Monday, October 12, 2015

The Global Search for Smart Cities

Friday morning at 8:45 am I don't boot up my desktop computer in my office but instead peer out a window that overlooks New York Avenue, where it is only a few hundred feet from the White House.

Presently one of those big black mega SUVs pulls up , four people get out and gather on the sidewalk, eyeing the gap between the modern AIA headquarters and the historic Octagon Museum. "That's them", says the young man who had already been in the Frank Lloyd Wright meeting room when I entered it. A fluorescent green bicycle lapel pin that I had last seen at a reception with Congressman Blumenauer suggested that the young man was one of his aides.

In a moment introductions were exchanged and Australian sounds filled the room. I recognized Andrew Barr from a picture that I had googled, the man is not a household name in the US, in spite of his impressive portfolio. Anything Australian, really resides in some kind of Bermuda Triangle of reporting and ignorance, who here knows who the Prime Minister is or that Canberra is, indeed, Australia's Capital? But in spite of all the strangeness, the topics of discussion proved strikingly familiar as I would soon find out. 

So here I stood and chatted with Andrew Barr MLA, "Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Chief Minister, Treasurer, Minister for Economic Development and Minister for Urban Renewal and Minister for Tourism and Events of ACT. If Canberra ever feels neglected, this man has nobody else to blame, he is essentially Secretary, Governor and Mayor all in one combining three tiers of governance in one single person! For a moment I wonder what such a person could do for DC and if this would be appropriate representation.

The Canberra delegation with Andrew Barr (center) speaking at AIA's Smart Cities Roundtable last Friday

I had to perk my ears to adjust to the foreign sounds that rained down on me from various sides,  the Chief Minister had brought aides and secretaries or department chiefs, distinctions that don't immediately grasp in this innovative system. 

The occasion and title of the gathering was a "Smart City Roundtable" organized by  Derek Washam, manager of Federal & International Programs of The American Institute of Architects for the minister and his entourage who admitted to be on a US tour to steal the best ideas of smart cities. 

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, OR, perennial friend of architects and streetcars, set off the discussion with his perspective on new trends and the wisdom of growth boundaries as used in his district in Portland, Oregon. He extolled the benefits of streetcars and bicycles, both articles that Barr wants to also bring to his car friendly capital. I suppose his idea is modeled after trams in Melbourne which has the word's largest tram network with 250 km of lines (another little known fact about Australia). For Canberra and the ACT, LRT depends on the results of the upcoming election, with the Liberals (conservatives) threatening to cancel the LRT project should they win, for political reasons, not unlike the ones in Baltimore.
For a flavor of how similar the debate sounds, read this from the Canberra ABC News:
"It goes to show that the Canberra Liberals will be able to stop light rail if we win the next election," he said. He said in the meantime, his party would do everything it could to try and stop the ACT Government from signing the contracts in the first place. "But in the event that they do sign them we will cancel them if we're successful at the October election," Mr Coe said.
Goldcoast light rail line near Canberra

Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell said contracts for the project would be signed early next year, and construction would start by the middle of the year.
He said it was a reckless position for Mr Coe and the Canberra Liberals to take.
"They [the Canberra Liberals] are simply not interested and have no plan for that future," he said.
"How can the Liberals claim to be a responsible party when they are prepared to spend at least $340 million to buy nothing for the taxpayer," he said.

Mr Corbell said congestion and problems with transport would still need to be addressed in the ACT if light rail did not go ahead.
Another quote which sounds even more familiar is from a debate in a Sidney paper:
Light rail is "too disruptive." The city's transport needs "could be accommodated much more cheaply by buses." The tram line would remove too many car parking spots "necessary for the vitality of business." No – we are not talking about Sydney.
But you can rest assured that almost every argument about Sydney's new light rail line has been made before, and not too far away. The above comments are from Lex Bell, a councillor from Surfers Paradise who was one of the most vociferous critics of the tram line built on the Gold Coast between 2010 and 2013.
(Canberra's debate seem to be always modeled around either Sidney or Melbourne as precedents, the capital itself being being a compromise stamped out of the ground like Brasilia or Chandigarh after representatives couldn't agree on either of the to other cities becoming the capital. Canberra then was designed according to a plan of the little known Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife and Marion Mahony Griffin, another thing at least I had never heard of before. Canberra celebrates its centennial this year).
Griffin's Canberra plan of 1911

