Libeskind Says Smart Cities Will Need History as Much as the Future

Beside New York’s Bryant Park this morning, a crowd paired their pre-work coffee with an interview of prolific architect Daniel Libeskind to discuss the future of our urban spaces. While some in the audience were still waiting for the kickstart from their morning java, the aminated designer spoke with an enthusiasm that belied the early hour.  The task at hand: help shed light on what Smart Cities are and how they fit into our future.

As a part of the “Future Of” series hosted by the Wall Street Journal, the conversation was guided by WSJ Financial Editor Dennis K. Berman to dig into this oft repeated concept of the next evolution of dense urban cores. In many ways “Smart City” is still a term in its infancy with many trying to define where it begins and ends (struggling with the same reality as “sustainability.”) Though regularly paired with the technology advances of infrastructural systems and the utilization of big data, in Libeskind’s eyes the crafting of tomorrow’s city has as much to do with looking back as it does looking ahead.  

The founder of Studio Libeskind did not definitively draw the limits of a “Smart City” as much as help shade in some of its potential qualities. “A smart city is a city that reacts to your desires,” said the designer who prophesied about systems and buildings that increase in their ability to respond directly to the will of occupants. When asked what role technology has to play in the realization of smart cities, the veteran architect was quick to affirm its necessity. 

In With the Old & In With the New

Libeskind paired his acceptance of technology with the weight of older urban contributions. “Technology is a driving mechanism for smart cities, but we have to know how to use it. It’s a pencil. It’s one million pencils connected to a super brain. But a pencil has never created a city. Human beings make cities.” His vision of new cities did not lie in the rendered facsimiles of virtual reality, but renewed interest and dedication to crafting a vibrant streetscape–an irreplaceable component of a successful urban ecosystem. “Streets are the oldest things we have,” the architect reflected, placing a great value on the histories that defined not only New York, but cities everywhere. “I think we need to stop worrying about architecture and start worrying about streets.”

It is true, we have countless cities not only in their country, but the entire world that have fallen out of a pattern of economic growth, but still remain packed with centuries of history and caches of dormant resources. Libeskind approaches older urban constructs like the Bronx with confidence in the wealth of opportunity they have to offer. He also pointed to cities like Pittsburgh and its combination of political and economic forces that has allowed it to promote its own evolution.

Berman threw out a question about the inevitable wave of driverless cars and whether or not this, along with other tech tools like smartphones, threatened the future of personal interactions to the streetscape. However, Libeskind’s optimism in the human factor was unwavering. In his eyes, the advent of driverless technology will only help to detach people from their automobiles and allow them to return their focus and contributions to the life of the sidewalk.

Berman broached the topic again with a nod to the struggles of streetside retail in the face of growing patronage of internet-based purchasing, but Libeskind remained firm in his resolve, assured that a new generation of retail experience will evolve to respond to new tastes and changes in access. This could be accompanied by proactive policy measures that are put in place to bolster small scale retail

“A Smart City would not just be based on statistics… You need human interest.”

Time will tell if this proves to be the case, but I share the architect’s view of its importance. There is no digital replacement for an urban street experience and yet the health of a streetscape rests only so much in its planning and architecture. The forces that we often attribute to “the market” are in fact human ones. Many, many human ones whose choices can proactively help or passively hurt the prospect of not only the bricks and mortar businesses, but by extension the public asset of the urban realm that they help comprise. As the architect points out, the value of our streets is an old idea rooted in millennia rather than a technological advance.

Before the morning’s proceedings had started, Mr. Libeskind could be spotted sitting alone on a bench in the park, taking in the bustle of the downtown muffled by the cultured landscape of one of New York’s striking public spaces. The scene was a fitting one with the glass spire of One Bryant Park standing in the background as a prime example of the evolution of our built environment to respond to technological advances paired with the New York Public Library and its heavily activated public space. The former has been around for a decade where the latter has been serving its role as a public asset since 1847. The combination was the very manifestation of Libeskind’s thesis: tomorrow’s technological achievements built on the foundation of historical ones.