Can Habitat III contribute to a ‘smart shift’ in urban planning?

An Urban Thinkers Campus in Paris focused on how smart planning can foster urban development.


In 2050, an estimated 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. If in the next 35 years, millions of inhabitants will be migrating to urban areas, what common principles do we need to define in order to cope with this reality?

And based on those principles, what initiatives and government solutions will be needed to guarantee fundamental rights and quality of life, as well as inclusive development, jobs and affordable housing for everyone in this hyper-urbanized future?

Finally, what about protecting both the planet and its cultural diversity? What to do about solutions to mobility and energy alternatives? And what is the right economic development model to ensure the opportunity for success in each of these areas?

These are just a few of the questions discussed at a recent Urban Thinkers Campus in Paris focused on smart planning. The campus, an initiative of the World Urban Campaign, is one of more than two-dozen taking place ahead of Habitat III, the global urbanization conference that will take place in October in Quito, Ecuador. The campuses have aimed to offer thematic stakeholder input to the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s reporting on the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

Increasingly such themes have been on the global agenda in recent years, typically under the topic of smart cities. This is not necessarily because of the technological focus of the idea of smart cities, but rather due to its social, human and philosophical component — and the future of urban development.

Of course, many of these issues were also being discussed well before smart cities became a global focus. For instance, many of them received key focus during the last Habitat meeting — Habitat II, held in 1996 in Istanbul. “We haven’t been able to put in perspective every challenge that has arisen since then,” said Maryse Gautier, the co-head of the Habitat III Bureau, a body made up of 10 member states to shepherd the process. “Housing, migration, refugees and slums still are visible, profound problems.”

Speaking at the Paris event, Gautier said the next move “should be to finally give cities the means to face these challenges with a solid strategy in implementing solutions.” She said she’s convinced that “if we give human and financial resources such as the planning tools we are speaking of today, then we will certainly have the opportunity to promote and provide more affordable housing, services, mobility, etc. — because we will have the ability and means for it.”

[See: The drafters: Meet the two women leading the Habitat III Bureau]

Still, these challenges are set to become larger and even more complex in coming years, particularly for those who manage and live in cities. In Paris, participants strongly emphasized that the ongoing conversation about these themes cannot be isolated. Today, integrated thinking and global city vision is what defines a smart city: It isn’t just about technology, though technology is a tool to achieve a certain aim — as is the Habitat process itself.

A smart town’s ‘body’

The key issue here, of course, is the increasing number of people living in cities. The challenges, then, include how best to organize services and infrastructure; how to run and manage energy, water and other resources, particularly as these are becoming scarcer; and how to promote peaceful aging for those living in cities. Also, how can our increasingly crowded urban areas continue to aspire for better quality of life for their citizens, even while improving the environment?

“A smart town must be welcoming, efficient, sustainable and safe. And to achieve these goals, we must have smart planning — of the environment, public services, housing, etc. There’s a need to sync every agent and institution that leads, plans, executes and lives in cities through the same ‘smart tuner’.”

There are already several good examples around the globe of cities that are taking on comprehensive approaches to these questions — Copenhagen, Toronto, Vancouver and many others. Over the coming decade, experts see the growth of around 88 smart cities, according to a new report from IHS Technology.

[See: ‘Technology transfer’ accord boosts monitoring of urban development]

But how do they do it? “Some start to adopt smart technology to improve the environment and living conditions,” said the head of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, Cheong Koon Hean.

And what, exactly, is “smart technology”? Basically, it comes down to devices and platforms that allow for the gathering and analysis of data, particularly “big data”. Still, these labels don’t quite get at the heart of the matter, and often they are still misunderstood. The solutions aren’t found merely in “smart people” or “smart technology” — specific policies are still required, and everything has to make sense to the government and its citizens. In this, Habitat III has an opportunity to play an important coordinating role.

This is particularly so on the issue of housing. During the 1990s, many cities created planning task forces with the sole aim of achieving greater growth — experiences that often led to disastrous results. We now have an opportunity to create broad guidelines on smart growth — intelligent planning that includes all of a city’s sectors, its strong and weak points. Under such a process, city authorities, urban planners, stakeholders and citizens are all called to contribute ideas based on sustainable models, making sure that results can actually be accomplished in the future.

