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When the historic Hudson Yards project joined forces with Constantine Kontokosta and NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) in 2014, the topic of smart cities came to the fore. Hudson Yards is a real estate endeavor unprecedented in the modern era for many reasons: the land developed is west of Midtown West in Manhattan, home to the some of the hottest real estate on the market; the project spans many city blocks, essentially comprising its own neighborhood; and the complex will recycle organic waste, collect and reuse rainwater, and host a power generator onsite. Add the fact that Kontokosta and CUSP are outfitting the site with thousands of sensors, and you have a truly groundbreaking development, what many have termed a “smart city.” Smart cities powered by “user data” have the potential to be safer and certainly smarter, but the methods and application of data gathering deserve attention.

The myriad uses of this sensor system are still being explored, but certain essential energy efficiency and environmental factors will undoubtedly be addressed with the data gathered: air and noise pollution, for example. Hudson Yards’s emphasis on sustainability as well as “resiliency, redundancy, [and] future-proofing” is in part an answer to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and to energy initiatives launched by the mayor’s office. In 2009 Local Law 84 came into effect in New York, mandating that larger properties collect and submit information about buildings’ energy and water usage. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to harness that data in the 80 x 50 effort, aiming to cut New York’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.

For a developer’s perspective, the Observer spoke to David Brause, president of family-owned Brause Realty: “His firm is comfortable investing in green features that might take 20 years to pay off, because his company’s strategy is to buy and hold long-term. He’s honest though that beyond energy cost savings, the economics of green treatments have yet to be entirely proven. […] For existing buildings, even the economic case for updating systems can be tough to make for building owners who aren’t able to work on a 20-year time horizon like large owners can.” However, regulations like Local Law 84 and initiatives like 80 x 50 make it in developers’ best interests to retrofit their buildings with energy management systems and to design green buildings going forward, especially as New York is not the only city to enact such legislation, and more is likely to come down the pipe in coming years.

A open source project called Array of Things has set out to gather urban data similar to that collected at Hudson Yards. By deploying 500 nodes attached to traffic poles and streetlights throughout Chicago, this project will “initially measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature.” Data is transmitted to the Argonne National Laboratory, and measures have been taken to ensure the privacy of passersby.

This issue of privacy, along with security and equality, will need to be addressed in the creation of any smart city. The internet of things – the concept of a network of physical objects collecting data and contributing to a kind of matrix of physical information – is an easy connection to make when visualizing the thousands of sensors placed around Hudson Yards. CUSP brands this idea as a “quantifiable community,” but that raises the question of who can afford to live in the Hudson Yards community, and who may be left behind in the age of smart cities.

An urban neighborhood built from the ground-up, like Hudson Parks – complete with commercial and retail spaces, a school, and a hotel – is almost unheard of, especially in New York City. Most city neighborhoods are deeply rooted in culture and history, even those that undergo controversial growth spurts like gentrification. Even cities that underwent large scale reconstruction, like Chicago after the fire of 1871 or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, still grew organically, shaped by residents and experiences. Can smart cities be considered “cities” in the traditional sense if they are too engineered, and not by their own residents, but by management companies and city planners with a wealth of data at their command?

Kontokosta emphasizes that personal information about residents’ health and activities will only be gathered voluntarily. Such personalized data could be incredibly useful from a city planner’s perspective, but when does it become invasive or even Orwellian? And how is all the information gathered to be secured against cyber attacks? As Kontokosta admits in this Bisnow article, “There will be a lot of challenges dealing with the fire hose of data this is going to unleash, but we’re hoping this will eventually become a model for how cities think about this type of informatics infrastructure going forward.”

For more information, listen to WNYC’s summer 2016 segment: The Future of the Smart City. Find further reading in Anthony Townsend’s book Smart Cities and in Adam Greenfield’s shorter piece Against the Smart City.