Helping A City Envision Its Future

There are some interesting developments happening in Winter Park, Florida.
  Established in the late 1800s as a winter haven for the wealthy of
northern states, it is now a city of about 29,000 people in the Orlando

Although it has a nice quality of life, relative
affluence, other good aspects, etc., like every city, it faces its
challenges.  What makes it interesting is how the city is responding.


many years, a significant part of the city felt that their library
needed to be replaced and brought into the new century.  This effort
came closer to reality with the creation of a library facility task force more than a year ago and, more recently, with three workshops in which hundreds of community residents participated.  

to say, this is not how the majority of new library building projects
go about planning.  It is an example of the open and collaborative
spirit of ACi Architects, the
architecture/urban design firm that the city retained, which is leading
this effort.  (This is clearly not the exercise in egotism that too many
architects practice.)

In my role as a member of the Advisory Group to the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries,
I was invited to talk at one of these workshops about how the changes
in the world and libraries provided the basis for Aspen’s report and how
that report could inform their own plans for a future library.

a good library is very much a part of the fabric of its community, it
is especially interesting that the library planning effort has been
conducted in parallel with a larger “community visioning” project to provide direction for all of the city for the next 50 years.

no city will ever achieve 100% agreement on anything, it’s been
fascinating to watch these efforts develop with generally civil
discussion – and visible in real time online to those who couldn’t be

This picture is from one of the breakout groups during a workshop.


the case of the library workshops, part of the challenge is that the
best site for a new building is in a city park named for Martin Luther
King, Jr. and that there is also a need for what has been a civic center
(community meeting building).  So the design needed is not just for a
library building.

While this complicates things, it also
presents an opportunity to create something new which combines a new
library building and the recreational area around it – an opportunity to
create a kind of knowledge park or knowledge experience.  The library
can offer its services not only inside the building, but on it and
beyond in gazebos around the park – and a new civic forum space.

combination library/park/civic space is not common, but not rare
either.  Many large libraries sit in parks, most notably the New York
Public Library in Bryant Park.  But these two public amenities – the
library and the park – are not all that often integrated together.

Recently, WIRED Magazine in its design issue article, “8 Cities That Show You What the Future Will Look Like”,
featured Medellín’s Biblioteca Espana library/park that is “Combining
Libraries and Parks into Safe Spaces for All”, while serving and helping
to upgrade the impoverished neighborhood that surrounds it.


New World Symphony in Miami Beach provides another model of how a park
can be integrated with cultural events inside a building.  With a large
video wall on the outside, it is a natural place for people to sit or
even picnic while listening to great music and seeing great musicians.


Sometimes the park is jam-packed with listeners.


a library in a park offers similar possibilities.  Even the always
necessary garage for a library can be turned into a set of display walls
for the projection of knowledge outside of the building – and thus
upgrading, perhaps, hiding its parking function.  For instance, pictures
and text from the city’s African-American history museum could be made
more widely available this way.

Although no two cities are
exactly the same, Winter Park is a good example of an historic, but
relatively small, city that is now striving to re-define itself as part
of a larger metropolitan area in a 21st century digital economy.  For
that reason, I’ll be reporting back on how the residents proceed to set
an example for many other places in the USA and the rest of the world.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


Lessons From The Intelligent Community Forum Summit

Last week, the Intelligent Community Forum held its annual summit in Toronto.  The underlying theme was “How Intelligent Communities Are Re-Inventing Urban and Rural Planning”, so much of the discussion was about re-invention and innovating.  

In addition to the all-day workshops for large urban jurisdictions and smaller cities/towns/rural areas, all of Friday was devoted to Ideas Day – with a slew of presentations sharing novel approaches to local government and planning.

On Thursday, capping his successful 16 year run as mayor as he retires, Mayor Michael Coleman proudly accepted the award to Columbus, Ohio as the world’s most Intelligent Community this year.

(You can see the full agenda at  The presentations, including mine, will be available on in the coming weeks.)


