One of the key challenges facing cities today is how they can maintain and improve their liveability and as they continue to densify, so the need for increasingly sophisticated external environments builds.
Cities rather than countries will be the competitors of the 21st century and decisions about which city to visit, live and work is influenced by a range of factors including the services and facilities on offer and, critically, the ‘quality’ and attractiveness of the place in question.
Today’s new and regenerated urban environments face a set of complex and often contradictory issues that must be balanced to meet the needs of society today but also those of future generations.
These include creating the infrastructure to support an ever growing global population alongside the environmental impacts of climate change, utilising and integrating new technology with the historical character and context of an area and creating wonderful and beautifully designed spaces and places that are both deliverable and viable.
At the heart of this ‘smart’ placemaking agenda is the huge amounts of data that are now available and being able to process and interpret that data has become an essential aspect of the urban designer’s toolkit.
Traditionally, urban planners have operated in a two-dimensional world where factual information has not always been presented in a user-friendly way. Now, using GIS, geographic information systems, we can communicate complex issues more easily to a wide range of stakeholders. This powerful tool can show a range of data on one single map, allowing us to visualise and analyse complex, overlaid information and understand relationships, patterns and trends.
A key feature of a GIS platform is that it supports multidisciplinary collaboration, allowing partners such as economists, transport planners and infrastructure engineers to contribute to the same model and ultimately creating a more robust and integrated approach to the urban planning process.
The starting point for good urban design is that it is place led in so much as it is community focused and context driven, anchoring projects into existing lived environments, responding to local needs and delivering social value through flexible, adaptable spaces creating social interaction and irresistible communities.
The ubiquitous use of technology such as social media allows urban designers to appraise trends in real time in terms of how local people use their cities, spaces and infrastructure, helping create locally referenced and distinct public realm typologies and a clear spatial hierarchy across a city. The result being places with a strong identity and character that can be recognised and embraced by the local community.
One of the key challenges for the urban designer is balancing the potential conflict of creating increasingly connected and smart environments by utilising the latest in digital technology while also developing healthy communities that overcome the inactivity crisis that has been caused by machines slowly taking over everyday tasks.
Urban spaces must be safer, easier and more appealing environments for active travel, encouraging physical and mental wellbeing. High quality public realms make users safer, combat social isolation, reduce pollution and bring economic benefits to businesses. Walkable and pedestrian-first environments provide opportunity for human interaction and spaces for communities to connect.
These are aspirations that can be helped by technology rather than hindered with urbanists connecting technology and design to improve liveability, using data analytics to model a site’s key attributes and identify previously unseen opportunities. Complex scenarios can be tested using urban data and modelling tools that deliver more effective solutions.
Smart streets deliver an integrated, multi-modal city network with improved accessibility, improved air quality and lower congestion, all key ‘quality of life’ metrics and essential outputs of any smart approach.
As well as being socially and digitally connected, physical connections are also essential for healthy future communities. Future urban development cannot be delivered in isolation but should focus around urban transit hubs with strong gateway and arrival experiences and optimised interchange between transport modes.
This is why changes such as new statutory powers for TfN and a fresh look at urban regeneration around our existing district and neighbourhood transit hubs promises great opportunity. Every one of these stations is a potential catalyst for new homes, places to work, experiential retail, cultural and civic uses as well as high quality walkable public realm.
The advantage of this approach is the cascading of social benefits to the existing community with better access to health provision, education and jobs while creating healthier and more vibrant environments where people want to live.
Our future cities will be different in many ways and how we approach their design will continue to evolve as we respond to changing urban lifestyles and technological influences. The constant will be the community; the people who live, work and play in our smart environments and the most successful will be those that are user orientated with social value at their core.