Ken Greenberg

Artengine's Future Cities Forum

Ken Greenberg delves into the transformative impact of technology on urban landscapes, threading his discourse with both optimism and caution. Opening with an assertion that technology should fundamentally serve humanity, Greenberg sets the tone for a reflective and critical exploration of our technological dependencies. He raises an essential query—whether the pervasive, rapid digitalization we are embracing is unequivocally beneficial.

Through a historical lens, Greenberg recounts the automobile’s ascension in urban planning and its profound but often detrimental effects on city structures and social health. He connects these historical precedents to today’s tech-dominated scenario, emphasizing the need for a balanced, critically aware approach to incorporating new technologies into urban environments.

Greenberg’s cautionary tale focuses on the unchecked embrace of automobiles post-World War II, which reshaped North American cities around suburban sprawl, leading to a host of unforeseen social and health issues. Drawing parallels, he critiques the contemporary rush towards digital solutions which potentially sideline human interactions and community cohesion.

The talk also covers the shifts in public perception and urban planning that are beginning to favor mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly environments over car-centric urban sprawl. Greenberg champions a vision of urbanism where technology enhances rather than undermines human-centric values. His narrative is punctuated with examples from his personal and professional experiences, reinforcing the necessity for cities to reassess and potentially recalibrate their embrace of both old and new technologies to foster environments that prioritize human wellbeing alongside technological advancement.

Presented by Artengine and Impact Hub Ottawa in partnership with the National Capital Commission Urbanism Lab

A trio of keynote speakers kicked-off the Future Cities Forum including science-fiction writer and futurist Madeline Ashby, urban designer Ken Greenberg, and professor Tracey Lauriault, a researcher who specializes in big data and the city.

This diverse group shared their speculations on future cities in the context of emerging and disruptive technologies. How will and can we adapt the key lessons of urban design of the twentieth century and not be seduced by the same techno-utopianism that shaped cities in the past? As we are transformed and extended into the network, how will a citizen be in public or private in our new data-driven city? Who will be the heroes and anti-heroes of the cities to come?

Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher, writer, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto and Principal of Greenberg Consultants.

For over four decades he has played a pivotal role on public and private assignments in urban settings throughout North America and Europe, focusing on the rejuvenation of downtowns, waterfronts, neighborhoods and on campus master planning, regional growth management, and new community planning. His work sits at the intersection of urban design, architecture, landscape, mobility, social and economic development. Cities as diverse as Toronto, Hartford, Amsterdam, New York, Boston, Montréal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis, Washington DC, Paris, Detroit, Saint Paul and San Juan Puerto Rico have benefited from his advocacy and passion for restoring the vitality, relevance and sustainability of the public realm in urban life. In each city, with each project, his strategic, consensus-building approach has led to coordinated planning and a renewed focus on urban design. He is the recipient of the 2010 American Institute of Architects Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Design Excellence and the 2014 Sustainable Buildings Canada Lifetime Achievement Award. He was selected as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2020 and was awarded a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa from the University of Toronto. In 2023 he was appointed as Vice Chair, Advisory Committee on Planning, Design and Reality, (ACPDR), National Capital Commission,Ottawa.

Diminished human non-virtual encounters, which is a great preoccupation for me. Loss of social skills. People who are uncomfortable actually talking to each other would prefer to text and talk, which I find absolutely incomprehensible.

My optimistic hypothesis is that there can be such a thing as a human-centered use of technology.

Reassessing Technology: A Cautionary Tale from the Automobile Era

Ken Greenberg

my optimistic hypothesis is that there can be such a thing as a human-centered use of technology. And in fairness, there should be a question mark after that, because I think this is an open question. What’s really interesting to me as a starting point is how the word technology has changed in meaning. If you look at this dictionary definition, the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, and especially in industry, I’ll leave out the red part.

Machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge only in the last perhaps 20 years or so. Have we come to an understanding of technology so that whenever we use the word, we’re referring to something related to computers, to the digital world, which is kind of an interesting twist. And as you’ll see, I am going to talk as a kind of cautionary tale about an earlier meaning of technology and an earlier version of technology, which I spent a great deal of my career wrestling with.

So I think a number of things have to be said right at the outset. This phenomenon seems to be inevitable. We’re doing it because we can. There’s something in our nature that will always push those limits. There’s obviously a drive for profit. There’s a drive for convenience. But is this an unequivocal good? And are there and this is a rhetorical question, critical choices that we have to make about technology.

And I want to talk, first of all, about what we can learn from past embraces of technologies in cities, uncritical adoption, leading to collateral damage to unforeseen consequences. Aftershocks reassess, and then reaction. And I’m going to use this cautionary tale to alert us to the need to anticipate this possibility and test our embrace of technology against other values that we have.

So here’s my cautionary tale, and it has to do with the postwar embrace of the automobile, which clearly the internal combustion engine at the time was a wonderful invention, which we in hindsight have overused and abused. And I would like in this moment to 1939, the New York World’s Fair, the Futurama Pavilion, which was put up by General Motors, which millions and millions of people came to see, enthralled by the possibilities for transforming cities based on the use of the automobile.

