The first time I officially declared that I would like to explore new trends in urban planning by looking at the smart city, I had a – rather small – group of unfaithful friends nodding and showing pity for the years I am going to lose in a field that will “last as long as a firework”… Back at that time (beginning of 2012), even for the most passionate urban strategists like me, the truth was that we just couldn’t imagine a massive change in urban design techniques and methodologies. Urban planning had a very slow metabolism, was constructed on hundreds of years of best practices and especially, in South European cities back in the 2010s… there was not that much to think when living under a devastating regime of economic crisis. Lack of funding, lack of inspiration, and a large dense, constructed ambient just holding us behind from experimenting with tools that were coming from extremely different disciplines.
But in the last years, some signs of sudden change are clearly showing. It feels like urban planning is moving its back to the traditional studies of cartography and static master planning to something more exciting, fresh, innovative that is coming out in the light, from all corners of the planning world. Plenty of ideas are pushing technology beyond being just an online version of stacks of paperwork and new thinking groups are formed with local authorities, traditional planning companies, leading and small consultancies, university research groups experimenting with all they have got in their hands: applications and ICT. The most encouraging thing is that this happens everywhere, starting from the professionals reaching to citizens and going back to governance.
How come we entered a whole new way of thinking about urban design? The truth is that we, urban strategists didn’t just wake up one day and said, “well this is the day that instead of looking at what we know as a best practice, now we are going to look at something completely different. On the opposite, we started observing the changes in the state of mind of entrepreneurs, of the market directions, of where the world is moving.
When I am looking back at that period, I think the most important lesson that I took was the following: success doesn’t depend anymore on how good the services we provide are. We live in an era of outsourcing and connectivity – this good service you can take it from everywhere in real-time. Success on the opposite depends on what kind of innovation we can bring. And that requires a whole different state of mind and work.
So urban design and urban planning entered a new phase. Professionals and scholars started looking at innovation as a fruitful objective and focused their attention on how to produce innovation and understood quickly that it is information and knowledge that brings innovation. All the focus now was: “how can we extract more information from a locality” and what can we do with this information? In this relatively big but fascinating trip many ideas came out and a lot of synergies among various disciplines were born. We now see urban planners working closely with data mining and web developers and instead of designing new cities, they design new strategies under which the cities can change.
In this all-inclusive new hobby of searching for data, new apps and new technologies started declaring their role in the process of urban planning.
Here are some applications that I think would be promising to look at:
ArcGIS, helps planners in three ways: quickly create maps by dropping in their spreadsheet and mashing it up with other location data; analyzed data, and share their maps and data.
Neighbourlytics is a social analytics platform for neighborhoods, using social data in cities.
Others look at ways to improve a city’s sustainability. Look for a moment the app Environmental Impact Calculator that provides information on time by mode and number of calories that will be burned to get from one destination to another. With this information, developers can determine how to create an urban space that is less reliant on fossil fuel vehicles and more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Apps such as the National Equity Atlas and Metro Pulse help planners and designers make sense of demographic data, racial equity, and economic benefits. By using such services urban designers, and architects can spend more time on planning tasks and confidently create a space that will be inclusive, vibrant, and in-demand – both for residents and for businesses.
Lastly, the Azavea is an advanced geospatial technology and research for civic and social impact. They build geospatial web applications, data analytics, and research tools to help achieve impact.