One of the other highlights of the week was the keynote speech by David Johnston, the Governor General of Canada spoke on June 10th.  Before that, he was the President of the University Of Waterloo, Canada’s premier engineering school.  

Since it was established in the late 1950s, it has become the cradle for a thriving tech innovation community – Blackberry being one if the best known examples. In part, for this reason, he was part of the team in the City of Waterloo who succeeded in being named the most Intelligent Community of the year in 2007.  

He attributed its success to two policies that stand in contrast with the way that many universities try to contain the fruits of innovation within their campuses – thus actually diminishing their innovation.  

The first policy is that the university makes no intellectual property claims on the research done by faculty, researchers or students.   Instead they encourage them to commercialize their research and reap the rewards for themselves and the community.  

The second policy requires coop education of all students.  Each year, every student spends two trimesters in class and one working in a company (for pay) to apply what they’ve learned.  

Finally, it’s worth noting that all of this – the need for innovation, the changes in ways in communities have to plan – is not happening in a vacuum.  

To provide some urgency to these discussions and in case you don’t realize how fast things are changing in what are still the early days of the Internet, Rob McCann, President of ClearCable, gave an interesting presentation on the growth of Internet usage — increasing roughly 50% per year.  (He also made a strong case for the involvement of local government in building out broadband networks, especially in less dense, more rural areas.) 


© 2015 Norman Jacknis


New Soft Cities

Carl Skelton is my colleague and co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse and former director of the Experimental Media Center at NYU/Polytechnic Institute.

He has written a book about the Betaville open source project that enables residents of a city to collaborate and participate in urban design and planning.  But it’s more than just about the history and role of the Betaville project.

The book provides context for urban design in an Internet-enabled era.  As the publisher’s (Springer) summary states:

“the reader can gain a deeper understanding of the potential socio-technical forms of the New Soft Cities: blended virtual-physical worlds, whose public works must ultimately serve and succeed as massively collaborative works of art and infrastructure.”

Hence the title of Carl’s book: “Soft City Culture and Technology”, which will be officially published at the end of this month.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Art In The City Or The City As Art (Part 2)?

Last week, I blogged about the blending of physical and virtual space to create new places and experiences in a city.  This way the city itself is the art form, not merely the backdrop for some unrelated, unintegrated work of art.

There are a few examples of this blending of the virtual and physical already happening in various ways.  

  • In Aarhus, Denmark, the public library opened a public space for residents to use their mobile devices and create a collective work of digital art that could then be “posted” on the walls.
  • In Times Square in New York in 2010, the retail outlet Forever 21 put a fashion model on a display screen.  She took pictures of the real crowd below and then showed it on the screen.  (See  The story goes that it was so successful, the police asked the company to shift the angle of the screen because drivers were stopping to look.
  • Just as in a connected world, we say that “work goes to people, instead of people going to work,” so too have retailers started to bring the store to where people are instead of trying to entice them into stores.  As an example, PeaPod converted the walls of the Chicago Transit Authority into virtual supermarket display cases where people can use their smart phones to buy food that will be delivered to their homes later.  
  • In Australia, partly as a public health measure to encourage walking instead of escalator use, the city painted some stairs to look like piano keys and then linked that up to computer generated sounds.  As people walked on the stairs, they were playing music.  Another “Wow” experience that is not expected by residents and visitors –
  • Mercedes Benz has demonstrated “transparent walls”, on which is projected what is happening on a side street a car is approaching.  That way a driver can see something coming before it would normally be visible.  The safety benefits are pretty obvious.  For a video, see

Of course, each city is different so there is still a large element of creativity in developing an appealing and appropriate blend of the virtual and physical.  That will be a challenge for artists, technologists, planners and even local government leaders.  It will be lots of fun to see how this all develops.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Art In The City Or The City As Art (Part 1)?

