Can IBM cure the cul de sac?

Smarter water systems and smarter road networks and smarter electrical grids are all very nice. How will IBM, or any company, get cities to be smarter in planning for growth?
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive

IBM has taken its "SmarterPlanet" theme to New York City this week, where it is hosting bureaucrats and politicians in a discussion on how to make cities smarter.

The sales pitch, from Anne Altman, who heads up public sector sales, is that urban amenities like roads, water systems, and public safety are interconnected systems that can be understood, and improved, with technology.

Fair enough, but many of our modern cities are designed to fail. That's because they're not designed as cities, but as suburbs. (Above is a shot from Google maps of cul de sacs near the center of Lawrenceville, Georgia.)

Suburbs assume low density and are so built with few amenities. This lets them be built cheaply, so people flock to them. Then they become cities and thoroughly unmanageable.

I have watched this evolve in my hometown of Atlanta and it's easiest to see by looking at the roads.

Inside the central city, mostly built before World War II, roads run in parallel. When one is blocked you go to the next. The central core clears out very quickly.

Outside the core, built after 1970, roads don't run in parallel. Instead cul de sacs funnel traffic onto major arteries, from which there is no escape. When these are clogged traffic stops. The region's network of freeways also run at oblique angles to the major road networks, so there are no alternate routes.

It doesn't take much to cause a traffic jam. An accident, a little rain, even a few cars running together at the exact same speed can cause big back-ups.

Atlanta's response to this has been to jump over planning failures and build new "edge cities" further from its center. Most start as a shopping mall, but they are quickly followed by offices, then condos and other amenities.

Each one is worse than the last, and old edge cities become ghettos. Atlanta's poor were once centered near downtown. Some are still there, but more are now just outside I-285 in former suburbs like Norcross, Smyrna and Forest Park. I fully expect new centers of poverty to develop in Duluth and Kennesaw, as malls there age thanks to bad traffic and lack of planning.

As this happens, cul de sacs that once insulated people from crime become centers of it. Some of the region's biggest drug busts in recent years have been in suburban neighborhoods. The city's drug kingpins now live in McMansions alongside its auto dealers. (The joke is you can tell the drug dealers because they're not being foreclosed.)

These trends have created a second "population boom," with younger, wealthier people taking over areas like my Atlanta neighborhood of Kirkwood, although they prefer controlling government as in Decatur or Dunwoody, so as to zone out the riffraff.

Point is it's planning, or the lack of it, and the assumption of low density that leaves you choking on the air. The best places for "congestion pricing" in the region aren't near downtown Atlanta, but along the I-85 corridor near Lawrenceville, Georgia 400 in Alpharetta, and I-75 in Kennesaw, all at least 20 miles from the city.

So smarter water systems and smarter road networks and smarter electrical grids are all very nice. How will IBM, or any company, get cities to be smarter in planning for growth? Especially when the planners don't think they're building a city, but a suburb?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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