Photo courtesy reSITE

Landscape architect and reSITE founder Martin Barry talks about how the decisions of the past can haunt the city makers of today.

This week, CityLab’s UK bureau chief and European correspondent Feargus O’Sullivan has been dispatched to the Czech Republic to drink beer moderate a panel at In/visible City, a two-day conference running today and tomorrow in Prague. It’s organized by reSITE, a Czech-based nonprofit that focuses on urban development and design. The group’s stated mission: To create “more lovable and livable cities.”

CityLab also signed on as a co-sponsor of reSITE’s big annual event this year, which is devoted to understanding the cities of the future, and Feargus will be posting reports from some of his conversations next week. In the meantime, we asked reSITE’s founder and director, landscape architect Martin Barry, to explain just what In/visible City is all about, and why an Old World town like Prague is a good place to ponder the urban spaces of tomorrow. This interview was conducted in Prague by Jan Stepanek and has been edited and condensed.

The city of the future as a city of the past—what should we picture exactly?

When people ask me about the future of the city. I often answer that it will look like the city of the past. It’s based on infrastructure planned and built several generations ago, even centuries. That’s the invisible city inherited from our ancestors. So if you’re looking for the future of a city, look back to see how growth and spatial challenges were solved.

Cities didn’t foresee the overwhelming impact of cars, for example. The highway and road infrastructure, at least in America, have devastated cities, not improved them. We’re spending trillions to remove most of them. That’s probably one of the few visionary dreams of the mid-20th century that really came true and ushered in a dramatic change in our lifestyle. People were able to travel longer distances. Oil became the world’s most valuable commodity. This was followed by a deterioration of the environment, global warming, urban blight. All this is interconnected.

Similarly today, when planning new infrastructure, municipal leaders aren’t thinking about what the city will look like or need in a hundred years—despite the fact that urban infrastructure, something invisible, is one of the most expensive, costly items of the city’s everyday operation and must be planned decades in advance of its ultimate use.

So a key to the future of the city is to find ways to combine old infrastructure with new?

Certainly. The commercial and residential development of the city faces this problem constantly. This is the case in New York, for example, and where we are now in Prague.

On the other hand, in Singapore or Tokyo it is very easy to build new infrastructure alongside completely distinct parts of the city that might have very different infrastructure patterns. This is more of a cultural phenomenon. When you buy a house in Japan, or even rent a flat, you don’t want anything there left by the previous owner. When you are moving out, it is expected that you remove all furnishings, including the appliances. New owners want to start over. The Japanese are not sentimental about infrastructure: If it isn’t yours, remove it. If it doesn’t work, tear it down. It’s very pragmatic.

What are the options for a city like Prague?

Let me digress a little: As much as I disagree with [PayPal founder and Donald Trump adviser] Peter Thiel’s worldview, I admit that he said one interesting thing lately: We haven’t developed any substantively new technology since the 1970s. Until then, we were living a technological revolution. Now we’re stalling.

This may sound crazy, since we have smartphones and high-speed internet. We can debate the impacts of the internet revolution, but the added value relative to human evolution is far from impressive. We are basically in a situation where we are waiting for an invention comparable to that of the wheel.

This situation is also reflected in the debate about the future of the city. In developed economies like Prague, we are trying to polish the details, looking at ways of having a more efficient and economically viable infrastructure. But we are not considering a completely new concept of human cohabitation.

Isn’t it only natural that a period of technological boom is followed by “polishing the details”?

It is, and I didn’t mean to say it was bad per se. Especially in cities as old as Prague, it is necessary to think about ways for the infrastructure to work better in very technical and detailed ways. Focusing on the details can also bring about a major shift in the quality of urban life. Look at the example of the riverbank in Prague. Its original function was flood protection and water-borne cargo loading. Now local players have harnessed and developed a social and cultural dimension. Or parks. Prague and many other historic cities don’t need more parks. We need to find new ways to take care of them, program, and use them. Those are important details in putting a nicer patina on the city fabric.

But we’re focusing on the players, not the game itself. And that limits us in a way. I’d like us to start thinking bigger about what cities can be. People want options—and cities better deliver them or we’ll be moving elsewhere.

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