Smart users make smart cities

By: Emmi

Many architects and planners like to look at cities and urban structures through such goggles that more or less focus in physical spaces and constructed elements. We think and talk about shape, size, structure, volume and materials. But all built spaces are rather static and defunct without users turning them into lively spaces for social activities; turning the cities into “living organisms”. Physical spaces in the built environment become smart only when they are used in a smart way. So who are the users and how do they operate in the spaces we vision?

Eija Hasu‘s presentation inspired me to think about the role of the users in the creation or transformation of the built environment. In urban planning, the imaginary, even “ideal” users are always present (on an unconscious level at least) when planning. The real users, however, can be something completely different to what the planner had in mind. And considering the long time span of urban planning, being somewhat 10 years from first drafts to final built outcome, there is really no way to reliably predict what the users will want in the end. Even if we actually knew who the users would be and knew their exact wishes, their lives might have radically changed during the 10 years or so, naturally (but not necessarily) resulting in changed preferences. Worst case scenario, from users’ perspective, is that the built environments are outdated in relation to users’ needs the very moment they are finished.

The smart users might have found a solution to this. The users are changing the way our cities look out – and work out – by being smart, adaptive and innovative. Take parkourers, the urban flâneurs of today, for example. They run and jump around, imagining and seeing the city as a wild gymnastics course. Or skateboarders, who use outdoor spaces quite irresponsibly: using banisters as reils and quite frankly changing elements of safety and security into elements for adrenalin powered challenges – thank Iain Borden for pointing this out in his book Skateboarding Space and the City: Architecture and the Body (2001). And it’s not only the urban sports that use the spaces as they like. Urban activists and guerilla gardeners do it too. They create small potato fields where they feel potato fields are missing. Even the most normal users take shortcuts and create paths where no paths were designed.

From a designer’s perspective this is interesting, yet nothing new. As it turns out, the architects and urban planners are co-designing urban spaces with the users they have never met. The spaces are not always used as they were designed, so how do we design high-quality urban spaces that are adaptive and transformable, leaving room for users’ own edits?