Smart cities aim to make urban life more efficient – but for citizens’ sake they need to slow down

Sometimes you want to take it slow. Fabrizio Verrecchia/Unsplash. , FAL

Guest post by Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Anglia Ruskin University

All over the world, governments, institutions and businesses are combining technologies for gathering data, enhancing communications and sharing information, with urban infrastructure, to create smart cities. One of the main goals of these efforts is to make city living more efficient and productive – in other words, to speed things up.

Yet for citizens, this growing addiction to speed can be confounding. Unlike businesses or services, citizens don’t always need to be fast to be productive. Several research initiatives show that cities have to be “liveable” to foster well-being and productivity. So, quality of life in smart cities should not be associated with speed and efficiency alone.

The pace of city life is determined by many factors, such as people’s emotions or memories, the built environment, the speed of movement and by the technologies that connect people to – or detach them from – any given place. As cities around the world become increasingly “smart”, I argue that – amid the optimised encounters and experiences – there also need to be slow moments, when people can mindfully engage with and enjoy the city.

Cities provide an environment for people to move, encounter, communicate and explore spaces. Research shows how these experiences can differ, depending on the pace of the activity and the urban environment: whether fast or slow, restless or calm, spontaneous or considered.

“Slow” approaches have been introduced as an antidote to many unhealthy or superficial aspects of modern life. For example, the slow reading movement encourages readers to take time to concentrate, contemplate and immerse themselves in what they’re reading – rather than skim reading and scrolling rapidly through short texts.

Similarly, the international slow food movement started in Italy as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant on the Spanish Steps in Rome, back in 1986. Then, in 1999, came the “cittaslow movement” (translated as “slow city”) – inspired by the slow food movement – which emphasises the importance of maintaining local character while developing an economy which can sustain communities into the future.

Orvieto, Italy – home of the cittaslow movement. Shutterstock. 
Slow cities arise from grassroots efforts to improve quality of life for citizens, by reducing pollution, traffic and crowds and promoting better social interaction within communities. They must follow a detailed set of policy guidelines, which focus on providing green space, accessible infrastructure and internet connectivity, promoting renewable energy and sustainable transport, and being welcoming and friendly to all. Slow cities can create opportunities for healthier behavioural patterns – including pausing or slowing down – which allow for more meaningful engagement in cities.

These guidelines present a clear road map for city governments, but there are also ways that local people can promote a slow city ethos in fast-paced cities throughout the world. For example, in London, artists and activists have organised slow walks to encourage the general public to meaningfully engage with urban spaces, and show them how diverse their experiences of the city can be, depending on the speed of movement.

Slow and smart

Trying to put people’s concerns at the heart of smart city policies has always been challenging, due to the lack of creative grassroots approaches, which enable citizens to participate and engage with planning. And while technology has been able to give citizens instant access to a wide range of data about a place, it is rarely used to improve their actual experience of that place.

Getting smart cities to slow down could give citizens the means to explore the urban environment at a range of different paces, each offering a distinctive experience. To do this, architects, artists and urban planners need to look beyond the ways that technology can give instant access to information, services and entertainment – whether that’s video game lounges, or recharging and navigation pods in airports and stations.

Instead, they must recognise that technology can create platforms for citizens to immerse themselves and engage meaningfully in different experiences within the urban environment. For example, technology-based installations or projections can tell stories about people and places from other times, which enrich people’s experience of the city. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can offer new ways to understand cities, and the way people function within them, which could help give human behaviour and experience a significant place in smart city planning.

Slow and smart cities could take the best of both approaches, helping citizens to connect with the history, present and future of a place, emphasising local character and building a sense of community, while also making use of the latest technology to give people greater choice about whether they want to speed up or slow down.

This would not only enhance efficiency and productivity, but also ensure that technology actively helps to improve people’s quality of life and make cities better places to live. It may sound idealistic, but with the range of advanced technology already being developed, ensuring cities are slow as well as smart could help people live better, more meaningful lives long into the future.The Conversation


Guest post by Lakshmi Priya Rajendran, Senior Research Fellow in Future Cities, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Top of the world: why is Melbourne the ‘most liveable city’?

