In Defense of Dumb Cities

By Michael McGinn

It is a recurring trend, occasionally rising to craze, to imagine that cities will be transformed by technology into entirely different places. Seattle has been participating since its world fair in 1962 (monorails and jetpacks anyone?) and most recently with a tech advisory board to tap into the expertise of local wizards at Amazon, Microsoft, Zillow, etc. The phenomenon is by no means restricted to Seattle, with “Smart City” conferences and articles abounding, breathless descriptions of automated vehicles, and a growing number of city-corporate partnerships to tap into big data and the internet of things.

It’s time to take a deep breath and reflect on the all the “dumb” things that make cities great, because shared data and information is only part of the puzzle. And this is said with no malice towards what technology can add—as Seattle mayor from 2009-2013 we opened up data portals, posted an accountability dashboard, championed municipal broadband, launched a “Find-it, Fix it” app, as well as real time maps on freezing roads, rainfall, and “where’s my snowplow.” We even held the first “civic hackathon.” Shared information matters in cities. It is one of the reasons cities form—to be close to the knowledge and activity of others. But it is far from the only one. And investing in a supposedly smart future won’t overcome the failure to get the dumb technologies right.

So here is my list of critical dumb technologies—tried and true, nothing fancy, but supremely important:


Not technically a technology, but everything trying to replace it is a technology—so play along here. In fact, walking upright may be the ur disruptive technology. A city that prioritizes fast moving vehicles on its streets is dangerously interfering with the exchange of ideas and goods that are at the heart of places. It’s not just that people on foot are pushed to the edges or into cars. The space taken up by cars moving or being stored separates destinations. And all those lights increase delay. (By the way, why is that never measured as destroying productivity for pedestrians in the way that traffic jams destroy productivity for drivers)? Plus, walking is healthy, has no carbon emissions, no smog, and no particulates that cause cancer. Show us a place full of people walking, and it is almost by definition low impact and economically productive in relation to the space it occupies.

The Wheel

It’s the technology that every school kid recognizes, along with fire, as one of our greatest technologies. I’m not talking about cars, just wheels without a massive engine attached. Wheelchairs, strollers, bikes, skateboards, scooters, and yes, even those dang solo wheels. Curb cuts, wide safewalks, protected bikeways, along with intersection design that prioritizes them, is another highly effective way to connect humans to each other—to share information, conduct commerce, create art, and decide matters of civic importance. Successful places soon outgrow their capacity to make those connections if everyone is encapsulated in a car, endlessly circling the block for a space, or spiraling upwards or downwards in the parking garage. But you can add a lot of wheels powered by people or lightweight electric motors—particularly if you take away some of the space occupied by cars.

Streets and Public Squares

The streets of Pompeii. Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn has written about the “spooky wisdom” embodied in cities like Pompeii. Image credit.
Streets are the spaces between buildings in settled and developed places. Historically, they are open to all users. And in some places, often the intersections near important buildings, they become public squares and public markets. We need to distinguish between streets and roads. Roads connect distant places—the Yellow Brick Road, the network of Roman roads, the Silk Road, the railroad, the interstate highway. Somewhere after the invention of the car we got the idea to turn city streets into roads—prioritizing the fast movement of vehicles through the place. We need to return to the ancient idea of streets, where people in the place move about, connect to each other and congregate. Name the places you love to visit, and they probably have streets and public squares where lingering is the point. It’s a basic technology that people inherently love—time tested and resilient.

Of course, great streets and public squares are surrounded by buildings so let’s talk about those.

Roofs, Walls and Houses

After the 2015 Nepal earthquake I was talking to a Nepalese friend and asked if there was a problem getting housing supplies into remote regions. He looked at me like I was an idiot, and in my modern-culture-addled brain I had an “aha” moment. Rural Nepalese make homes out of the materials near at hand. And until recent times, that was the way it’s been done by all people since, well, the dawn of people. Whether brick, timber, stone, mud, cloth, peat or palm frond, people instinctively create shelter. And with the barest of time and attention they become more than just enough, they become homes, which ascend to comfort, graciousness, beauty and in some cases magnificence.

Somehow we have literally made it illegal to satisfy this basic human need. You can’t just build shelter. We have a host of regulations telling people “no rooming houses, no backyard cottages, not too many unrelated people living together, no apartments—and if you can’t afford what is legal—tough luck. And if you dare pitch a tent somewhere—we’ll take it.” We need to re-legalize shelter. I’m not talking about abandoning building codes—there are important health and safety reasons to ensure buildings don’t collapse, contribute to conflagration or generate disease through unsanitary conditions. But there is a clear path to ensure that one of our oldest technologies, a roof over one’s head, is accessible to all. If you want to build a home, or many homes, in a city, you should be able to do that without much discussion or argument. We can tax the wealth a city creates to build for those a liberalized market can’t reach. And we can leave places to pitch a tent or build a tiny home until housing is available. An app won’t solve the lack of housing, only homes will do that.

Mixed-Use Buildings

When I was a kid, we just bought “sneakers” and we used them for everything. Then came tennis shoes, jogging shoes, basketball shoes, and the final iteration—the “cross trainer” (sneakers, right?). The advent of zoning led to a similar phenomena, the increasing specialization of buildings for specific uses, and a restriction against building another type in that zone. There’s a reason to separate truly noxious uses from other uses, but we separated offices from workshops from homes, and even different types of homes from each other. Financing rules reinforced the zoning and use restrictions. The traditional mixed use building—the store or workshop downstairs the residences beside or above, was now illegal. So was converting a single family into a duplex or triplex. What seems orderly and rational turns out to be highly restrictive and uneconomic. Buildings in such zones could not shift to meet changing times. Yet cities built before comprehensive zoning plans are full of buildings that were used again and again for different uses. Those are often the cities with walkable streets that we love. Mixed use buildings—can we make them cool like Converse All-Stars?

Ok—I’m stopping here, before I get to insulation and windows that work. Or awnings and trees to regulate heat as opposed to high-tech thermostats. You’ve probably figured out that I think traditional city design is pretty smart. But it’s smart because it is simple, durable, resilient, redundant, even anti-fragile (like muscles, it gets stronger with a little stress on it). Wringing some more efficiency out of our cities through tech is great, but efficiency is often complicated, fragile in the face of small disturbances, and prioritizes one thing at the expense of the diversity of things a city does. It takes incredible intelligence and diligence to invent the tech and keep it running. It has a “wow” factor and a place in our cities. But an even bigger wow is to realize that building a city upon walking, low-tech wheels, streets, many homes and mixed use buildings can create a city of complexity beyond our human comprehension. It’s an incredibly smart platform to make the most of our human potential and creativity.

The dumb city stands the test of time. And that is the best prediction that the simple tech of traditional city building will be here for some time to come, if we’re smart enough to use it.

Top image via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael McGinn

52nd Mayor of SeattleJanuary 1, 2010 – December 31, 2013

Originally from Long Island, New York, McGinn earned a B.A. in economics from Williams College and worked for Congressman Jim Weaver as a legislative aide. McGinn attended law school at the University of Washington School of Law.[3] After graduating, he practiced business law for the Seattle firm Stokes Lawrence, becoming a partner. He left Stokes Lawrence in 2005 and started Great City Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group. From Wikipedia

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