Smart vs resilient cities: finding a balance

Smart cities must have environmental planning built-in

There has been a lot of talk recently about smart cities. People are intrigued by the possibilities a connected city can bring. At the same time we must focus on ensuring our cities are resilient.

You only have to look at recent photos of the terrible flooding in Venice or consider the heatwave that occurred in much of Europe last year to realize how important this is. The number of cities that are expected to regularly see temperatures above 50℃ (the temperature at which human cells start to cook) is increasing. ‘Currently, 354 major cities experience average summer temperatures in excess of 35℃; by 2050, climate change will push this to 970.’

An alarming number of our major population centers are boiling or drowning

Many cities like this are suffering frequent floodingThe percentage of the world’s population who live in cities passed 50% in 2014 and the UN estimates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. Our cities have the power to dramatically affect our impact on the environment – for better or for worse. With such huge numbers of people living in cities it’s imperative to ensure those cities are safe spaces which are resilient to the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, forest fires, heatwaves – they all have the potential to destroy people’s lives and homes. In a densely populated environment their effects are even more dramatic.

Sometimes it can seem as though smart cities and resilient cities are mutually exclusive ideas. After all, the collection and particularly the storage of all that data requires vast amounts of energy. We must ensure that the energy savings which result from this avalanche of information are sufficient to outweigh the energy costs. It is perfectly possible for a city to combine smart technology with reducing its environmental impact, as long as the right approach is taken.

‘Know yourself and you will win all battles’ Sun Tzu

For a city to make the most of its natural advantages, to counter its inbuilt threats, to improve the lives of its citizens, to minimize its energy consumption and to reduce its carbon footprint it first needs to know and understand itself. To improve public transport and therefore reduce private car usage we must have accurate rider information. To plan for rising sea levels we must first understand the current situation in detail.

Smart planning in action

cyclist passing buildingsFamously cycle-friendly Copenhagen introduced a ‘Green Wave’ for cyclists in the early 2000s. The principle was that by cycling at 20kmph cyclists using the bike lanes would be able to sail through a wave of green lights on their way to work. In the afternoon the ‘wave’ is reversed to speed people’s journeys home. It worked, travel time decreased by 17%. However, it had the unintended negative consequence of increasing journey times for buses by up to 14%. Now, ‘Adaptive systems are being used which prioritize between bikes and buses using data from traffic sensors and GPS in buses dynamically, in such a way that the buses are not delayed.’ This is a fantastic example of how smart, connected cities can incentivize environmentally desirable behavior.

Easy, integrated public transport and smart crossings are a vital ingredient in helping citizens to choose to walk or take the bus rather than drive.

Eric Greweldinger is the traffic light expert in the municipality of ʼs-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. He explains how the traffic light system uses technology to help people move through intersections as quickly and seamlessly as possible, whether they are traveling by bike, car, bus or on foot. On top of this, ‘Every bus is tagged and the computer knows all the time-tables of every line. The installation checks whether a bus is too early, on time, or running late and sets the lights accordingly.’

pedestrians on a crossingUmbrellium have developed a high-tech pedestrian crossing that monitors and reacts to cars, people and cyclists. The Starling (STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING) Crossing is designed to make roads safer for pedestrians. By utilizing technology to make the urban environment safer for pedestrians we encourage more people to walk to work or to let their children walk to school. Up to 25% of journeys during the morning rush hour are attributable to the school run. If we can reduce this percentage then we can reduce pollution in cities and minimize their carbon footprints.

Tackling urban flooding with IoT applications

Along with climate change, urbanization and its attendant lack of permeable surfaces for water to drain away is a significant contributor to flooding. After years of devastating flooding, many cities are using smart technology to monitor water levels. In Chicago, City Digital and its partners have installed sensors to collect information about precipitation, humidity, soil moisture, air pressure, and chemical absorption rates. They are investigating the viability of building a network of sensors that would serve as a tool for water infrastructure planning.forward arror on street

With the proliferation of low-cost sensors it should be possible for even developing countries to utilize them to monitor rising water levels and calculate where and when flooding is likely to occur. This information can then be used to warn local citizens and to plan the necessary response, potentially saving thousands of lives.

Environmental policies must be part of smart city planning from the start

It’s possible to use smart technologies to reduce cities’ carbon footprints and make the lives of the people who live there easier and more pleasant. However, to ensure that this happens environmental considerations must be built in from the very start.

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