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Smart cities are futuristic but they must also learn from the past

Mike Barlow and Cornelia Lévy-Bencheton look at what smart cities must learn from the past if they are to deliver their promise.


When we think of smart cities, we tend to think in futuristic terms. We often use the language and iconography of futurism to express our visions of what a smart city should look like. But we should also look to the past for lessons and examples of how previous generations handled the challenges of planning and developing urban spaces.


In the mid-19th century, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann transformed Paris from a medieval collection of sprawling neighbourhoods into one of the world’s first genuinely modern cities. He used the tools and techniques of his day – parks, public squares, large monuments, axial roadways, sewers, water-distribution systems and standard cornice lines – to complete the city’s transformation.


At roughly the same time, Ildefons Cerdà, who coined the term “urbanism,” was planning the expansion of Barcelona. Cerdà designed an orthogonal grid for the city’s new streets, which created a sense of order and clarity. He also had the sidewalks cut at 45-degree angles at street intersections, an innovation that created mini-plazas with shops and services all over the new part of the city.


Cerdà was a transportation expert, and he planned the streets and avenues of the expansion with traffic in mind.


Haussmann and Cerdà were visionary planners with a deep understanding of the cities they were tasked with redesigning, and they used the tools at hand to bring their visions to life.


Smart thinking


In today’s cities, “smart” and “high-tech” are not necessarily synonymous. Most smart city projects don’t require advanced degrees in engineering or terabytes of computing power. Our research shows the primary requirements for creating successful smart city projects are deep knowledge of local problems, imaginative thinking, thorough research, good planning, bold action and persistent follow-through. A good grasp of finance is also essential.


The primary requirements for creating successful smart city projects are deep knowledge of local problems, imaginative thinking, thorough research, good planning, bold action and persistent follow-through. A good grasp of finance is also essential.


In the US, many smart city projects are financed through public-private partnerships (PPPs). In addition to providing alternative methods for raising capital, PPPs can accelerate the pace of developing and implementing smart city projects.


The Dallas Innovation Alliance, for example, has successfully launched nine projects in the city’s West End District, a historic neighbourhood that had experienced a deep economic downturn in the early 2000s.


The Alliance focuses on gathering data and presenting it to city officials to speed their decision-making processes.


“We try to get all the players together in a room and we take a ‘best minds’ approach to solving problems,” explains Jennifer Sanders, co-founder and executive director of the Alliance. “As a free-standing nonprofit, we’re able to move quickly. We don’t get caught in the shuffle that often slows down projects. One of our main roles is providing evidence that justifies larger-scale deployments of smart city projects.”


Living Lab


In 2017, the Alliance created a Smart City Living Lab for the West End District. The lab is a testbed for smart city initiatives, providing a transparent and repeatable process for evaluating projects. One of its most successful projects was the installation of small beacons that measured pedestrian traffic in the district.


“We were able to measure foot traffic and share the information with members of the local business association. The beacons revealed unexpected spikes in pedestrian traffic, which enabled local businesses to adjust their hours and tweak their marketing to attract more customers,” Sanders says.


Another project involved replacing the district’s sodium halide street lamps with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). In addition to saving energy and increasing safety, the lights can be controlled remotely.


“There’s a popular restaurant in the district with a patio. One of the new streetlights was shining directly on the patio, making patrons uncomfortable. We called the city, explained the situation and they reduced the intensity of the light by 30 per cent,” Sanders recalls. “Some cities have had situations where streetlights were shining into apartment buildings, making it difficult for residents to sleep. With the LEDs, cities can dial down the intensity, allowing people to sleep better at night.”


The LEDs send signals when they’re broken or in need of replacement, which reduces the amount of time city inspectors spend looking for broken bulbs. The new LEDs lower the city’s labour and fuel costs, and diminish the city’s carbon footprint.


The power of the PPP


The aggregate impact of the Living Lab has been positive, Sanders says. Residents and visitors to the West End feel safer and more connected, local businesses are serving more customers and the district’s spirit has become noticeably more upbeat.


“Public-private partnerships are becoming increasingly critical at the city level,” Sanders says.


“Public-private partnerships are becoming increasingly critical at the city level."


“They help cities move initiatives quickly and implement high-value infrastructure projects at city-scale, without relying on traditional approaches.”


The goal, she says, is executing projects that involve limited upfront capital expenditures, which then allows cities to focus on optimising operations.


PPPs are emerging as essential components of smart city development. In the past, financing capital projects required cities to borrow large sums of money, usually by issuing municipal bonds. PPPs allow cities to leverage private capital without the encumbrances and delays associated with traditional methods of municipal financing.


Skin in the game


Smart cities are at the vanguard of the new approach to solving urban problems. They are far more flexible, agile and responsive than national governments. If there are solutions to the world’s hardest problems, smart cities will find them first.


If there are solutions to the world’s hardest problems, smart cities will find them first.


In almost every imaginable way, smart cities are the antidote to the rigidly planned cities of the mid-20th century, cities in which high-rise towers surrounded by dead space spawned ghostly neighbourhoods where citizens dared not tread after dark.


“The physical and the social are deeply connected in cities,” write Richard Sennett and Ricky


Burdett in their preface to The Quito Papers and the New Urban Agenda. But that fragile connection was broken by principles of urban planning conceived in the 1930s and applied relentlessly for the next six decades.


The smart city movement redirects the trajectory of urban planning. Smart cities are platforms for a new kind of urban development. They put the tools and techniques of planning into the hands of more people, giving them skin in the game.


They also empower a new generation of architects whose toolbox now includes software for visualising the complex interplay between buildings and their surrounding environments in greater detail than ever before.


Architecture shaping destiny


Even as design and construction techniques evolve, architecture will continue to shape the destiny of cities. Smart city architecture is likely to reflect the fluid and turbulent nature of modern life. Architectural development will be iterative – a non-stop journey of experimentation, feedback, refinement and innovation.


While it is unlikely that we’ll see “agile” architecture any time soon, the idea of adaptability has become increasingly relevant for urban architects and their firms.


“It’s hard to change the basic form of an existing building. But the best buildings are adaptable to new uses, “says James Von Klemperer, President and Design Principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.


Adaptable buildings don’t need to be torn down when the society around them changes. In Manhattan, for example, some of the trendiest neighbourhoods are in former warehouse districts.


In addition to being ruggedly built, the old warehouses had spacious floors, high ceilings and broad proportions – making them perfect spaces for galleries, lofts and stores. The buildings remained essentially unchanged, even as their function evolved into something completely new.


“These buildings are sustainable … we can re-use them and avoid the cycle of constant rebuilding that is destructive to the planet,” Von Klemperer says. “They are ‘agile’ in the sense that they allow different activities to flow through them.”


Ideally, smart cities would require buildings to be designed and constructed with adaptability in mind. For instance, cities could set higher minimums for floor-to-ceiling heights when new parking garages are built so they could be more easily converted into offices or apartments. Smart design and construction of new buildings would effectively “future-proof” them against obsolescence. Theoretically, an adaptable building could be repurposed continually for centuries.


This article is adapted from Smart Cities, Smart Future: Showcasing Tomorrow by Mike Barlow and Cornelia Levy-Bencheton. It’s available from Amazon and in bookshops.


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