Can Urban Design Create Smarter, Kinder Cities?

There is no one way to think about a city. But one thing, until recently, has been certain: cities aren’t thinking about you.

The idea of conscious cities challenges the assumption that cities are thoughtless spaces, or stationary backgrounds for busy urbanites to make their mark on. Cities make their mark on us in ways we don’t realize, and often unintentionally so. By adding intelligence to city design, urban planners have the opportunity to create smarter, kinder cities.

Like any sentient being, a conscious city affects how you feel and what you do. It is an active participant that can improve or worsen your health, your comfort, and your wellbeing. The concept was coined in a 2015 manifesto by Itai Palti and Moshe Bar.

“The foundation of consciousness lies in the city’s awareness of the motives, personalities and moods of its inhabitants,” the authors write. Though architects have long designed to elicit emotion, from Pyramids to monasteries, we now have the data to base these decisions— from small details to large-scale urban plans—on actual science instead of instincts.

This isn’t to say today’s cities weren’t purposefully designed. Most city streets are planned for efficiency; the same goes for buildings, which are designed for convenience, if not luxury or bravado. Concern for public health and comfort, though, has not always been high-priority, let alone backed by science. True, there was a brief moment in the 70s when psychologists teamed up with architects in an effort to encourage “environmental psychology.” Unfortunately, the idea fizzled quickly.

As urban populations surge, the first instinct of builders and planners may be to save and make space. This alone is not enough, especially considering the well-documented psychological effects of overcrowding. Planners need only utilize science and research to plan for happy, healthy cities. Otherwise, they may worsen the existing condition.

How Our Cities Change Us

Before planning for the future, it’s useful to understand what elements of urban design are impacting us today. We know, for example, that repetitive patterns like stripes and tiles can induce migraines or seizures, while more natural and visually interesting shapes and spaces can ease stress.

Then there’s the paradoxical phenomenon of loneliness in crowds. Ample evidence through MRI scans suggests that people who grow up in cities are more prone to mental health issues, and it’s likely that crowding is one of these reasons, as our brains are not conditioned for such environments.

Technology helps us understand the way our surroundings affect us in ways we may not understand on the surface. Social psychologist Colin Ellard conducted a study to examine the physical reaction participants had to building facades using EEG headsets and wristbands. He found that facades, in fact, played a large role in the comfort levels of the participants.

According to the BBC, “when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys.” They sped up as if to escape a dead zone, then returned to a state of liveliness when passing storefronts.

Triangulation and public spaces foster community and reduce car accidents by implying that roads aren’t just for cars. Green spaces consistently correlate with higher levels of well-being in cities, even when taking other considerations into effect.

There are even worse ill-effects, planned or otherwise. The placement of highway systems and public transportation have led to segregation and poverty. Design features including spikes and high-pitched beeping discourage loitering at the expense of pedestrian comfort. Flashing lights and advertisements, especially at night, may induce anxiety and interrupt natural sleep cycles too.

Planning for the Future

Conscious cities, in theory, would use science and technology to optimize cities for the wellbeing of their inhabitants. This could—and should—go beyond just mental health by taking things like public health, ROI, and efficiency into consideration, too.

Take trees as an example. As a key component of “green space,” trees carry with them a number of psychological and physical benefits. A recent article by Vox outlined the findings of a recent Nature Conservancy report, concluding that “planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year—by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves.”

Besides these tangible, measurable effect, studies have found that simply viewing green space caused people to become happier and also changed their physiology, as their autonomic nervous systems showed strong signs of relaxation responses. Further research has shown that even simulated green space can have similar effects.

According to the Guardian, this type of research could be “the basis of a new and powerful discipline of experimental urban design based on sound principles of psychology and neuroscience,” perhaps utilizing virtual reality and other technology to simulate these types of responses. Neuroscience-based architecture and design could reinvent cities as we know them, or at the very least make little updates that pack a big punch.

After all, it follows that happier, more relaxed urban dwellers will be more productive, contributing to a happier and healthier economy. It’s a whole new way to think about cities, and ultimately a return on investment that can’t be ignored.

By |2018-10-31T19:15:11+00:00October 2nd, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

How Minecraft Democratizes Urban Design

There’s a reason young people love Minecraft. Called a “sandbox” video game, Minecraft is a blank slate that enables players to build brand new worlds using only building blocks and the contents of their imagination, then take on three-dimensional adventures from there.

If this sounds like paradise for the future architect or urban planner, you’re not the only one that thinks so. The United Nations’ Block by Block program operates based on the notion that, since urban planning is a community effort, community members young and old can take part in public redesign projects. According to their website, Block by Block uses Minecraft as “a community participation tool in urban design and fund the implementation of public space projects all over the world, with a focus on poor communities in developing countries.”

The beauty of Minecraft, in this regard, is its ease of use. Young people with big imaginations take to it easily, but so can adults, whether or not they are familiar with similar software. In Haiti, for example, a group of fishermen with no computer experience—let alone reading or writing—successfully designed a seawall to prevent flooding at Place de la Paix, complete with public toilets, and presented it to architects.

