CBT Architects’ Sae Kim is raising questions about designing for the future of cities. As a member of CBT Architects’ urban design practice, Kim helped curate the “Balancing Act” exhibit currently on display at the Boston Society of Architects’ space at Atlantic Wharf through Sept. 27. The exhibit explores how designs can incorporate emerging technologies while enhancing equity and resiliency. The themes reflect projects that Kim has participated in at CBT, including the Bulfinch Crossing and Suffolk Downs master plans. 

Q: What was the impetus for the “Balancing Act” exhibit and what sort of questions does it raise about urban planning?
A: With the convergence of new technological innovation, we are seeing a drastic shift in how we interact with each other and the environment. The way tech is infiltrating and disrupting our lives is so drastic, it’s affecting how we see our cities: really everyone, not just architects and urban designers. We thought it would be worth assessing where we are and what lies ahead. 

When it comes to deploying technology in the built environment, we thought it was essentially that we be more strategic and thoughtful. What we build now will be there for 50 or 100 years. “A Balancing Act” is not an exhibition of projects, but an exhibition of questions: about equity, privacy, automation, data collection and the future. These questions are what we need to be asking ourselves before we put autonomous vehicles on our streets, before we put sensors everywhere and before we put the word “smart” in front of everything. 

Q: As cities are redesigned to reflect automobiles’ declining influence, what are the opportunities in densely-developed older cities such as Boston?
A: Many older cities were originally designed without automobiles in mind, and they had to find ways to accommodate autos in their fabric when they became indispensable parts of our life. Now that we’re moving away from auto-centric modes, it’s about giving that real estate back to the public as a public asset.  

If we can begin to think of cars not as objects but part of a larger system, do autos need to be parked? We can take this notion further and explore incubating it among a larger network of systems, whether it be resiliency or power generation.  

The world is shifting and roles are becoming more ambiguous. Tech companies are designing cities. Logistics companies are selling groceries. We call them phones, but they’re actually cameras. 

Q: What’s the definition of a “smart” building today, and how will that change over the next decade?
A: In technological terms, when people say “smart building,” it’s sensors and [the “internet of things”] integrating for energy savings and automation. The needs and user demographics are different for every building. In that sense, a smart building is closer to a marketing term because it lacks a certain level of definition, but at the same time it adds value. So smart buildings are essentially being used to draw in huge investment. 

And this is the case with any buzzword. Sustainability was a buzzword until every building claimed to be sustainable. That led to certain certification systems, such as LEED and WELL. Now people are having to talk about specific strategies. Sustainability has different connotations now than 10 or 20 years ago, and that will be the same with smart buildings.  

Technology is a depreciating asset, and the key is how to use it to create value that can offset that depreciation. For example, one confidential master plan I’m working on now is focusing on infrastructure capacity. How do we make sure our roads can accommodate autonomous vehicles? These are very specific technologies, so it’s very easy to fall in the trap that we’re going to design our block to accommodate X, Y or Z. Instead of going that route, it’s looking at a range of technologies and seeing what kind of technology and infrastructure needs to be embedded at the master planning stage, so we don’t go down the rabbit hole designing for one specific technology. 

Q: What precedents did you study designing Bulfinch Crossing, and embedding residential and office towers in a parking garage footprint?
A: There were a lot of case studies we looked at. The merit really was in how to save as much of the garage while trying to see how the neighborhood could be transformed into something that is worth visiting. Instead of having a 2,000-car garage in the middle of the city, how do we transform that into a vibrant neighborhood, without having to throw out the entire megastructure? The strategy was in the phasing, so the garage is functioning so there’s also an economic benefit. 

Q: To the extent that parking is still included in future development, what form will it take?
A: I think the question is whether parking is necessary. Parking structures are being designed with an embedded level of flexibility. One of the reasons many parking garages are coming down is because they were built with a sole purpose. If you’re able to do more with less, it’s more profitable. The older parking structures, a lot of which are coming down, were designed with minimum clearances and tolerances, making them extremely difficult to repurpose.  

But because we’re clearly seeing a movement for a less auto-centric future, we are designing with a level of flexibility. Five or 10 years down the road, it means that structure can be converted and repurposed to an office or residential building or to house other programs. 

Q: Having studied Manhattan’s grid-style layout and how it influenced development, how does that compare with Boston’s irregular street layouts?
A: The main issue is navigability versus identity. Manhattan is highly navigable, yet the boundaries of neighborhoods are not as defined as in Boston. If you were going to ask 10 New Yorkers to draw an outline around the neighborhoods, you’d get 10 different boundaries.  

Boston is a city of neighborhoods and the city grew organically. The boundaries and character are legible for the most part. But Boston never had that single master plan like Manhattan, and a first-time visitor will likely get lost.  

 Kim’s 5 Favorite Instagram Accounts: 

  1. Atticuspoetry 
  2. Thismintymoment 
  3. Worldeconomicforum 
  4. Discovery.hd 
  5. Act.of.mapping 

Defining ‘Smart’ Designs for Changing Cities

by Steve Adams time to read: 4 min