Housing Inequality / Alicia Nijdam / flickr.com

The Future City: Lessons from Across the Atlantic

An interview with Emily Badger on the Atlantic Cities project by Martha Coe-​Galeotti

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An interview by Martha Coe-Galeotti

What does the future city look like? On the logo of The Atlantic Cities — an online initiative of the well-respected American magazine The Atlantic — are the words “place matters”. These two short words go far to convey the philosophy of the publication and its unique urban orientation: The Atlantic Cities takes place and the future very seriously. On one hand, its focus is on the now of urbanism, “exploring the most innovative ideas and pressing issues facing today’s global cities and neighbourhoods” by combining news and data. On the other, the publication is also very much looking toward the future, investigating and reporting the trends and providing analysis that will define and shape the cities of tomorrow. So, we have to ask: what is the role of journalism in defining future urbanism? What kinds of topics do publications like The Atlantic Cities cover that might be relevant to the future city? To get a more in-depth look at the role journalists might play, I reached out to Emily Badger, staff writer at The Atlantic Cities, to find out how journalism is tackling the issues of the future, looking at the culture, infrastructure, politics and space of cities and bringing them to a larger public. This interview focuses not just on the role of journalists in this project, but on the sorts of ideas that their work communicates both about the city as it is right now, but also where we are headed. The U.S. city in particular is changing rapidly, as The Atlantic Cities is showing us. This interview aimed to find out just what these changes are, how they are taking place and whether they might serve as a model for other cities in the U.S. and beyond.

A native of Chicago, Emily graduated from Northwestern University in journalism in 2003 and has since lived and worked in various cities, both in the U.S. and abroad. She writes on a wide variety of serious urban topics, and also covers some of the quirkier aspects of (mostly American) urban daily life: cul-de-sacs, roadside rest stops, drones, automated cars, urban chickens, loitering and the ways that Twitter and Instagram are changing the city. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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Martha Coe-​Galeotti: Let’s start with The Atlantic Cities project and the role/​future of city-​focused media. Can you speak a bit about The Atlantic Cities, its concept and intended audience? What do you think such a publication can do to shape the cities (or citizens) of the future?

Atlantic Cities was launched in the September of 2011, and I usually tell people that we aim to cover urban planning, design, policy and ideas. A lot of our readers work in this space in various ways, either through city hall jobs, or architecture or urban planning fields, or through academia and graduate programmes that deal with these topics. But we also have a lot of readers who aren’t necessarily professionals in this space. They’re just people who have an interest in cities and how to make them better because they live in them. Transportation planning is a wonky topic. But traffic congestion and public-​transit commuting is something that impacts nearly everyone. Similarly, housing policy can be really dense and abstract. But everyone has to pay rent or a mortgage. There are so many ways in which these urban affairs topics appeal broadly to people beyond urban planners. So we try to write for both of these audiences: the practitioners, and the people who simply live in cities.

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: As a journalist, what role do you think or hope journalism and reporting about the city will play in shaping the cities of the future?

I don’t normally think about my job as changing cities themselves, or the shape of them, but I do hope that I can sometimes change how our readers think about a topic (or introduce a new one to them). I would love to change how many people think about poverty (for people who think the poor are entirely to blame for their own problems). I think a lot of people believe that cities and suburbs as we see them are primarily the product of market forces and public preferences. I’d like to push those people to see that concerted policies (to build interstates, to reward homeownership, etc.) in fact do a lot to incentivise people to chose and build communities the way that we do. And I’m constantly trying to get people to change the way we view the difference between renting and homeownership. In the U.S., there is a very strong presumption that professional, responsible people should be homeowners -­‐-­‐ and that renters are a kind of second-​class citizen. I personally disagree with this (I’m a renter!), but I also think that housing patterns are changing here in a way where it makes sense for the U.S. to ease up on its obsession with homeownership.

CityNetwork (aka Connected World) / The Opte Project / flickr.com

CityNetwork (aka Connected World) /​The Opte Project /​flickr​.com

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: You write on a wide variety of city issues; can you talk about the themes that most interest you? How do you choose the topics you write about?

There are a couple of topics -­ not necessarily related to each other ­ that are particularly compelling to me. One has to do with inequality and segregation. Urban policy problems are so intertwined. Housing is connected to transportation; quality of transportation is related to access to jobs; the income level of a community is tied to the quality of public education there; and the form of its built environment is connected to the health of the people who live there. To me, the interdependencies of all these issues are never more apparent than when I think about poverty and systemic inequality in many U.S. urban neighborhoods, where we’ve created physical and social circumstances that stack so many transportation, housing, education, employment and public-​health disadvantages against people all at the same time. I think this issue is so important, which is why I try to write about it often.

Climate change demands a huge role from architects. The built environment is responsible for a large share of greenhouse emissions. We need more energy-​efficient buildings and to integrate the environment into the city instead of just paving over it.

One of the other big recurring themes in my writing has to do with the intersection of new technology and public space. I’m fascinated by how digital maps, smart phones, apps, WiFi, etc., change the way people move through cities, how people relate to each other in public, and how we access resources and amenities. With my smart phone, for instance, I can look up “great mussels” in Portland, Oregon, find a restaurant I’ve never heard of in a neighborhood I didn’t know existed, and then drive right there (with my Google Maps app). I’ve actually done this while traveling in Oregon. And I’m really struck by how all that technology enabled me to tap into a wonderful little hidden neighborhood bistro that would have been largely invisible to me just five or ten years ago. The digital world increasingly overlays onto the physical world, with some really interesting consequences (for good and bad). And I’m fascinated by how that’s happening, and how it changes our behavior.

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: Given your interest in technologies and mapping, how do you feel about the potential of Big Data – massive collections of information about everything from apartment prices to shopping habits – to shape our future cities and make our urban lives better?