Block by Block is a partnership between Mojang, Minecraft’s maker, and UN-Habitat, the UN’s program for sustainable cities. UN-Habitat is determined to upgrade 300 public spaces in the next three years with its Global Public Space Program, of which Block by Block is a part.

Democratizing Urban Planning

With cities and public places specifically, a democratic, collaborative approach makes sense— because it’s something everyone has a stake in, and which everyone will use and share.

Public spaces include parks, marketplaces, and public squares; they are the shared areas where people are free to walk, relax, and mingle. Public space adds to the health of a city, and in developing countries can make a huge difference since foot traffic stimulates economic growth.

New York City has made public space a priority (in fact it’s currently comprised of 60% public space). Other cities can take this example to expand public places with the input of locals. Technology like Minecraft is one way to get the public engaged and involved in planning the future of the communities they live, work, and entertain themselves in.

According to the Guardian, “Governments are…waking up to the idea that the public are not only users, but also a powerful resource – and that engaging them online is easier than ever before.” Technology like Minecraft is one way communities can be a force for change in their own neighborhoods.

More generally, tech and new media are providing tools for the public to offer up ideas, point out issues, and connect to advocate for collective needs. From apps, to crowdsourcing platforms, social media and augmented reality, emerging new media and digital technologies invite the public to take part without significant limitations. In other words, innovation levels the playing field.

Minecraft and Beyond

Minecraft is unique in its appeal to younger individuals, and its ability to gamify urban planning, making it attractive to a wide range of people regardless of experience level. With Block by Block, citizen players, architects, and government workers can walk around the virtual space and make important decisions together. In this way, it truly democratizes the important job of urban design.

But Minecraft is far from the only technology opening urban planning to the public. There’s Zooniverse, an online platform that organizations can use to launch citizen science projects, and the US National Archives’ Citizen Archive dashboard, which lets citizens transcribe and digitize handwritten documents. Then there are more city-specific projects like FixMyStreet, which lets locals flag problems in their neighborhood digitally.

According to the Guardian, “It’s examples like these, where governments use technology to bring communities together, that demonstrates the benefit of embracing innovation.”

Indeed, the mutual benefits are clear when citizens get involved in public efforts to improve either specific communities or society at large. As the saying goes, many hands make little work. Well, many blocks can make big, monumental changes. Perhaps the urban planners of the future will look back and wonder how and why it was done any other way. 

By |2018-10-31T18:13:55+00:00May 1st, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

The Skinny Skyscraper: More Than Just a Trend?

The Manhattan skyline is marked by several skyscrapers and buildings with unique architectural designs, in addition to which we’ve seen an explosion of super-skinny towers in New York in recent years. The slender, compact design of these buildings gives them an edgier, futuristic look and many are now used as high-rise apartment complexes and business offices. Experts are claiming that this is almost a new phenomena in architectural trends, a combination of economics and engineering, according to professor of architecture at Columbia University, Carol Willis, who is also the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum.

Are skinny skyscrapers, also called pencil towers, more than just a trend? Here’s a closer look at this emerging architectural design and what we can expect in the construction and design world in the oncoming years:

Notable Skinny Scrapers in New York

According to City Lab, the number of skyscrapers in New York City that are 1,000 feet or taller are going to increase significantly. Today, the skyline features just seven of theses super skinny buildings but there are already several multi-million dollar projects underway for new construction buildings that will transform the area around Central Park and Billionaires row, reports City Lab.

What’s most significant about these buildings is their structural aspect ratio. Willis explains that some are built with extreme of a 1:23 base-width to height ratio which means the building is an architectural feat — and certainly a sight to behold.

The tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere is located at 432 Park Avenue. It was designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects and stands 1,396 feet tall with a height to width ratio of 15:1. The building was completed in 2015 and boasts nearly birds-eye views of New York. It’s a welcome addition to the bustling streets of New York City since it doesn’t take up much space on the ground. The tower looms high above many New York buildings, changing the famous New York City skyline.
Another iconic building in New York City is The Icon, a 43-story residential tower on West 48th Street. This was the first skinny skyscraper in New York and also has a height to width ratio of 15:1. Residents of this building enjoy views of the Hudson River, Midtown and Central Park.

Skinny Skyscrapers Push the Boundaries of Architectural Design

Skinny skyscrapers and super-slender buildings certainly push the boundaries of modern design, architecture, engineering, and real estate. In cities like New York where space is a commodity, it would seem the skinny skyscraper is the perfect solution for saving space on the ground while increasing available space above.

Building developers and construction teams may also be able to save money on materials in both the short-term and long-term since they need to use higher-strength steel and composite structures to ensure the buildings do not collapse, and also so the building maintains its structural integrity and original design for several decades to come. We are already seeing this trend influencing construction and building design in Melbourne, Australia, and in London, United Kingdom where we are seeing a combination of skinny skyscrapers and sculpted buildings scheduled for construction in 2017 and beyond.

