The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    The Meaning Of Cities

Saving the Soul of the Smart City

Joshua J. Yates


What would we be willing to trade for a cleaner, safer, more efficient, more sustainable, and pleasanter urban existence?

In 1958, the year Americans became besotted by the tailfin, an editor at Fortune published a multi-authored work of cultural contrarianism titled The Exploding Metropolis.11xWilliam H. Whyte Jr., ed., The Exploding Metropolis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). First published 1958. William H. Whyte’s team of writers included four other Fortune editors, among them Jane Jacobs. Their subject was the emerging suburban and auto-centric format of postwar metropolitan life, first pictured in General Motors’ Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and largely realized by the late fifties. Swimming against the dominant urban-planning wisdom of the time, Whyte and his coauthors argued that the accelerating suburbanization of American life represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the city, and that its chief architects and promoters were driven by a profoundly anti-urban spirit. Most of the renovation and new construction was, Whyte wrote, “being designed by people who don’t like cities. They do not merely dislike the noise and dirt and the congestion. They dislike the city’s variety and concentration, its tensions, its hustle and bustle. The new development projects will be physically in the city, but in spirit they deny it.”22xIbid., 7. Looking hard at the transformations then underway, the critics offered dire warnings about what these changes would mean for people and cities over the long run—warnings that have since proven keenly prescient.

We, too, stand on the cusp of a revolutionary new urban form: “the smart city.” That form emerges from a new wave of intensive urbanization and the proliferating uses of information technology to “optimize” the city’s functioning. It takes shape not uniformly or seamlessly but in fits and starts—in a handful of places all at once, incrementally in others. As was the case with the commuter suburb before it, a potent combination of institutional interests, technological innovations, and cultural appetites fuels the smart city’s rise. But this fact only raises the stakes, demanding that we look as hard at the coming of the smart city as Whyte, Jacobs, and their colleagues looked at the suburban efflorescence.

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