Smart Cities and Sustainable Development: Where Hope and History Meet

The Question: “How can cities contribute to the advancement of sustainable development and address issues including water, energy and waste?”

The task of the coming city is not essentially different:  its mission is to put the highest concerns of man at the center of all his activities:  to unite the scattered fragments of the human personality, turning artificially dismembered men-bureaucrats, specialists, ‘experts’, depersonalized agents—into complete human beings, repairing the damage that has been done by vocational separation, by social segregation, by the over-cultivation of a favored function, by tribalisms and nationalisms, by the absence of organic partnerships and ideal purposes.

Before modern man can gain control over the forces that now threaten his very existence, he must resume possession of himself.  This sets the chief mission for the city of the future:  that of creating a visible regional and civic structure, designed to make man at home with his deeper self and his larger world, attached to images of human nurture and love.

—Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961


God picks up the reed-flute world and blows. Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing-pain. Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated, and let your note be clear. Don’t try to end it. Be your note. I’ll show you how it’s enough. Go up on the roof at night in this city of the soul. Let everyone climb on their roofs and sing their notes! Sing loud!

—Jelaluddin Rumi, The Essential Rumi, 1993

The Promise

Some people view cities as congeries of people, noise, transit, commerce, and buildings. Others see a cut-glass mirror, reflecting the intersection of history and hope. The idea of the City is as important as its bricks and mortar, perhaps even more so. Cities draw people in, offering promise and protection in the cloak of anonymity, a place to make dreams come true. Be it Jerusalem or Detroit, the City is a living thing, in constant transformation. It has a soul. It has a history. The old and the new live alongside each other, as do growth and decline.

On top of this, the City faces never-ending challenges to maintain unfettered flows of people (both immigrant and indigenous), commerce, energy, information, and ideas. If it’s inhospitable to these flows, the City shrivels and dies.

Masdar City’s current emphasis on “Smart Cities and Sustainable Development” is, at its core, about supporting and strengthening the stock and flow of what we now call “multiple capitals”: human, social, financial, natural, and built environment. It’s also about the stock and flow of intellect and spirit. Without them, the other flows become impoverished.

Masdar City’s current emphasis also draws on a rich heritage of urbanism, with many lessons and insights. Chief among them: You cannot focus on one piece—for example, architectural design, environmental stewardship, social welfare, economic development, crime reduction—to the exclusion of others. They all interact, like notes in a symphony.

Nor can you ignore the importance of executing sensitively and at scale. Key here is a “polycentric” approach, advocated by the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and her husband, Vincent Ostrom. That means a mix of multiple activities on multiple fronts (public, private, civic) and levels (national, regional, local). As the eminent urbanist Paul Ylvisaker once said, “That scale may not always be massive, but it can never be mean.”[i]

The Problems

Narrow vision and “meanness” are among many ghosts on the urban landscape, haunting our efforts to thrive. The dark shadow of the slum continues to thwart the dreams of countless youth. In divided societies, sectarian violence claims land and lives. Extreme weather events wipe out neighborhoods and clans. Corruption corrodes even the best-laid plans, sucking the air out of prosperity, resilience, and growth. Financial pressures and deteriorating revenue bases continue to block progress. Short-sightedness and narrow thinking serve as reminders that human fallibility continues to plague even the best of intentions, where implementation falls victim to petty behaviors, and “winning” becomes more important than performance in the public interest.

These are modern problems, but the themes are familiar, part of a melody that spans centuries. The music may have faded, but the rhythm remains and the beat goes on.

Masdar City’s grand experiment echoes efforts in America and Brazil in the 1970s, before “sustainability”, “ESG” or “corporate responsibility” were taglines. Back then the goal was to create a place of self-conscious beauty, offering hope and opportunity. The means for tackling the multifaceted urban challenge: Build “New Towns” or “New Towns In-Town”. These were noble policy aspirations that ultimately ran afoul of implementation, due to intergroup antagonisms and local politics, as well as racism and classism.[ii] No matter how promising the innovation, the temptation always exists for one group to improve its situation at another’s expense. That destroys faith upon which the City is built, faith in the promise that those who enter can lay claim to more in life than “the raw Darwinian war of survival.”

Now, the rest of the world can learn from Masdar City. But Masdar City can learn a few things, too.

The Legacy and Lessons Learned

From the American perspective, three major 20th century initiatives stand out, reflected now in Masdar’s “Smart Cities / Sustainable Development” approach. Despite their Yankee provenance, they hold relevance to other urban experiments, now occurring under the rubric of “sustainability”.

Beginning after World War II and later supported and broadened by the Ford Foundation, many of the pioneering urban initiatives of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s featured elements similar to what Masdar City embodies today: A systems approach. Design thinking. Innovation and a willingness to fail. Application of new materials and technology. Excellence. Research-based evidence.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, Cambridge-based The Architects Collaborative (TAC) was invited to Abu Dhabi, to bring its Bauhaus-inspired design integrity of function and form to desert development. Change was in the air, and the UAE wanted to take lead, drawing on American professionals and academics for inspiration.

These various projects yield valuable lessons of what worked, what didn’t (and why) that are relevant in 2014: Rebuilding community is the core ethos. Don’t focus excessively on structure, technology, and efficiency. Metrics aren’t the answer. Beware of generalizations and single solutions.  Sustainable development—especially in divided societies—is a broad umbrella, not just about water, energy, and waste.[iii]

Here are some of the characteristics and lessons learned as policymakers, professionals, academics, and practitioners confronted an assortment of puzzles posed by rapid urbanization and increased stress on resources.