Night cityscape of Melbourne, Australia

By Steven McGinty

For six consecutive years, Melbourne has been ranked the ‘most liveable city’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

In the 2016 liveability survey, the Australian coastal city and state capital of Victoria achieved an overall rating of 97.5 (out of 100), narrowly beating Vienna (97.4), Vancouver (97.3), and Toronto (92.9).

The study assessed over 30 indicators, across five broad categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure. Each of these categories is weighted differently, so some indicators are valued higher than others. For example, the prevalence of crime is weighted higher than the availability of good quality housing or private education.

Melbourne’s overall score hasn’t changed since 2011, when it took the top spot from Vancouver. It’s also consistently received perfect scores for education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Why is Melbourne such a liveable city?

In an interview with The Guardian, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said that he was incredibly ‘proud’ that his city had retained the title of world’s most liveable city. For him, the city’s success is due to the foresight of Melbourne’s original planners. He explained that:

Robert Hoddle laid out the CBD (central business district) grid, which means our streets are lovely and wide and easy to navigate, while Charles Latrobe set aside large parcels of land around the city for parks and open spaces, which we enjoy to this day

Laurel Johnson, an associate lecturer at the University of Queensland School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, highlighted that the city’s size is an important factor. She observed that there are very few other major cities that allow residents to have a home with a large garden within commutable distance to their professional jobs. In her view, the city’s ‘low population density, range of housing options, culture and focus on green spaces’ explains why Melbourne’s ranks so highly on liveability.

Spiros Alatsas, from the Victorian Multicultural Commission, said that diversity is one of the state’s biggest strengths. With more than a quarter of Melbourne’s population born overseas, it’s unsurprising that the city has a wide variety of cultures and cuisines. In the state of Victoria alone, more than 260 languages and dialects are spoken, with people coming from over 200 different countries.

Melbourne also has smart city ambitions, and has already introduced projects which use data and digital technologies to meet the changing needs of its residents. This includes creating CityLab, a space where innovative ideas and services can be tested and introduced into communities. The lab takes a human-centred design approach and involves working with the users of new services from an early stage.

A recent idea which came from a ‘Hackathon’ hosted by CityLab was the ‘internet of trees’.  This idea evolved into the Urban Forest Visual, a website which provides real-time data on the city, and helps provide a better understanding of issues such as the health of plants and trees.

Several other initiatives have been introduced including:

  • Participate Melbourne – a website which highlights new projects and allows residents to provide their views. Recent discussions underway include the developments of a new skate park.
  • Smart little bins – the solar-powered bins compact rubbish as it’s collected, which reduces the number of waste collections that need to be made.
  • 24-hour pedestrian counting system – sensors are used to measure the activity of pedestrians, and therefore how residents use the city. This insight helps the city meet the needs of residents.

Is this the full story?

There are many who doubt the liveability credentials of Melbourne.

Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consultants, questions the validity of the EIU’s assessment. He argues that the EIU is less concerned with how ordinary people live and is more a guide for international companies on how they should pay senior executives working on assignment in other cities. As an alternative, Dr Davies suggests that the ‘spatially adjusted’ most liveable cities index (also created by the EIU, with partner BuzzData) is more accurate, as it considers the lives of permanent residents and issues such as the urban sprawl and connectivity.

Using this index, we see that Hong Kong is number one and Melbourne doesn’t make the top ten. There is also a place for European cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, and Stockholm, who are largely underrated by the EIU liveability survey.

Michael Buxton, Environment and planning professor at RMIT University, also emphasises that the survey’s principal purpose is as a comparator of cities for highly mobile professionals. However, he also provides further detail on the challenges the city faces. For instance, he argues that many of the new high-rise developments are poorly constructed and will be unliveable ‘within a generation’. And although the public transport system is extensive, it performs badly when compared against international standards.

Alienation is another concern for Professor Buxton. He suggests that dense high rise developments have an alienating affect for residents. Similarly, low-income residents, who are being relocated to poorly connected suburbs, are experiencing a sense of alienation.

Professor Buxton also offers an alternative liveability index, the ‘Mercer Quality of Living Rankings’. This again uses its own criteria – although focusing on similar issues such as economic and political environment. In 2016, Vienna was top of this index, with Melbourne ranking 15th behind southern hemisphere neighbours Auckland, Wellington, and Sydney.

