10 February 2013

Providence's Smart City Project: Developing a knowledge economy zone

Looking west and towards I-95 from Chestnut Street in the Jewelry District of central Providence. Until 2011, I-195 passed through this space. The rerouting and subsequent removal of I-195 through this corridor has prompted Providence to redevelop the area into a knowledge economy zone. All photos by Alan Wiig, November 2012.

Completed in the 1950s Interstate 195 cut through downtown Providence, Rhode Island, splitting neighborhoods in a fashion typical of many cities in the United States at the time. In 2011, the freeway was demolished and re-routed to the south of downtown, and Providence had an opportunity to intentionally design a new neighborhood. At the same time, IBM, Cisco, and the other core companies of what Dan Hill has termed the urban intelligence industrial complex began to promote their ideas for harnessing ubiquitous information and communication technologies such as wireless sensor networks with real-time analytic software to enable smarter cities. 

For the last few years, each week seems to bring more writing on smart cities and smart urbanism. Much of this writing is overwrought hype about the transformative potential of integrating digital technologies into an urban landscape, how this will lead to more economically efficient, ecologically sustainable, healthy, safe, innovative places. Much of this babbling clamour of many voices saying variations of the same thing exists as marketing from consulting and planning firms and branding by cities competing with each other in a globalized economy. Showing off a particularly cutting-edge smart urbanism plan offers a way to stand out among all the other mid-sized to large cities that are not quite global cities but still want to compete economically and culturally with the likes of London, New York, Singapore, and Tokyo.

The intersection of Chestnut Street and Ship Street. The orange spray paint indicates that the telecom provider is in the process of wiring these old brick buildings for high speed Internet, a necessary element of any information economy.

Providence had a unique opportunity to redevelop 23 acres of the city’s center; the redevelopment into what the city calls a ‘knowledge district’ is also considered by the city to be a ‘smart city’ project. Providence applied to IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge and in 2011 was selected in the first round, receiveing a few weeks of IBM consultation, and leading to a report on how Providence could harness ‘smart’ systems in the redevelopment. In this instance, the smart urbanism aspect of the project is not the district itself: the smartness is a market strategy, a  signal to information technology and biotech companies that Providence is amenable to new industries setting up in the area. IBM recommended that Providence implement a new online land use management system to streamline the permitting process of setting up a business in the knowledge district, which the city did. There is nothing inherently spatial about this smart urbanism project, except that it is designed for a city and is intended to lead to changes in the city’s urban landscape. The goal of this smartness is to create a favorable disposition for the economic development of the city, through making it easier to conduct business in the area. 

Smart urbanism involves the creation of what Keller Easterling calls active forms, of a spatial disposition towards enabling digitally-mediated outcomes or desirables such as a new economic development. These active forms are may co-exist with new or repurposed object forms: built structures through which these desirables are funneled. Smart urbanism is the implementation of systems created through the interweaving of policies, technologies—both hardware devices and software protocol, and the existing networked infrastructures of contemporary cities to achieve goals such as economic vitality.

Many of the existing commercial, office, and industrial buildings in the area are vacant, waiting for the new, 'smart' tenants. This two story building used to sit adjacent to the freeway, not it is in a desirable spot at the center of the knowledge district. What used to be a disadvantage is now beneficial.

In Providence, it is possible to locate these smart systems through the spaces they enable: the buildings, streets, and parkland of the knowledge district, as well as the new industries and residents the redevelopment is designed for. While the district will have plenty of broadband Internet, good cellular connectivity, and other amenities that are expected of a global city, the hype of pervasive sensor networks and other near-future technologies-of-today is less the goal than turning a piece of this economically stagnant, post-industrial, colonial-era city into a visible and competitive zone of the global, 21st century economy.

A walk through the Knowledge District

For now, the area is still relatively empty. In early November 2012 the freeway corridor, then vacant for a year, was green with grass not yet dormant for the winter. The corridor cuts a swath through the district, providing long views and light where was once concrete pillars, the rush of traffic, and automobile exhaust. On a Saturday morning the narrow, curving streets were nearly empty of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The asphalt and brick cobbles were dotted with the orange spraypaint of a telecom provider marking where to bury fiber optic cabling. The buildings at the northern end of the zone, in the Jewlery District neighborhood, are mainly four and five story brick structures that offer a continuity with the past industry in the area.

A diner, with the three smokestacks of the Manchester Street Power Station in the distance.

Near what were likely the locations of I-195’s offramps are the remains of existing entertainment venues, bars, and tattoo parlours. How these businesses will fit into the knowledge economy remains to be seen. On the Providence River waterfront near where the river lets into the harbor, the Manchester Street Power Station provides a visual landmark for the area, its three smokestacks towering over the surrounding terrain. Across Point Street from the power station, the unoccupied Dynamo Building stretches a full city block, a shell of an industrial building awaiting a buyer to put the structure to a new use. How Providence utilizes the area opened up by the removal of the freeway will provide an example of spaces integrated with and through ubiquitous computing technologies to enable new industries in an old city. How the success of the knowledge district will be measured remains to be seen: other than Brown University's new medical school, there does not yet appear to be much in the way of new businesses. 

In Providence’s case, smart urbanism represents urban redevelopment to attract key contemporary industries of the globalized economy. The knowledge district, while situated in an historic part of the city, will likely have more in common with other information economy zones than with the rest of Providence itself. As this project develops, it will be interesting—to say the least—to see how these new spaces come together and how they integrate into the city’s overall landscape.

Sources of quotes and further information

Dan Hill's recent piece, 'On the smart city, or a manifesto for smart citizens instead' on his blog City of Sound, critiques smart cities and the 'urban intelligence industrial complex', calling for the need to instead focus on enabling smart citizens. On a related and completely relevant note, last December Adam Greenfield posted on his blog Speedbird, 'The City Is Here For You To Use: 100 easy pieces', which offers a close and nuanced read of pervasive technologies in networked cities, arguing that ideas such as 'the smart city' have consequences and the implementation of these systems needs to be through public consensus not just top-down decision making.  

Keller Easterling's discussion of active form and object form can be found in numerous sources taken from her forthcoming book Extrastatecraft. I drew on her article 'We will be making active form' from Architectural Design's 'Special Issue: City Catalyst: Architecture in the Age of Extreme Urbanisation' from September 2012 and her Strelka Press e-book The Action is the Form: Victor Hugo's TED Talk. Additionally, to conceptualize how an area like the knowledge district becomes a zone of the globalized economy, I draw on Easterling's piece Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft from the Design Observer's Places website.

Detailed information on the planning process for Providence's knowledge district redevelopment and the IBM Smarter Cites Challenge report is available is here.

A construction site on the southwest edge of the zone.

My full photosets from the November 2012 fieldwork are posted at my Flickr page. Also on the Flickr page are photos from fieldwork in Boulder, Colorado looking at the smart meters and smart electrical grid the city has installed as part of their smart urbanism/urban sustainability energy futures work. I will write about that project soon.

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