The Unseen City

How What We Can’t See Shapes Our Future

unseen city
NOTE: This is the first feature of the June 2014 issue of FutureStructure. We'll be posting the other features over the coming weeks but if you'd like to get a PDF of the entire issue you can DOWNLOAD IT NOW.

The 19th century was a century of empires. The 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” - Wellington E. Webb, former Mayor of the City and County of Denver

When traveling in most major world cities, it doesn’t take much to be reminded of how advanced the population centers we’ve built have become. A simple glance skyward may yield a jaw-dropping view of humanity’s ability to build ever-taller structures. Even in cities without gargantuan skylines, wonders are everywhere if we take just a moment to let them be seen. When we pry our eyes from our smartphones and our minds from the many tasks that demand our attention, we can see the city for what it truly is – a marvelously complex network of interdependent systems.

“Rarely does a resident of any of the world’s great metropolitan areas pause to consider the complexity of urban life or the myriad systems that operate around the clock to support it,” writes Kate Ascher in her book Anatomy of a City.

And of the world’s great cities, how often do we concern ourselves with what, exactly, makes a city great? Is it sheer size? Population density? The might of a city’s skyscrapers or its financial institutions? Is it the expansiveness of a city’s transportation network? Or is it perhaps, more recently, a city’s environmental friendliness? A simple argument is that it is all of these things – great cities are more than the sum of their many parts.

This is a notion that has a fundamental place in the FutureStructure framework. But FutureStructure is much more than that. The thriving communities, towns, cities and metropolises of today and tomorrow are indeed greater than their sum components. But continued greatness will depend on community leaders who are able to understand not only the sum of a city’s components but also the connections that exist – or can be made to exist – between the myriad bits of infrastructure that together make a city.

Advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things, big data and data analytics, remote sensors, and intelligent systems are bridging the gap between our ideas and our infrastructure. Within FutureStructure, we endeavor to perceive cities through three lenses:

  • Soft Infrastructure: These are the intangible influencers such as regulations, education, laws, policies, human capital, research and even inspiration … these are the places new ideas start.
  • Hard Infrastructure: This is the built environment, the roads, utilities, energy, water, buildings, bridges and rails – all the things we’ve built or plan to build.
  • Technology: Ever-improving technology better connects the soft and hard infrastructures. Today and in the future, technology will allow us to build new and better ways that make not just our buildings, roads and utilities smarter, but our communities as a whole. 
But why is this important? Why is it so critical that city leaders begin thinking more like a systems engineer? Consider these facts. In 1950, there were 83 cities with populations exceeding 1 million people; by 2007, this number had risen to 468. And by 2050, the World Health Organization estimates 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. This marks an unprecedented shift in human history. The vast majority of the world will soon live and work in these mammoth, manufactured ecosystems we call cities. In that context, it becomes clear why a much more holistic understanding of cities is vital to the well-being of the planet’s inhabitants.


Cities as Systems

Cities are vast systems. They are systems of systems. As former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano once said, “A city is a system - indeed, a city is a complex system of systems. All the ways in which the world works - from transportation, to energy, to health care, to commerce, to education, to security, to food and water and beyond - come together in our cities.”

Increasingly, city stakeholders are becoming aware of how valuable it is to understand a “city as a system.” As part of the production of this issue of FutureStructure, the Governing Institute conducted a survey of water, waste and energy experts and stakeholders. This survey, which will be referenced throughout these pages, found that 95 percent of respondents agreed that understanding the physical and technological connections that exist – or could be made to exist – among a city or region’s infrastructure components leads to more intelligent decision-making.

In this edition of FutureStructure, we’ll examine three systems that make cities possible. As important as they are, these systems – water, waste and energy – are too often treated like the pipes behind the walls in that little thought is given to them until there is a problem. In the following pages you’ll learn about the current and future challenges that are present in the hard infrastructure within these systems. But more than that, you’ll learn about some of the soft infrastructure that is changing the way we think about these systems, as well as the technology that can be layered within them that can help a city’s stakeholders make more intelligent decisions.

FutureStructure Through Time

Water and waste have always played a major role in the success and failure of our cities. The ancient Romans understood deeply the importance of water as their empire was built. The remains of many magnificent aqueducts still stand – feats of engineering that even today would be difficult to replicate.

Pre-dating Rome, the Persians built thousands of miles of “qanats.” Around 15 B.C. the Roman historian Vitruvius, in his book De Architectura, documented how qanats channeled water from aquifers, sometimes up to 40 miles away, through underground tunnels. These tunnels, like the Roman aqueducts that would follow, were precisely engineered to take advantage of gravity to deliver water to the people inhabiting the cities of Persia. The qanats were so well constructed that many are in continued use today.

Waste management is often mentioned alongside water as another marvel of Roman engineering. The Cloaca Maxima was one of Rome’s few purpose-built sewers. Constructed around 600 B.C., this system carried agricultural and human waste out of the city and into the Tiber River. It also inadvertently saved Rome from ruin by effectively minimizing breeding grounds for mosquitos, in turn greatly decreasing the chances of contracting malaria.  

“The Cloaca Maxima, the Great Drain of Rome, successfully fought disease for its entire existence, and though the Roman Empire eventually collapsed, the sewer did not,” wrote Duke University’s Amul Sura in a paper titled The Cloaca Maxima: Draining Disease from Rome. “Indeed, the city took on a grander and safer disposition after its construction that would foreshadow Rome’s future growth from a deadly marsh into a sprawling metropolis.” Sewer system technology would not appreciably advance for nearly 2,000 years. In fact, the opposite occurred. Following Rome and until the 1800s, sewers devolved back into crude systems of trenches and chamber pots.

In that excerpt, Sura captures in a somewhat dramatic fashion why water, waste and now energy are really the lifeblood of a city. Understanding each of these as separate systems makes it difficult to see the larger picture. Instead, looking at how these systems connect with each other and with other city systems such as transportation and the built environment, a better, more intelligent view of a city starts to emerge. And when we begin to incorporate technology into these systems to strengthen existing connections and establish new ones, not only can city leaders make more intelligent decisions, the infrastructure itself becomes smarter.

Everything is Connected

“Cities are often thought of as self-operating organisms; they seem to have just happened,” writes Governing columnist Alex Marshall in his book Beneath the Metropolis. “In fact, the complex water, sewer and transportation systems that public officials control and operate are always the result of specific choices, usually by government.”

Government continues to be in position to not only maintain but revolutionize city systems. There are hundreds of exciting, thought-provoking examples of cities that have begun down the path that defines FutureStructure, some of which are explored in greater depth in the following pages. Harkening back to Beneath the Metropolis once more, cities the world over are coming to understand that “Cities are unnatural creations. Those that thrive overcome major obstacles that would have defeated other places.”

The 21st century already poses its share of major obstacles in climate change, population growth and resource scarcity. In this issue you’ll discover much more about the strides being made in the areas of water, waste and energy to address and overcome these obstacles.

And from a grander perspective you’ll hopefully understand the vision of FutureStructure and why it’s important that elected officials and engineers, educators and planners, and technologists and dreamers come together to think through and solve the challenges faced in building economically and socially robust communities that are great places to live for the people who live in them.

Because, after all, everything is connected.