After boom and bust, ‘intelligent cities’ born

LAS VEGAS – Jan. 28, 2011 – When the economy was roaring and housing booming, reining in suburban sprawl dominated the development debate under the name of “smart growth.”

Now that the economy and housing have tanked, prompting more people to stay put, growth is taking a back seat. But smarts still matter. The new buzzwords: “intelligent cities.”

“There’s a 15- to 20-year cycle on urban planning terms,” says Robert Lang, urban sociologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “Remember ‘urban renewal’? Smart growth is near the end of its shelf life.”

That’s not to say the principles of smart growth are dead. On the contrary, he says, they’re very much alive and so widely accepted that they’ve become old hat. New Urbanism, the design movement frequently at the heart of smart growth, encourages a mix of homes and businesses in a pedestrian-friendly environment and is common practice now in cities big and small.

“Intelligent cities,” the new darling lingo of planners, reflects the times. It captures the essence of 21st-century technology that can help track when and how many people cross a street, water and energy consumption and peak hours at every transit stop. It also will soon allow bidding on a parking space via cell phone (the space goes to the highest bidder).

The “cities” portion of the term may signal a renewed emphasis on improving the urban anchors of a region rather than just slowing growth in far-flung suburbs.

This urban revival is fueled by the fact that cities have fared better than many suburbs in the economic downturn because the resulting housing bust put the brakes on many people moving to bigger houses or newer communities. It’s also helped by changes in the nation’s demographics: Younger people are seeking urban lifestyles near mass transit, and older empty nesters want the same.

Suburbs far from urban centers suffered the biggest drop in housing values, and many studies show transportation savings for those who live in or close to cities.

The intelligent cities movement is getting powerful backing from environmentalists and businesses, including giants such as IBM, Siemens, Phillips and Cisco. They are creating technology to help cities grow smartly.

“More than half of the world is living in cities,” says Scott Kratz, vice president for education at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., which launched an Intelligent Cities initiative in October. “There is so much information out there – how do we make sense of that data as it pertains to cities?”

That’s what the initiative will research, including how to capitalize on growing citizen involvement sparked by technology. “We’re all carrying these supercomputers called smartphones,” Kratz says. “The next step is how do you take this information and start mashing that up.”

For example, obesity rates in one neighborhood can be tied to the lack of sidewalks or bike lanes or grocery stores.

“Growth management and smart growth and planning in general are always a livelier issue in times of high growth,” says Armando Carbonell, chairman of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “One worry that I have is that cities … are in terrible fiscal condition right now, and a lot of intelligent city stuff costs money. Cities are not going to be able to make long-term investment when it’s time to look to the future.”

© Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc., Haya El Nasser.

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