16 June, 2024

Invited talk at the Minderoo Centre for Technology & Democracy, University of Cambridge

"Bringing sounds of yesterday into this city room," Pink Floyd, Grantchester Meadows
(Photo: Carr 2024
)


Last week, I had the great pleasure speaking at the Minderoo Centre for Technology & Democracy, University of Cambridge on issues of democratic participation and the social spatial distribution of data centers in metropolitan regions under growth pressure. A huge thanks to Dr. Julia Rone, Tom Lacey, Christine Adams, and Dr. Ann Kristin Glenster for the wonderful invitation, and for organizing such an engaging event.

Focussing on the Metropolitan Areas of Seattle and Washington, my main contribution was showing some of the spatial logics behind data center expansion and describing some of the sociological problems that result. It was an honour to be the only urban geographer in the room!

The main messages I wanted to deliver were:
  • Data centers are urban infrastructures, clustering in or around metropolitan regions where they build upon existing digital infrastructures (cables, pipes, roads), and can make use of local labour, markets and politics.
  • The uneven spatial distribution of data centers can invoke inter-jurisdictional competition for tax revenue, (in addition to competition over water, power, and land resources that data centers require).
  • Data centers can encroach on communities devaluing properties, and causing the flight of residents with higher incomes
  • Protest movements can be mischaracterized by media (as, for example, a white middle class NIMBYist movement)
  • The data center industry shops around for different offers in regulation.
  • The scale of the problem is unknown because the input needs of many data centers are not publicly available, and pressure is increasing as demand rises
Listening to others throughout the event, several further issues surfaced:
  • Awareness campaigns are needed. It is clear that most people who are confronted with data center development in their neighbourhoods are taken rather unawares about what data centers are, what their functions are, what resources they need, how these might need to be maintained over time, the costs that will be incurred, and who is behind them. They are then confronted with a steep learning curve that must then be communicated (which takes time) to the wider public. In this respect, data industry leaders profit from the lack of transparency and missing regulatory frameworks.
  • Protest groups that react to data center developments have (until this event) largely operated in isolation. Enhancing networking opportunities and facilitating knowledge exchange would significantly boost awareness and informed decision-making.
  • A moratorium? Clearly, data centers fulfil a purpose in helping the emergence of important new technologies. However, a temporary halt on data center development could generate the needed time for communities to make necessary assessments in order to arrive at founded and informed decisions.

 


09 April, 2024

Von Don Quichote und den Windmühlen. Der „Mobilitéitsplang“ der Hauptstadt


Nach zweieinhalb Jahren Bearbeitung und vielen Diskussionen wurde der Öffentlichkeit nun der neue Mobilitäts- bzw. Verkehrsentwicklungsplan für die Hauptstadt präsentiert.(1) Als Beobachter von außen gibt es verschiedene Möglichkeiten, das Ergebnis zu kommentieren: Eine Praxisperspektive könnte nach dem Nutzen dieser und jener Maßnahme für bestimmte Verkehrsmittel oder Interessengruppen fragen. Eine (partei-)politische Perspektive würde sich darauf richten, wie sich der Plan zur jeweiligen Programmatik von Parteien, Bürgerinitiativen oder Syndikaten verhält. Der hier eingenommene wissenschaftliche Blick auf das Dokument verfolgt primär die Klärung von zwei Fragen: Erstens: sind die Aussagen bezogen auf die hiesige Problemlage glaubwürdig und in sich konsistent, d.h. lassen sie realistisch eine Problemlösung erwarten? Zweitens: sind die dazu formulierten Absichten durch entsprechend konkretisierte Maßnahmen gedeckt? Beide Fragen gehen also der internen Logik und Stimmigkeit des Planwerks nach. Drittens ließe sich überprüfen, ob die im Planwerk getroffenen Annahmen und Aussagen in Einklang stehen mit dem Stand der allgemeinen Diskussion zum Problemfeld der städtischen Mobilität—soweit es eine solche Ambition gibt.

Das Dokument im Überblick
Das Beste, was man über den Mobilitéitsplang an sich sagen kann, ist dass es ihn gibt. Oh-ne ein solches Konzept bleibt jede Praxis Stückwerk und in ihren Wirkungen zwangsläufig begrenzt. Städte brauchen Strategien, und neben Fragen der Flächennutzung und urbanen Struktur ist die Organisation der Mobilität immens wichtig. Eine Reihe von Aspekten zum Thema werden hier erstmals zusammen geführt und in Karten übersichtlich dargestellt. Das ist ein kleiner, nicht zu unterschätzender Fortschritt, den diese Zwischenetappe auf dem Weg zu einer besseren, stadtverträglichen und nachhaltigen Mobilität markiert. 
    Der Plan entfaltet über seine insgesamt 129 Seiten einen illustrierten Überblick über das gesamte Spektrum der Mobilitätspraxis. Aufbauend auf einer Analyse der aktuellen Situation werden in drei Szenarien(gruppen) künftige Entwicklungsverläufe antizipiert; auch dieses Denken in Alternativen ist wichtig. Ausgehend von den nur kurz aufgerufenen langfristigen Perspektiven Luxemburgs und seiner Hauptstadt auf Basis der Landesplanung (sie sind am Ende des Plans, nicht zu Beginn positioniert) treffen die Szenarien Annahmen über die künftige Rolle, die die jeweiligen Verkehrsträger spielen können oder sollen. Entsprechend der weiter wachsenden Bevölkerung wird davon ausgegangen, dass im Jahr 2035 1,14 Mio. Wege zurückgelegt werden. Diese Gesamtwegezahl wird über alle Szenarien als kon-stant angenommen; variabel sind jeweils die Anteile der Verkehrsmittel daran – u.a. aufgrund unterstellter Wirkungen planerischer und infrastruktureller Maßnahmen. Pkw-Verkehr wird, trotz unterschiedlicher Anteile am Gesamtverkehr, in allen Szenarien absolut weiter wachsen, was vor allem der Abhängigkeit der Hauptstadt von ihrer Erreichbarkeit für auswärtige Besucherinnen und vor allem Pendler geschuldet ist. Daten über die zurückgelegten Distanzen (gemessen in Personenkilometern) liegen gleichwohl nicht vor; diese Kennziffer ist jedoch für die Umwelt- und Klimawirkung des Verkehrssektors zentral. Ebenfalls fehlen Angaben zu den in den Haushalten zugelassenen Kfz. Daraus resultiert nicht nur die schiere Präsenz der Fahrzeuge im Stadt- und Straßenraum; auch die Verkehrsmittelwahl steht unter dem direkten Einfluss der Verfügbarkeit motorisierter Verkehrsmittel. Eine autoreduzierte Zukunft der Stadt ist im Mobilitätsplan offenbar nicht einmal als Gedankenspiel vorgesehen.

    Zentraler Inhalt des Plans sind Ausführungen zur Nutzung der Mobilitäts- bzw. Verkehrsträger, vom Fuß- und Radverkehr über den öffentlichen Transport hin zum Kfz-Verkehr; damit wird suggeriert, dass der Straßenverkehr nicht mehr im Zentrum allen Denkens und Handelns stehe, wie dies im Land und seiner Hauptstadt über Jahrzehnte der Fall war. Heute sollen alle Verkehrsträger ihren Beitrag zu einer sicheren und nachhaltigen Fortbewegung leisten. Dazu sollen u.a. ein Verkehrssystemmanagement sowie ein Monitoring eingeführt werden. Ob die Stadt ihren Zielen damit näher kommt, bleibt offen: Wichtige Parameter, mit denen die mögliche Wirkung von planerischen Maßnahmen auf das künftigen Mobilitätsbild abgeschätzt werden könnten, bleiben in Ermangelung einer empirischen Basis unbestimmt. Entsprechendes gilt für die zu erwartenden Folgen für Stadt-, Lebens- und Umweltqualität.