I am really interested in Big Data, and the power of data to change how people and policymakers make decisions. And I love tools built with public data that make it easier to catch the bus, or report service needs to a city, or send feedback to local officials. But I think “smart cities” also come with some privacy implications that have received a lot less attention. I forget about this often myself, too. I’ll think “how cool that a city can track the energy use in every home and compare neighborhoods against each other!” But should we be concerned about what big data can sometimes reveal about private homes? Public satellite maps are great. But do I want someone looking in my back yard? How do we balance the quality-​of-​life benefits of new technology and big data with protections for privacy?

Flood / Kevin Bailey / flickr.com

Flood /​Kevin Bailey /​flickr​.com

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: Going back to this idea of ‘wonky transportation planning,’ I’ve noticed you’ve written a lot recently about the relationship between cars and cities. What do you see as the tensions at play between cars, city dwellers and cities? Will cars be in the cities of the future? Or do they just need to go?

Some of our readers might be shocked by this, but I own a car (okay, I share one with my husband). It’s easy for a lot of urbanists to vilify cars, and it’s true that highways have destroyed many urban neighbourhoods, and that we’ve devoted too much space in cities to cars, to the exclusion of other amenities. But I don’t want to say that cars are evil, and that everyone should ride a bike or walk everywhere. That’s just not realistic to the lives of parents with children. It’s not realistic for people who aren’t served well by public transit. It’s not realistic for people who simply like to drive. To me, the future still has cars in it, and the goal shouldn’t be to get rid of them. Rather, the goal should be to erase many of the incentives we give to cars over other modes of transportation. A great city in the future would be a place where residents have multiple transportation options at most times. I think if you could give more people good public transit, or walkable neighbourhoods (while removing subsidies for car travel), fewer people would drive. And that would be a good thing. But we don’t need everyone to stop driving.

To me, the future still has cars in it, and the goal shouldn’t be to get rid of them. Rather, the goal should be to erase many of the incentives we give to cars over other modes of transportation.”

I’m pretty excited about the possibilities that would come with autonomous cars. If cars did all of our driving for us, we wouldn’t need to own our own cars (if we didn’t want to). There could be fewer of them. They could come to function more like public transit. They could more efficiently use roadways, requiring less space. If an autonomous car dropped me off at my house, and then drove to your house to take you to the grocery store, traveling from person to person, we wouldn’t need to waste as much space parking them. That would radically change urban space. And there could potentially be safety benefits as well.

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: OK, now a hypothetical question. Imagine it’s 2038, 25 years from now, and you are in a major metropolitan city. What do you think the city and your daily routine looks like? Where will we live, how will we work?

I think we’ll see a shift in the kind of housing we build in the U.S., away from large single­family homes and towards more multi-​family apartments, smaller units, “grandma flats” (which are currently illegal in many cities). Crowded cities will require denser living, smaller homes. And we can see the market just now starting to shift in that direction.

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: What about further in the future, say in 2100?

I hope this city will be substantially more environmentally friendly. By 2100, I think coastal cities will look very different, with buildings raised on stilts and sea walls off the coast. I suspect the pollution from cars and industry will have declined in many already-​developed countries. But cities will also be more crowded. In some ways, they may look like they did in the past, with less space devoted to cars and highways, and more mixed-​use neighborhoods where shops and offices and homes coexist. Many fewer people will work in traditional offices, and that will change commuting patterns.

Green Roof / Ryan Somma / flickr.com

Green Roof /​Ryan Somma /​flickr​.com

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: What about problems? What will be some of the biggest challenges to our everyday lives in this time period?

As cities get more crowded, and as they sprawl into ever-​larger mega-​regions, it will become more difficult for people to get around without better transportation

Preparing for climate change is a big one. Particularly in the U.S., there is no momentum to tackle this at the federal level, and so almost all of the meaningful work on this front has to come from cities. Inequality is another, both within cities and between countries, as developing nations start to demand the same quality­of-​life amenities westerners have long enjoyed. At the individual level, mobility will be a big issue. As cities get more crowded, and as they sprawl into ever­larger mega-​regions, it will become more difficult for people to get around without better transportation.

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: What potential do you think architecture and the built environment has for helping mitigate some of these issues of the future?

Climate change in particular demands a huge role from architects and landscape architects. The built environment is responsible for a large share of greenhouse emissions. We need to create more energy-​efficient buildings. We need to integrate the environment into the city instead of just paving over it. Where can excessive rainfall go if we’ve paved over all of the dirt? How can we create green roofs? How can we design whole blocks or neighbourhoods that share heat, or communal gardens, or solar panels? How can we mitigate the urban heat island effect? These are all questions for architecture and related fields.

Autonomous Car / Steve Jurvetson / flickr.com

Autonomous Car /​Steve Jurvetson /​flickr​.com

Martha Coe-​Galeotti: The questions I’ve asked you so far touch on topics that are fairly specific to U.S. cities that other cities-​such as Moscow­aren’t experiencing at all, or at least not in the same ways. To what extent do you think the changing U.S. city (and the various aspects of it that you have described so far above) can be a model for other future cities around the world? And what could urbanists pay more attention to in studying these changes?

I’m starting to see more research on the connection between public health and the built environment, and I think there’s a lot more to be learned here. How does where I live affect my health? How much of the rise in obesity has to do with changes in what we eat vs. changes in how we design walkable cities? What are the direct consequences of living in a neighbourhood without easy access to groceries?

Our auto-​centric development model has certainly become a standard for many developing parts of the world. So it would be nice if we learned to move away from auto dependence in a way that could also teach other countries something about the value of mobility/​public transit/​alternative transportation. Other countries have adopted some of our bad habits. Couldn’t we influence global development through good habits, too?

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