New forms of lighting, optics, connectivity and computer technologies have enabled artists to use the outdoors and other unusual settings as a new kind of canvass for their artwork.  Sometimes called projection mapping, here are some of the more interesting examples:

These are wonderful works of art.  BUT – all of these are expressions of art in a city, merely using the cityscape as the surface upon which an unrelated piece of artwork is laid.  These are not fully integrated with the city and don’t transform the city itself into art.

When I’ve spoken to audiences about the blending of physical and virtual space, I’ve had something much more ambitious in mind – the creation of new destinations and new experiences in a city which are attractive because they combine what’s there with virtual capabilities.  

This blending also provides residents and visitors a way of stretching and replicating time and space in the city.  Imagine showing in a location at night what it looked like in the morning or six months ago.  Imagine showing what is happening in another part of the city – particularly useful if you want those embarking trains or planes to learn of an event taking place elsewhere. 

Think about augmenting reality not through a smartphone camera or fancy glasses, but by augmenting reality in its place.  I’m certainly not alone is seeing the potential.  In his article “Augmented Reality Will Make Boring Cities Beautiful” [] Christopher Mims notes that: 

“Once augmented reality is widespread, the difference between a great and a mediocre city won’t just be its built environment. To some extent, it will also be the degree to which that environment is a suitable tapestry for the creatives who will paint it with their augmented reality brush. Digital artists who learn to re-appropriate the city with the most innovative augmented reality add-ons won’t just bring themselves fame and fortune — they’ll also be attracting others to the places they love.”

Next week I’ll share a few examples of what has already been started.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Rockefeller Foundation Medal For Betaville

Last Thursday night, the Rockefeller Foundation had its (Storm Sandy-delayed) ceremony for the winners of the 2012 Jane Jacobs medals.  My co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse won the award for Technology and Innovation – the first time such an award has been made.

In this video (, Carl presents some of the ideas that led to this award, including Betaville and its use by a global community in the Open Line Studio project of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Rethinking Urban Planning In A Networked World

What’s At Stake?

As the new channels of interaction between people, broadband networks are bound to have a tremendous impact on urban life.  This then is the question for those dealing with urban policy and planning at all levels of government: will these impacts occur intentionally or unintentionally?

This is not a new question, just one with a new technological twist.  In the 1950s, the US set about creating the interstate highway system for combustion vehicles, which in turn led to dramatic changes in urban life – often with unintended consequences.  Looking back with hindsight, the damage done to neighborhoods, like those in the Bronx where Interstate 95 runs through, is now among the best known examples of such consequences.

One reason to fear that the impact of broadband on urban life might not be addressed head on is that broadband is considered by many public officials to be a private, perhaps a luxury, service, sometimes associated with entertainment and trivia.  The point here is that broadband is not just a private service, but should also be considered to be a necessary public service which is essential to many aspects of community, cultural and commercial development.  Thus, urban policy today must address its impacts to ensure that society’s goals are met – not just private goals.  

Below, I try to identify – not necessarily to provide solutions to – some of the more important issues that will need to be addressed in future urban policy and planning.  

1. Broadband Networks Are Not Equal Everywhere

The first obvious question is whether all parts of our country will have sufficient service.  As a society, we cannot afford the redlining of poorer, urban (or rural) sections.  Some of what is called broadband in this country is, in fact, so slow that it cannot support the collaborative and video tools that will be critical for future economic and educational/cultural development.  

When the Interstate Highway system was constructed, no one required that 4 or 6 lane highways be built everywhere.  But it was also considered unacceptable to offer dirt roads to poor areas.  There was a minimum modern standard of highway that was offered everywhere.  So, too, urban planners need to ensure that a high enough level of broadband is made available in all neighborhoods or risk seeing the development of “digital slums” instead.

While not quite a limited resource such as railroad mainlines, broadband networks do have a backbone structure.  In the same way that urban development occurred around these mainlines and railroad stops, it is important for urban planners to anticipate the growth that will surround prime broadband network paths.

