Sunday, November 20, 2011

Smart, Sustainable "Insta-Cities": A Korean Prototype

On October 31, the world’s population hit the 7 billion mark. Put another way, the earth gained one billion new inhabitants since 1999 - a mere 12 years! (Jeffrey Sachs, CNN). In an era of rapid population growth and the rapid urbanization of the world (people are moving to cities at a faster rate than to rural areas/suburban), some parts of the world find themselves needing more cities—and FAST. China, for example, is building at a staggering pace – a new city “the equivalent to Rome every few weeks” (Greg Lindsay, Departures Magazine).

So what are developers and the technology industry doing to make these new, almost “pre-fab” cities sustainable?
A rendering of harborview,

Enter Korea’s Songdo International Business District. Built in partnership with the Korean Government, developer Gale International and Cisco Systems, this brand new city is unfurling itself on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. When completed (in roughly 2016), Songdo will be the size of Boston, ready for one million or more residents. Songdo will be a cutting-edge “smart city” with everything from trunk lines to lighting fixtures wired to collect data that will enable companies and residents to monitor and control virtually every piece of urban infrastructure--including water and electricity. This city is to be a prototype of a “city in a box” that will be replicated twenty times in China and India in the coming years. (Greg Lindsay, Fast Company)

Are “insta-cities” all that they’re cracked up to be? The international urban planning community has mixed feelings about the benefits of new “intelligent” cities.

Artist's rendering,
On the one hand, the ability to monitor utilities and infrastructure is a planner’s dream. They can get data on who is using what amount of water and when. This can help officials plan for future water needs – like using the data to determine appropriate water storage for warmer summer months, for example. Much like a home energy or water audit, residents can also analyze the current trends and create plans for reducing their use or the severity of their impact. For example, they could learn that their daily showers are expending more water than they prefer, or notice that if they wash their laundry at night during off-peak hours they can get a lower rate. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is partnering with Opower and Facebook to create a smart phone application that will enable residents to analyze their energy usage in real-time (Katherine Tweed, Greentech Media). A wired city could have even greater impacts on our lives. According to the BBC, “Residents will have smart phones they can use to pay their bills, access medical records or just open their doors.”

On the other hand, however, some fear that the “smart city” technology could throw more wrinkles into an already complex urban system than create beneficial returns. Even Gordon Falconer, Director of Innovation at Cisco, stated in an interview that “Possible disadvantages are allowing the “smart” components to over ride everything else.” Presumably he is referring to free will or other social, economic or environmental considerations/priorities that run “counter to the meter,” so to speak. It could also make city infrastructure vulnerable to program viruses or hacking.

Some are concerned that such concentration of information in the hands of the government or, in particular, private corporations, could create a “big brother” effect. Note that during the interview, Mr. Falconer suggests that “Government should be a facilitator, policy maker and a regulator of smart cities while ICT companies and private sector developers/operators should do the actual design and construction and operation” (emphasis added). 

Kaid Benfield, Director of Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth at the Natural Resources Defense Council, cautions against a “gizmo cities” focus – where some superficial ideas like monitoring and manipulating data on underlying urban infrastructure – is misconstrued with the hard work of building holistic, truly sustainable cities (Kaid Benfield, featured on Grist Magazine).

The good news is that Songdo doesn’t seem to be the kind of “gimmicky” project that Benfield decries. The Songdo District has been designed to follow best practices in urban sustainability, and is participating in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Neighborhood Design program. For starters, Songdo’s “Third party development land sale agreements will contain language mandating that buildings erected must pursue LEED Certification.” (Songdo website)

Songdo IBD by Flikr user my memory2
Emphasizing six core sustainability areas of open space, transportation, water, energy use, recycling and general operations, Songdo is shaping up to be an impressive exercise in sustainability. For example: it will preserve 40% of its area for natural open space, and the city offers a 100 acre Central Park. With 25 kilometers of bicycle paths, a subway line into Incheon, most of its parking underground and prime parking set aside for electric and low-emissions vehicles, Songdo prioritizes the right kind of transportation. The city will use efficient appliances, reclaimed stormwater, reused greywater and green roofs to minimize its water usage.

Songdo already has 35,000 residents, and progress is steady on a 68-story, 1,001-foot residential tower that will become the tallest building in Korea.