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How Experiments in City Planning Lead to Innovations

In 1870, New Yorkers made more than 100 million trips per year by horsecar. Most of the planning and logistics involved in enabling those trips - iron rails to smooth the ride, replacement horses to relieve the exhausted beasts of burden after four hour-shifts, route planning - were invisible to the average rider. One element was not: the tremendous, near-mind-boggling amount of horse poop that was generated every day.

A horse produces about twenty-two pounds of manure per day. Multiply that up to match the (low) estimate of one hundred and fifty thousand horses in the city by 1980 and you get 3.3 million pounds of horse poop a day. At this rate, the farmers in the area surrounding the city couldn’t come close to using all that manure. Stable owners began having to pay to have it removed, rather than selling it. A cottage industry of “crossing sweepers” emerged to clear paths for wealthy pedestrians to walk through. One writer famously observed that streets were, “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting.”

Pundits and urban planners of the time worried that there would soon be nowhere for all that manure to go. Calculations indicated that, at the current rate, it would reach third story windows by the mid-20th century. Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, electricity and automobiles created new and better ways of getting around and the horse fell out of favor almost overnight, solving the manure problem (and kickstarting the climate change problem).

Solutions to important urban planning problems sometimes come from unexpected directions. In this case, the automobile came to solve cities’ manure problem organically - urban planners didn’t have much to do with it - but what about when waiting around is just too slow? Modern city officials around the world have increasingly been turning to experiments in urban planning to find better ways of serving the public. Not every experiment works out, but it’s exciting to see novel approaches to old and new problems. We’ve highlighted several solutions being tried for problems like making technology a part of everyday city life, making cities more environmentally friendly, using land given over to urban blight, and making cities happier, healthier places to live.


Urban Blight

In distressed cities across the U.S., urban blight is a problem that can’t be ignored. We tend to think of homes and buildings as static objects, but like cars, they aren’t meant to be ignored. After the 2008 recession, families in poorer cities like Detroit and Atlantic City lost their homes at incredible rates. Whole neighborhoods became near vacant in a matter of a few years, and not long after that, the buildings that they used to occupy fell into disrepair. Often, the cost of renovating those buildings exceeds the cost of simply tearing them down and starting again or doing business elsewhere. This is urban blight.

Fortunately, cities have a few interesting new tricks up their sleeves for making these areas work again. In Detroit, urban farms have been sprouting up to turn unused land into something productive. The farms create affordable produce for historically poor neighborhoods suffering from the “food desert” effect, they create jobs for the local population, and they reduce crime by reducing the amount of unused space. This may also serve to drive up property values, encouraging new development. The Garden Resource Program, a nonprofit that supports citizens who want to start urban gardens and farms, claims that there are 1,400 of varying size in Detroit alone.

Another approach being used to combat urban blight is the “land bank”. Often, the properties that comprise urban blight end up in the hands of the various agencies responsible for running the city. This happens through a variety of channels and, as a result, there is a paucity of organizational structure in place to manage them in a productive way. In many cities, the response has been to centralize the ownership of those properties under a single agency called a land bank. The bank is responsible for creating and implementing a plan, in conjunction with other agencies, local businesses and the community, to reinvigorate neighborhoods and put blighted land back into productive use.

The Philadelphia Land Bank, one of the newer and larger land banks in the U.S., controls thousands of properties and sells them with the public good in mind. When a developer wants to pursue an agenda that serves a public purchase, for example, the land bank gives it away at a discounted or even a nominal rate. Almost any use of an abandoned property is useful, though. By occupying and renovating a building in a state of disrepair, crime is discouraged and local property values go up, prompting further development.



As we frequently note in the pages of this blog, buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of carbon emissions. In cities, however, that number can climb as high as 70 percent, as is the case in New York City. With the current administration’s decision to abdicate American leadership on climate change, local officials are beginning to step up to the plate to meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Accord.

One of the policy ideas that we’re excited about is an idea that has been bandied about on the federal level for years without finding purchase: a carbon tax. In Boulder, Colorado, voters passed a tax on carbon emissions more than a decade ago, and we’re beginning to see exciting results today.

The Boulder carbon tax is levied on electricity used within city limits at a rate of about $7 per metric ton of carbon. For an average household, that comes out to just about $21 per year, according to the City of Boulder. Carbon taxes are exciting because they work on both ends. The tax includes the cost to the community of releasing carbon in the price of energy, so less carbon-intensive options become more attractive by price comparison. The revenues raised from the tax then help to fund programs that help the city to transition to green energy and to increase its energy efficiency. The results are clearly visible: Boulder, Colorado now has one of the highest rates of installed solar capacity per capita in the country and has made real strides in energy efficiency.

Another initiative that is gaining momentum is the use and promotion of green roofs. We’ve written a few times about how cool green roofs are and the ways that cities are using them as a distributed form of infrastructure to advance their environmental goals.

