, from traditional Icelandic turf houses to super-energy-saving housing units from the 1990s. A modern adaptation of smart design is passive house design.

Planning and construction also require sustainable materials and supporting technologies, such as Trombe walls. Various ecological building materials are much better than concrete and provide advantageous thermal and humidity regulation qualities. Think earth, straw bales, bamboo, wood, lime-and-hemp concreteThe Wikipedia entry for “earth structure” lists impressive examples from all over the world. Among these, one can especially mention the rammed earth and adobe city of Ghadames, Libya, the city of Shibham in Yemen and its mudbrick-made high-rise buildings, and the impressive World Heritage town and mosque of Djenné (Jenne), where the adobe buildings are replastered at least every other year. There are countless outstanding examples of architectural and urban design that we absolutely need to learn more from. Among other strategies, cities need to make best use of local resources.

Water management was often smart too, much smarter than in today’s Las Vegas. Water transportation systems such as Roman aquaducts or the widespread qanat (gently sloping underground water transportation) were exemplary, and could serve multiple purposes. By 400 BC, ice could be stored in the summer months in Persian deserts, by combining qanat with wind towers for cooling.

Do all roads lead to Rome? Not necessarily. Construction, agriculture, colonisation and massive economic development led to massive deforestation  during the Roman empire, which was also associated with the spread of malaria. Wooden medieval cities were also highly flammable: fires wrought massive destruction throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, such as the great London fires of 1212 and 1666. Wood can be used sustainably today, though, for example to build apartment buildings such as Wingårdhs’s Strandparken in Sundbyberg, Stockholm.

There may have been smart technological cities in the past too. The mythical city of Atlantis, for example, could have looked anything like a Blade Runner type of environment ending in late-Roman decadence and washed over by a tsunami or a volcanic eruption, a cautionary tale against societal excesses. Can planned obsolescence and a consumerist thirst for “always more” pave the road to Atlantis?

Last, one must pay due mention to future “smart” cities imagined from the past. For example, Paris in the Twentieth Century (as imagined by Jules Verne in 1863): a resolutely dystopian portrayal of a technologically advanced but culturally obtuse, market-led society. A nineteenth century middle-class version of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? Science fiction, then and today, seems sceptical that technology alone will solve our urban and societal throes.

How smart do we want to be?

The smart city models of today seem blinded by technological “bling-bling” and self-referencing emulation. However:  It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. Learning from the past can make us smarter than we actually think we are. We have probably most to learn from instinct or partly-forgotten societies which lived within the carrying capacity of their natural environment but left little by way of durable artefacts. And even as archaeological digs retrieve precious artefacts, it is much harder to infer about past social structures and cultures. Our poor historical awareness is epitomised by the Dustbin of History (which must be actually be a gigantic landfill): all the informal, unrecorded history that we cannot access directly, but which may live on through us through culture and habits… Certainly we can do without the slavery, inequalities, oppression and colonisation practices which characterised many civilisations of the past.  The means provided by today’s advanced technology can and should align with mindful, compassionate, humane and moderate lifestyles and aspirations. In other words, and to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron: the smart city revolution will not be digitised.

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Green Infrastructure and Green City: The lenses to evaluate urban greening

Urban greening and green infrastructure are at the heart of contemporary urban sector discussion in the light of climate change debate. In fact, green infrastructure, in terms of using renewable energy and clean energy, is older concept than urban greening. The blog first introduces green infrastructure, and then discusses urban greening, green gentrification, green growth coalition, and environmental justice. The blog attempts to provide a lens for scrutiny of urban greening-related policies.

Green infrastructures, in the true sense of the term, use renewable energy, and clean energy. The Public Private Partnership literature speaks about green infrastructure, as private sector specialised skills are largely used in green energy generation. The literature focused on Value for Money (VFM) for such projects as the initial investment for energy generation is high. However, it is paid back over the life cycle of a project. There is another way the term green is used in practice. This is to indicate newly aligned projects. For instance, green expressway means a newly aligned expressway instead of upgrading an existing one. For instance, private sector actors prefer Greenfield smart city projects, as the process of land development is easier than redevelopment of brown-field projects. Although the true meaning of green is quite controversial here, it has not been so much discussed.

