An interview with Lars Marcus: "Is technology really the smartest thing about a city?”
As part of our recently launched book Predicting the Unpredictable – a Nordic Approach to Shaping Future Cities, written by Jonas Gustavsson, President and CEO and Helena Paulsson, Head of Urban Development, we conducted a number of interviews with experts relevant to the book’s subject.
This is an excerpt from the book "Predicting the Unpredictable - a Nordic Approach to Shaping Future Cities".
Professor Lars Marcus is an architect and Professor of Urban Design at Chalmers University of Technology and leader of the research group Spatial Morphology Group (SMoG). He studies how the city’s spatial form affects people’s daily lives and how it supports, arranges and limits urban activities. He is not particularly impressed by the ‘smart’ layer of technology that is being laid on top of the city’s existing strata.
“We have to ask ourselves, what’s smart. Is it the app that needs to be replaced every other year, or is it the street network that has lasted for hundreds of years and handled generations of technology from horses and carts to trams, cars and now electric vehicles? These are the same streets. Their basic structure is exceptionally adaptable and sustainable. As the physical structure survives for so long and is so important to us, it is astonishing just how little we know about it.”
“Typical technology is easy to spot. We understand sensors that tell us where to find the nearest electric scooter. The street network is somewhat unsexy. Gadgets are easier to describe as solutions. GPS is a useful tool for finding your way around town, but it might not be needed if we build a city that is easy to navigate.”
“In the final analysis, the most important thing with slowly changing structures is to get them into place. Then, faster tools can come and go. These are stronger in a robust structure than if they need to balance the shortcomings of a weak one. You can compensate for a chaotic city with an app but I don’t know if I would call that smart. Smart cities are promoted by large corporations for the purpose of selling products. However, the long-term sustainable solution is not sensors that need to be replaced every couple of years. We develop and throw away loads of technology. The basic urban structure has a very long working life and we do not pay enough attention to it. We should be putting some of our eggs in that basket too.”
Older city centres have a pattern that may seem chaotic today, but they have a logic based on how people moved around and navigated the city back then.
“The city develops in an almost evolutionary manner. It has organically evolved structures that are refined over time. These have proved to be very functional in a way that ‘smart’ technology can’t replace.”
It is easy to build a city in which a journey from A to B can be quickly achieved. It is however harder to build a city in which the distance between all points is optimised. If you don’t know how people will move around, a grid will create the shortest distances.
“The twentieth-century view of cities was more engineering-oriented. Housing was built adjacent to factories. There is an example of this in Gothenburg, an entire housing estate isolated on a mountain, with a road passing through a tunnel and over a bridge, ending at the Volvo Factory. This was wonderful while it worked, but vulnerable to the closure of the factory or when residents wanted to change jobs.”
This type of city is also prone to hierarchical division. A good city must be unified and offer the opportunity for people to meet. One could argue that technology increases interaction, given that people have so many contacts on social media. A virtual meeting is not the same thing, though. The city can build another kind of community, not least by facilitating spontaneous meetings.
“Sharing space does not mean that we have to be friends but it does mean that we see one another other than on the television news. Cars allow us to live completely parallel lives and control who we meet.”
The physical structure of a city has a tremendous, but often overlooked, value. Lars Marcus calls this its “spatial capital”. Creating good trading conditions, facilitating flows and meetings between people are things that affect life in the city, as well as its land values.
“Land values in cities are sky high. Most of this value is in location. So, how do we create location? This is a matter of urban structure. Nothing creates as much value as a new zoning plan. Very strangely, this is generally overlooked. Instead, discussion focuses on matters that are easier to measure, that are sexier and stand out. The city that instead focuses on the inbuilt smartness of the physical structure has a good deal to gain.”