Final thoughts

Although these international indexes are subjective, and unlikely to find a single ‘most liveable city’, they do have their purpose.

Liveability surveys are a useful tool for encouraging debate amongst citizens, academics, and politicians. They also help to generate interest in cities, attracts tourists and skilled workers, and encourage investment.


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Are cars the enemy of liveable cities?

by Morwen Johnson

Traffic jamWhat makes a town or city liveable? And what part does transport play in placemaking, if our ultimate aim is to create vibrant, liveable places which work for residents, businesses and visitors?

These questions were at the front of my mind after I saw a lot of social media coverage of Helsinki wanting to go car-free by 2025. Reading beyond the headlines of the Helsinki story, it seems that the city actually plans to test whether it could integrate public and shared transport options to such a degree that owning a car would be unnecessary for its residents. But the story revealed strong opinions on how cars impact our quality of life in urban areas and the dominance of car-centred urban planning.

Then last week I went to a talk organised by Glasgow City Heritage Trust and Architecture & Design Scotland on traffic management in historic cities.

This talk, given by Pierre Laconte, President of the Foundation for the Urban Environment, looked at examples of medium-sized cities which had found practical solutions to handling traffic within the context of enhancing place quality.

Some general themes which jumped out at me were:

Traffic management must be seen as a holistic issue which takes account of the needs of public transport users and pedestrians. In many towns and cities, traffic control aims to achieve a ‘green wave’ – where lights are coordinated to allow continuous traffic flow of cars/road traffic over several junctions in one main direction. In contrast, Zurich introduced short traffic light cycles (e.g. 55 seconds). This meant less waiting and shorter journey times for all, not just car users.

Taking a new approach to traffic management requires political will and a long-term approach. The initial regeneration and vision for Bilbao stretched over twenty years. Copenhagen has been rolling out pedestrianisation and the regeneration of waterways across the city centre since the 1960s. Making small, incremental changes which all contribute to a wider, consistent vision can be just as effective (and in many places, more practical) than masterplans which take a knock down and rebuild approach.

Creating quality places to live often depends on value creation. High density housing and commercial development can contribute to liveable cities if the financial returns are invested in infrastructure, public realm improvements and public transport. In Bilbao for example, tramlines were built from the proceeds of increased land value.

Increasing public transport use is a mind game. If an individual is committed to the idea that cars are the quickest, cheapest and most convenient form of transport then they won’t consider alternatives. Initiatives such as Southend-on-Sea’s award-winning Ideas in Motion behaviour change project try to tackle this.

Planning for linear development is an approach that can more easily adapt to fast or slow growth. Copenhagen has used public transport routes as arteries for urban growth, as did the Brussels suburban new town of Louvain-la-Neuve. In America, Portland is a poster-child for transit-oriented development with light rail, commuter rail and streetcar systems all supporting urban regeneration and development.

It seems that the question of whether towns and cities can come to a compromise where cars and people successfully co-exist is a challenge that everyone responsible for designing, maintaining and governing our urban spaces needs to face.

 

Note about the event:

This blog was prompted by a lecture organised by Architecture and Design Scotland and Glasgow City Heritage Trust and held in The Lighthouse, Scotland’s national centre for design and architecture, on 16 Jun 2014. Pierre Laconte, President of the Foundation for the Urban Environment, spoke on traffic management in historic cities.

 

Further reading (you may need to be a member to access some material):

Funding urban public transport: case study compendium

Portland: planning for legacy, IN Town and Country Planning, Vol 82 No 1 Jan 2013, pp47-50

Transforming Brussels into an international city: reflections on ‘Brusselization’, IN Cities, Vol 29 No 2 Apr 2012, pp126-132

Urban road building and traffic congestion: what went wrong? IN World Transport Policy and Practice, Vol 17 No 3 Nov 2011, pp6-26

Bilbao city report (CASE report 43)

Beyond moving people: excavating the motivations for investing in urban public transport infrastructure in Bilbao Spain, IN European Planning Studies, Vol 13 No 1 Jan 2005, pp23-44