Official Blog of Center10 Consulting

EASI does it: Putting the citizen in the center of greenfield cities

on Tuesday, September 28, 2021

EASI does it newsletter: I'll be sharing every so often about Effective, Affordable, Sustainable and Innovative ideas, products and services. Happy to consult with companies who are building out their innovative sustainability plans.

Gif: 15 buildings being demolished in Kunming, China

Lessons from a non-citizen-centered approach in China: 
Build it, and sometimes they won't come.
Are Greenfield cities working hard enough to understand the citizen who will live, play, work and evolve in their neighborhoods? China (where the above gif is from) which boasts a record number of ghost cities may have something to teach us. While the drivers of construction of these cities are complex, they often took a Build It and They Will Come approach. Something to guard against in the new smart cities emerging around the world today.

Are we building in Citizen Learning Journeys into the city visioning-planning-implementation-sustainment roadmap?

Last week, I was able to go on my first conference in months - The Greenfield Cities Alliances Dialogue 2021 at the impressive CornellTech Verizon Conference center in NYC.

Adam Giambrone shared the vision and construct of Neom, the inspired greenfield city on the coast of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. 

- The mobility geek in me was super excited by the thoughtful approach to integrating various forms and modalities of transport

- The autonomy optimist in me was happy to see assumptions of autonomous transit (drones, delivery, passenger pods, etc.) fully captured in the vision

- The pedestrian-first plan was inspired

- The recognition that sustainably servicing the space and attendant smart technologies will be key segment to plan for was clearly a stand-out (often an after-thought in city planning)

We were also treated to a panel where Heather Thompson, CEO of ITDP made the case of fewer (or perhaps, no) greenfield cities, pushing for investments to improve and evolve existing cities instead. 

While I appreciate the spirit of Heather's plea - we need to improve conditions where people are today - the rate of urbanization we're looking at suggest that this is an AND situation. We WILL need new, well-designed cities and communities as the world evolves from having 4B in cities in 2010 to 7B+ in cities in 2050. My personal bias comes from living in NYC and having grown up in Chennai - both cities that are constantly evolving, but whose infrastructure is always close to bursting. Between transit issues and water access, these are cities that prove the case for the need for productive cities and communities that can evolve and emerge beyond current constraints.

I was glad the Van Espahbodi of Starburst was very much in the AND category, as well as agreeing with my core thesis that getting the citizen deeply involved in Greenfield city planning is going to be key. I know that the fiasco that was Boaty McBoatface may have scared some folks off from citizen engagement (smile!) but there's a lot to be said for a constant engagement with your aspirational target citizen. Every employee should have a picture in their mind of who their citizen is - and their designs and plans should keep them deeply in the center. 

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the idea of NEOM. They are innovating on so many critical levers. I just want to make sure that the CITIZEN is the animating soul of these projects, not just the technology and planning.

Let's take the micro view - I'm a tech strategist married to a digital innovator - I'm assuming we'd be great targets for Neom. However, I love it when my parents come to visit. Guess what their favorite part of NYC is? The bus journeys they take to far-flung corners of the city. They enjoy watching the buildings fly by, watching city life, deciding on the meal they will have then they get to an interesting park or plaza. Neom's public transport is all planned to be underground. Would engaging with a citizen like me (or a 100 of us) have triggered a different plan? Their North Star might be the number 50 - that's the number of underpopulated ghost cities in China today!

I can't wait to see Neom come to fruition - I will visit certainly. The question is, would I ever live there? Would you?