Optimizing Architectural Design and Construction of Skinny Skyscrapers

The effects of heavy traffic on roadways near the building, stormy weather and even strong winds can all shake a building from the foundation upward, causing vibrations and even structural damage. To counteract the impact of environmental factors in the bustling city of New York, architects are designing these buildings with additional features.

As The Lyncean Group of San Diego points out, slosh dampers can be installed to absorb vibrations on lower floors, something that many residents or office workers in a skinny skyscraper experience because of the construction of the building. Mass dampers can be placed on user floors to reduce the impact of wind forces. These technical and engineering modifications may soon become a necessary part of the design and building process of very high and slender buildings, something that is may not always have been required when building traditional skyscrapers.  

Architects working on skinny skyscraper buildings are now using advanced structural modeling techniques to determine how to optimize the design of the skyscraper to handle certain environmental effects, such as wind turbulence and heavy traffic, as well as the overall weight load of a building based on its use. For example, residential towers may have different structural requirements than a commercial use building. Mixed-use buildings may need to be designed with certain specifications to ensure they can accommodate for certain weight loads and activities.

Since they can be constructed for both residential and commercial purposes and take up less space than traditional skyscrapers and mixed-use buildings, skinny skyscrapers are likely more than just a trend. In some of the world’s biggest cities where space is increasingly limited, the skinny skyscraper may be the best solution for accommodating for a growing population. Architects that know how to use advanced computer technologies and modeling systems to create these buildings will able to render futuristic, edgy and awe-inspiring designs that are also structurally sound and meet local zoning laws.

Featured image: Richard Schneider via Flickr 

By |2018-10-31T16:20:39+00:00July 22nd, 2016|Urban Planning|

Smarter Urban Planning in an Age of Extreme Weather

 

Historically, cities around the world have practiced urban planning methods to improve communities for both residents and governing bodies. Those methods differ by region, but are consistent in the initiatives they support — land use, environmental protection, and public welfare.

However, weather patterns have recently become unusually extreme, sometimes disastrous, due to global warming. In order to protect our urban environments, we need to account for these dramatic weather fluctuations through smarter, preemptive urban planning.

 

The Current Landscape

Altering a city’s physical infrastructure is not fast or easy, which means cities must prepare beforehand to defend against certain weather conditions. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy are unfortunate reminders of the potential consequences.

Of course, no two locations feel environmental effects in quite the same way. California has succumbed to extreme droughts while the Northeastern region of the country is visited regularly by severe storm weather. Meanwhile, rising temperatures melt polar ice, warm ocean bodies, and lessen mountain snowpacks. As a result, coastal areas are feeling the consequences of rises in sea level.

Weather patterns may differ by location, but their massive impact on city life and urban planning is undeniable. The cost for a city’s unpreparedness can multiply itself in damage repair.

 

The Effects of Extreme Weather In Urban Places

One of the more dangerous and consistent results of global warming and inadequate urban planning is flooding. Not only can water disasters lead to loss of life, but their effects on agriculture can also be substantial, often with international ripple effects.

In urban environments, flooding causes damage to residential properties, businesses, subway infrastructure, and roads. In order to prevent those massive repair costs, urban planning must be approached as a preventative measure.

The largest global disaster of 2012 was Hurricane Sandy with an astounding cost of $65 billion. Hurricane Sandy and the year-long Midwest/Plains drought accounted for almost half of the world’s economic losses, according to USA Today.

Even when the damages of extreme weather don’t amount to this astronomical figure, flooding still poses both economic and environmental problems on a smaller scale. Snowfall and drought also can be damaging in extreme cases.

 

Finding New Methods

Just as weather patterns are changing, so should preparation efforts. Self sufficiency — a common community approach when it comes to anticipating severe weather — is an element that urban planning can easily incorporate. That is, urban planners will help make it easier to retain the resources that become scarce in times of natural disasters.

For example, many buildings are beginning to harvest their own rainwater and residential households are filtering their rainwater for utility usage. With cities allowing designated space for water storage area or tools to help water and energy conservation, the communities are in a much better place if their resources are ever strained.

Architects are also looking to implement responsive living materials into traditional buildings so that they are more adaptive and environmentally suitable. It is not uncommon to find corporate buildings using green energy and filtered air, and architects are now seeking to make residential buildings just as environmentally conscious. Engineers have started to create amazing materials, such as self-repairing concrete, a substance that uses sunlight and bacteria to repair any cracks that appear in the concrete to prevent water infiltration.

To persuade cities to be more proactive outside of their traditional urban planning methods will take some time. But just as urban planning helps us adapt to busy environments, it needs to adapt to the extreme weather conditions as well. Finding new ways to approach the urban planning process can help minimize the damaging effects of severe weather conditions and create a better, more prepared city environment.

By |2018-10-31T16:03:06+00:00February 5th, 2016|Urban Planning|