Bewertung
Das Dokument bietet einen brauchbaren Überblick über die meisten, wenn auch nicht alle Aspekte des Verkehrs. Damit ist zugleich eine Leerstelle im Plan benannt: Im Zentrum der Darstellung stehen die Verkehrsträger und ihre Infrastrukturen, und somit isoliert man seinen Inhalt von den historischen, rezenten und künftigen Entscheidungen, die durch die Stadtplanung getroffen bzw. durch die Entwicklung der Region beeinflusst werden. Der Fokus auf die Infrastruktur lässt, ähnlich wie im Nationalen Mobilitätsplan der vorherigen Regierung, Aspekte der Mobilitätsentstehung sowie der mit dem Verkehr verbundenen Probleme und Konflikte (als konkrete, handlungsleitende Verpflichtung) weitgehend außen vor; erst recht ist der Plan immun gegenüber der sozialen Differenzierung unter den Verkehrsteilnehmern. Im Kern herrscht ein technischer Blick auf die Sicherstellung der Erreichbarkeit der Stadt. Das zugrunde liegende Paradigma der Leichtigkeit und Flüssigkeit des Verkehrs ist jedoch im internationalen Maßstab bereits sichtbar gescheitert. Viele Städte erproben einen anderen Umgang mit dem Verkehrsproblem, mal mehr (Paris, Kopenhagen, Gent), mal weniger spektakulär. 
    Die von der EU-Kommission 2013 vorgeschlagene Strategie der Planung für nachhaltige urbane Mobilität (SUMP), an der sich auch der Mobilitéitsplang orientiert,(2) wurde jüngst vom Europäischen Rechnungshof einer kritischen Bilanzierung unterzogen.(3) Dabei wurden Umsetzungshemmnisse und entsprechend begrenzte Wirksamkeit moniert, in deren Konsequenz die besondere Verantwortung der Mitgliedstaaten hervorgehoben wurde: „On the basis of audit work at the Commission and eight different cities in Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain, we found no indication that EU cities are fundamentally changing their approaches and that there is no clear trend towards more sustainable modes of transport.“(4) Dies ist eine Bewertung, die zweifellos auch auf die hiesigen Verhältnisse zutrifft. Doch wer sich, wie die Verantwortlichen der Hauptstadt, an diesem Schema orientiert, muss sehr glaubwürdig aufzeigen, wie man diesen Ansatz in die Realität bringt. Dies ist im Dokument nicht zu erkennen. 
    Während Einzelaspekte des Mobilitätsplans wie die Trassenführung einer zweiten Tramlinie durch die Innenstadt in der Öffentlichkeit bereits lebhaft diskutiert wurden, ist die Crux m.E., wie so oft in Luxemburg, nicht das Detail, sondern die Herangehensweise im Grundsatz: Erstens versammelt das Dokument viele gute Absichten und unkonkrete Ziele nebeneinander, ohne darauf gesondert einzugehen, wie genau diese Ziele umzusetzen sind und an welcher Stelle sie miteinander in Konflikt geraten. Damit folgt der Plan dem bisherigen Versuch, Zielkonflikte möglichst zu vermeiden und es allen Beteiligten recht zu machen. Daraus resultiert eine entschiedene Unentschiedenheit, die den Status Quo nur verlängert und auch relativ moderate Ziele unerreichbar macht. Zweitens liegt ein großes Versäumnis darin, dass der Plan jede konkretisierte, d.h. auch quantifizierte, Aussage zum Thema Klima und Umwelt vermeidet. Der Begriff des Klimaschutzes taucht ein einziges Mal in einer Illustration auf, wird ansonsten komplett ausgespart. Damit bleibt der große Beitrag des fossil betriebenen Verkehrs zum Problem unangetastet. Wie soll Luxemburg unter dieser Bedingung seine verbindlich vereinbarten Klimaziele erreichen? Kann man sich erlauben, im Jahr 2024 einen Plan vorzulegen, der für sich strategischen Gehalt reklamiert, aber zu dieser Zukunftsfrage schweigt? Das ist mindestens fahrlässig. 
    Gelegentlich benannt, aber nie konsequent zu Ende gedacht wird die Wachstumsfrage. Auch dies setzt den guten Absichten enge Grenzen, denn die stetige Zunahme von Sozialprodukt, Beschäftigung und Bevölkerung ist zwangsläufig mit weiterem Wachstum der Verkehrsmengen verbunden. Unter diesen Bedingungen muss jeder mögliche Fortschritt als unzureichend erscheinen. Als wohlhabende Insel im Meer der Großregion ist Luxemburg auf Dauer elementar auf den Einstrom der Arbeitskräfte von außen angewiesen; im Plan jedoch erklärt sich die Hauptstadt, die nahezu die Hälfte des nationalen Arbeitsmarkts ausmacht, für diesen Teil des Problems unzuständig. Will man nicht als Don Quichote vor den sich immer schneller drehenden Windmühlen enden, bedarf es einer pro-aktiven Politik, zwangsläufig auch national und international angelegt. 
    Ansätze, die sich mit den strukturellen Ursachen der Mobilität in Stadt und Land befassen und entsprechende Dilemmata thematisieren (etwa die Relation Arbeitsplatz vs. Wohnbevölkerung, Telearbeit, …), sucht man im Text mit der Lupe, oder es bleibt bei ihrer Beschreibung, ohne dass daraus  planerische Konsequenzen gezogen würden (vgl. Grafik 6 auf S. 8). Ein interessanter Aspekt taucht eher beiläufig unter dem etwas technokratischen Sujet der betrieblichen Mobilitätspolitik auf. Es wäre in der Tat ein den hiesigen Verhältnissen überaus angemessener Schritt, die großen Unternehmen stärker in die Pflicht zu nehmen. Sie sind zentral an der „Produktion von Knappheiten“ beteiligt: je dynamischer der Arbeitsmarkt, umso höher die Einpendlerströme, umso prekärer gestaltet sich die Versorgung mit Wohnraum und Verkehrsraum. Daher stellt sich die Frage, inwiefern die alte Arbeitsteilung zwischen privat und öffentlich (Betriebe schaffen Jobs, die öffentliche Hand besorgt die Infrastrukturen) noch sinnvoll Bestand haben kann, oder ob es nicht mehr Verantwortung der Unternehmen braucht.

