While developers of smart cities claim that they are healthier than non-smart cities, do they really address the issue that cities – regardless of their IQ – are unhealthy? Or are they just applying a metaphorical Band-Aid?
Countless studies have conclusively shown that pollution, crowding and noise contribute to respiratory diseases, stress and even obesity. (A Canadian study showed that the risk of developing diabetes rose by 11% for every 10 micrograms of particulate matter in air.) Scarily, 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 91% of those people live in areas where air pollution levels are considered ‘excessive.’ ‘Urban pollution levels,’ the WHO states, ‘are a public health emergency.’ And that’s not even addressing the issues of noise, traffic accidents and crime, or stress. Levels of stress are significantly higher in cities than in rural areas, partly because of pollution, noise and crowding, but also partly due to structural elements that inhibit meaningful social interaction, and contribute to high levels of loneliness and/or alienation. And that’s not even mentioning infectious diseases. Epidemics were virtually unknown in human societies until we settled into villages, and, as the villages became bigger, became towns and then cities, the epidemics became dramatically more devastating. Cities are veritable incubators of pathogens and future epidemics, as susceptible people cluster together in crowded buildings, subways, lifts and more, coughing and spluttering all over each other.
A couple of hundred years ago cities developed to fulfil the needs of a small, elite section of society – if you want a perfect, easily accessible model for how that happened, look at the development of the apartheid city. Same thing – just a hundred years or so later. And, as these unequal and decidedly un-smart cities grew, society evolved to fulfil the needs of the urban infrastructure. First we built factories, roads and railways because we needed them. And then we disregarded the needs of people who did not use them (or did not benefit from them).
Cities designed for commuters, factory workers and office workers became inherently unsuitable for small communities, for pedestrians, and for small businesses. It has taken us a while, but we’ve eventually realised that they have become some kind of Frankenstein’s monster that needs to be reined in, and perhaps tamed. Ironically, while studies show, and most people just know, that cities are inherently unhealthy places to live, people tend to feel safer in them because they have greater access to health facilities like hospitals.
A large part of the appeal of smart cities is the ease with which people can access quality healthcare, but one should be wary of confusing access to a hospital with living in a healthy environment.
Smart cities are designed largely to ameliorate the worst effects of stupid cities – the pollution, the pedestrian-unfriendly spaces, the long commutes – by creating spaces in which people can live, work and play, and great communications, like super-fast internet, enable people to work without commuting. Modern-day villages, if you like. And the super-smart cities are incorporating local energy generation, waste management and food production, too. But those are the Mensa-level cities, and there aren’t many of them. At least not yet. So, when cites get so smart that they are built primarily to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles, with an integrated public transport system, and a car-unfriendly layout, we may be starting to see them actually becoming healthy places to live, rather than merely places where you can access healthcare easily.
Now that would be smart.