(this article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer)
The world’s greatest challenges—growing inequality, climate change, limited political leadership, and financial constraints—are telling us that we need smart cities. Now like never before.
So, what is a smart city, anyway? It’s what you get when you use smart planning and diverse concepts to drive three critical, beneficial kinds of outcomes:
- and those for the broader population as a whole.
The standard (and still very applicable) prosperity-planet-people framework has unleashed our perception of what smart cities can and should be. The focus on health and wellness, including mental health, has expanded our thinking. So as we plan the next phase of our cities’ development, we’re aware that physical design and technology can be used to support diversity, creativity, intellectual stimulation, and true productivity. The kind that includes health, happiness, household, and family life, as well as work. Not surprisingly, this wider-ranging, circular-economy thinking is driving more intense solutioning around the production and consumption of energy, water, and goods.
It’s going to take the right combination of technology, good planning, and creativity to bring about productive, happy cities for people in the years to come. Technology will continue setting the pace as we incorporate more and better resilience and sustainability into the foundations and structures of our communities. It will be about services and conveniences that people have always wanted:
- easy and comfortable mobility
- modern, safe amenities
- and clean air, water, and spaces.
We’ve learned a lot about desirable living spaces since James Watt and the industrial revolution inspired people to leave their farms and head to the big city. Along the way, there were some bad ideas, too (Le Corbusier and Moses might top that list). Now, digital technology allows us to take what we know about the past, combine what we’re learning about our environment today, and use that knowledge to both predict and influence what the world will look like in the near future.
Urban resilience is about cities being able to withstand, or at least survive, future shocks and stresses. Not only earthquakes, but day-to-day wear and tear that strains and changes a city’s socioeconomic systems, technical systems, and infrastructure. Planning for resilience can give cities the buffers and backups to manage and withstand climate change, with as good or even better structures and services.
But there’s an even-better opportunity. With “brilliant” resilience, we can use smart-city thinking and technology to create benefits that probably wouldn’t have a chance otherwise.
What’s a city without its people?
Brilliant, resilient cities must be about the people who live, work, and play there. Putting people first goes hand-in-hand with greater productivity for economic success. It makes sense that healthier, happier people have stronger, more vibrant communities and more successful businesses.
Best practices in new, urban design technology—similar to those that my company, Hatch, is developing—are now factoring health and wellness into city design. The success of it will depend on how well we incorporate the principles of social engineering:
- purpose-built things that work for everyone
- that provide the options and services people want and need
- and that are supportive, sensitive, and responsive.
Working with our clients, we’re envisioning and planning communities for the future. These new “nodes” will act as integrators—host places for work, for consumption, for gathering, and for living. They will be serviced by effective, connected transportation hubs that are contemporary, efficient, and able to work at local and regional scales. These nodes will be fresh opportunities for city-building at scale; to find better ways to integrate energy, information, water, biology, and other systems to fully leverage today’s planning and technology capabilities.
Urban resilience in action
The platforms for smart cities are big and complex. They require intelligence and the right kind of engineering work to make them happen. One project that is incorporating brilliant, resilient, smart-city thinking is East Harbour in Toronto. Private-sector developer First Gulf and its partners are transforming a former industrial area on the edge of the downtown core into a new commercial hub and economic engine for the city. Starting with 10 million sq. ft. of commercial space, East Harbour will leverage smart-city conveniences and elements, a new transportation hub, and a high-density development, creating an opportunity to deploy best thinking for the future.
The East Harbour team is committed to exploring opportunities made possible by the scale of the district, such as weather-protected areas with connections to PATH (an underground pedestrian walkway system that links Toronto’s financial core), a district energy system and an underground waste collection system.
Having its own transit hub is part of a holistic strategy for moving people in, out and throughout the neighbourhood. The new East Habour Transit Hub, anticipated to support more than 50 million riders a year, will integrate with the existing GO commuter transit line, the soon-to-come SmartTrack, the future Relief Line Subway, the future Broadview LRT and Queens Quay LRT, and multiple bus lines. It will also incorporate infrastructure to support multi modal options for getting to and from the hub, such as cycling, walking, ride share and car drops offs, autonomous cars and shuttles, scooter and e-bike options, etc.
What’s really commendable is how First Gulf and its partners are working with all three levels of government to support integration and improve local infrastructure and technologies. As an example, flood-protecting these lands is part of the $2.5 billion Port Lands Flood Protection and Don Mouth Naturalization project scheduled for completion in 2023. This will protect 240 acres of Toronto real estate from damaging floods at the same time it integrates the land into a new, local, open-space system, the existing natural heritage, and regional parklands. These new neighbourhoods will soon provide all kinds of options for mobility, open spaces, park systems and amenities for nearby residents and Torontonians to enjoy.
The East Harbour project is adding perspective, knowledge, and evidence to support important decisions and discussions with stakeholders. First Gulf is also “smart phasing” it—doing it in pieces—with a master plan that establishes a vision and the primary network of supportive infrastructure, but allows for finer details to evolve over time. The community will be able to adapt to changing market conditions, needs, and technologies, and respond with agility to future opportunities and challenges.
Small steps, but critical ones
The smart city of tomorrow will include what we, the people who live there, demand. Imagine sensors on street lamps that communicate data on transit needs or contact police if they detect signs of crime or distress. How about drones delivering emergency medication? What if digital technology was embedded in roads, informing driverless sensor-reading vehicles when to slow down, stop, or yield to public emergency vehicles?
Innovative technologies are already evolving in our cities. They’re presenting us with endless ideas and opportunities for more brilliant, resilient cities and happier, healthier lives. It’s just a matter of inserting ourselves in the process early enough to make the most of them.
Michael Sutherland is Director Urban Solutions, Hatch.