Fazit
Versucht man die eingangs genannten Fragen zu beantworten, dann ist das Dokument insgesamt nicht konsistent mit Blick auf den Problemdruck und die gewählten Strategien: formulierter Anspruch und Realität passen kaum zusammen; dies gilt bereits heute und erst recht mit Blick auf anstehende Herausforderungen wie Klimawandel oder Wachstum. Um sich darauf einzustellen, müsste der Gegenstand dieser Strategie sichtbar erweitert werden: Mobilität und Verkehr sind integraler Bestandteil von Flächennutzung und Standortentwicklung, wenn nicht des wirtschaftlichen Geschäftsmodells des Landes. Außerdem müssen die Ziele von Umwelt-, Klima- und Gesundheitsschutz konkretisiert und operationalisiert werden. Mit Blick auf die Zeithorizonte müsste die Umsetzung deutlich entschiedener und schneller als bisher erfolgen-—und zwar auch solcher Schritte, die die kaum hinterfragten Privilegien des Kfz-Verkehrs zur Disposition stellen, so unpopulär das auch ist. Selbst wenn dies gelegentlich suggeriert wird und im Text Schlagworte wie die 15-Minuten-Stadt oder die Superblocks aus Barcelona en passant auftauchen: Dieser Plan ist (noch) nicht auf der Höhe der Zeit.(5)
    Würde man tatsächlich zum Stand der Diskussion in anderen europäischen Städten aufschließen wollen, muss man weit mehr tun als nur Ziele und Absichten zu formulieren. Ziele müssen glaubwürdig mit konkreten Strategien und Maßnahmen hinterlegt werden. Dabei kommt es auf zwei Punkte an: erstens die Umsetzung von Maßnahmen, zweitens eine plausible Abschätzung ihrer Wirkung. Beide Elemente fehlen im vorliegenden Plan oder bleiben unbestimmt. Die jüngere Vergangenheit war zu sehr durch Konfliktvermeidung geprägt, als dass man jetzt entschlossene Umsetzung erwarten dürfte. Um den Mobilitätsplan produktiv zu machen, braucht es aber Mut zum Konflikt – nicht zuletzt deshalb, weil kaum ein Thema gesellschaftlich so umstritten, polarisiert erscheint wie der Verkehr.
    Verglichen mit der Präsentation der Zwischenergebnisse des Planungsprozesses, die noch den Geist der 1980er Jahre, der ingenieurtechnischen Verkehrsplanung, versprühte (6), gibt sich das vorliegende Dokument einen fortschrittlicheren Look. Dieser Anspruch wird jedoch real nicht eingelöst. Man lernt über den Mobilitéitsplang vor allem aus dem, was er nicht enthält. Vor allem wird das große Thema der nachhaltigen Entwicklung nicht angemessen gewürdigt. Eine ausdrückliche Referenz an das europäische Modell der nachhaltigen Planung städtischer Mobilität (SUMP) vorzunehmen, ohne Umwelt- oder Klimaaspekte im Planwerk zu behandeln, ist mehr als nur eine optische Täuschung.
    Sollte es so sein, dass der Mobilitéitsplang eine Lücke zwischen Anspruch und Realität aufweist, stellt sich die Frage, an welchem Ende sie geschlossen werden kann: durch weniger Ambition und mehr Realitätssinn, oder durch nachholende Strategie und Praxis? Nimmt man die eigene Verpflichtung zu Nachhaltigkeit und die unübersehbaren Probleme des Status Quo ernst, kann es nur um Letzteres gehen. Dabei könnten drei Bausteine helfen: die systematische Einbettung des Mobilitätssystems in die Entwicklung und Planung von Stadt und Region; die konkrete Benennung der Konfliktfelder innerhalb des städtischen Verkehrs und mit anderen Planungszielen; schließlich eine Pluralisierung der Szenarien, um Alternativen auch jenseits des business as usual aufzuzeigen. Sollte der Plan, wie die Verantwortlichen anlässlich seiner Präsentation betonten, nur als Strategie gedacht sein, deren konkrete Ausformung erst folgen muss: dann ist es wirklich allerhöchste Zeit. Denn planerisch gesehen ist das Zieljahr 2035 praktisch übermorgen. 

Markus Hesse

Index
(1) VdL (2024): Onse Mobilitéitsplang. Vernetzt, innovativ, nohalteg. Luxembourg. Zur ersten Präsentation des Prozesses siehe diesen Blog: urbanunbound.blogspot.lu vom 14. Oktober 2021.
(2) European Commission (2013): A concept for sustainable urban mobility plans (Annex). Brussels, COM(2013) 913 final.
(3) European Court of Auditors (2020): Sustainable urban mobility in the EU: no substantial improvement is possible without the Member States‘ commitment. Special Report 06. Luxembourg.
(4) ebda., S. 61.
(5) Zum Stand der Diskussion und zu den Anforderungen nachhaltiger Mobilität siehe bspw. Hartl, R., Harms, P., & Egermann, M. (2024). Towards transformation-oriented planning: what can sustainable urban mobility planning (SUMP) learn from transition management (TM)?. Transport Reviews, 44(1), 167-190, oder Bertolini, L. (2023). The next 30 years: planning cities beyond mobility?. European Planning Studies, 31(11), 2354-2367.
(6) Auf diesem Blog: urbanunbound.blogspot.lu vom 4. März 2022

02 April, 2024

'Saving the city' / "Auf dem Weg zur multifunktionalen Innenstadt ..."

So we're back to cities that need saving? A German practice network called "Die Stadtretter" is currently active in revitalising inner cities, particularly in Germany, in response to the damage left by the COVID-19 pandemic, the hollowing out of urban retail by online shopping, and the like. This vocabulary reminds me of an older discourse that was quite popular in the 1960s and beyond, when factors such as industrial decline or suburbanisation began to critically affect the central cities. In response to that feeling of crisis, the manifesto "Save our cities now!" was adopted by the Annual General Assembly of the Association of German Cities in Munich in 1971 (Deutscher Städtetag 1971).

    Participants in the meeting and authors were mayors and chief administrative officers of major West German cities who, a quarter of a century after the end of the Second World War, warned of the consequential burdens of urban growth - infrastructure, traffic density, environmental problems and social conflicts were the relevant keywords. They were taken as an opportunity for an urgent appeal: "The problems of cities must finally be placed at the centre of policy at national and international level (emphasis M.H.). The cities can still be saved." (Deutscher Städtetag 1971: 247) As a discourse of practice, the manifesto is in line with classics of criticism of modern urban planning, as expressed in the 1960s by Jane Jacobs (1961), Alexander Mitscherlich (1965) or Wolf-Jobst Siedler et al. (1964).
  The propensity of urban scholars to pursue doomsday scenarios and perform as end-times prophets had once inspired Dennis Judd to mock that according to them, "everything is always going to hell..." (Judd 2005). While there are good reasons to disbelieve the triumphant vocabulary once presented to the media and the public by suspects such as Richard Florida or Edward Glaeser, things are always contextual and worth examining in detail. More food for thought on the ever-shifting tone and nature of crisis-related discourses can be found, for example, in Raumforschung & Raumordnung (5/2008), in a paper entitled 'Reurbanisation? Urban discourses, conflicting interpretations, conceptual confusion', making the case specifically of German urban discourses. There are indeed some parallels in the related debates, while today's challenges seem quite different and possibly more difficult to resolve than they were decades ago.
  As far as current debates and practices are concerned, the 'Stadtretter' are now coming to Trier, effectively a neighbouring city of Luxembourg, to present and discuss strategies for revitalising the city centre, for converting empty department stores and perhaps office buildings into apartments. See the information presented by the organisers below (in German).


"In Zeiten tiefgreifender Veränderung von Innenstädten rückt der Begriff der „Multifunktionalität“ immer häufiger in den Fokus. Aber was genau verbirgt sich dahinter? Welche neuen und alten Funktionen müssten angesiedelt werden resp. erhalten bleiben, um Multifunktionalität (wieder-) herzustellen? Welchen Einfluss können Verwaltungen auf die Entwicklung ausüben und wie kann der Perspektive von Bürgerinnen und Bürger vor Ort Rechnung getragen werden?
 