The delegation did ask if any of the invited smart city experts thought that DC was a smart city. From my Baltimore perch from where DC looks really good in terms of development and a number of progressive local policies, I was surprised to see much hesitation to say yes among those who have traveled the world to find good city leaders and those elusive smart cities everybody seems to be looking for. I took note: flourishing and smart apparently are not the same, even though the other US cities the Australian Minister had on his agenda sure looked like to be of the flourishing variety, from San Francisco to Austin.

Already in response to an earlier question where else the delegation should visit to find smart leaders and smart cities, nothing in DC came up, even though they were in town and extolling the successes of DC would have been easy. Instead Salt Lake City and Mayor Ralph Becker apparently made the biggest impression, possibly because of the seaming implausibility of it (Salt Lake had not been on the itinerary). 

Sandra Baer, president of the Smart Cities Council suggested  New Bedford, Mass with its claim to be the "Saudi Arabia of Wind".
I looked this up (another thing I hadn't registered before), and indeed: Bedford's mayor Jon Mitchell is some kind of guru in the smart cities movement, positing his smallish burg as the epicenter of  renewable energy investment.
"We have, frankly, a city culture that is up for big ideas," Mayor Mitchell says. That may explain the city's plans to source about two-thirds of its electricity from renewables for the foreseeable future. "We believe we do have a part to play in climate change," Mitchell says.
Along with renewable generation, New Bedford wants to be a national model for responsible use of energy and resources, the mayor says. The city recently partnered with Council Associate Partner Siemens in one the largest municipal performance contracting initiatives anywhere in the Northeast. 
"Cities can do these things," Mayor Mitchell insists. Fiscally strapped or not, when cities apply brainpower and get creative, things can happen.
Say what you will about the hype around "smart cities", partnership with industry does appear to be smart. The representative of IBM for their "Smarter Cities" program attended the Roundtable as well, Michael DixonIBM's General Manager for global smarter cities business ("home is where you didn't sleep last night"), himself an Australian, elaborated eloquently about how data rich we have become but how little we do with data so far. He said the obvious first step is to use data to optimize the existing assets. (I thought of O'Malley's CitiStat and nodded).

He asserted that there is a ton of money in transformation and once assets would be optimized one could think about adding capacity. (I thought of MDOT Secretary' Rahn's assertions about making Baltimore's transit better). Dixon used his international telephone bills as an example for how a user is charged precisely for what he used and wished that this principle should be applied to utilities, transportation and water etc. (I thought it already was so, even though, the users may not always have full disclosure or, as in the case of transportation, each system collects individually. I thought of my pet idea of a universal fare card for all transit systems in Maryland and DC)

Dixon said that innovation is not necessarily a good differentiator for a city. "Innovation is generic. Smart kids are generic. Cities have to pick something" he demanded, meaning something that truly sets them apart. (The word generic made me think of  HarborPlace).  He concluded that all of a sudden we have "a two way information between government and people", in that social media have empowered people to talk back. (I thought of the success of #blacklivesmatter and yes, also of my blog).
Canberra: Will it get Light Rail?

Kristen Mitchell, Director of Smart Growth Design & Development at the Maryland Department of Planning suggested that innovation isn't just about big corporations or leaders but that it can come from within the communities. (We both thought of the energy in Station North).

After an hour the Australian delegation was off to visit the Wharf Development in DC, a large new mixed use waterfront development. Its about the size of Baltimore's Harbor East but has just broken ground. (Nobody seemed to be sure that it was very smart or not generic. But it was nearby). Taking the MARC train back to Baltimore, I wondered if Barr has learned as much as I did at this event. After all, the Australians do not block the US from their news reporting the way we ignore Australia.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Metro 21 Partnership

Visit also my weekly articles on Community Architect:
The Digital City, Dream or Horror?, a shorter version published in the magazine POLIS
Can there be Science in City Planning?

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