By Niek Veraart and David Reel
New urbanism has been changing the design of communities for the past 30 years. Today, in many cities and communities, we are seeing more walkable neighborhoods, more orientation around public transit systems, and a greater integration of varied land uses. This has fostered neighborliness, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity, which have contributed to improved quality of life. Over the past decade, we’ve also seen the emergence of smart communities, which use technology (such as the Internet of Things (IoT)) and data to better meet citizens’ needs and improve livability by enabling better governance, planning, and management. Increasingly, these new concepts are developed and implemented by “Plangineers”: planners and engineers who have combined orientations/backgrounds in planning/design and engineering and who are now contributing to the next generation of community design.
Human-Centric Design Approach
At its heart, a city should be an extension of its inhabitants and its ecosystem. It is imperative to account for all ages and backgrounds as we explore a human-centric design approach. After all, an active 30-year-old does not have the same needs as a child or the elderly. In most cases, these populations are all represented within a city and we need to think about how to create opportunity and improved quality of life for all in a balanced way. In doing so, they will be most successful when they build upon a city’s environmental and ecological “DNA”. Examples in history show us that cities that have embraced their DNA have been most effective in creating diverse and lasting environments for their citizens and visitors. Amsterdam is a great example with a network of canals and integration of water into its urban fabric. The result is planning and design that is directly informed by the needs, desires, and habits of the specific community while addressing its unique combination of geography, culture, and socioeconomics.
In working towards creating a higher quality of life for our communities, it is imperative that we reach out to and include a wide cross-section of the community in the planning process. Open dialogue with residents, business owners, local workers and interested stakeholders helps to inform a range of options that may work within a specific area of the community. Real-time platforms, like social media, can be extremely helpful in collecting immediate feedback, while also sharing news and updates in a timely manner. We need to be nimble and flexible to adapt and refine proposed solutions based on the feedback received. Feedback can be solicited every step of the way –from the feasibility phase through final planning and design – and adjustments can be incorporated to build consensus throughout the implementation process. We also need to let time build the space of our cities: as they say “Rome wasn’t built in one day” either. If we don’t over-plan, we allow the city to evolve so it can reflect layer upon layer of changes over time, made by its citizens and guided by designers and planners.
Technology and the Internet of Things (IoT)
Nearly everything will be changed by the continued dissemination of the IoT: offices, homes, vehicles, retail, infrastructure, and more. Technology is revolutionizing how we live, work, and play, but technology cannot exist for its own sake. We’re creating urban design solutions that don’t purely rely on technology but rather incorporate it as part of our human-centric design approach. Some examples include smart parking meters that show available spots on an app to cut down on driving and recirculation time; congestion sensors to optimize or divert traffic; smart LED lamp posts that adjust to brightness and weather conditions; smart electricity grids that analyze energy consumption and deliver the optimal supply of electricity; waste sensors that detect garbage levels and maximize collection routes; structural sensors to monitor vibrations and building conditions, and the list of applications goes on.
The deployment of IoT is already impacting land use and urban planning. Urban dwellers have come to expect that certain amenities – such as parks, restaurants, grocery stores, banks, dry cleaners, pharmacies, post offices, etc. – should be easily found in their communities. Cities can optimize their land use and ensure that all of these needs are met by taking datasets captured by IoT – like traffic trends, health outcomes, unit economics, and amenities scores – and use modeling to plan spaces that include these destinations while maximizing the quality of life for residents and visitors.
The deployment of IoT throughout our cities will largely depend on a public-private hybrid approach. Both parties would have a stake in the outcome as it would positively impact cost of living, quality of life, ecological quality, safety, and security. One caveat to consider is that while IoT makes more things possible, it may also disconnect the physical environment from the functional environment, making cities less “understandable”. This creates the risk of losing the visual character and identity that we so much appreciate in older cities as well as newer cities that have successfully (re)created their identity. This is also consistent with the consumer trend towards gaining diverse “experiences” as reflected in the global surge of tourism and moving away from the accumulation of physical goods – or “stuff”. On a smaller scale, the conveniences enabled by technology – such as same day delivery – while minor in themselves, taken together have the potential to dramatically change the way our cities function as well as how they look.
More Data than Ever Before
We are at the beginning of a data avalanche with access to vast amounts information, but most agencies, companies and organizations are still determining the best way to derive insights and use data to inform future planning purposes. The increase in data has led to a fundamental shift in planning and design; we can now focus on the short-term future as we know how and when people are traveling and how infrastructure is being utilized in real-time, versus planning solely for the mid- and long-term. Data collection and visualization tools allow us to design better cities that are more inclusive and with the ability to model the effects of changes before we implement them. This enables us to adapt our systems and solutions as we gain more information from their operation, creating the “adaptive city”.