Dies sind nur einige der Fragen, auf die aktuell viele Städte Deutschlands für ihre Innenstädte Antworten suchen. Im Sinne örtlicher Aufenthaltsqualität und Belebung sind Wohnen, Freizeit, Kultur, Arbeit und Kreativität Schlüsselbegriffe, die neue Ansätze und Umsetzungsbeispiele erfordern. Im Rahmen des Bundesprogramms „Zukunftsfähige Innenstädte und Zentren“ möchten wir in Kooperation mit der bundesweiten Initiative „Die Stadtretter“ mit Ihnen ins Gespräch kommen. Themendialog, Best Practice und Inspiration stehen auf der Agenda."


Im Namen von Ralf Britten,

Beigeordneter, Dezernent für Innenstadt & Handel

lädt die Stadt Trier zur Veranstaltung

„Multifunktionalität findet Stadt“

am 17. und 18. April 2024 im ECC Trier, Metzer Allee ein.


More information on the event see the weblink/weitere Informationen zur Veranstaltung finden sich HIER.

27 March, 2024

From Smart City to Truck Rental

 
Where is Sidewalk Labs or Google?  It seems full speed ahead at Quayside, but so far Google is no where to be found. Are they gone? I wonder. Or are they in the background, somewhere buried in the contracts with the Ontario Pension Plan as it was said years ago? Or, will I find a small innocuous tiny little Google sign hanging somewhere, like they do at the HQ in Zurich? Is this a game of Hide & Seek? A look around the properties of the former Sidewalk Labs, it would seem that the big tech firm totally gone and is far from anyone’s mind.
 
In March 2021—almost a year after Sidewalk Labs abandoned its project—Waterfront Toronto launched another competition to search for new parters to develop the 4.9 hectare, L-shaped, strip of land. The winner this time—or more precisely, the chosen “preferred proponent” (Waterfront Toronto 2024)—was a consortium known as Quayside Impact Limited Partnership. Quayside Impact, for short, was a collaboration between real estate developers Dream Unlimited Corp and Great Gulf Group Ltd. Both have strong footholds in Toronto’s downtown development. Dream records over 70 projects and/or “assets”, 20 of which are located in the Distillery District (Dream 2024); Great Gulf has several towers in downtown Toronto, including Monde, a condo building that borders Quayside to the west (Great Gulf 2024).
 
In February 2022, negotiations commenced over the Project Agreement between Waterfront Toronto and Quayside Impact. These would lead a design team composed of Adjaye Associates from London/New York/Accra, Alison Brooks Architects from London, Henning Larsen who has offices in North America, Europe and Asia, SLA housed in Copenhagen/Aarhus/Oslo, and Two Row Architect from Ohsweken/Six Nations (Waterfront Toronto 2024). Quayside is also supported by a number of “community partners” including The Bentway, Centre for Social Innovation, Crow/s, George Brown College, The Rekai Centres, and Woodgreen. And, there are “Project Consultants” including a-A AEA Consulting, ARUP, Aspect Structural Engineers, Benoy, Entuitive, G architects, CH+A design studio, Golder, Innovation Seven, cahdco, KPMB, Transolar KlimaEngineering, Tucker Hirise, Urban Strategies Inc. Ledcor Group, Norm Li, Murray Twohig, PMA Landscape Architects, Purpose, reteam, Smith + Andersen, Frontier Design.
 
The former Sidewalk Labs 307 is now a truck rental company. Waterfront Toronto has a new home across the street and the properties along the lakeside where Sidewalk Lab’s mass timber buildings were to be built are near completion. Aquabella and Aqualuna, built by Tridel, are offering ‘luxury by the lake’ for between 2.3 and 8.9 million a piece plus taxes and maintenance (Tridel 2024). Four more condo towers and a ‘community forest’ are planned for the remaining 4.9 hectare plot.
 
At a public session of Waterfront Toronto’s Design Review Panel in March 2024, presenters discussed the planning objectives focussing on retail integration/retail frontage, timber construction, building height adjustments, zoning requirements, design flexibility, “porosity” (which I think is about human-building interaction), rooftop urban agriculture, signature skylines, community green and public spaces.
 
Questions from the audience focussed on street-level design and diverse retail environments. Some zeroed into questions about the meaning of 'public': which spaces were in fact open to the wider public, as opposed to residents of the new towers? How, for example, would the rooftop urban agriculture be a public space as advertised? Framing constraints to questions of zoning, seemed to preclude discussions of housing.
 
Further properties that were set aside for Sidewalk Labs’ IDEA District on Villier’s Island are now being re-landscaped to allow for a new mouth to the Don River. Massive amounts of land have been pushed around, ecological studies of wildlife have been completed, and bridges and bike lanes installed. According to Waterfront Toronto at a public information session on March 26, circa 80% of the land is publicly owned, and once the landscaping is complete a new residential district will be built featuring several more towers, a school, a “site for ceremony”, and plenty of green space. 
 
Re-landscaping the Don River (Carr 2024)
 
Did the Toronto smart city die? 
So far, it seems like it's back to business-as-usual condo development in Toronto with all the usual suspects -- landowners, real estate developers, (st)architects, city officials, interested buyers, existing residents -- this time with emphasis on re-naturalization and reconciliation. These modes of urban development invoke old debates about market-led housing, respective exclusionary pricing with all sorts of knock-on effects, vertical cities (condo living), and the gaps between design process and actual needs, profits and distribution of wealth, variations on public-private relationships in urban planning. But how curious: No conversations about automatic lighting, climate sensors, underground robotic waste disposal, data collection/privacy, hackathons, or administration dashboards. Where is Google? Olly olly oxem free!

22 March, 2024

Welcoming Visiting Researcher, Nathan Flore

The Urban Studies Group is happy to announce that they will be welcoming Nathan Flore (PhD candidate) from the Institute for Public Decision Making, a division of Cité, an interdisciplinary Research Unit dedicated to issues of governance, justice and society at the University of Liège.  Flore will be conducting field work in Luxembourg this spring for this PhD project entitled, "Smart Cities and the Regulation of Urban Mobilities (SCRUM)"

A short summary:
The aim of this doctoral research is to investigate the regulation of urban mobilities induced by smart mobility projects. Thousands of cities around the world have adopted "smart city" plans since the beginning of the 2000s. These plans include public strategies targeting efficiency goals and based on the utilisation of digital technologies. A large part of smart city projects consist indeed in the reduction of resource consumption in the city, be it water, power or time. In this context, the infrastructure is represented as the locus of the optimisation of urban life, hence the appearance of concepts such as smart grid, smart environment and smart mobility, for instance. So-called smart mobility projects focus on the citizen use of roads and means of transport when the latter across the city. They mobilise whole sociotechnical systems that include sensors, data, algorithms and digital interfaces to analyse in real time the state of transportation networks. Public authorities are then in a position to intervene directly, either by adapting flexible transport infrastructure or steering citizens through digital media. The SCRUM research project investigate this type of digitally mediated regulation of urban mobility with a case study research design. The smart mobility policies of three cities, namely Namur, Luxembourg and Lyon are explored through multisite ethnography based on the combined use of document analysis, semi-structured interviews and observations.