The first and most obvious case for a green roof is that they reduce energy bills. All that organic matter acts as a natural insulator in the winter, and in the summer it helps to dramatically reduce heat gain. The water that moves up through plants roots, into the leaves, and out into the air (there’s a fun, nerdy word for this and it’s “evapotranspiration”) cools down the local environment.

Less obvious, but even more helpful is the way that the soil and plants store water during storms and release it slowly over time. This reduces the strain on city drainage systems, which is very important because many cities have systems that mix with sewage systems during heavy storms. As a result, cities are willing to subsidize the creation of green roofs on top of commercial buildings because the ultimate cost is usually less than the cost of creating new “grey” infrastructure.

Yet another, less well-known advantage is that a green roof is capable of lasting up to twice as long as a traditional roof membrane. They’re more expensive up front, but the savings from this alone can sometimes make a project worthwhile.


Human Wellness

One of the elements of city planning that too often gets overlooked among more pressing needs is simple human wellness. Cities are efficient, often exciting places to live, work, and play, but in the past, there was surprisingly little thought given over to making them pleasant places to spend one’s life. That goal is the cause of some of the most interesting experiments happening today.

In Barcelona, there is a plan in the works to redevelop the city’s historic L’Eixample district into a network of “superblocks” that would be designed with pedestrians, instead of cars, in mind. The debate around superblocks, or “superilles” in Catalan and “superillas” in Spanish, has been going on for years, but it looks like it is finally going to become a reality. The idea is simple: Merge a square section comprised of nine existing blocks by cutting off cars from the interior streets and use the street space for green space, bike paths, and other elements intended to create a sense of neighborhood in the heart of the city. In some superblocks, traffic would be allowed through in parts to create bus nodes, but vehicles would be limited to ten kilometers per hour and restricted to one-way lanes.

The first question many people have is, “wouldn’t this make it harder to drive in the city?” The answer is a resounding, “yes.” That’s the point. Urban planners in Barcelona want to change the way people get around the city, motivating people to bicycle more, take public transit more frequently, and do more walking. In total, they hope to reduce auto traffic by 21 percent over the next two years.

There are some questions that still have to be answered. Will traffic become unbearable if so many streets are cut off? Will neighborhoods form organically, or if not, will certain additional features be more successful in creating them? We’re excited to see how this one will play out.

In Vienna, there is another ongoing experiment in human wellness that has been taking place since the early 1990s. Gender mainstreaming - the process of gathering data on how both genders use the city differently and designing for better outcomes for both - has led to more than 60 pilot projects being carried out in the Austrian city.

The practice was sparked by a study that tracked the daily life of a diverse set of women through the city, demonstrating the shared priorities of each. One of the first projects attempted was an apartment complex designed for women by women with women’s needs in the city in mind: Frauen-Werk-Stadt, which translates to “Women-Work-City”. The complex included an on-site kindergarten, doctor’s office, and pharmacy in response to the finding that women spend more time per day on errands and childcare. It was purposefully placed close to public transit and included a safe, well-lit grassy area for families to spend time together in.

Another interesting project occurred in response to a finding that girls’ use of playgrounds dropped off sharply at the age of nine compared to that of boys. Because boys were more assertive, girls tended to be crowded out of the public spaces. Urban planners decided to alter the parks in order to promote a more equitable situation. Parks in Vienna were subdivided into partially enclosed spaces, and a wider variety of activity options were designed in, meaning a greater number of park users could have their own space. The findings were encouraging: A larger number of girls and a greater variety of children overall began using the spaces almost overnight.



Google’s parent company Alphabet is trialing one of the most ambitious urban experiments ever attempted. It is taking over a section of Toronto’s waterfront and turning it into a high-tech metropolis using sensors, big data, and sophisticated modeling. It also promises to be a testing ground for the ideas that Alphabet plans to roll out to the rest of world’s non-Google-ified cities: stuff like self-driving cars, drone delivery, and a new housing concept called Loft.

The experiment, called Sidewalk Labs, is less an isolated trial then a full-blown, moonshot attempt at a modern-day techno-utopia. The plan is to use modern analytics to suss out actionable insights about how citizens’ use of and needs from the space in real time. Is there a nasty case of strep going around? A pop-up clinic might help to nip it in the bud. Are two coffee shops competing with each other? Citizens might get more value from the space if one of them was a grocery store instead. Or a liquor store. Or a banana stand.

There has been no shortage of ink spilled on comparisons, favorable and unfavorable, to Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center. The pilot program will cover only 12 acres of land, but that could expand to the whole waterfront area - 800 acres - if it proves successful. Are we at a point, both with respect to technology and as a society, where we can really make and live in a City of Tomorrow? No one knows, but Alphabet is ready to find out.

On some level, it makes sense that Alphabet would get involved in city planning. The area is ripe for innovation, and the tech giant approach of constant experimentation and innovation appears to be a successful one when it is applied, as in the examples above. The other side of that approach, “move fast and break things,” would not be a welcome one in city planning, however. This may be an area where the tech giant can learn a thing or two from the world of urban planning.