Cheong oversees the development and management of some 1 million public housing flats in 23 towns in Singapore. She formulated a roadmap to develop better designed, more sustainable and community-centric towns. The first woman to head the Urban Redevelopment Authority, she led the planning of the Marina Bay precinct, creating a signature skyline for Singapore and a vibrant live work-play destination.

[See: How Singapore’s Marina Barrage keeps fresh water in and the sea out]

And how does she see a “smart town”? “It is a project which integrates functions similar to those of the human body,” she said.

You can think of a city’s buildings as a body’s muscles, while the lungs are the waterways, parks and green areas. Roads and means of communication are the veins and arteries in which everything has to flow harmoniously. Finally, the intense new layer of sensors is equal to the brain’s five senses, collecting and processing all data “in order to maintain knowledge and permanent awareness of the environment, allowing growth”, Cheong explained.

A smart town must be welcoming, efficient, sustainable and safe. And to achieve these goals, we must have smart planning — of the environment, public services, housing, etc. Once again, there’s a need to sync every agent and institution that leads, plans, executes and lives in cities through the same “smart tuner”.

Cities versus cities

There’s another component to smart planning that goes beyond technology. For example, a city such as Detroit, which has been economically gutted, is now catching its breath thanks to a single aspect that sets it apart from other cities: It is economically viable for professionals in the creative industries to live in Detroit. Rents are low and, for the past two years, this increasing interest has helped Detroit rise from the ashes.

While smart planning can’t be used in such situations in the short term, it does have an important similar role to play in the longer term — to keep bringing new people in. For this, cities need strong political will to solve the problems in the future, especially those related to housing, energy and mobility.

If these areas are smartly planned, citizens will experience a good and liveable environment, contributing with more productivity, business and social interaction, attracting more talent and creative individuals — critical factors in a global city’s “ambience”.

Yes, cities are competing with each other. Each looks to attract the most remarkable, creative, intelligent, innovative personalities and citizens. At the same time, they’re competing for tourists, companies, investments. It is a mindless competition, many times aggressive and senseless — often not very smart.

If by 2050 nearly three-quarters of the world’s population is living in cities, we need to find out which cities those are going to be. Not all of them will have these types of attractive capacities, and some will eventually lose population. Habitat III thus could play an important role in discovering and analyzing which solutions are best to help each city put its best face forward.

On the other hand, we also have to be able to interpret and debate possible solutions to avoid population exodus from other cities, whose future will be compromised if no forward-looking measures are taken. To date, some analysts say, not enough thought has been given to this issue.

Smart shift

The participants at the Paris Urban Thinkers Campus made clear that we now have an opportunity to look at serious solutions to these issues in the coming years — from new technologies, global forums, urban and environmental specialists, NGOs, corporations and associations.

“Where do we get the money for these projects? Actually, the answer may be surprisingly simple: We don’t need to put big money into this. That’s not how smart planning works.”

But more than testing, what will be critical in this process is consistent, coherent dialogue between local and national governments. This will give local governments the chance to solve their own problems effectively.

[See: Cities must be part of defining the New Urban Agenda]

But a big question remains: Where do we get the money for these projects? Actually, the answer may be surprisingly simple: We don’t need to put big money into this. That’s not how smart planning works. On the contrary, many analysts point out, putting money into projects that contribute to sprawl and build new neighbourhoods, schools and utilities has been proven to fail.

Instead, proponents say that the smart way to approach economic development will be to use city-based strategies and “smart planning” politics. Doing so, backers say, will define the areas that need to be improved, organize utilities, and create the social and public institutions required to attract people — keeping an ideal density and sparing millions of dollars in new real-estate investments that wouldn’t actually lead to a liveable, happy, smart city.

The responsibilities for smart urban planning in coming years are likely to be significant. Urban smart planners will be tasked with ensuring that new housing and business correspond to existing services, that classrooms have the ideal number of students, that commuters don’t get stuck in traffic, that poorly planned infrastructure doesn’t block commerce.

In the end, smart planning becomes a tool for both liveability and economic growth. Some cities are already using following these approaches, but others aren’t bothering. The Paris Urban Thinkers Campus made clear that Habitat III can contribute to a shift — a smart shift.

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Vitor Pereira

Vitor Pereira is a writer, blogger and editor based in Portugal. He is head of strategy at Conteudo Chave (Key Content), a communication, innovation and creative agency, and a delegate for the Smart City Business Institute.