12 February, 2024

IGU Urban Commission 2024 Annual Meeting in Cork, Ireland (20-23 August 2024)

The IGU Urban Geography Commission in collaboration with the Department of Geography, University College Cork (Ireland) are pleased to invite you to its 2024 Annual Conference: Crises, what crisis? Urban development and policy in search of the "new normal", taking place in the University College Cork, from 20th to 23rd August 2024. The venue is chosen in association with the IGU's main congress IGC taking place in Dublin Ireland (starting on Saturday, 24 August).
    The deadline for the submission of abstracts for the 2024 IGU-Urban has been extended until 29th February, 2024. Anyone interested in submitting an abstract should do it on the template available on https://www.igu-urban.org/2024-cork
    This is the short conference description: "It is widely accepted that societies are currently confronted with multiple crises. This applies to city regions as well, where recent challenges such as the pandemic or rising energy prices add to ongoing problems caused by the scarcity of housing, social inequality, or longer-term issues such as climate change. Governments and city-leaders are increasingly asked to resolve acute problems, while simultaneously trying to deal with such long-term challenges. This leaves the institutions in charge with a profound dilemma: first, policies considered to be sufficiently ‘integrated’ (spatially, cross-sectoral) suffer from their inherent complexities; second, established practice hardly fits with the very temporalities of these challenges. While it seems common sense that a simple return to pre-pandemic conditions (the ‘old normal’) might be unlikely, it remains open what the ‘new normal’ in this respect could be, and how cities and regions could get there."
  We call upon both established and early-career researchers working in geography and related (inter-)disciplinary contexts to send in their abstracts. These are invited to relate to the five key domains of the current Mandate of the IGU-Urban Commission mentioned below, but do not necessarily have to be confined to them. Cities as driver of, and driven by, transformational change Cities, urban systems and nation states Urban areas under pressure of transformation Climate change, resilience, urban health and well-being Governance, institutions, urban policy.
   FURTHER INFORMATION
All the information about the congress and about our commission is available on the IGU Urban Geography Commission website: https://www.igu-urban.org/
    EARLY CAREER AWARD 2024
As part of its 2024 Annual Meeting the IGU Urban Commission once again offers a paper competition for Early Career Researchers in urban geography. For more information https://www.igu-urban.org/emerging-scholars-committe/ 
   CONTACT
For information concerning the fees and the abstracts submission:
Therese Kenna: t.kenna@ucc.ie
María Jose Piñeira Mantiñán: mariajose.pineira@usc.es
We look forward to seeing you in Cork! 
María José Piñeira
Chair IGU Urban Geography Commission


06 February, 2024

Professor Michael Wegener R.I.P.


Michael Wegener died on 2 February 2024. An architect by training, he joined the Faculty of Spatial Planning at the (Technical) University of Dortmund already in 1977 and became Professor of Spatial Planning in 1996. He served as deputy head and head of IRPUD, the faculty's body for the preparation and coordination of externally funded research projects. He pursued a highly regarded research portfolio (even after his retirement in 2003) with both general interests in spatial development and planning and the introduction of time and the temporal dimension of spatial development. The simulation modelling of space-time relationships that he has developed has been the basis of his excellent reputation in the international communities concerned with land use and transport (see the illustration below, courtesy of S&W). In this respect he definitely set a standard.
    My personal memory of Michael Wegener is also very positive, as he was the chairman (“Prüfer”) of my doctoral dissertation-committee in spatial planning at the University of Dortmund in October 1997. Thanks to his careful moderation, we had an extremely inspiring debate on how to properly approach logistics as a research topic in urban contexts. Given the latent unsustainability of logistics operations at the time – which still seems to be an issue and a challenge today – we moved on to discussing more fundamental aspects of the system of flows, the spaces it affects in positive and critical ways, and where the limits to growth, circulation and resource consumption could be (set).
    His kind personality was made up of a rather rare combination of scientific rigor and ethos on the one hand, and a strong normative orientation towards equitable, sustainable development on the other. There is much to learn from him in this respect too.

Markus Hesse

07 January, 2024

Recalling December keynote invitations and a looking forward to a happy new year

Face-to-face meetings allow people to run into the unexpected: Luneburg University's Libeskind Building (photo:  Markus Hesse 2023).

Happy New Year Everyone, I hope you all had a relaxing, fun, or productive holiday (whatever suits you). My--Carr writing here--December was rather full, and then followed by 10 days of staycation.

Two highlights from December stand out in particular. The first was a trip to the University of Stavanger, where Anders Riel Müller invited me give a keynote at his final event of the Research Network for Smart Sustainable Cities. It was a treat to present alongside Jens Fisker, Ramon Ribera Fumaz, Maja de Neergaard, Casey Lynch, and Ugo Rossi. A big thank you to Anders for the fabulous conference and several days of extended dialogues on issues of digitalization, urbanity and (the likely death of) smart cities.

The second highlight was at the Center for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University Lüneburg where Armin Beverungen and Maja-lee Voigt invited Markus and me to talk about our work on large digital corporations. I had to attend online as the Virus that is unfortunately still among us. A perk of double authored papers, however is that one can go-thank you Markus(!) Another big thank you to Armin and Maja-lee and for the pleasure of thoughtful discussion with your colloquium. We look forward to more exchange.

Both talks discussed how powerful tech companies such as Amazon or Google drive urban development, and what the wider implications are that sit at the nexus of the relationship between territory, information technology and governance. Drawing inspiration from Richard Walker’s work on corporate geographies and Rosen & Alvarez León (2022) “digital growth machine” we discussed the role of big tech produce hegemonic relational geographies as “urban makers” (Sidewalk Labs); Tech as “urban users” (HQs), and Tech as an urban “power system” (Amazon.com).

05 December, 2023

New Publication on urban development in the Glatt Valley in The Elgar Companion to Valleys – Social Science Perspectives

Was lange währt, wird endlich gut
A new publication is out in Aguiar, Senese, & French's (Eds) Elgar Companion to Valleys – Social Science Perspectives, that draws on work from nine years ago as part of a project "Governance for sustainable spatial development – a comparative study of Luxembourg and Switzerland" (SUSTAIN_GOV, FNR-funded) and on Evan McDonough's (Urban Studies PhD graduate) work on vertical cities. It is a chapter on urban governance and sustainability policy in the Glatt Valley (seen by some as an urban extension of Zurich). For a preview to this eye-catching book, look here.

Thank you Luis, Donna and Diana; it was lovely collaborating with you and congratulations!

The full citation of our chapter is: Carr, C., McDonough, E. 2023. “Vertical (sub)urbanization in Zurich’s northeast: The Valley along the Glatt as both a metaphor and mediating structural element.” In Aguiar, L, Senese, D., and French, D. The Elgar Companion to Valleys – Social Science Perspectives, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 79-91.

Other works on sustainability in the Glatt Valley
Using this opportunity to shine light again on this work, another publication from Evan and me on the Glatt Valley was published in a special issue on suburbanization edited by Hesse and Siedentop, and is available here: Carr, C. and McDonough, E. (2018) “Integrative Planning of Post-suburban Growth in the Glatt Valley (Switzerland)” Raumforschung und Raumordnung | Spatial Research and Planning. DE, 76(2), pp. 109–122. doi: 10.1007/s13147-016-0403-x.