Integrated Mobility Solutions
The potential of data is especially evident in transportation planning, where the way we move people is fundamentally changing. No longer are personal cars the only way to get around. Rather, people are using multi-modal forms of transportation – walking, biking, public transportation, riding scooters, etc. By studying and analyzing data around this movement, we can optimize routes and allow for better coordination of multi-modal travel and total mobility solutions. We think in terms of more Complete Streets – accommodating all modes of transportation and creating a community around those modes – as well as Transit-Oriented Development – high-density, mixed-use development at or within a short walk of a transit station. There are even apps rolling out that will allow people to go from Point A to Point B utilizing a number of modes of transportation, with trip planning and payments at our fingertips and kept in one place. At the same time, technology is allowing for more inclusive mobility, including for people with disabilities. Smartphone apps are emerging that link to bus stops and guide a visually impaired user to the actual bus stop (something a typical smartphone GPS cannot do due to its lack of accuracy). The app notifies the bus driver in advance that there is a disabled rider waiting at the bus stop so he can be accommodated by the bus driver. This reduces stress and improves access for all users of the system and enables a more inclusive community.
We are also exploring the benefits of green infrastructure features designed to provide social, economic, and environmental benefits within a single feature. This includes permeable surfaces, rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs/walls, green open spaces, and more. Green infrastructure can reduce urban heat (which is especially a concern for vulnerable populations such as the elderly), lower energy demands and improve stormwater management. Sensors can help us to monitor this type of infrastructure and alert us if an area needs maintenance. Incorporating these elements should happen throughout the planning process to ensure sustainable development and smarter growth while creating optimized design of infrastructure. For example, data generated by green infrastructure provides for a dynamic stormwater management solution that is more adaptable and responsive to changing needs and conditions, while manageable at a lower cost. These benefits are especially relevant in a changing climate and when fiscal resources are already stretched.
A Model for Future Planning
In 2018, the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility Infrastructure, the Urban Development Authority and Michael Baker International embarked on the Mon-Oakland Mobility Project (so named for the Monongahela River, often referred to as “The Mon”). The Mon-Oakland Mobility Project is a part of the city’s effort to provide for a sustainable future and support revitalization. Its planning team began by hosting public meetings to gather input on what a connection might look like from the Hazelwood neighborhood, an icon of Pittsburgh’s industrial past, to Oakland, the image of its high-tech future. The goal was to connect these two important locations via alternative and sustainable modes of transportation to provide new employment opportunities and access to medical care as well as entertainment and access to cultural and civic events for the residents of Hazelwood and neighborhoods inbetween. Because there are only a handful of routes from Pittsburgh’s riverfront communities along the Monongahela River to Oakland, and these routes are already at capacity, the City was looking to expand its connectivity options with an alternative that would complement the existing routes and offer a different experience.
The result of the planning phase was the Mon-Oakland Mobility Plan, which quantified demand and connectivity access between neighborhoods and Oakland; explored routes and technologies to meet demand; recommended mobility facilities for design that can coincide with the Four Mile Run Green Infrastructure Project – a plan for a watershed in nearby Schenley Park; and identified the associated provisions and policies to make a new connection work. One of the solutions was a microtransit (autonomous or drivered electric powered) route that will operate continuously between the neighborhoods of Hazelwood, Greenfield, Four Mile Run, and Oakland. A separate network of bicycle and pedestrian routes will enable non-motorized transportation between these neighborhoods, as well as new trails with stairs to connect in areas with topographic constraints.
A major component of this project was the weaving of the routes and stops within the urban context to create a vision of how each stop will enhance the community with public spaces and other amenities. The Mon-Oakland Mobility Plan is expected to be implemented by 2021, with just a two-year period for construction.
City life is changing (as it always has) and planners are at the forefront of realizing the possibilities of the future. However, as we continue down the path of smart communities and new urbanism, we want to consider everyone’s voice with increasing focus on outcomes like government efficiency, sustainability, health and wellness, mobility, economic development, integration of ecosystems and places to meet, quality of life and social inclusion. In an age when technology is ever evolving and making so many things possible without physical manifestation, we must keep a pulse on new developments and results, creating identity but remaining flexible enough to update plans accordingly and planning for today as well as tomorrow. Above all we need to recognize that today’s communities must embrace change – they need to adapt to risk and leverage opportunity. Only then can they become the resilient, sustainable and balanced communities of tomorrow.
Niek Veraart is Senior Vice President and National Practice Lead – Planning, located in Michael Baker International’s New York City office.
David Reel is Vice President and West Region Practice Lead – Planning at Michael Baker International’s Northern California office.