The second generation of green infrastructures are non-motorised transport (NMT) mode such as walkway and park. This is one of the most discussed topic in the contemporary urban discussion, as in spite of serious threat of climate change, there is increasing motorisation in emerging economies with increased purchasing power and aspiration, and the local governments do not always take very strong position through policy intervention as they have to meet citizens’ demand too. However, the central government of India introduced AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) where the central government sanctions fund for various infrastructure including local park development. This is undoubtedly a positive step, even though the tools of public participation in the decision making process has to be well-thought.

The third generation of green infrastructure, or as commonly said, the new generation of infrastructures are low carbon infrastructure like metro rail, and reclaimed wastewater system, that should slowly replace the older generation of infrastructure, in order to make our cities sustainable in the long run, as cities in the emerging economies move towards ‘planetary urbanisation'(here). Understanding city as a socio-technical process in the light of such new generation of infrastructure is, in specific, of interest.

Green City: Post green infrastructure, and smart city fever in India, there is a green city fever. Cities are competitive, and so are concepts. Green city concept came up as a competitive concept challenging smart city, also apparently as a challenge between two political parties. Anyhow, green cities could be defined in terms of using green infrastructure and also known for urban greening. New Town, Kolkata, which claims to be the first green city in India (here), does aim more than urban greening, by not only inviting foreign companies in investing in industry, but also building up knowledge about ‘green city’. One unique step has been developing a cycle track with bike sharing scheme. However, its reflection on the overall plan in terms of urban form-transport relationship is limited. One of the reason could be the city was assigned the tag of ‘green city’ post designing and development. There is a temporal dimension: when New Town was initially planned, climate change was hardly an issue, and so the concept of green city. However, this could be just a decade back! Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor includes a plan for 24 green cities (here). Without doubt, such green city models need to be critically investigated (here). Since DMIC’s spine is dedicated Delhi Mumbai Freight Corridor, there is a plan of developing a continuous green belt along that corridor. The rest of the blog essentially speaks about urban greening, which is improving the environment for improved urban living, or put bluntly, for consumption.

Green Gentrification The term green gentrification is borrowed from a recently published book I reviewed. The book discusses five cases of green gentrification from Brooklyn Park, New York. Green gentrification means improving the environment (or converting environmental goods to economic goods), followed by replacement of low-income communities depending on the landscape by high-income group or elite group as the property value increases with improved environment. We are familiar with real estate’s way of branding such as lake view apartment, park view apartment. Green gentrification essentially speaks about the consequences of such branding. The interesting point is that at times such consumption of urban environment comes at the cost of a socio-ecological process of the city, which is often ignored and misunderstood. Comparison of the socio-ecological process in a natural landscape and one such green gentrification model clearly presents the difference. In the former case, the landscape is an integral part of the livelihood of a community, while in the latter, the green is merely for consumption as it has a positive impact on human health.

Green Growth Model: The authors of the book on green gentrification describes green growth model as collaboration between public and private sector actors to deliver such urban greening project, and also, encourage such green gentrification. As opposed to environmental coalition (advocating for environment) and growth coalition (advocating economic growth, as generally there is ecology/economy dichotomy), green growth coalition aim to combine both, which is quite problematic. As through improving environment, they also advance economic growth. However, there is a risk that one part of the society is excluded both from such greening process and economic growth process.

Environmental justice: Environmental justice broadly speaks about who contributes to environmental bads and who faces the consequence of this. There are two dimensions to this: procedural justice and distributional justice. Procedural justice looks into involvement of all related stakeholders during the decision making process, while distributional justice investigates how the environmental goods and bads are distributed amongst various stakeholders.

Recycling the old concepts: The book was interesting as it recycles many old concepts with a new wrap of green. Gentrification, growth coalition and growth model are very old concepts, at least in the Euro-American academic literature. It is interesting to see how such concepts are reused in the wrap of green in the book in relation to urban greening, and how it makes perfect sense. Green gentrification speaks about how conversion of environmental goods to economic goods pushes out the poor, low income communities or people of colour from their access to environment, while those who can afford gets to consume the improved environment in an urban setting. These concepts are useful tools of analysis for real estate investment [Picture credit: online].

Posted in Heritage and Planning, Planning, city, and society, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Highlights from 2016

2016 has been another rich year for the blog of the AESOP Young Academics, with more than 20 posts published on a wide variety of topics (more before). With more than 8 thousand visits, we saw a significant increase of visibility. Like in past years, visits have come from all around the world – Italy, USA, UK, Germany, India, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Greece being the ten most represented countries.