I can also take this opportunity to bring your attention to another article based on SUSTAIN_GOV work, that is one of those papers that I never managed to get published-- this is obstensively, if you will humour me, celebrating a failure. The paper was desk rejected by two journals (i.e. submitted and rejected 20 minutes later), and then rejected after several rounds of peer-review in a special issue on environmental policy that I had been invited to. And while this publishing path of permo-reject doesn't suggest that the paper will be very good, it remains a fact that many hours went into this paper, and...well....actually I like it! Here it is made available on an open access platform: Carr, C. 2020. "Just because they say it is sustainable development, it does not mean that it is: Sustainable development as a master-signifier in Swiss urban and regional planning" SocArXiv Papers, DOI: 10.31235/osf.io/jvbue







29 November, 2023

'This country is punching ...' Lecture documentation

As already mentioned in the previous blog-post, I was invited to give a lecture on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the University of Luxembourg. It was held on Thursday, 23rd November 2023, at Campus Belval in the Black Box of the MSH. This was a nice event visited by about 50 people, among them colleagues, students, and also a number of guests from outside the University.








(c) Olga Kryvets

I have documented the talk in a script that, for technical reasons, is stored for download on the University's repository orbilu.uni.lu (HERE). The text has largely remained in the form of its oral presentation, aiming to provide an overview of some key development dynamics and conflicts of the country. While sticking to the scientific method of providing a solid question, making empirical cases and also deriving robust conclusions, I tried my best to speak to the interested reader and the general public as well.

For further reading and sense-making, there is a number of sources mentioned at the end of the paper, which are all available on the repository. As a publicly funded institution, we are committed to inform the public, so feel free to consult our writings. (In my case, this includes both academic journal papers and book chapters, but also a range of shorter articles deliberately written for the interested public and the readers of magazines and media outlets such as 'forum', 'Letzëbuerger Land', 'ons stad', or 'Luxemburger Wort'.)

And for sure, we certainly speak to institutions outside of academia, to politics and practice about these and other issues as well, if this is desired.

12 November, 2023

'This country is punching far beyond its weight'-- Lecture on the occasion of uni.lu@20



Colleagues, students and the interested public are invited to this talk on behalf of the UL celebrating its 20th anniversary. It is one of the contributions selected from the Faculty of Humanities, and we are happy that this proposal coming from the Dept. of Geography & Spatial Planning was selected as well. 
    The quote in the title comes from an expert interview in recent research. It illustrates the foundational fact that Luxembourg has considerably more economic power and dynamism that its size and institutional set-up would allow to accommodate to. This is the basic problem that runs through all development and planning conflicts, reinforced by institutional and procedural complexity and inertia. Appropriate strategies need to be structural. However, current practice is constrained by three different sorts of illusion: a growth illusion; a steering illusion; and a sustainability illusion. The lecture will close by reflecting upon some thoughts on how to address structural challenges.
    The talk could be assumed as a menu composed of four courses. The ‘amuse geul’ (S1) includes a short note on where I obtained the knowledge that allows for to make today’s argument (aka my lenses). The 'entrée' (S2) refers to the work others have been doing on related subject matters in most general terms (aka theory). S3 may comprise the main course: the specificities of Luxembourg’s development trajectory, the dark side of being small-but-global, and the governance illusions that seem pertinent when it comes to policy & planning discourses. As to the dessert (S4), I know that I cannot finish this exercise without addressing what could, or should, be done in order to improve the real-world situation. I remain pretty cautious and won’t present solutions. Instead, I will name a few important requirements that need to be set in place, before one may think about anything that promises to resolve the underlying issues.
    Entrance is free (of course), but the organisers would like to see participants register in advance. This can be done HERE.

Markus Hesse

10 November, 2023

A podcast about Luxembourg for our swedish readers


 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

Last October, Carr had the pleasure of greeting Håkan Forsell and Dan Hallemar in Luxembourg as they expand their catalogue of cities under exploration for their podcast, Staden Podcast. Swedish listeners can tune in here: https://www.stadenpodcast.se/avsnitt/luxemburg

05 October, 2023

Is Belval so cool that it needs redevelopment?


Surprise, surprise: we are slowly but surely moving towards a greener, safer, more human #Belval in Luxembourg’s old-industrial south. This pre-Christmas gift was presented to the public on the 29th September 2023, shortly before the national elections, by three ministers (Mobility & Public Works; Energy & Spatial Planning; Environment) jointly with the development agency #Agora and the two municipalities of Esch-sur-Alzette and Sanem. Their proposal for a new mobility design of the district was already called “an extensive redevelopment” of Belval by Delano-Magazine. The place is well known for some iconic buildings such as the red Dexia-tower or the old high furnace, which was refurbished as industrial heritage; last but not least, Belval hosts the University’s premises, among them the Maison du Savoir (House of Knowledge) and also the library with its impressive mélange of modern and industrial construction features.

The ‘redevelopment’ of development

Belval has emerged on the grounds of a steel-production plant about 20 years ago, after one of the two high furnaces had been decommissioned in 1997. Cleaning-up the site and initial development took place in the early 2000s, while most recent data from the developing agency Agora indicate that the site is meanwhile developed by about 60% of its floorspace and facilities and sold out to investors or users by about 80%, as of 2023. A true success story, as the government has put it. However, one may wonder why a new site that is even not yet completed already needs redevelopment, after a relatively short period of existence. Could it indeed be the case that the area is not yet the vibrant urban neighbourhood that was once promised by its founders and financiers? Did the government eventually recognize that its car-oriented layout and street design has fallen out of time, from the very beginning? Less than a year ago only, when our colleagues from Architecture @uni.lu had organised a set of roundtables on Belval, the community of developers (public, private) demonstrably claimed that if they would have to do it again, they would do it exactly in the same way (“by 100 percent”, quote). That must have been a different theatre.
    As members of the UL and thus one of the main public users of the Cité des Sciences, we just went through our rentrée number nine since we were moved to Belval in fall 2015. That gives sufficient evidence to discuss the pros and cons of the area and its environment, and to assess the most recent promises of the government. Our answers to both questions may add some ‘varieties of interpretation’, particularly when looking at the non-built environment, that is, people, community, politics and organization. (I leave aside the ways of how the University’s affairs, buildings and infrastructures are managed—a separate story).
    As to the first point, a lot has been written about Belval also on this platform, which does not need to be repeated. In a nutshell: one concern is about the overall development that has rendered the site a rather dense and sealed surface. There seems to be a significant lack of green space that has made Belval becoming a windy heat-island. The urban fabric obviously inhibits environmental problems that result from a narrow-minded reading of sustainability as density. Moreover, little to no space is offered for non-market based use, for example the self-organization of students. It looks as if every square-metre will have to find its ultimate market value, being subject to development, management, and control. Newly built large-scale projects often need decades to develop their urban patina, while the benefits of truly public spaces with social mix, accidental interaction across social classes, and adaptation to change are yet missing. Such properties are admittedly difficult to plan for, but one wonders whether this point has been part of the planning at all.
    Another source of long-standing commentary is its car-oriented approach to accessibility, which only recently started to become improved. This brings us to the second question: What to expect from the new plans presented by the government? Is it good to see that politics has actually acknowledged the poor shape of both mobility infrastructure and street-urban design with respect to the site? Yes, it is, improvements are as welcome as needed. However, it is hard to accept that a seamless, comfortable connection of the district to other nodes in the country, notably its capital – provided by the tram – will not be ready before 2035 or 2038. That would be more than two decades after the Cité des Sciences was inaugurated. In the light of this timing: Is it serious to install displays on Belval streetscape that announce the coming of the tram—as if it would be tomorrow, not in 15 years …? Also, it remains to be seen whether hastily painted ‘pop-up bike lanes’ will improve the real situation, or just indicate bad conscience of the authorities.


