There’s loads of talk these day about Smart Cities and why it is smart to be be smarter about urban development. What there isn’t a lot of are examples that urban councils and planning boards can reference for their own ideas. That’s why the GeoWeb conference, an annual confab that explores how information technology can aid in the urban design and urban planning process could be a fabulous resource for the Smart Cities movement.
The theme of this year’s conference was Cityscapes, which sort of elevates the design of cities to an art. It also squelches the notion that the haphazard sprawl-type of development that has been so commonplace over the past century is a good thing. This brings to mind some of the cities that are being built in the United Arab Emirates, namely Abu Dhabi, where my brother works for a company that is building out all sorts of infrastructure. Before he left, he showed me all sorts of 3-D models about what he’s doing.
But models and computer-aided designs are pretty commonplace within the architectural world. So what makes the sorts of projects and technologies discussed during Cityscapes so unique? In a word, Collaboration.
For a long time, cities have been planned by specialist teams that knew very little about what each other was doing, notes Ken Greenberg, an architect and well-respected urban designer. Information technology promises to bridge these disciplines, so that waste management challenges (as an example) can be considering in the context of local geographic, demographic and economic factors. “Issues of sustainability have gone from being an add-on or afterthought to essentially being at the core of what people are doing. You really need to have more understanding about the specificity of local conditions,” Greenberg told me during a phone interview.
Greenberg contends that the cities that will be most adept in planning for the smart transition are experimenting with pilot projects unique to their climate and circumstances. The idea of bicycle lanes is being tried out in many metropolitan areas, as an example, but with a twist unique to the area. This article from The New York Times details some of the experimentation with bike lanes going on in New York City and its boroughs, but also details the tensions that will inevitably arise as city governments grapple with climate and green planning issues.
“You can build case studies but you can’t come in with cookie cutter ideas,” Greenberg says.
Here’s how technology could help, according to Greenberg:
- Collaborative planning sessions that are iterative
- Interactive mapping
- Correlating environmental, social, physical and economic data sets
- Testing potential traffic and alternative energy plans
- Portraying the “fourth dimension” (think of three-dimensional models that are layered with intelligence related to all the physical layers they represent). These models should be continuously updated and available for reference. So, in essence, a project is never really finished. No more blueprints lost in the musty basement of city hall.
Of course, technology is part of the problem, especially when you consider affluent populations vs. poor populations, notes John Stutz, who is the cofounder of the Tellus Institute, an organization focused on sustainable planning issues “for the great transition.” “We have to build smart cities if you want to survive,” Stutz says.
Doesn’t leave much room for misinterpretation, does it?
The challenge, as developing nations become more affluent, is to figure out how to manage consumption habits without creating a whole new set of haves and have-nots. So, you have to convince established urbanites to be more responsible in the context of their society.
One simple example, Stutz notes, is that even though refrigerators are much more efficient today than in the past, we as a U.S. society still use the same amount of energy for refrigeration than in the past. That’s because when people buy a new appliance, they tend to stick the old one somewhere else in the their home or garage until it absolutely doesn’t work.
How many refrigerators do you have in your house?
Here are several articles about this year’s GeoWeb conference that will give you more background, should you choose to research this topic more deeply:
- Reflections on GeoWeb 2009
- GeoWeb 2009 Review (includes video of John Stutz’s presentation)
- Spatial Explorations