We talk a lot here about the need for “smart cities” – sustainable cities that achieve their sustainability through the use of high technology.  We highlighted one example, PlanIT Valley, in Portugal, that is master planned and set to be built as Greenfield development.

A great article on Grist by Sarah Goodyear makes a very valid point – can these cities be “smart” or even “sustainable” as Greenfield sites?  The article is worth a read even if you’re not particularly interested in PlanIT Valley or similar places; it provides a nice compilation of ideas we’ve presented here on the Living Labs blog over time. My reason for sharing the article is twofold: first, I think it’s a nice read and I agree with her critique of new-cities-as-smart-cities; second, I have a counterpoint.  Goodyear posits it would be “truly smart” to channel all the resources going into PlanIT Valley or Masdar City instead into retrofitting our existing cities, saving environmentally valuable land and construction materials.  She argues that this is more sustainable.  And, by definition, it would be.  But, is sustainability the ultimate goal?

In some cases, retrofitting an existing city would not be sustainable because of the idea of resilience.  If we rebuild New Orleans as a smart city, its lack of resilience makes it unsustainable, and we would have wasted even more resources by trying to make it so.  In fact, with global warming as a very real factor in near-future planning, many of the world’s cities, being coastal cities, are subject to the same constraint.

Perhaps Goodyear’s critique could be strengthened by integrating this idea.  Perhaps Omaha, Nebraska, Moscow, Madrid, or other inland cities will be the best smart city canvas.

-­Terra Curtis