1. A holistic, systemic, and collaborative approach: The mid-20th century push for metropolitan planning and government was premised on how a deliberate approach to city planning could address economic, social, and governance needs. It eventually dissipated due to intense opposition by the defenders of grassroots democracy and localism. More recently, a resurgence in “metro” revives interest in collaborative solutions to region-wide problems, where limits on resources can drive innovation. That’s a hallmark of sustainability: it can foster creative thinking and action.[iv] But it needs to have allies, which is why wider community awareness, engagement, and support are so crucial.

2. Address economic, human, and social needs via participation and representation: Long before the term “stakeholder engagement” was coined, the Gray Areas Program set the stage. Launched in the early 1960s by the Ford Foundation, its purpose was “to mount a coordinated attack on all aspects of deprivation, including jobs, education, housing, planning, and recreation.” According to Paul Ylvisaker, its founder and overseer, this neighborhood orientation was part of a movement toward making grants “within range of the municipal firing line” to “help correct the basic conditions which have led to the protest, and to develop the latent potential of the human beings now being crowded and often crushed at the bottom of the community’s totem pole.” [v] The Gray Areas Program served as the template for the subsequent War on Poverty, and growth of Community Development Corporations (CDCs).[vi]

Unfortunately, the Gray Areas Program, along with other urban social innovations, became politicized, both by local officials and citizens groups that were unprepared for their leadership role. But as Ylvisaker once said, “We shouldn’t curse the bridge that took us across the raging torrent.”

3. Innovation and entrepreneurship: Similarly, the Model Cities program, the brainchild of Robert C. Wood,[vii] sought to provide an alternative to  incremental progress and “desperate, self-help urban renewal”. Essentially a series of urban laboratories, Model Cities sought to unleash human energies and spirit by creating partnerships between the Federal government and mayors. Yet Model Cities, too, ran afoul of short-termism and “quick fix” expectations. Open-ended measures could not be sustained politically, and risked demise or backlash. Although it began as a selective program, it soon lost this quality and became more universal. Every Congressman wanted to get into the act. Rather than focused on rebuilding communities, it evolved into a cash-infusion program governed by political favoritism more than local need. On the plus side, activists were given tools and became more sophisticated; rather than operating as “outsiders”, they were brought into the system to help make it work.

Smart Cities and Sustainable Development: What Future?

The City is a reflection of our deepest yearnings and aspirations. As such, it’s governed far more by a moral imperative than by adherence to good governance and management practices, or sustainability standards and metrics.

This moral imperative liberates the spirit and, as Rumi said, enables us to go up on the roof at night and sing our note loud, not only in the city of the soul, but the City of our earthly presence.

If this dimension is not recognized, where hope and history meet, then whatever the energy innovations and architectural wonders, the City will be just another pretty place, devoid of soul and substance.


Editors Note: A shorter version of this post was submitted to the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week  2014 (#ADSW) blogging contest.[viii] Until January 7th, you can view and vote on this and other submissions here.

[i] Paul Ylvisaker, “New Towns, Old Cities”, Speech to the Institute of Urban America, Columbia University, 23 January 1968.

[ii] For insight into why these urban experiments failed, see Martha Derthick’s classic essay, New Towns In-Town: Why a Federal program failed (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 1972).

[iii] Sustainable development must occur on a relatively stable foundation of peace, which is the focus of the Forum for Cities in Transition. The premise of the Forum is that cities in transition in societies divided by conflict are in the best position to help other cities experiencing the same thing. They have common problems and flashpoints. Through sharing and collaboration, they can reinforce constructive change. Over the past 4 years, the Forum and one of its member cities have hosted an annual conference involving cities such as Belfast, Baghdad, Kaduna, Kirkuk, Jerusalem, Derry / Londonderry, Haifa, Berlin, Ramallah, and Mitrovica. The Forum for Cities in Transition is the brainchild of Padraig O’Malley, Moakley Chair for Peace and Reconciliation, University of Massachusetts, Boston.

[iv] See especially the work of Bruce Katz, whose book, co-authored by Jennifer Bradley, is The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2013). Katz currently is vice president and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, and helped launch the Global Cities Initiative, a joint effort with JPMorgan Chase. He also leads the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation. Katz was influenced by the scholarship and work of Robert C. Wood and Paul Ylvisaker, and is well-aware of how the legacy of earlier urbanists now finds expression in American cities.

[v] American Community Development: Preliminary Reports by Directors of Projects Assisted by the Ford Foundation in Four Cities and a State (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1 October 1963).

[vi] So-named to avoid using the term “ghetto” during a time of grantmaker aversion to the problem of race relations, the Gray Areas Program focused on those parts of the city where “neither mice nor men dared to tread,” Ylvisaker used to say years later. For more, see Karen Mossberger, “From Gray Areas to New Communities: Lessons and Issues from Comprehensive U.S. Neighborhood Initiatives,” Working Paper (Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2010).

[vii] Wood, like Ylvisaker, was one of that vanishing breed of academic practitioners with numerous luminary accomplishments. Both became friends during their doctoral studies at Harvard. From 1965 to 1969, Wood served as Undersecretary and then Secretary of the newly-formed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A prolific author and public administrator, he’s the author of Surburbia: Its People and Their Politics (Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1958).

[viii] Hosted by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) is a global platform that addresses the interconnected challenges that affect the widespread acceleration and adoption of sustainable development and renewable energy. To seriously address the global energy challenge, the relationships between economic development, poverty eradication, energy security, water scarcity and climate change cannot be overlooked. The largest gathering on sustainability in the history of the Middle East, ADSW encourages actionable outcomes to carve a pathway toward sustainability worldwide. For more information, please visit




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