Redefining the North American Dream

Ken Greenberg

This is the reaction part of the so-called American dream, or dare I call it the North American dream, which was to have your own house, your own lot, your own garden. Every adult had a car and that became a fleet of cars for every adult in the household to the point where we now have a competing and increasingly more potent version of the dream, which is to live in a neighborhood where you can walk to buy your groceries, where you have access to transit, where you can use a bicycle, and where you can live in a compact environment.

This has been the subject of a book that I wrote, which has been my struggle over the past few decades with that earlier version of technology and walking home. I think ‘Sense’ says it all. But the key part of a massive paradigm shift that we have undergone is a reassessment of the technology that drove that transformation of the urban world and the way in which it insidiously reshaped the environment that we live in.

The pushback started as a grassroots movement. And my sister, who’s an anthropologist, often pointed out to me that survival in culture depends on people who keep practices that are no longer popular alive so that they can be called upon at a future time when they’re needed for the survival of a civilization. And in fact, in our case, the older neighborhoods, the pre-war neighborhoods actually became a living example when people started to embrace them.

Of all of those virtues of connectivity, of local shopping, of kids being able to get to school, on bicycle or walking, all of those qualities that we had lost with that embrace of automobile technology, the Urban Land Institute had this show up on their radar screen in 2013. This is the most prestigious organization of developers in North America and probably in the world at this time.

And they sent out a brochure to their members, people who are building real estate and said, ‘Your consumers are now looking for something else. They’re not just looking for the view from a tall condo. They’re actually looking for a neighborhood.’ And so my first assignment for the city of Toronto was in this area, which is east of downtown Toronto.

It’s not surreal, kind of surrounding the Saint Lawrence market and when I started there, recruited by Mayor David Crombie back in the late seventies, long time ago, that’s what it looked like. It was a gigantic parking lot. All the buildings were being torn down to provide cheap parking for the office buildings at King and Bay in the heart of Toronto.

And this is what has happened since as part of the paradigm shift and reaction. All of the surface parking has disappeared. It’s all been replaced by mixed income, mixed-use buildings, tens of thousands of people living there, public spaces and so on. I was talking to a young woman earlier in the crowd whose thesis now is about what happens to parking lots.

This is actually a great example of reverse engineering from an excessive embrace of a certain technology. We’re having to learn how to rethink how we move in cities, obviously getting back on our feet, getting into transit. Who would have thought that the bicycle would reappear as a major form of transportation in the 21st century? Critical political decisions stopping the spread of the highway network.

Transforming Urban Spaces: From Highways to Community Hubs

Ken Greenberg

I served as interim chief planner in the city of Boston when the Big Dig was going on. This was the central artery built in 1950, which drove this enormous wedge through the heart of the city, which has been replaced by the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which you see here. This is all about that reverse engineering. Here’s the project that James mentioned, which is this piece of elevated highway in downtown Toronto called the Gardiner Expressway, erected at about the same time. And I got involved with a wonderful couple of donors, Will and Judy Matthews, in creating something which, through a public competition, is now called the Bentway.

We originally called it Project under Gardiner, and we have repurposed that space ten acres, almost two kilometers under the Gardiner Expressway as a public space. On January 6th, we opened a skating trail, which you see here. We had 20,000 people who came out the first weekend in 30 below weather to actually experience this. And we’ll be running year-round programs in this space.

So again, taking something that was designed for one purpose that was an unloved, hidden space, hiding in plain sight in the heart of the city and turning it into something completely different in light of a totally new set of priorities. And this is what happened on social media, a virtual explosion when people found themselves able to use this space in an entirely different way.

So I would argue that this is part of a whole movement that has occurred of seeing the city completely differently instead of the pattern that we had fallen into, of having a mental map of the city, which was described by numbered highways or by major vehicular arterials. We’re starting to understand the city. And this, of course, is Toronto.

Navigating it by greenways, by ravines, by public spaces, by a whole network of active transportation, which is kind of reflecting this flip in values that we’re experiencing. So now let me apply that cautionary tale to where we are now. We are just at the beginning. I think early days or perhaps significantly already into another paradigm shift which is coming about through the embrace of this new version of technology.

It is touching every aspect of our lives. As was pointed out, it is absolutely pervasive and can we draw some parallels with our experience with the automobile in terms of making choices about how to use this technology? Clearly, it opens many remarkable possibilities for cities, but also raises many very valid concerns, including concerns around privacy control, ownership, use of data, the potential for social isolation, narrow banding, loss of common ground with implications for the heterogeneous society that we are particularly in Canada.

Diminished human non-virtual encounters, which is a great preoccupation for me. Loss of social skills. People who are uncomfortable actually talking to each other would prefer to text and talk, which I find absolutely incomprehensible. But the question is can we selectively and consciously harness the best that technology can offer in a mindful way without sacrificing the qualities of cities that we value now, eliminating human contact is nothing new.

This NFT Moment

Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) made their way into the popular imagination and have been a lightning rod topic in the realm of culture throughout this year. As part of our Digital Economies Lab, we invited Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey to help us consider this current moment and put it in a larger context of art, culture and technology. Check out the conversation as well as links and notes to help orient you or expand your considerations of this NFT moment.