Metro mayors can use technology to create smart city-regions


Two exciting trends are sweeping the country. Technology and big data are transforming how cities work and creating new ways to plan for urban growth. Meanwhile the devolution agenda is gathering pace, with combined authorities emerging as a new government model for city-regions.

It is important that these two developments work together. We think that politicians can harness technological innovations from the smart city agenda to overcome barriers to strategic planning, creating smart city-regions which benefit a wide range of people and places.

The challenge of strategic planning

Our professional plays a role in everything from tackling the housing crisis to combating climate change, from boosting economic productivity to improving public health. These broad topics require strategic planning.

This term implies that that complex issues cannot be dealt with solely at the local level, or by focusing on a single issue. Action need to be coordinated action across wide geographical areas, such as city-regions. They need to involve a range of different actors working in areas like housing, transport, economic development, health and the environment.

This coordination can be difficult to achieve. In England, political power is concentrated in central government, where departments making policies and plans in relative isolation. At the local level, there are insufficient mechanisms for local councils to develop plans with neighbouring areas to tackle complex issues like congestion. And planning departments have suffered some of the deepest spending cuts in local government.

The wave of devolution sweeping England has seen combined authorities emerge, many with the ability to create joined-up plans at the city-region scale, and set up development corporations to coordinate land assembly and infrastructure delivery. But there success is not guaranteed. The National Audit Office warns that they are at risk from a lack of resources, internal political tensions, and the complexity of their mandate. It cautioned that this model of government could become just another ‘curiosity of history’. To avoid this outcome, where might we look for support?

The rise of the smart city

Using big data to understand and manage flows of people, information and resources, the ‘smart city’ concept is an increasingly popular way to think about solutions to complex urban problems.

Smart cities use tools which make infrastructure networks operate more efficiently. These range from ‘dashboards’ which manage road traffic and prioritise repairs, to smart grids which reduce energy consumption, and from censors in water pipes that can automatically detect leaks, to apps which allow commuters to plan multi-modal journeys.

These developments offer an optimistic and visionary future, but they also deserve critical scrutiny. This agenda has so far benefitted the largest, wealthiest cities: those with good digital infrastructure, clusters of high-tech firms, plenty of smart phone users, and the capacity to innovate. By seeking to understanding cities through data, it risks neglecting issues which cannot be easily measured. It can privilege new technologies like autonomous vehicles and drones over existing low-tech solutions like buses and bikes.

So, in the rush towards smarter cities, is there a way to ensure that these innovations benefit the widest possible range of people, places and issues?

When smart city innovation meets strategic planning

Through our work with the Future Cities Catapult, we’ve seen how data and technology makes it easier to plan across geographical boundaries and sectors. For example in London, the GLA requires all boroughs to enter standardised planning information into a single database to monitor development trends across the city-region. Transport for London calculates public transport accessibility helps planners shape the density of new development. An interactive map shows planned infrastructure investments across a range of sectors, including transport, energy, water and waste. Another helps boroughs to plan heat networks and identify buildings which need an energy efficiency retrofit.

Elsewhere, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is developing an integrated infrastructure map to support its new Spatial Framework. Birmingham City Council is testing a tool which models the impact of development proposals on ecosystem services, like biodiversity and flood mitigation.

Meanwhile, organisations like the Ordnance Survey, Data Mill North, UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and Urban Intelligence are developing spatial and analytical tools which could support strategic planning. Advanced 3D models like VUCITY and Esri CityEngine offer new ways to visualise the impact of development proposals and forecast growth scenarios. National datasets have been turned into interactive maps which make it easier to understand cross-boundary issues like commuting patterns, green space provision, demographic change and coastal erosion.

Using devolution to create smart city-regions

With combined authorities emerging as a new governance structure for city-regions, there is a golden opportunity to harness the power of technology and roll out smart solutions which tackle the challenges of planning at this scale.

Our new project, Smart City-Regions, will explore how innovative tools and approaches can help combined authorities (and other bodies) strategically address the economic, social and environmental objectives of planning.

If you have stories to share, then please get in touch. We want to hear about barriers to strategic planning and the information, partnerships and tools which can help to overcome them. We want to see how data and technology can help identify sustainable locations for growth, coordinate infrastructure delivery, monitor progress, and build resilience. And we want to champion new ways of engaging communities in collaborative, long-term planning.

Let’s work together to make our city-regions smarter.

About the RTPI

The Royal Town Planning Institute champions the power of planning in creating prosperous places and vibrant communities. We represent over 25,000 members worldwide, supporting them throughout their careers. We shape planning policy, raise professional standards and are the only body in the UK to confer Chartered status to planners, the highest professional qualification.

This project forms part of the RTPI Better Planning programme, which demonstrates how planning is part of the solution to major social, economic and environmental challenges.

Download our Position Paper on Smart City-Regions

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