Instead of “smart cities,” let’s take it down to a micro level and focus on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, because each one is unique. For example, a design that best suits Chinatown might not fit well in a Brooklyn neighborhood, not because of demographic differences, but because of their distinctive aesthetics, spacing, and pedestrian-flow differences.
The effectiveness of a design, in my humble opinion, does not only rest on its aesthetic quality, but its practical benefits to those who inhabit its space. I want the old neighborhoods to retain its soul, its local legends, its unique quirky identity. It’s the structures and design that I want to change.
Here is a photo of a squatter settlement in Manila (courtesy of Wikimedia). Let’s examine it together. Imagine that these are not illegal settlements that can be razed by the government at any moment, but are legitimate residences that just need a lot of work done. How will you make them better?
1. One of the most common features of these types of settlements are tin rooftops. This is because tin sheets are cheap and easily available. In fact, you can just go to the local junkyard and take as much as you can if the owner is just trying to get rid of it. Since it’s metallic it’s obviously prone to rust, as seen in the image. What happens is that holes will eventually show up and cause leaks during heavy rain. We need to change that. Alternative roofing material could be recycled synthetic materials or you incorporate solar energy by installing solar panel shingles. My preference is applying Pueblo-style architecture to the new design and use adobe. It will also help keep the interior temperature down.
2. The spacing is shoulder to shoulder, but this can actually be a positive thing. It will cost too much money and time to re-space these buildings. What are you going to do, move the foundations? No, the best approach is to implement your ideas around its original design. The only danger with buildings and houses this close is that it’s a fire hazard. A single fire incident in one residence can quickly and easily snake its way through the entire complex. So fire-proof building materials and fire-proof paint could be used as a possible deterrent.
3. The electrical wiring needs to go underground or at least round them up and encase the cables into a recycled heat-resistant tubing. Exposed and dangling electrical wiring like that is a safety hazard. As a matter of fact, why not outfit each home with solar panel systems. Then less wiring will be needed.
4. Look at the top-right quadrant of the photo. Someone in that complex seems to have a green thumb. That is one good-looking rooftop garden. We need more of those. In fact, why not create a network of urban farms sky high and then connect them with a rainwater collection and distribution system? Imagine the gutter on the roof of your homes modified with a timer-based sprinkler system. Remember how we talked about the fire hazards earlier? The sprinkler system can act as a fire sprinkler as well if you integrate a smoke sensor.
As you can see, there is a lot of potential for development and regeneration in huge sprawling cities like Manila, Karachi, Medellin and Rio de Janeiro. The great thing about architecture is that there’s an abundance of “canvases” all over the world and it’s one of those art forms that can truly, literally change the lives of people.
So while the “smart city” is a brilliant concept, I believe it’s smarter to work at a micro-local level and then expand. Another problem with smart cities is that the developments seem to benefit those living near the core—Downtown areas, commercial/financial districts, tourist-heavy areas, etc.—whilst the surrounding neighborhoods are neglected. In places like Makati (Metro Manila), you will see glitzy skyscrapers surrounded by slums such as the one pictured above. I’m not trying to propose architectural Marxism, but the parallels between socioeconomic gaps and urban development disproportionality is worth noting and keeping in mind when designing.