A nudge towards walking saves a mountain of cash

Review of Intelligent Cities, edited by Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino, National Building Museum, 2011, 120 pp., $25 paperbound.

If a city could get its residents to give up owning 15,000 of their cars, they would save $127 million in gasoline, insurance, purchase price, and finance charges — money that might then become available for spending in the local economy.

That may sound like a wholly hypothetical situation. But Washington, DC, actually saw something of that sort happen. From 2005 to 2009, car registrations in Washington fell by nearly 15,000, even as the District’s population rose by 15,862. How much of the money that was saved remained in the District and how much left it is not known. But surely, some of the money not devoted to vehicles supported Washington’s evolution into an increasingly prosperous and well-kept city.

“Living in a walkable city has value beyond personal convenience — it also allows more of your money to stay closer to home while reducing your carbon footprint,” declares Intelligent Cities, a new book based on a year-long initiative at the National Building Museum.

The car-ownership scenario is one of a broad variety of interesting thoughts raised in this short, lively paperback edited by museum curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino, who also teaches at Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center.

An essay by Mark Cleverley, director of IBM’s Global Government Industry, tells about Dubuque, Iowa’s use of IBM’s Smarter City Sustainability Model, which aims to reduce use of water, energy, and transportation fuels in that city of 60,000. “Smart meters,” accompanied by social networking features and games related to each household’s consumption, help residents become more aware of how much they’re consuming and how they can achieve savings.

Another essay observes, “Despite the fears that mobile communication technology would drive us all into lives of wireless isolation, the opposite seems to be happening. The parks, plazas and open spaces in our cities are returning to the role they filled generations ago: places to share, read, write, gossip, and debate...in short, communicate.” Research by Keith Hampton at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication concluded that many laptop users in search of wifi are spending time in public spaces they had not previously visited.

Intelligent Cities is a hopeful look at how cities can become more sustainable, convivial, just, and democratic, even as technology marches on.