Ideas For Future Cities

Y Combinator, a start-up incubator, posted an announcement for a research project called New Cities. The blog post for the announcement posed some questions the project will seek to answer. I find the project quite intriguing and applied for one of the researcher positions available. Here is my cover letter:

City ScapeI have been concerned about sustainability in a world with dwindling resources and a growing population for some time now. Larger cities, with higher concentration of people per square kilometer will be preferred and necessary to ensure the long term health of our planet and those who occupy it. Not only will this arrangement provide people faster access to the goods and services they want and need but it will be done in a more cost effective and efficient way.

To achieve these goals a city will need to:

  1. Establish a baseline of basic services, like housing, healthcare, education, internet access, etc. that is available to all its citizens regardless of income.
  2. Grow all the food that would be needed to support its citizens.
  3. Produce all its own energy and recycle as much waste as possible.
  4. Build new paradigms to achieve cost effectiveness, efficiency, equity and most importantly, sustainability.
  5. Maximize the land available by building vertically, both above and below ground.

As more and more labor can be automated, it ought to be automated to free people to engage in more creative tasks. (This, however, should not be absolute. For example, while it may be possible to have a completely automated farming system, those who are interested in tending to plants themselves (say, if they wanted to harvest the crops manually) should be able to suspend such automation when they desire.) Thus, a personal happiness and growth index should be established to see how much people feel they are free from anxiety related to meeting their basic needs, as well as how much freedom they have for personal growth. This will factor into the city’s Key Performance Index along with the availability of goods and services desired by people and how quickly they can get them when they want or need them.

Competition for accumulation of material goods should be discouraged by providing communal access things that might be seen as status symbols (although emerging technologies like premium virtual and augmented reality systems, driverless cars might make these irrelevant). For example, recreational centers with full amenities like swimming pools and state of the art movie theaters should be made available to all citizens at low to no cost. Multiple such recreational centers maybe be necessary depending on the size of the city to ensure comfort and ample personal space when using these facilities. To build a sense of community, communal activities should be organized and encouraged.

Allowing people the freedom to explore their creativity, individually and in groups will foster a happier citizenry. Such freedom will also present people with opportunities to improve existing systems without being preoccupied with keeping the existing “machinery” moving. To allow for such freedom, current paradigms of what constitutes a work-week will need to be rethought by limiting the time one is expected to work at a regular job. This will have the benefit of providing people with the freedom expressed before as well as sufficient employment for all who want it.

Making the city as self-sufficient as possible will require people with diverse backgrounds and skills. To ensure that people can afford to live where they work it will be important to provide affordable housing. Encouraging community and communal activities would decrease the need for large living spaces, which mainly serve as a place for people to sleep. Communal office-like spaces that people are able to use for personal projects should provide the opportunity to get away from distractions that might be present at home as well as offer chances for collaborations and brainstorming with others.

As much as possible, people should be self-governing by giving them as much ownership of the various workings of the city as possible. Participation in rule-making should be encouraged and laws governing the city and who is put in charge of enforcing them should be accessible to all at all times. To ensure that this happens, transparency in governance will be vital. All discussions affecting the city and its inhabitants should be made publicly available as soon as possible, allowing people to submit their own suggestions for amendments. The strength of proposed laws should be tested by soliciting exceptions that would break the rule and how the laws maybe be amended to provide justice and equity to all. For each amendment offered, people should be able to vote them up and offer edits to improve the amendment. The process should be recursive until consensus is reached. Not unlike the Wikipedia model.

To ensure malleability, recyclability of materials and modularity of construction should take precedence over long-term durability. This will allow the city to evolve as technology and its demographics change.

These are some of the ideas I’ve had about what a city of the future should be like. I’ve tried to be critical of my ideas to find any flaws or exceptions that might break the rules and modified my ideas accordingly. Being part of the YC New Cities Research project will allow me to continue to develop these ideas with other people who have been thinking about the same thing (cities of tomorrow) but may have different approaches that may complement and supplement my own ideas. Of course, it would also be very interesting to encounter ideas that are in stark contrast to my own to see if I missed some crucial concept and see if there is a way to reconcile my own ideas with them or approach a solution from a perspective that had never occurred to me.

In addition to the cover letter, the application asked specific questions, which, along with my responses are listed below.

  • What existing urban problem would you fix? How?

    Too much space in cities is currently being used by cars, for parking and roads. Using automated, driverless public transport systems would minimize the area needed for cars, while providing frequent service to the ridership that permeates the whole city. A city designed from scratch should also be laid out in a way so as to minimize the distance one would have to walk from one or more nearby public transport terminal to their destination.

  • What feature of a new city would you want to build from scratch? How?

    Currently, cities are tied too rigidly to their infrastructure (piping, cabling, etc.) and require massive disruptions in a cities workflow (e.g. traffic detours, power outages) and its residents (e.g. noise and inconvenience) when upgrades or maintenance need to be done. Any city being built from scratch should work under the assumption that infrastructure will need to be maintained, upgraded and rerouted to meet the requirements of the changing landscape and needs of its citizenry.

    (I was asked to further elaborate on my answer.) Currently, cabling and piping are laid down in trenches that require disruptions when repairs and upgrades need to be done, which are costly, not only in economics but in the extra time people have to spend going around the disruptions. One possible way to avert this would be to, rather than digging trenches for the initial installations of piping and cabling, build tunnels underneath the city that would house the cities pipes and cables and be large enough to accommodate a small crew to make any future changes to the system as necessary. A model of this system exists in the sewers of Paris, which now "houses, in addition to the drinking and non drinking water mains, telecommunication cables, pneumatic cables and traffic light management cables." While the cost to build may be higher, it will be more cost effective in the long run.

    Surface roads for vehicles may be a little more difficult to deal with. A robust public transportation system can alleviate some of those problems. The use of monorails and underground railway systems will help. Use of tunnels for motor vehicles should also be studied. Admittedly, surface roads for motor vehicles is not something I've given much thought. Hopefully, this research project will yield some innovative ways to deal with roadways. In all honesty, I believe our relationship with cars needs to change. Currently, cars spend most of their time parked somewhere not being useful to anyone. Car/ride sharing, especially as fully autonomous vehicle technology matures, will become the way people travel when public transportation cannot meet their needs.

  • What's your favorite feature of a specific city? Why?

    I love the “city beneath the city” in Montreal, Canada. There are other cities around the world that have this feature but I picked Montreal because it is a place I have visited. While the main reason, or so I was told, for the underground city is for people to avoid the outdoors in winter it has other practical features like having additional business and living areas in the same amount of surface area. It also provides an opportunity to travel along different, but almost equidistant paths to get from one place in the city to another.

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