Moving Towards Smart Neighbourhoods

11 July 2018

Smartphones, smart homes, smart cities – we’ve all heard of these terms before. The word “smart” here is generally used to refer to things and spaces with advanced, high-tech features. But smart neighbourhoods? That’s a new one.

While the global focus is currently on smart cities, urban planners are looking at implementing and developing smart neighbourhoods, where sustainable practices are adopted, and collaborative spaces are created for communities to interact in and easily share resources with each other.

What is a smart neighbourhood?

When it comes to framework and tech integration, building smart cities is a daunting task. This is why organisations and governments all over the world are quietly starting with smart neighbourhoods, which provide a smaller scale to develop and design prototypes.

Smart neighbourhoods are forward-thinking neighbourhoods that are being developed (or redeveloped) to support the future of urban livability, mobility, and connectivity. They are seen as the next step to smart city design, further enhancing user experience through technology and digital strategy plans.

The big blueprint

A massive amount of work goes into designing a smart neighbourhood. They should be efficient, healthy and economical places for the public to live, work and play.

On a macro level, you have projects like Sidewalk Toronto. A joint effort between Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, the new 800-acre precinct focuses on creating a new kind of mixed-use, complete community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, beginning with the launch the Quayside development.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything session, Sidewalk Labs’ chief executive officer, Dan Doctoroff, introduced the project and his company’s goals. “We are designing a district in Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront to tackle the challenges of urban growth, working in partnership with the tri-government agency Waterfront Toronto and the local community. This joint venture, called Sidewalk Toronto, will blend people-centred urban design with cutting-edge technology to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.”

people walking on a pavement during sunset
With projects like Sidewalk Toronto, it’s about putting people first and improving lives. Photo from Jonas Weckschmied

Doctoroff further explains how Sidewalk Toronto fits in the big picture of establishing smart neighbourhoods in a nation like Canada. “We see our role with Waterfront Toronto as trying to put in place some of the underlying infrastructure – things like people-first street designs, an energy system that could one day be climate positive, buildings that can adapt to new uses. On top of those systems, all kinds of local innovators, civic groups, academics, etcetera, will fill in the details will their ideas and creations.”

Over the border in the United States, electronics giant Panasonic has teamed up with the City of Denver to develop Peña Station NEXT. Located near Denver International Airport, the 382-acre, transit-oriented community is set to be a global example of a health and energy-conscious neighbourhood that’s “equipped with the absolute latest technologies for advancing business, communications, health, and the very ways we live and interact with one another”, according to Peña Station NEXT’s website.

The vision of Peña Station NEXT comprises four pillars: smart technology, clean energy, mobility and wellness. The latter is centred on a “wellness network” featuring a health and wellness hub that offers leading-edge traditional medicine, as well as the top-of-the-line alternative healthcare and health education. Additionally, there will be an opt-in smart wellness system that will enable residents to monitor their own health and even arrange consultations with doctors remotely.

Over in Europe, some cities are also employing urban intelligence. In a part of Barcelona’s Ribera neighbourhood known as the Born, energy-saving LED streetlights are regulating the amount of light they emit based on the number of pedestrians in that part of the street. These same lights also come with a function that allows them to generate their own reports on faults to a central office, making maintenance more efficient. Some of these streetlights also have humidity, temperature, sound and pollution detectors that transmit data in real time.

Along the area of Carrer Comerç that stretches from the Born to the Estació de França railway station, rubbish bins are equipped with volumetric and gas detectors that go off when they are at full capacity. As a result of this, the garbage truck only passes by when absolutely necessary, and locals staying in the vicinity aren’t bothered as much, especially after dark. A few streets away, on Pla de Palau, magnetic sensors lay hidden beneath parking spaces, and indicate whether or not these lots are occupied before informing traffic control.

a close up shot of a sign post along the street.
Apps like Streety help make smart neighbourhoods a reality. Photo from Bruno Martins

On the other hand, at a micro level, resources and tools are available that help make smart neighbourhoods a reality. Apps, for example, play a big part, and one to watch is Streety.

Recently launched in US and Canada in March 2018, Streety is a free app that brings the “neighbourhood watch” concept to a whole other level. Streety was created with the hope of making people more vigilant to prevent crime and bringing communities closer before crises or emergencies occur. Those in the neighbourhood can request access to anyone’s outdoor security cameras, giving residents more control over the safety of their community.

No walk in the park

Of course, with every step we take, we face countless challenges. Developing a smart neighbourhood is no easy feat, especially in this day and age where most citizens – no matter where in the world – are greatly concerned about privacy issues and how the data collected via technology is being used. Questions like, “Who has legitimate access to this data?”, and “What’s available to the public, and what isn’t?” are already being raised in the context of social media. The rise of smart cities and neighbourhoods will only amplify that debate.

Talks of smart neighbourhoods also tie in with heated discussions about the great “digital divide”. In developed countries, advanced technology is commonplace, but that’s hardly the case in developing nations – potentially widening the gap between those with access to education and other important resources and those without.

a black and white picture of posters pasted on a street lamp
As the digital age evolves, data and privacy issues are becoming increasingly prevalent. Photo from Ev

The future is here

With all we have available now, plus new and exciting technological advancements coming our way, the idea of living in a smart neighbourhood isn’t very far-fetched.

As much as this is a natural progression for us as we further explore technology and life in the digital age, this is also an essential move as sustainable development and improved livability have both become crucial to our survival on the planet. The future is here, and soon smart neighbourhoods will be the new norm.

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