2. Broadband Needs To Reach Into Where People Live And Work

All people in our society should have the option to use broadband where they live, work and learn.  The broadband backbone network – like the highways – does not reach to every door.  However, urban planners need to ensure that the connection from the home, business and schools/libraries to the broadband network also supports sufficient speeds.  

This implies the need for new policies, including building standards which specify data networking requirements much as they require electrical, plumbing or heating requirements.  It also implies a serious and enforced requirement for broadband connections in publicly funded or subsidized housing and business projects.

3. Urban Residents Need To Gain Broadband Skills

All people should have the ability to use broadband.  The availability of broadband to a room is not enough.  Urban leaders in the 19th century recognized the importance of ensuring all citizens could read and then created the public schools and libraries necessary to achieve that goal.  Today, urban leaders need to ensure that all are given sufficient training to use the broadband networks.

4. The Merger Of Spaces For Working, Living and Shopping

Consider the changes in the nature and location of work.  During the last hundred years, the place for work, the place for living and the place for shopping have been separate.  Vast transportation networks were built to move people from one kind of place to another.  Zoning rules were established to keep these different places separate from each other.

Today, in many suburbs, the distinction has softened dramatically – with people commonly having home offices where they tele-work at least part of the week.  They also shop from their homes.  The same pattern shows up even in more densely populated urban areas where the distances between work, living and shopping are less formidable than in the suburbs.

As broadband increases and more people participate in an information-driven economy, more and more people will not go to work, but the work will go to the people – wherever they might be, including home.  This has already led to a decreased need for office space.  (Cisco Systems found that it needed 40% less office space per employee because of broadband-based tele-work and collaboration tools.  There was also a significant reduction in energy use and greenhouse gases.)

Urban policy must adapt to this new world and urban planners must re-think the assumptions that guided a society where work, home and shops were apart.

5. New Understanding Of Economic Development

As the nature of work changes and work increasingly mixes with other aspects of life, so too must the economic development strategies of urban areas change.   Work, even in large organizations, is increasingly dispersed among people who are connected together by broadband networks.  

We are entering an era where many people can work from anywhere and still be paid well.  So for those people, the question is not necessarily where the jobs are, but where the quality of life is highest for them.

Thus the old strategy of providing incentives and other special considerations for companies who “locate” in an urban area will result in diminishing positive benefits.  Instead, the focus will need to shift from the companies to the employees and the investments in the urban economy will be more focused on the non-economic qualities of urban life that people find attractive.

6. Increasing Demand For Educational And Cultural Services

More generally, this new broadband age will also result in a re-ordered set of priorities for urban life.  For example, in a knowledge based society that is connected by broadband networks, there needs to be an understanding of the critical role that will be played by educational and cultural services for two reasons.  

First, in a knowledge economy, workers will need to continually upgrade their education and intellectual skills to maintain their own economic viability.  Urban leaders owe it to their residents to ensure that these skills can be upgraded where the residents already live because the necessary network infrastructure is in place.  

Second, the availability of educational and cultural services is an important part of what makes an urban area attractive to potential residents.  Thus, urban policy will need to address the development of such services to ensure that urban areas are vibrant areas to live.  

Libraries are a central urban institution in the provision of these lifelong education and cultural opportunities.  Libraries in many parts of the world have aggressively responded to the development of the Internet and are recreating themselves as centers not only of books, but also as the place to go for computer technology and digital media, spaces for the creation of literature and music, and guidance on upgrading work skills.

7. Making Other Urban Infrastructure Smarter And Greener

Broadband networks are not just a new infrastructure or another utility.  They are also, in part, the intelligent infrastructure that could make all the other infrastructure – roads, energy, water and waste – work better and operate in a greener way.  

Similarly, urban planners will need to understand how the design and form of the built environment will become dramatically changed by the broadband transformations described above.

In sum, urban policy makers and urban planners must face the changing world and changing requirements on urban life that broadband networks will necessarily impose.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis