Innovating Urban Planning to Foster Community-Focused Development
More than half of the world’s population currently live in cities. The UN estimates that by 2050, this figure will have doubled. The “financialization” of housing, among other factors, has led to a situation where many of the world’s cities are now defined by a chronic shortage of housing for the least advantaged, and in many cases, for the working and middle classes as well. The local connection between the financial institutions funding housing development and the people buying them has long disappeared, replaced by a new international financial system where real estate is a major asset. Indeed, a recent UN report estimates that the total value of global real estate makes up 60 percent of all global assets, with a value of $217 trillion, three-quarters of which is housing. 
So how do we make housing more accessible in cities the world over? The ‘smart city’ movement presents cities with the opportunity to build and plan ‘smarter’, developing citizen-centered, tech-enabled living, working and playing spaces that respond to people’s changing desires and needs - that are ‘future-proof’ and ‘user-centric’. Whether in Sao Paulo, Brasil, or Todmorden, UK, smart city innovation, and the ideas and funds it brings, should be capitalized upon to drive forward and finance smart development projects that help to relieve the global housing crisis that we are facing. In this week’s article, we will focus on some of the ways we can innovate planning in order to ‘redistribute’ housing stock (both existing and future) to create more equitable, just and sustainable urban communities.
Place people first
People-centric (or user-centric) design is essential to ensuring that a product ultimately fulfills its users’ needs. This is just as important for a computer as it is for a building, or even a whole city. As noted in our previous articles on smart cities and inclusion, smart city planning is just as susceptible to being exclusionary and biased as every other part of urban planning. The ‘smart city’ is strongly associated with people-centric urban policy, however concerted efforts on the part of all smart city stakeholders are still needed to ensure inclusion.
“As the famous urbanists Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl remind us, building cities should always begin with a consideration of the needs and behavior of individual people, and then their interactions with their surrounding material environments, and each other", states Thomas Müller, Co-Founder at bee smart city.
It is especially important to consider urban life and ‘place’ when integrating digital technologies into our city systems, in order to make sure that these technologies are actually benefiting, and not hindering, community cohesion and place-making. ‘Building smart’ should mean maximizing the use of clever ideas and technologies to develop living, working and playing spaces that work for all - from ‘8 to 80’. Given how intricate and delicately balanced social and natural ecosystems are, we must take extra care to understand how complicated the interactions within these overlapping ecosystems are before introducing new ideas and technologies into them.
As we have witnessed with trends such as green gentrification (see the New York highline), well-intentioned urban planning measures can have unseen consequences and the introduction of new technologies into people’s living and working spaces has the potential to provoke a whole host of unexpected societal impacts.  Nesta’s 2015 report “Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up” offers some interesting ways to make sure that technology is used to enhance urban residents’ lives. They note that ‘collaborative technologies’ can be leveraged to engage, enable and empower urban citizens in order to create better cities for all, as we will see below.
Involve the local community
Actively involving the local community in planning their environment is key to putting people first. Developments whose plans have been ‘co-created’ with local residents have provided some of the most interesting examples of successful place-making. As Nick Williamson suggests in his Ted X Talk on the subject, urban planning processes can be revolutionized through using new technologies, such as social media, to engage with local people. These technologies offer planners the opportunity to completely change how they do their job, enabling them to collaborate with local residents before the planning process begins, rather than simply as ‘consultation’ after plans have already been constructed - as is standard.
This puts a responsibility on smart city stakeholders, notably local authorities, management companies, and developers, to make sure that they have a solid smart city communications strategy and, as part of that, a genuinely engaging presence on social media. Communications and/or marketing techniques are often thought of as superfluous, or even completely ignored, during urban planning and policy-making processes. This overlooks the primordial role that communications plays in engaging with the local community: it is at the heart of making local residents feel empowered to contribute to policy-making and community action. The crucial thing is to ensure that communications are accessible, informal and inclusive. Instagram posts encouraging local people to get involved in a civic datathon measuring air pollution, for example, should visually depict a whole range of people - women, children, older people, different ethnic minorities - working with technological equipment, rather than just the typical ‘techy’ man.
“This kind of inclusive communication is central to making demographic groups typically excluded from the worlds of technology and policy-making feel that they have a role to play in civic tech and collaborative planning initiatives”, states Dr. Alexander Gelsin, Managing Partner at bee smart city.
This also puts the onus on local councils to become ‘facilitators’, rather than ‘arbitrators’, of urban development, as Nick Williamson puts it.
As noted in my article on digital inclusion, not everyone has access to and familiarity with social media, or indeed with digital technologies at all. Moreover, certain communities (notably those that are well-educated and wealthier) tend to participate more in co-creation planning processes. This means that any initiative designed to engage the local community in planning needs to bear digital exclusion in mind and actively reach out to those who typically lack access to both digital skills and political decision-making activities - such as elderly people, or lower income households.  
Digitize planning processes
Engaging the local community can be also be furthered by digitizing local government planning processes. As Stefan Webb, Head of Projects at Future Cities Catapult, highlights, the urban planning process is currently controlled by professionals who tend to keep information and knowledge hidden. This is partly because of an industry culture - John Friedmann’s notion of ‘radical planning’ (where the planner empowers communities, instead of dictating to them) hasn’t yet become the norm and planning jargon continues to create a communications barrier between laypeople and planning experts. But it is also down to a lack of technological adoption. Recent technology trends such as data analytics, big data and machine learning, among others, have seemingly bypassed urban planning. Reams of important data, such as planning records, remain in analogue form - either in PDFs or, even worse, paper. By using digital tools more, and relying on shared, cross-departmental and sector data platforms, cities can make sure everyone understands what’s happening - including citizens.
This should theoretically increase local approval of development plans, since the public are more likely to oppose developments if they don’t understand what is happening or don’t feel included in the design and development process.
Webb suggests that cities need to hold any spatially relevant data in one place, allowing it to be continuously drawn upon not just for multiple plans but also across departments, ending typical local government silos. He emphasizes that rather than waiting for technology to be forced upon the planning industry, it should actively look to digitize its processes right now - although, admittedly, legislative change is still needed. Through digitization, planners could not only engage the local community more, increasing transparency by making data on the local area and its plans available to all, but also give themselves more time and energy to focus on the “higher value, creative components of planning and place-making”.
Disparity between supply and demand, higher costs of living, stagnating wages, and rapidly growing urban populations, among other factors, are forcing developers, urban planners and urban residents to reevaluate current models of planning, building, and living. Lack of funding for affordable (and therefore less profitable) developments, and anachronistic local planning processes, are making this reevaluation difficult. Huge amounts of money are still being poured into unrealistic, luxury developments that are inaccessible to the majority of the global population, and innovating planning processes is proving to be tough without definitive legislative change and/or sufficiently innovatory city leadership.
Smart city initiatives will not be the sole answer to these problems. However, through leveraging ‘collaborative technologies’, city leaders can innovate urban planning to empower local people to actively shape their own neighborhoods, co-creating urban developments that work for the community, not just for developers’ wallets.
“Unlocking the potential of the smart city to socially innovate is as much as about capitalizing on new technologies as imparting new attitudes. City leaders and decision-makers need to be committed to driving forward research and design models that center around collective intelligence, fully exploiting the opinions, knowledge and experience of everyone in the community, alongside technological intelligence, to come up with the best solutions to pressing urban challenges. This way, we can plan ‘smarter’, and make the places we live in more people-centric, in both form and feeling”, Bart Gorynski, Managing Partner at bee smart city concludes.
We are leveraging collective intelligence through our free global smart city solution database. If you want to contribute to innovating urban planning processes and making cities the world over smarter - and more citizen-centric - places, please contribute your favorite smart city solutions. We can’t wait to have you on board!
Image Source: iStock, Photo ID: 540568124, Credit: PeopleImages