Hard truths for smart cities

Low-tech solutions can be highly effective.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities were experimenting with new technologies. The goal is to make urban areas more efficient for people and businesses.

Innovations are seen in fields like transportation, education, wastewater treatment and health care. The overarching goal is to use new technology and data to bring improvements to these diverse areas. By far the most ambitious project in North America was in Toronto. Sidewalk Labs, a Google affiliate, drew up plans for a 12-acre neighbourhood that would rely on technology.

The proposal was controversial from the start. In the wake of the pandemic, Sidewalk shelved it. It walked away from the project, saying it no longer made economic sense. Privacy advocates were relieved. Those who saw it as a bold experiment to advance the use of technology to improve cites were disappointed.

It’s a big loss for the Smart Cities movement. But many urbanists say that cities are already learning valuable lessons from the pandemic. Of course, there were the realizations that came early on. These centred on a lack of public space. To accommodate physical distancing, many cities closed roads to traffic. In some places, new cycling infrastructure popped up seemingly overnight.

As governments begin to relax restrictions, the stress on the public realm increases. As restaurants and businesses start reopening, more people will be heading outside. And the need for space increases. We all need to space so that we can go outside without rubbing shoulders. The City of London closed streets in its financial district as those businesses began reopening.

One of the biggest pinch points are bars and restaurants. As they began operating again with reduced capacities, they needed more space to turn a profit. The response in many places was to expand patios onto sidewalks and streets. Advocates of walkable neighbourhoods and expanded public spaces are delighted. They have long argued for these sorts of innovations. For them, this recovery phase allows for a grand experiment in urban planning. They hope to see some of these moves become permanent features of more livable cities.

It’s a low-tech response to an urgent need. For now, it seems, smart cities are finding more public space. That doesn’t spell the end of the Smart Cities movement. Calgary is conducting trials of connected vehicle technology that could be used to move traffic more efficiently.     

For now, it seems, a truly intelligent city balances both approaches.

May 28th, 2020
Updated: June 3rd, 2020