In 2016, we welcomed two new regular contributors, Chandrima Mukhopadhyay (CEPT University, Ahmedabad) and Ian Babelon (Northumbria University) and a new member in the Editorial Board, Lorenzo Chelleri, who had been contributing regularly to the blog. I am confident their ideas and energy will enrich the blog from 2017 onward.

The list of Open Access journals is now an independent page and has reached a considerable size (more than 70 journals) and quality thanks to contributions from many people.

So, let’s take a look at the highlights from 2016, starting with the occasional contributors.

  • Alessandra Feliciotti (University of Strathclyde), focusing on the relation between urban form and resilience, reflected on the end of the positivistic dream and advocated urban design to embrace change and uncertainty.
  • Isabelle Anguelovski (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona) co-authored with Lorenzo Chelleri a critique on the use of the concepts of resilience and sustainability, highlighting the risk that ‘most of the times social negative implications for the most vulnerable groups constitute the trade-offs for enhancing overall and better city services and environment’.
  • Enzo Falco (Gran Sasso Science Institute) and Alessandro Rinaldi (Sapienza University of Rome) co-authored the most read article in the history of the YA blog, a summary of the main findings of a research on the (not so bright) future perspectives in academia for Italian PhD holders – a topic of interest way beyond Italy.
  • Manoel Schlindwein (TU-Darmstadt/Tongji University) discussed the new zoning plan for São Paulo and the conflicts surrounding it, particularly in relation to urban mobility.

And now on our regular contributors.

Looking forward for an even richer 2017!

(Simone Tulumello)

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The smart, resilient city: cliché or oxymoron?

The smart city concept builds on technological and governance innovations to better enable cities to face up to urbanisation challenges, including the ability to “bounce back” from social, environmental and economic crises and shocks. To become smart is to become resilient and sustainable (e.g. see the SRC repository). Smart, resilient cities are fraught with contention, however, because conjuring contrasting images of urban landscapes equally differing cultural aspirations. To many analysts, the smart resilient city resembles more an “impossible sustainability”, to borrow Erik Swyngedouw’s phrase. The smart city: cliché or oxymoron? I argue: both, and neither. Smartness, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Continue reading

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Municipal bond: Water sector, capital and governance

Municipal bond is an innovative financing tool that uses private sector investment in infrastructure and improves the financial sustainability at the Urban Local Body (ULB) level. Financing being a crucial issue in development, especially in relation to inclusiveness and equity, municipal bond is a response to such challenges. In addition, with the increasing debate around power relation between various hierarchies of government and hence raising question about how democratic is decision-making at the ULB level, municipal bond offers unique solution. The bond makes ULBs self-sufficient in financing, and also makes them directly accountable to the users of infrastructure. The blog reflects on the performance of municipal bond in water and sewage sector, highlighting the strong interrelation between water, flow of capital and governance.

In general, municipal bond is a debt issued by the ULB to finance capital projects such as road, railway, sewage projects etc. The tool was traditionally used in the USA and Canada. You can find articles on municipal bond in the USA even from 1970s (here). Municipal bond, in general, is exempted from tax, which makes it attractive for private sector investors within the bracket of high income tax. However, revenue generated from municipal bond may be taxable. In the context of India, municipal bond was first introduced in taxed form, and later it was tax-exempted. Continue reading

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The Environmental Assessment Methods: Part 1 *

Environmental assessment methods are important tools to quantify the environmental impacts related to products or services.

In the following some environmental assessment methods related to the building sector are briefly presented.


HQE (Haute Qualité Environnementale)

The French Association HQE was born in 1996 under the guidance of the Department of Buildings and Collectivity with the aim to reduce the use of energy from fossil fuels. In the nineties, the same association gave rise to the homonymic volunteer environmental evaluation tool HQE (Association HQE, 2008).

This evaluation tool is constituted by some lists for designers. The lists are divided into three main categories in which some of the requirements necessary for the construction of high environmental quality new buildings are itemized (Francese, 2007). The three main categories correspond to the three most important scales of impact produced by a building:

  1. Impact on users;
  2. Regional scale impacts;
  3. Global impacts.

For each of the three categories, some needs and correlated actions able to minimize the impacts are identified. Continue reading

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Open Access week 2016 and the OA journals list

Happy Open Access Week 2016!

For the occasion, I have updated the list of Open Access journals and moved here as page (rather than a post). It can be found here:

Please let us now of more journals that should be included in the comments.

And, most important, publish in Open Access!

(Simone Tulumello)

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