Friday, September 4, 2015

Urbanism Needn't be Techno-Centric

A regular reader and frequent correspondent recently sent me a link to an on-line video about urbanism.  In the video, MIT Professor Kent Larson displays some of the cool gadgetry being developed under his oversight in the campus Media Lab, most of it focused on improving urban life.  In the words of Professor Larson, “We look at how to make creative, vibrant places for people and then the technology follows.” 

Among the innovations being promoted by the Larson and his lab are room configurations that would adjust easily between different uses, small footprint cars that would reduce parking needs, and autonomous electrical bikes that would perform tasks as disparate as queuing up where users are likely to need them and delivering packages automatically, which is a far better solution than the overhyped Amazon drones.

After an introductory sponsorship commercial for JP Morgan Chase, the video runs about ten minutes.  The ten minutes are worth your time.

But while I recommend the video, I’m concerned that some may understand its message to be that cool technology is a necessary pre-condition to urbanism.  That’s not the case.  The technological innovation being done by Professor Larson will hopefully make urbanism more comfortable and attractive, but urbanism has justifications that would be valid regardless of technology.

To take one example, the reconfiguring room, with a bed, work table, and dining room table that all slide out from a wall, is a great solution to urban living, particularly for micro-apartments.  But the reconfiguration is mostly a matter of good design, carpentry, and hardware.  Having the room reconfigure with a remote control and motors is a gee-whiz touch that’s nice, but not essential.  I’d be nearly as content with a bed that slid out from the wall using a hand crank.

To reiterate the primary motivations behind this blog, we need a more urbanist future because (1) addressing climate change demands it, (2) municipal finances need it, and (3) there are people who enjoy the urban lifestyle and who are being denied that opportunity by ill-conceived public policies.  If technology can make urban life more comfortable and productive, that’s great, but not essential.

Ultimately, Professor Larsons’ comment about technology following urbanism is dead right.

But even with my curmudgeonly concerns about misinterpretation, the video is well worth your attention.

In my next post, I’ll explore the relationship between an urbanist and his car.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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