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City Science with Kent Larson

At the BSA Urban Design Committee’s March 6 meeting at Payette, Kent Larson, (not related), director of the MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places group and co-director of its City Science Initiative, discussed his research on the sustainable transformation of cities to accommodate the 70 to 90 percent of world population growth he predicts will be urban by 2030.

Larson said our future architecture, urban planning, vehicle design, and agriculture will be governed by resource-consumption reduction. This will translate into transformable apartments, shared workspaces and transit, and self-sustaining utilities and infrastructures within a web of “resilient urban cells,” or compact neighborhoods where work, play, retail, and cultural centers are within a 20-minute walk from all homes.

“The needs of cars dominate urban design, cut through historic cities, and create sprawl.”

He sees medieval European settlements as models for these neighborhoods. “Settlements often formed at a well or another scarce resource and were limited in size to the distance you could walk with a pot of water on your head,” he said. “The human-scaled villages of rural Germany were about a mile apart from each other with easy access to the fields.” He cited Paris’ historical network of self-contained neighborhoods as a time-tested model for urban cell aggregation.

In today’s cities, however, utilities and amenities are centralized and dispersed, increasing automobile use and its environmental hazards. “The needs of cars dominate urban design, cut through historic cities, and create sprawl,” Larson said. “Los Angeles is the ultimate city designed for machines, not people.”

This is where the City Science Initiative’s research on the formation of microcities, each with its own walkable amenities, comes in. “We model cities with Legos,” Larson said, “and they can be mapped as you build city models. That makes it easy to compare different schemes, gather pre-architectural data, and examine relationships of different parts.”

Called CityScope, this urban imaging and data analysis method projects high-definition video and 3-D images of building types, virtual building interiors, street layouts and furniture, pedestrian/vehicle circulation simulations, energy distribution, and economic activity patterns, etc., onto the Lego models. It maps ground-level streetscapes and building space experiences in detail to determine what people-and-place relationships work best in a creatively interactive city.

Mobility on demand is another Changing Places goal for reducing the traffic congestion, air pollution, energy usage, parking acreage, commuter time, and transit costs that private car ownership has caused to skyrocket. Larson praised Zipcar, Copenhagen’s shared e-bike system, and China’s three-wheel delivery cycles as prototypical models. For the elderly and mobility-impaired, the MIT Media Lab is developing the bike-lane-friendly Persuasive Electric Vehicle (PEV), which also has pedals for the exercise-challenged.

The Lab is also developing the CityCar (left). Measuring about half the length of a Ford Explorer, this compact electric vehicle turns on a dime, runs on a quick-charge battery, and folds up to park virtually anywhere. “Cars with folding autonomous parking are a 5:1 ratio to a regular-sized car,” said Larson.

Downsizing and folding also characterize the CityHome the Changing Places group is exploring as a space-saving prototype. Through robotic walls and collapsible or slide-out furniture activated by integrated sensing and actuators, an 800-square-foot unit can morph from living to working to sleeping use, which adds dimensions to the microunits and co-working spaces that are gaining ground for urban residents and start-ups priced out of the rental market.

Larson also discussed the Lab’s CityFARM, which develops methods for the more rapid, voluminous crop production with fewer natural resources that ballooning city populations will 

require. One method is aeroponics, or plant growth in a soil-less air or mist environment of stacked greenhouse chambers. This nurtures plant roots with mineral-charged mist under spectrally optimized LED lighting. A head of romaine lettuce can thus grow in 19 days with 98 percent less water and 40 percent less fertilizer, as opposed to 80 days through land farming.

“It’s a building facade system of sealed pods appended to buildings to grow veggies through windows, like stacked-up garden walls,” said Larson. This would enable citizens to purchase produce at neighborhood growing sites rather than drive to the supermarket, thereby reducing car and soil dependency. “In China, 20 percent of the land is contaminated by heavy metals,” he said. “Food needs to happen locally.”


Go to Urban Design Committee to learn more about their upcoming events. Want to even learn more about contemporary urban mobility? Check out the Traffic Advisory speaker series.