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Legible Cities: The humanistic smart city model

Eli Kuslansky explores the concept and benefits of ’Legible Cities’ as well as a route to achieving them. 


Designing and managing cities would be so much easier if they were machines. Just pop the key in, give it a turn and away it goes. But as we all know from the long history of urban design, with its aspirations, failures and successes, cities are not automatons.


The desire to create a city that runs as efficiently as a machine has been played out countless times in countless cities since the dawn of modern urban design. It is a classic struggle best illustrated by the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses ’David and Goliath’ battle for the soul of lower Manhattan.


Jane Jacobs was an American-Canadian journalist, author and activist who organised a successful grassroots effort to protect her Greenwich Village neighborhood from Robert Moses’ plans for “slum clearance”. Jacobs was also instrumental in the cancellation of Moses’ plan to run the Lower Manhattan Expressway directly through SoHo and Little Italy – a plan he created under the mantra of efficient city layouts.


Living cities


Jane Jacobs’ most powerful and persuasive argument was that cities are living things and what makes them interesting and safe is the organic vibrancy of the streets.


With a clear-eyed, human-focused approach to urban design, Jacobs wrote that cities should be “…organic, spontaneous, and untidy…”, in contrast to Robert Moses’ prescribed city.


Jacobs wrote that cities should be “…organic, spontaneous, and untidy…”


Jane Jacobs’ description of the organic process of how our cities run can help us define the smart city.


The characteristics currently used to define a smart city invariably focus on the hard infrastructure of smart transportation, waste removal, lighting, etc. as these are the areas where many vendors can see a clear return on investment (ROI). An intelligent lighting system or an enterprise-level computer system can be estimated, sold and evaluated due to their finite elements and costs.


This perpetuates the idea of cities as machines. The missing dimension to the smart city’s hard infrastructure is the soft infrastructure of knowledge-sharing, human and social capital, and new forms of community and cultural engagement.


Songdo – a smart ghost town


And yet, the idea of cities as machines still persists – fuelled by the underlying idea that cities can be brought under control.


Songdo in South Korea is a $40 billion project with 106 buildings and 22 million square feet of LEED-certified space – all built from the ground up.


Songdo developed a number of promising ideas: computers built into the streets and digitally advanced condos to control traffic flow and let neighbours hold video chats with each other; an efficient trash system with no garbage trucks where rubbish is pneumatically sucked out of houses and recycled to generate electricity; and the ability to do everything remotely – from opening the front door to attending college classes.


While Songdo’s promise was to be a walkable, sensor-laden showpiece of 21st-century urban design, the reality is quite different. Like many parametrically designed and clever computer-generated designs, many feel that Songdo lacks soul and spirit.


Around 100,000 people live in Songdo – a third of its capacity. These factors lead to it being described as a ‘ghost town’.


Around 100,000 people live in Songdo – a third of its capacity. These factors lead to it being described as a ‘ghost town’.


This rigid, uniform approach to designing smart cities almost always turns out to be stifling and generic. There is a smarter way to create a smart city but finding the right model can be a challenge.


For chief digital, innovation and data officers, and city managers, the challenge is how to balance the vast operational and management needs of a city with the human aspects that make for an innovative, learning and liveable city.


This challenge isn’t being met by existing smart city models as they do not address how to engage citizens in a sustainable process or how to change the culture of a city to be more open and collaborative.


A process is needed, with a methodology and technology that reveal the hidden patterns of a city so that information and data is actionable, relevant and trackable as well as being readable by laypeople.


Enter Legible Cities


This is where the Legible Cities movement comes into play. Legible Cities is a smart city model that has been fielded by a number of forward-looking city planners, technologists and urban designers.


The Legible Cities approach uses technology, data and curated journeys to make a city more ‘readable’ for visitors and inhabitants to improve people’s understanding and experience of the city.


In one form, a Legible City is a coordinated wayfinding system designed to create seamless journeys delivered through physical signage, online and mobile.


Unlike traditional maps that have one layer of information, Legible Cities uses technology in different touchpoints – such as strategically placed street signs and displays, mobile apps and websites –so that multiple layers of information can be stacked one on top of the other for people to discover the relationships, hidden patterns and narratives of a city.


The true promise of Legible Cities, and in many cases the key to the success of a smart city, is when you add the humanistic dimensions of people’s experience, the knowledge and rich culture of museums, libraries and educational institutions, to curated journeys. This makes for a more livable, innovative and connected city. Events, activities, opportunities, transport, resources and other data linked to locations could be the content for new ways of engaging with a city.


Events, activities, opportunities, transport, resources and other data linked to locations could be the content for new ways of engaging with a city.


Imagine how you would navigate a Legible City. By combining streaming data and content with experts’ opinions through channels like social media, a business-person with one free day could navigate the city guided by their personalised content via an experience map.


Unlike Yelp, they won’t find hundreds of places they don’t care about but will go on a more personal and curated adventure that is focused, manageable and illuminating for them as an individual.


Legible Cities are a composite of knowledge, information, data and content that runs over the pipelines of the smart city.


After all, if you want something to go city-wide, you need the industrial strength of high-speed enterprise-level computers, networks and software, as well as other large-scale infrastructures. Legible Cities are a composite of knowledge, information, data and content that runs over the pipelines of the smart city. They cannot exist by themselves.




One of the first examples of a legible city is Bristol Legible City in the UK, designed and implemented by CityID. According to the website: “Bristol Legible City is a unique concept to improve people’s understanding and experience of the city through the implementation of identity, information and transportation projects.


"Bristol Legible City projects include direction signs, on-street information panels with city and area maps, printed walking maps, visitor information and arts projects. These projects communicate the city consistently and effectively to visitors and residents alike.”


While this is a good first step, the focus of the project is primarily placemaking and wayfinding. The intention to improve people’s understanding and experience of the city can be enhanced significantly with a virtual layer of information, technology and sensors.


Step-by-step to Legible Cities


The first steps to developing a Legible City are identifying appropriate multimedia wayfinding and engagement design solutions, creating an evolving implementation programme, a development road map and a pilot.


The pilot should leverage the existing technologies and multiple apps that a city currently uses to build a common interface for the public. It could be developed with a dynamic stakeholder engagement programme that utilises the same technologies and opt-in tracking that can be used for the final rollout.


To develop Legible Cities, Unified Field and CityID has come up with a series of guiding principles:


  • People first: an understanding of different user needs, aspirations and imitations.
  • Place-specific: developing bespoke solutions that represent the values and aspirations of the place.
  • Less is more: development of a hierarchical and structured approach to both information architecture and design.
  • Multi-channel communications: delivery of the right information at the right time through the most appropriate mediums.
  • Whole journey: improving legibility across all modes, journey stages, and environments.
  • A unified experience: a roadmap and integration plan for a single user interface
  • Future-proofed: development of a system that is extendible and adaptable, connecting inwards and outwards to neighbouring activity areas, neighbourhoods, and destinations.


From smart to smarter



This humanistic approach to smart cities adds an exciting dimension for city planners, strategists, vendors and communities to envision and implement a model of a city that is more inclusive, connects and engages communities, and is better geared for economic growth, innovative learning and culture.


Considering ARUP’s estimates that the global market for smart urban systems (including transport, energy, sanitation and healthcare) will amount to around $400 billion per year by 2020, this seems like the moment to get it right. To be truly smart, cities, in addition to being efficient and resilient, need to be humanistic and responsive to their inhabitants.


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