Marcy Murninghan: Smart Cities & Sustainable Development: Where Hope and History Meet

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​Nor can you ignore the importance of executing sensitively and at scale. Key here is a “polycentric” approach, advocated by the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and her husband, Vincent Ostrom. That means a mix of multiple activities on multiple fronts (public, private, civic) and levels (national, regional, local).  As the eminent urbanist Paul Ylvisaker once said, “Thatscale may not always be massive, but it can never be mean.”

The Problems

Narrow vision and “meanness” are among many

ghosts on the urban landscape, haunting our efforts to thrive. The dark shadow of the slum continues to thwart the dreams of countless youth. In divided societies, sectarian violence claims land and lives. Extreme weather events wipe out neighborhoods and clans.  Corruption corrodes even the best-laid plans, sucking the air out of prosperity, resilience, and growth. Financial pressures and deteriorating revenue bases continue to block progress. Short-sightedness and narrow thinking serve as reminders that human fallibility continues to plague even the best of intentions, where implementation falls victim to petty behaviors, and “winning” becomes more important than performance in the public interest.

These are modern problems, but the themes are familiar, part of a melody that spans centuries. The music may have faded, but the rhythm remains and the beat goes on.

Masdar City’s grand experiment echoes efforts in America and Brazil in the 1970s, before “sustainability”, “ESG” or “corporate responsibility” were taglines.  Back then the goal was to create a place of self-conscious beauty, offering hope and opportunity. The means for tackling the multifaceted urban challenge: Build “New Towns” or “New

 Towns In-Town”. These were noble policy aspirations that ultimately ran afoul of implementation, due to intergroup antagonisms and local politics, as well as racism and classism. No matter how promising the innovation, the temptation always exists for one group to improve its situation at another’s expense. That destroys faith upon which the City is built, faith in the promise that those who enter can lay claim to more in life than “the raw Darwinian war of survival.” 

Now, the rest of the world can learn from Masdar City. But Masdar City can learn a few things, too.

The Legacy and Lessons Learned

From the American perspective, three major 20th century initiatives stand out, reflected now in Masdar’s “Smart Cities / Sustainable Development” approach. Despite their Yankee provenance, they hold relevance to other urban experiments, now occurring under the rubric of “sustainability”. 

Beginning after World War II and later  supported and broadened by the Ford

 Foundation, many of the pioneering urban initiatives of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s featured elements similar to what Masdar City embodies today: A systems approach. Design thinking. Innovation and a willingness to fail. Application of new materials and technology. Excellence. Research-based evidence.  

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, Cambridge-based The

Architects Collaborative (TAC) was invited to Abu Dhabi, to bring its Bauhaus-inspired design integrity of function and form to desert development. Change was in the air, and the UAE wanted to take lead, drawing on American professionals for inspiration.

These various projects yield valuable lessons of what worked, what didn’t (and why) that are relevant in 2014: Rebuilding community is the core ethos. Don’t focus excessively on structure, technology, and efficiency. Metrics aren’t the answer. Beware of generalizations, and single solutions.  Sustainable development—especially in divided societies—is a broad umbrella, not just about water, energy, and waste.

Here are some of the characteristics and lessons learned as policymakers, professionals, academics, and practitioners confronted an assortment of puzzles posed by rapid urbanization and increased stress on resources.

1.       A holistic, systemic, and collaborative approach: The mid-20th century push for metropolitan planning and government was premised on how a deliberate approach to city planning could address economic, social, and governance needs. It eventually dissipated due to intense opposition by the defenders of grassroots democracy and localism. More recently, a resurgence in “metro” revives interest in collaborative solutions to region-wide problems, where limits on resources can drive innovation. That’s a hallmark of sustainability: that it can foster creative thinking and action. But it needs to have allies, which is why wider community awareness, engagement, and support are so crucial.

2.       Address economic, human, and social needs via participation and representation: Long before the term “stakeholder engagement” was coined, the Gray

Areas Program set the stage. Launched in the early 1960s by the Ford Foundation, its purpose was “to mount a coordinated attack on all aspects of deprivation, including jobs, education, housing, planning, and recreation.”

According to, its founder and overseer, this neighborhood orientation was part of a movement toward making grants "within range of the municipal firing line" to "help correct the basic conditions which have led to the protest, and to develop the latent potential of the human beings now being crowded and often crushed at the bottom of the community's totem pole." The Gray Areas Program served as the template for the subsequent War on Poverty, and growth of Community

Development Corporations (CDCs).

Unfortunately, the Gray Areas Program, along  with other urban social innovations, became politicized, both by local officials and citizens groups that were unprepared for their leadership role. But as Ylvisaker once said, “We shouldn’t curse the bridge that took us across the raging torrent.”

3.       Innovation and entrepreneurship: Similarly, the Model Cities program, the brainchild of Robert C. Wood, sought to provide an alternative to  incremental progress and “desperate, self-help urban renewal”. Essentially a series of urban laboratories, Model Cities sought to unleash human energies and spirit by creating partnerships between the Federal government and mayors. Yet Model Cities, too, ran afoul of short-termism and “quick fix” expectations. Open-ended measures could not be sustained politically, and risked demise or backlash. Although it began as a selective

program, it soon lost this and became more universal. Rather than focused on rebuilding communities, it evolved into a cash-infusion program governed by political favoritism more than local need. On the plus side, activists were given tools and became more sophisticated; rather than operating as “outsiders”, they were brought into the system to help make it work.      

Smart Cities and Sustainable Development: What Future?

The City is a reflection of our deepest yearnings and aspirations. As such, it’s governed far more by a moral imperative than by adherence to good governance and management practices, or sustainability standards and metrics.

This moral imperative liberates the spirit  and, as Rumi said, enables us to go up on the roof at night and sing our note loud, not only in the city of the soul, but the City of our earthly presence.

If this dimension is  not recognized, where hope and history meet, then whatever the energy innovations and architectural wonders, the City will be just another pretty place, devoid of soul and substance. 


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