The politics of infrastructure and planning at large scale

Inertia in changing infrastructure systems is well-known, and it is a common question whether large-scale urban projects should precede the provision of infrastructure, or follow it afterwards. Answering that question depends on market conditions, the pace of implementation, state funding etc. In the case of Belval, the proclaimed mobility revolution will be late, if at all, given the persistent flow of the poorly occupied automobile that has already gained supremacy today. This is due to the ‘relational’ setting of Luxembourg that depends on the influx of remote (that is, foreign) workforce, thus linked to the necessarily unbalanced relationship between housing and occupation. How many of those who will work in Belval do live around, or will do so in the foreseeable future? Do we create just another ‘terminal’ that maximizes throughput (in order to generate taxes), without adding a sense of place to the area? These are structural questions that new projects can’t escape from, but that are rarely asked or answered in the phase of conceptualization.
    Apart from the technicalities that the concept brochure provides in the very detail over dozens of pages, we see some familiar patterns of development and planning policy, governance and governmentality (that is, the conduct of conduct). These include, first and foremost, the predominant state as the central actor. Municipalities use to play a minor role when it comes to strategic projects. This was already the case when Belval came into being; consequently, the mayors’ part in the presentation of the new project – while indeed being present at all – is limited to one out of 41 pages of the document. The lion’s share is taken over by state and state-led agencies. This principle already applied to the very beginning of Belval, which was localized based on state decision making in concert with the landowner, not following the preference of the municipality of Esch-sur-Alzette.
    The new plans for Belval also embody a strong emphasis on technology and infrastructure – a policy that seems typical for Luxembourg: building, building, building. Of course, catching up with growth means providing the required infrastructure, especially for the preferred means of a) land use and b) transport. However, in terms of steering transport demand and supply, infrastructure provision alone is necessary but not sufficient as a framework condition. Organisation comes into play as does the question of aims and objectives in more regulatory terms. We recall from early planning that connecting Belval to the train system (by the new gare Belval-Université) had made the government to predict a modal share between cars and transit of 60 to 40 percent for the future. We don’t know in how far this has been achieved, the new concept might be understood as an attempt to strengthen the policy. The open question is what else is foreseen to be implemented for steering the demand side other than the supply of infrastructure and a new street design. Otherwise, the desired outcomes would lack probability. It looks as if the provision of infrastructure is considered to be the end, not the means of the policy.

The conduct of conduct

Finally, the discursive framing of the project follows a common pattern. It includes a handful of steps that we do know too well: First, when a new project is presented to the public, it is sold as a game changer that will resolve the majority of current problems. In a development trajectory that is as complex as contested (such as planning for the small-but-global metropolis), promising “solutions” turns out to be a risky endeavour. As a result, in a second phase the projects earn critical commentaries, either on their outset or after realisation. For a while, this criticism is either rejected or ignored by the authorities. As soon as the deficiencies of real developments can’t be overlooked, officials start to contend critical voices. This criticism is then used in order to escape from the murky reality of today’s development pressure, moving on to praising future projects that would make everything better. This is a narrative cycle that goes on again and again …
    The speed of change in the Grand Duchy is enormous, not only compared with other countries. Development, wealth and growth have a massive impact on society and economy. which is by and large perceived as beneficial. Hence, development and growth enjoy political priority in most fields of practice, also revealed by the election campaigns. However, it unfolds at a certain price: The downside of growth is that both infrastructure and institutions can hardly catch up with the ever rising population of residents and employees. Most of the professional elites are aware of this, yet the underlying conflicts and contradictions are not addressed. 
    Only in rare moments these issues are openly articulated in public discourse. As a notable exception, the lead-candidate of the socialist LSAP conceded in a press-interview prior to the October 2023 elections: “Wir haben die Bedeutung des enormen Wachstums nicht richtig eingeschätzt” (‘We did not properly estimate the importance of the enormous growth’, Luxemburger Wort, 30th September 2023, p. 2). This concession, related to the pandemic and health policy, can certainly be applied to many fields of policy making, such as education, housing, or mobility. There is no solution in sight. However, a reflective, more cautious attitude to contemporary problems and possible mid- and long-term strategies would also be useful to apply in the ‘wicked’ field of development, movement, and mobility. And better remove the tram promotion for a while?

Markus Hesse

06 September, 2023

Mattiucci interviews Carr in ITEM Bookzine di arte e psicoanalisi

Earlier this year, Carr was interviewed by Prof. Cristina Mattiucci Dept of Architecture, University of Naples Federico II. The following is an English-language translation of the original conversation that Mattiucci published in ITEM Bookzine di arte e psicoanalisi N.2 - SI Artificiale - edited by Waiting Room Residency - Giusi Campisi, Sara d’Alessandro Manozzo, Luca Bertoldi - July 2023.


The urban heaviness of the digital / Politics of urban digital infrastructure

by Christina Mattiucci

The Premise: I met Connie (Constance) Carr at INURA - the International Network of Urban Research and Action - which is a network we have shared for many years.

Last year, in June 2022, at the close of the Retreat of the Annual INURA conference held in Luxembourg, she presented her research on - Digital Urban Development - How large digital corporations shape the field of urban governance (DIGI-GOV) - of which she is PI, at the Department of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Luxembourg. The aim of DIGI-GOV is to explore the role of large digital corporations (LDCs) in digital urban development, how the presence of LDCs in urban planning practice challenge urban governance, and how LDC-led urban development constitutes a new relational geography of digital cities.

I was curious about Carr’s research because it questions dimension of digital urban transformations, and sheds light on 'the weight' of digital dimensions of urban spatial dynamics and in the context of the Urban Question.

Now, almost a year later, I come back to her to try to understand what are the main issues that emerged from that research, beyond the publications resulted from it so far.

Q: It seems to me that your work seeks to understand the on-the-ground politics of urban digital infrastructure. What are the broader questions that have guided your research and what kind of conceptualization of the digital dimension it challenged?

A: The broad aim of DIGI-GOV to examine and explain how large digital corporations such as Amazon or Google influence the development. This is the overarching goal. This research is funded by the Luxembourg National Research Fund. And I say this not only as a logo but also because people often ask me about who funds this research as they are suspicious that it might be Google, or some investor. So, as a small disclaimer, it is important in this context to mention that this is a university research project that is publicly funded and seated at the Department of Geography and Spatial Planning at the University of Luxembourg.

DIGI-GOV grew out and was inspired by a previous project, which looked at Sidewalk Labs in Toronto and what that one happened back then. (see paper[1] about Sidewalk Labs (SL) — a daughter company and urban development arm of Alphabet Inc. and sister to Google LLC— which won the competition to develop 4.9 hectares along Toronto’s shores of Lake Ontario, entering as specific and controversial actor in ordinary urban planning, ndr)

What was interesting about this so-called digital city project was that Sidewalk Labs was a new actor on the local field of urban planning and development. It wasn’t just architects and developers: It was a tech company. Of course, digital technology and urbanization have always gone hand in hand, so in one sense this is not new, but in this case we had a major tech company with enormous capital power, and with access to urban government in ways that were kind of new. This was back in 2017, 2018, and it got massive media attention, and dominated Toronto planning in the port lands until the pandemic hit. Sidewalk was claiming that it would build the most amazing digital city that was the world has ever seen and so on, but what was also remarkable was how it had all levels of Canadian government behind it, which were not only giving their public support, but also coordinating their public messages and appearances. So, we saw the CEO of Alphabet Inc. on stage with the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Ontario. This is not easy to do, actually. So, obviously, there was some concentrated cooperation going on, in addition to the new digital gadgets that Sidewalk wax developing and preparing to sell.

