Smarter past, smarter future: lessons for smart cities

This blog post was initially published on the Young Academics blog of the AESOP network. 

The smart city is much discussed as a sustainable urban development model. However, as discussed in former posts on the blog, “smartness” is in the eye of the beholder. Smart cities of the past can help us plan smart(er) cities. Especially, examples of former and traditional engineering, construction and design can provide a well of examples of what works in the art, craft and science of sustainable cities.

Babylon forever? Its Hanging Gardens can inpsire green cities more than the Tower of Babel. Picture by Timo on Flickr. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution.

Learning from the past

My starting point is the city that almost bears my name: Babylon. Regardless of whether they were historical or mythical, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon provide a great source of inspiration for green cities (rather than the Tower of Babel). The Hanging Gardens were the ancient version of vertical green cities. Various species of trees and reeds were planted around the city and on green roofs, the whole being irrigated in ingenious ways, likely allowing to produce food and mitigate heat islands in the inner city. Today’s examples of Hanging Gardens include the Swedish Plantagon model of modern food-producing, multifunctional buildings. The green vertical city, promoting density, height, and vertical greenery could be said to be a derivative of the mythical Babylonian model. Being an urban utopia, the green vertical city could potential fail to address some socio-environmental issues linked to high-rise modernist estates built in the brutalist style, such as the Red Road Flats in Glasgow or the poorer “banlieues” of Paris. The green vertical city, too densely could turn into a Tower of Babel instead. But utopias die hard: famous brutalist estates like Robin Hood Gardens in London and the Cité Radieuse in Marseille are still prized by aficionados and residents alike, and often provide affordable housing in times of developer-led regeneration… Perhaps these estates and other high rises can be retrofitted to better integrate urban green qualities.

Without trying to build too high and replicate the ill-fated Babel skyscraper-of-yore, a great colourful report by Arup shows how to integrate green building envelopes in today’s cities. Think green walls, green roofs, urban trees, garden allotments, rooftop farms (e.g. Eagle Street in Brooklyn), pocket parks, swales, hydroponics, aquaponics – the whole shabang… Benefits of green building envelopes include: wellbeing and health; place-making and attractiveness; aesthetic quality; air quality; urban heat management; acoustics and noise reduction; stormwater management; biodiversity; and urban agriculture.

Relocalising food production could also help. Medieval urban gardens in Italy catered for recreation as well as food production, although it is uncertain whether periods of urban food production were actually a sign of sustainable design or of conflicts between rural and urban societies. Monastic walled gardens, although often located in quiet, remote locations, could also be found in cities, such as in Norwich. Country houses in the UK often had their walled gardens for food production, with production peaking the 19th century, although some are still used today, such as at Abbots’s Hall in Stowmarket, also in East Anglia. The walled garden could be an inspiration for contemporary suburban or peri-urban/exurban locations, with due thought to issues of access and ownership. Contemporary Berlin and New York for example, feature many innovative urban farms. You can also grow food in bomb shelters from the Second World War, as the Growing Underground movement.

Our forefathers knew about energy too. WebEcoist mentions smart energy production techniques such as the early Persian wind mills and wind towers. Windmills and watermills have been used throughout the centuries. Engineers of the past were experts at channelling, transforming and conserving energy, both through smart engineering and design. Solar design was practiced in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Although abandoned at around 1300 AD for unknown reasons, the southern-facing Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in South-Western Colorado were skilfully designed. Traditional building design across the Middle East also had a high environmental performance, thanks to complementary design elements such as courtyards, shading, corridors, plantations, wind towers, high windows, and wall thermal mass, amongst others. Passepedia gives a brief historical account of passive housing, from traditional Icelandic turf houses to super-energy-saving housing units from the 1990s. A modern adaptation of smart design is passive house design.

Planning and construction also require sustainable materials and supporting technologies, such as Trombe walls. Various ecological building materials are much better than concrete and provide advantageous thermal and humidity regulation qualities. Think earth, straw bales, bamboo, wood, lime-and-hemp concreteThe Wikipedia entry for “earth structure” lists impressive examples from all over the world. Among these, one can especially mention the rammed earth and adobe city of Ghadames, Libya, the city of Shibham in Yemen and its mudbrick-made high-rise buildings, and the impressive World Heritage town and mosque of Djenné (Jenne), where the adobe buildings are replastered at least every other year. There are countless outstanding examples of architectural and urban design that we absolutely need to learn more from. Among other strategies, cities need to make best use of local resources.

Water management was often smart too, much smarter than in today’s Las Vegas. Water transportation systems such as Roman aquaducts or the widespread qanat (gently sloping underground water transportation) were exemplary, and could serve multiple purposes. By 400 BC, ice could be stored in the summer months in Persian deserts, by combining qanat with wind towers for cooling.

Do all roads lead to Rome? Not necessarily. Construction, agriculture, colonisation and massive economic development led to massive deforestation  during the Roman empire, which was also associated with the spread of malaria. Wooden medieval cities were also highly flammable: fires wrought massive destruction throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, such as the great London fires of 1212 and 1666. Wood can be used sustainably today, though, for example to build large apartment buildings such as Wingårdhs’s Strandparken in Sundbyberg, Stockholm, assuming the wood felling industry is also sustainable, which is contested by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (Naturskyddsföreningen).

There may have been smart technological cities in the past too. The mythical city of Atlantis, for example, could have looked anything like a Blade Runner type of environment ending in late-Roman decadence and washed over by a tsunami or a volcanic eruption, a cautionary tale against societal excesses. Can planned obsolescence and a consumerist thirst for “always more” pave the road to Atlantis?

Finally, one must mention future “smart” cities from the past. For example, Paris in the Twentieth Century (as imagined by Jules Verne in 1863): a dystopian portrayal of a technologically advanced but culturally obtuse, market-led society. A nineteenth century middle-class version of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? Science fiction, then and today, seems sceptical that technology alone will solve our urban and societal throes.

How smart do we want to be?

The smart city models of today seem blinded by technological “bling-bling” and self-referencing emulation. However:  It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. Learning from the past can make us smarter than we actually think we are. We have probably most to learn from instinct or partly-forgotten societies which lived within the carrying capacity of their natural environment but left little by way of durable artefacts. And even as archaeological digs retrieve precious artefacts, it is much harder to infer about past social structures and cultures. Our poor historical awareness is epitomised by the Dustbin of History (which must be actually be a gigantic landfill): all the informal, unrecorded history that we cannot access directly, but which may live on through us through culture and habits… Certainly we can do without the slavery, inequalities, oppression and colonisation practices which characterised many civilisations of the past.  The means provided by today’s advanced technology can and should align with mindful, compassionate, humane and moderate lifestyles and aspirations. In other words, and to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron: the smart city revolution will not be digitised.

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