Public Spaces: What Can Urban Planning Gain from the Mobile Internet Revolution?

Technological innovations can modernize urban planning and make policies and guidelines more efficient and accurate. Photo by verkeorg / Flickr

Our impressions of a city are formed mainly by the quality of public spaces. If they are not pleasant and preserved, or if they transmit a sense of insecurity, we will seldom return. Good planning of these spaces should be the rule, not the exception. In the series “Public Spaces,” originally published in Portuguese by TheCityFix Brasil, we explore different aspects related to public spaces that determine our daily experience in cities.

The world is experiencing unprecedented urban growth. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. As cities modernize, urban residents are finding their lives increasingly optimized and automated by a series of technologies. But urban planning has not kept pace and it is still a challenge to build urban spaces that are conducive to people’s well-being and happiness.

In one of his most famous quotes, the architect Jan Gehl said, “We know more about healthy environments for gorillas, Siberian tigers and pandas than we know about a good urban environment for homo sapiens.” Although we live in the era of big data, the quality of data we have on cities is relatively poor and outdated. And yet we still use it to inform the norms and policies that guide the construction of our cities. The democratization of the internet and proliferation of smartphones, along with the daily emergence of new technologies, brings opportunities to change the way we plan streets, public spaces, neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

The fall in prices and miniaturization of mobile internet technologies has led to a data collection revolution: Almost everything we own collects data. Our watches, clothes, shoes, trash cans, cars, cell phones and houses collect information on our whereabouts. This network of data creates a constant flow of information, which we are often unaware of. According to Euan Mills, author of the essay “Planning by Numbers” and the planning lead at Future Cities Catapult, 2.9 million emails are sent per second, 20 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded per minute and 50 million Tweets are sent per day, not to mention the myriad of posts on social networks, Google searches and Amazon purchases that are continuously monitored.

Technology Exhibition at the City Planning Center of Liuzhou City, China. Photo by UTSEUS/Flickr

Opportunities for Improving Public Spaces

The combination of these vast amounts of data with processing power can be applied to improving public spaces in at least three ways, writes Mills:

  • By creating tools capable of monitoring and helping us quickly and efficiently understand what makes good public spaces successful
  • By constructing more specific public policies that can also be regularly adjusted on the basis of results
  • By making decision-making processes more inclusive and transparent

In practice, technology has already changed the way we live in cities. Broadly spread applications, like Airbnb and Uber, have changed the way we occupy the urban environment and move. Additionally, other innovations are changing the way we plan everyday commutes. This is the case with real-time traffic information made possible by Waze and Citymapper, not to mention the possibilities of sharing bicycles, cars and co-working spaces.

Innovations like these (and those that are yet to come) also have the potential to radically change the way we plan and build cities. If used in planning processes, they can draw more precise and efficient strategies to build more sustainable and accessible cities.

Technology optimizes and improves urban planning by allowing real-time monitoring systems and simulation. This can make the process of urban planning much more precise and provide information on whether dwellings are occupied, how streets are used and even how people feel in parks and public spaces.

It is already possible to observe steps in this direction. Solutions such as UrbanPlanAR, for example, explore augmented reality to simulate new buildings prior to construction. Others, such as Land Insight and Urban Intelligence, are creating policy databases and planning applications. Data consolidation helps to create tools that automatically evaluate development proposals using many variables, such as the microclimatic impact of the construction on the surrounding area; visual impacts of the project in the neighborhood; and gauge housing quality and even economic viability.

The ability to monitor the impacts of planning policies allows municipal policymakers to establish more flexible plans and create places where people really want to live. They can be instruments of change, adaptable to the needs of the population.

Above all, it is necessary to ensure that data is open and accessible to residents, that planning tools are transparent and that public policies and guidelines are clear and accountable. The result would be better-planned cities with public spaces tailored to fit and adaptable to the constantly changing dynamics of city life.

Priscila Pacheco is a Communications Analyst at WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities.

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