From a research perspective, the next question was: How might this play out in other cities? And so, DIGI-GOV looks at six cities: the Washington Metropolitan Area, Seattle, Toronto, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, and Kiev. It’s a gigantic project -- and there is a fairly large team on it -- and we are currently in various stages of research in all these places.

Q: Let's talk back about DIGI-GOV. Your work also highlights "data matters" through their production/materialization/storage. The graphic you published on data centers in the Washington Metropolitan Area and respective kW needs is very significant in this perspective. It shows an interpretative map, where you show some significant implications. As you wrote, the map provides the visualization of the social spatial distribution of data centers and it points out the five implications you found: data centers are concentrated in metropolitan areas; they have a high demand for energy and water, competing with local residents for these resources; their industry is a state-led niche economy; the uneven distribution of data centers can invoke inter-county competition for tax revenue, in addition to access to the water, power, and land resources they require. In the related paper[2] you stated that ‘data centers present an under explored geography of cyberworlds. By means of that large digital corporations such as Amazon or Google are expanding their role in urban infrastructural development’. What are the main challenges of data centers for urban governance? Then, not forgetting that there are issues of visibility and secretness, what kind of data you were able to spatialize?

A: There are two main vains of research in DIGI-GOV. First, DIGI-GOV looks a symbolic places like Sidewalk Labs or the headquarters of Amazon. Second, the project addresses new kinds of telecommunications infrastructure, data centers in particular. Those are the two key foci. About the maps that we drew: We completed those at the beginning of the project because that was back in 2021 and we were all rather new to the topic of data centers. Actually, no one on the team really knew what a data center even was. Further, it was a rather under-researched infrastructure with most work limited to the domains of engineering and computer science. So, we were pursuing this very basic exploration: What is a data center? What are the varieties of kind of data centers? Where are they? What do they do? We were just exploring some basic facts about what we were dealing with. This is where we discovered, through publicly available sources, where they were, and what the basic characters of these locations were, from which we could extrapolate what this might mean or implicate in spatial terms.

We learned that it was a booming business, that their input needs (such as land) were expanding rapidly. We also found – and this was surprising at the time – that data centers were concentrating in metropolitan areas. I had gone into this thinking that data centers would be a rural phenomenon, which was not only totally wrong, it was predictable according to the urban studies literature, as telecommunications infrastructure have always concentrated in urban areas. So, if you look at publicly available maps (e.g. Baxtel.com), you'll find that the data centers are usually in big cities like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Washington, Seattle. They're concentrating in the metropolitan areas.

We also noticed a certain set of institutions, carving out their economic positions. The one that really stuck out to us, of course, was the prevalence of Amazon particularly in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Of course, Amazon just does not disclose anything, actually, but they have 50 or so data centers in the WMA. We also know that they have the largest and most modern data centers with huge data input, storage and processing needs, so they must be enormous. But we can't access this in specific terms.

Q: As an exploratory work, I imagine the maps started to speak to your project. If you had to imagine to integrate your maps at the end of the project, do you think that are other elements that should be made visible or just the power of seeing the located data centers works in itself?

A: I don't know yet. On one hand, this was not supposed to be solely a story about location. But on the other hand, it is definitely interesting to think about how data centers are changing urban and regional landscapes. We did find that they are near waterways, so this is a territorial question. And, they're also in well-to-do neighborhoods (another surprise). Whether this should be ‘mapped’, per se, I don’t know. We can also illustrate with text.

Q: Going back to the challenges of visibility and secretness…

A: For us, secrecy was and remains the biggest problem. There is a lot of information out there about the massive amounts of electricity and water that data centers need. There's a lot available on industry websites about where data centers are and what they are willing to reveal about electricity consumption. There is also a lot of discussion about improving efficiencies. This is of course very important. But what we find is that we cannot really access what is behind these processes, which is also an interesting phenomenon. So, for example, there are a lot of engineers working on improving energy efficiencies, but very little about actual input needs. It's one thing to be efficient, but if your absolute input continues to grow then there's still an issue about availability of resources. So, that is an area that is not really clarified. And then of course, the issue of what data is being stored where, by what company etc., and this is all super-secret. There are of course good reasons for secrecy (e.g. security), but this also creates a situation where there is no room for public input and certainly no room for public debate. Further, it is worth mentioning that protests against data centers are becoming commonplace. So, there is a need on one hand for public conversation about these, but there is also a strong need for secrecy, which is driven by security concerns and, we cannot forget, corporate secrecy as is practiced in profit driven enterprises.

Q: It seems to me that it means looking at a kind of materialization of the data in the city. What would you say are the main challenges of this material dimension of data? And, let's think too about some of the political implication of your research questions. That is: What does this work bring out about the neoliberal directions of urban transformations?

A: There is more to explore in terms of neoliberal urbanism, and what that means when for-profit urbanism is driven by big tech that prioritize their agendas, under the veil of secrecy. This, I think is really interesting.

Q: What do you think are the "exportable" themes of your research, which can be a reference for a critical reading of the digital dimension in other urban contexts as well, where for instance processes related to resource consumption or to financialization are somehow less evident?  

A: Hard questions! <laugh> Okay, what we can learn from, which we would say as interesting? It's funny because I think maybe, maybe digital urbanization is a better term than smart cities or even digital cities, because for me urbanization implies a set of processes which then expose how cities form, produce and constitute each other. This refers to the urban theoretical concept of relationality: that cities are not atomized, particulate places, but mutually producing one another. This is a very broad field of urban studies research, which talks about urban comparison, how to conceptualize urban spaces as part of international networks of spaces and flows of many kinds. There is a lot there, and there are better urban theorists than me that discuss this. But here I can give you a simple but rather extreme example: I just got back from Washington DC where I observed that there were lots of protests about data centers. The repeating narrative was - and this is incredible if it's true - is that 70% of the internet goes through Virginia. If that is true, that's insane! Ok, because of secrecy we cannot actually verify it, but if true, it is not only extreme, it also shows how places are interconnected and involved in digitalization processes. Our (online, ndr) conversation here, the one between you and me, is going through another place, completely different, far away, in a different jurisdiction, and the spatial manifestation of both places – in this case, data center sprawl in Virginia and office development in Europe – define and shape one another. I think that this is very significant.

 
[1] Carr, C, Hesse, M (2020). When Alphabet Inc. Plans Toronto’s Waterfront: New Post-Political Modes of Urban Governance. Urban Planning, Volume 5, Issue 1, p. 69–83. DOI: 10.17645/up.v5i1.2519
[2] Desmond Bast, D, Carr, C, Madron, K and Syrus, AM (2022). Four reasons why data centers matter, five implications of their social spatial distribution, one graphic to visualize them. EPA: Economy and Space, p. 1–5 . DOI: 10.1177/0308518X211069139