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Future Cities

From ON Magazine, Issue No. 1, 2010

By Joseph N. Pelton

Future Cities
RECESSION PROOF? BusinessWeek ranked Arlington as the safest city for weathering a recession, due to its high share of jobs in strong industries. Photograph by Chris Hartlove
If our society is to survive and thrive in the face of rapid population growth and escalating energy demands, future cities must be intelligent and sustainable.

June 4, 2010—Alcaeus of Tarentum, who lived 2,600 years ago, wrote, “Not houses finely roofed, or stones of walls well built … make the city, but men able to use their opportunity.” Today, the collective and coordinated energies of people living in cities drive technological, social, or political change. Cities are the forge where our future will be annealed.

How do we know this? It’s simple math. It may have taken as long as 100,000 years—from the first appearance of Homo sapiens until 1830—for the world’s population to reach a billion people, at which point 10 percent lived in cities. Today, only 180 years later, the population has increased almost sevenfold, to 6.7 billion, and over half of all people live in cities. By 2050, the U.N. estimates, those figures will be 9 billion and 60 to 70 percent.

This trend presents immense challenges for places where the great majority of people will live. Biodiversity is diminishing, with consequences that have yet to be understood. Water scarcity is a growing threat in many major cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Mexico City; an estimated 25 million people have migrated to escape water shortages. The rise of super-automation, enabled by smart, self-aware machines, may very well lead to long-term “technological unemployment,” which will strain economic systems in unprecedented ways.

In celebrating our species’ capacity to rise above such challenges through innovation, environmentalist Amory Lovins wrote, “The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones. And the oil age will not end because the world will run out of oil.” Rather, societal needs—coupled with human inventiveness and our ability to recognize opportunity—are what pushed us to make the leap from stone to metal-based technology. Those same traits will be required for us to surmount the challenges we face today.

Intelligent Communities: What future cities might look like

The answer will likely come through new energy and eco-technologies that give us highly efficient “intelligent cities” with a zero carbon footprint; information and communications technologies that enable “smart” healthcare and education systems; and policies that encourage zero population growth.

Not only will many of these technological and economic innovations germinate and flower in our future cities, they will also be embodied in how those cities operate. So, how do you become an “Intelligent Community”?

Smart technology is a key part of the process, but a high degree of collaboration and a long-term commitment is required among many stakeholders: federal, state, and local government; the business community; major institutions; and an informed citizenry. Retrofitting existing infrastructure can be done, and it has been done in many communities worldwide, including Copenhagen, Stockholm, Ottawa, and my own home for the last 30 years, Arlington County, Virginia.

The accompanying article on Arlington’s evolution from a traditional suburb to a “smart city” today illustrates many of the core principles that forward-looking cities are following to create sustainable urban environments with clean energy, efficient resource consumption, and a robust economic foundation.

Future Cities
BULLS-EYE DEVELOPMENT High-density neighborhoods combine residential, commercial, and retail properties clustered in “bulls-eye” fashion around Metro stations, which provide access to Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Photograph by Chris Hartlove
Is "The Arlington Way" the Way of Future Cities?

The county first embraced a philosophy of “smart growth” 35 years ago, when it created the Long Range County Planning Commission, which coincided with planning for the Washington, D.C., Metro system.

Over time, “the Arlington way” has come to epitomize smart, sustainable development that emphasizes eco-friendly transportation, superb education for a diverse population, the embrace of technology to improve government, and active citizen involvement in civic affairs. This past January, Arlington’s long-term vision was validated when the county was named a finalist for the prestigious “Intelligent Community Award” given by the Intelligent Community Forum, a think tank that studies the economic and social development of 21st century communities. Arlington is one of just seven finalists being considered from over 450 entries from around the globe.

Implicit in the award is a recognition that smart development drives economic growth and stability. Arlington has long been a magnet for high-tech and research components of the U.S. government and related commercial enterprises. The county is home to the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Office of Naval Research, academic research labs, and many companies in the defense industry. In October 2008, BusinessWeek ranked Arlington as the safest city in which to weather a recession, with a 49.4 percent share of jobs in strong industries.

Here are some of the things that make Arlington a “smart” place to live and work.

Smart people, who understand that education and diversity drive excellence

Arlington is one of the most diverse communities in the U.S. and also one of the best educated, strengths that reinforce each other. Its residents represent over 125 different nationalities. Its students speak more than 100 languages. The school population is both ethnically and economically diverse, with 40 percent minority enrollment and 30 percent of students qualifying for school meal subsidies.

Arlington sees nothing but strength in this diversity: The county’s four high schools were all ranked on Newsweek’s 2009 Top U.S. High Schools list, and three were in the top 100. Over 90 percent of graduates planned to attend colleges or universities. Valuing education seems to be in the gene pool: In 2006, CNN Money ranked Arlington as the most highly educated community in the U.S., citing the 35.7 percent of residents holding graduate degrees. Through nearly 100 commissions and committees, Arlington has harnessed all this brain power to create a more prosperous and sustainable community.

Land use and transportation planning that is entwined

Arlington’s highly walkable, urban villages have evolved, based on the Metro Stop Bulls-Eye development concept. Eighty-five percent of development is concentrated in 10 percent of the land area. High-density, mixed-use neighborhoods combine residential, commercial, and retail properties clustered around Metro stations, which provide access to Washington, D.C., just across the Potomac River, and to major facilities in Arlington such as the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Metro access, bike-friendly streets, and Zipcar-type services allow a high percentage of residents to live, work, shop, and play without necessarily owning or using a car. Wi-Fi service at key Metro stops makes public transit more user-friendly, allowing commuters to check their e-mail while en route, tourists to look up parks and museums they plan to visit, and locals to arrange to meet their friends at the coffee shop most convenient to all.

A long-term commitment to energy efficiency

Several years ago, the county established Fresh AIRE (Arlington Initiative for Reduced Emissions) to improve the energy efficiency of county government. Building on this foundation, in 2010, Arlington convened a Community and Energy Sustainability Task Force in partnership with large government facilities, utility companies, and other major landowners. The task force will address the entire community’s energy consumption and study ways to reduce the tons per capita of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that Arlington generates.

State-of-the-art emergency management

Building on experience gained during the 9/11 attacks—when Arlington officials coordinated the emergency response efforts of multiple agencies—the county maintains a state-of-the-art Emergency Communications Center. The facility maintains live audio, video, and/or high-speed data connections to other local jurisdictions in the D.C. area, federal agencies located in Arlington, and national databases and emergency management systems—thereby allowing a coordinated regional response.

Emergency officials can track the location of first responders; view status information on local, regional, state, and national conditions; monitor air quality and wind-dispersal patterns; and connect to mobile command centers for Arlington’s police and fire departments. A mobile emergency Wi-Max system works in tandem with the FBI to support national events that take place in Arlington—most recently the Marine Corps Marathon, which hosted 40,000 runners.

More efficient, responsive government

Arlington uses technology to increase the convenience and efficiency of county services. Using a Customer Assessment and Payment Portal, residents and businesses can pay taxes, fees, and other charges five times faster than in the past. Telework options ensure continuity of key government services, even during emergencies. When a recent snowstorm shut down county offices for several days, over 1,000 employees were able to work remotely, and automated communications kept citizens informed. Residents can watch county board and school board meetings online and search meeting agendas and video via text captioning.

Under a federal grant, Arlington is installing an ultra-wideband network to connect all traffic signals by 2013. This will allow the county to proactively manage traffic congestion and facilitate rapid evacuation during major emergencies. A second goal is to connect all county facilities and public schools, so services can be shifted off the commercial broadband network they run on today and instead run on public facilities.

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