We speculate a lot about what people want from their cities. But for the most part, the conversations about what people want are based on the perspective of entities with biases about residents’ needs. People in city government assume citizens want more services and for the city to spend more, but suggest there are not enough funds to do what is required. Vendors and businesses believe people want more of what they are selling, and that city government gets in the way. But what do the people truly want? What are they saying they want?

“Fully accessible libraries, PDs and fire stations via connectivity, collaboration tools and spaces to become community solution centers addressing local issues via facilitated sessions and providing needed services such as telehealth, mental health, job training etc.”

The comment above was one of the comments by 100 respondents who attended the City of The Future conference and shared their perspectives on what they would do if they had no constraints. The responses were collected through a 25/10 crowdsourcing session, run by Douglas Ferguson of Voltage Control, which provided a peek into what residents actually see as concerns for their city. Even within the context of a conference that was all about the City of the Future, the responses were overwhelmingly indicative of a desire to see more humanity in the design and development of the ideal city. Only 1 of the 100 comments alluded to the ‘built environment’ as an additional need, recognizing  that we already have the infrastructure we need for granting access to populations in our cities that do not have the resources required to thrive in our cities. Transportation was another theme that came up, with 17.5% of the comments suggesting the need to upgrade and expand different modes of mobility, especially for those without their own means of transportation, a real issue in the vast Texas cities. Access to technology, unsurprisingly, showed up as a need, but it was apparent that it wasn’t as much of a priority as the vendors who tout their own products suggest. The message, if I can paraphrase, is that ‘we already have the technology we need, what we need is humanity and a willingness to provide access to all.’

Something that was glaring and apparent to me, probably because of the lens through which I now look at cities, was near-invisibility of how most  cities are in a slightly precarious state when it comes to access to quality potable water. Most people in the US do not realize that we face a real challenge of providing access to water and they would be shocked to learn that there are cities like Sandbranch Texas, which has never had access to running water in its 138 years of existence. Cities across the US are currently facing one or more of 6 diverse access challenges:

Image courtesy of The Environmental Finance Blog UNC School of Government Environmental Finance Center.

  1. Contaminated and at-risk wells
  2. Unsanitary onsite wastewater disposal
  3. Lack of basic indoor plumbing
  4. Customers with substandard plumbing
  5. Customers struggling to pay
  6. Contaminated water supplies

These issues on the customer side come from and amplify operational difficulties that the utility faces in providing water to its residents. To address this situation we will need both a willingness by those with ability to pay more for their water supply and companies that are willing to work with these utilities even if the work of equipping them with resources and tools is a slog. The truth of the situation is that even as we focus on providing access to all city residents, most people can survive without access to the internet or even electricity. But no one, regardless of the number of sensors we have around cities, can survive without clean quality water.