The Infrastructure the Next Generation of Cities Will Need

It will be technology that will enable "Cities 3.0" -- the transformation of metropolitan centers into hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship.
by | July 28, 2014

Are we truly entering an era of "Cities 3.0"? Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is an advocate of that notion, and few elected officials are in a better position to look at cities from a broad, historical perspective than is Johnson, the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

He laid out that perspective in his inaugural speech as the conference's president, describing how the first generation of cities was built around ports, rivers and transportation routes. Then came the Industrial Revolution and Cities 2.0. In addition to factory smokestacks, they had electricity, transportation systems and other modern services. In the new era of Cities 3.0, Johnson said, "the city is a hub of innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. It's paperless, wireless and cashless."

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Plenty of municipal leaders, of course, are working to make that vision a reality. This strategy, however, presents tremendous challenges from an infrastructure perspective because Cities 3.0 will be operating in the older centers of most metropolitan regions.

The structural patterns of these cities, laid down like the growth rings of trees, tell a great deal about the influences at work during various stages of their histories. Geography, climate, culture, economy and technology shaped the modern cityscape. For example, a beltway circling the city center illustrates the impact of the automobile in facilitating suburban sprawl. The car, however, didn't start that transformation. Credit that to the streetcar and the desire of predominantly white-collar workers to live in pleasant and healthy surroundings removed from their dirty, noisy downtown workplaces.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the desire for a better living environment led to an almost unfettered growth of suburbs. The development of new homes, schools, commercial centers, malls, restaurants, parks and libraries captured the majority of interest and most of our infrastructure dollars, and all too often the older urban cores descended into decay and blight.

Today, in contrast, we see the beginnings of the rebirth of many downtowns, with people increasingly choosing them as places to live and work because of their perceived economic and quality-of-life benefits. Unlike the sameness of suburban communities, the look and feel of older cities benefit from the uniqueness of their geography, culture and architecture. What an amazing turn of events: Cities, unlike trees, can apparently "grow" back inward.

Whether or not this trend continues and Cities 3.0 become a reality will depend on the ability of civic leaders to effectively guide the rebuilding and enabling of existing infrastructure to meet the needs of this new and growing population. Modern lifestyles are much more resource-intensive than those of 50 to 60 years ago. This places tremendous strains on maxed-out transportation systems as well as on the aging infrastructure of the "unseen city" -- the communications, energy, water and waste networks that serve the urban metabolism.

Mayor Johnson has it right: "The bottom line is cities must provide services and infrastructure that residents and businesses need and do it quicker, faster and cheaper." Technology, to be sure, will play an important role, just as it did in enabling Cities 2.0.

To begin with, Cities 3.0 will be built on ubiquitous and untethered world-class broadband. These cities also will incorporate intelligent infrastructure in its many variations: smart grids for energy and water, virtual environments for health care and education, and intelligent systems for transportation and buildings. At the core of successful 3.0 cities will be connected intelligence, sustainability and resiliency, all enabled by emerging technologies and innovative new companies.

But it is the urge to both live and work in the dynamic environment of a city, more than technology itself, that will drive the creation of Cities 3.0. Where civic leaders understand this and harness technology to enable it we will find remarkable cities that are great places to work, live and play.

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute
bgraves@governing.com

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