Smart Sustainable Cities White Paper – Contributions [11]

Thomas Vonier

FAIA RIBA, President, International Union of Architects

“Smart” means working on how we want to live—not on how we used to live.

World Urban Forum 9 Summary of remarks, February 2018 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Nobody wants to live in a “stupid” city—we all want to live in “smart” cities! Yet is this the best we can do? Paint, patch and touch up the vestiges of nineteenth-century inventions?

Discussions about urban infrastructure are unimaginative—mainly about highways, roads and bridges. The word “smart” does not always help, because it has many meanings—“intelligent” is better: the ability to learn from an environment and to adapt and thrive in new conditions.

There is so much talk about cars, or things for cars—about the ways we used to live—when what we need are new ideas, inventions to serve the ways we want to live.

Our infrastructure is not simply deteriorating—it is outmoded. We must move beyond fretting over things that are falling apart. Maintain what is useful and serviceable, but admit that some of what we have no longer warrants more investment. Make infrastructure new. Embrace an urban future that is already apparent.

Fed up with soul-killing automobile congestion and dull suburbs, many people are seeking urban amenities and easy commutes (or, better still, none at all). They want the freedom to live better by driving less. At rates not seen in generations, young people are choosing shared vehicles, walkable neighbourhoods and safe, reliable public transport.

Urban infrastructure investments must support and promote new ways of living, rather than perpetuating the old:

Adapt old systems to new uses. Rail-to-trail systems are the obvious example. There are many others.

Use fortifications as urban amenities. The “Big U” proposal for lower Manhattan is an example of how massive sea walls, flood barriers and other large civil engineering systems can serve primarily for recreation.

Repurpose roads and sidewalks. It is no longer just paving—use recycled plastics, dynamic paints, glow-in-the-dark markings, anti-icing, wireless induction charging systems . . . and more.

Favour compact vehicles. Transport can be smaller, faster, lighter, and more efficient—and we will need fewer vehicles.

Make cities greener, literally. Trees are vital infrastructure. So is urban agriculture.

Use building systems that are lighter, faster and less expensive. This means fewer and lighter environmental impacts.

Zone for greater density and mixed-use. Live above the store; put workplaces close to the places where people live.

Use water (again) to move people and goods. Here we can return to older forms.

We can—and we must—make do with less while doing more.

Infrastructure needs progressive outlooks—foresight, imagination, enthusiasm and optimism. We will see the vestiges of our old urban systems for exactly what they are: artefacts.


An architect and planner, Thomas Vonier is president of the International Union of Architects (UIA), headquartered in Paris—the only global organization representing the world’s architects, now estimated to number some 3.2 million. He is also the immediate past president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

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