The spread of urbanisation is inexorable. In 1800, just two percent of the world’s population was urbanised, in 2000 the figure reached 47 percent, and on the current trajectory it is estimated to be 70 percent in 2030.
In 2008, for the first time, the world’s population was evenly split between urban and rural areas. There were more than 400 cities over 1 million and 19 over 10 million, making urbanization one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.
According to a McKinsey study, 80 percent of global GDP is generated in cities, with 50 percent in the 380 major cities of the developed world and 10 percent in the largest 220 cities of the developing world. In 2025, these top 600 cities will still be generating 60 percent of the growth in GDP.
These changing demographics represent major societal challenges. There are two options: we can respond to urbanisation and its challenges, as we have done recently in the UK, on an ad-hoc basis. Alternatively, we can seek to manage this trend and use planning to deliver a sustainable future.
The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) arising from Habitat III provide an opportunity to help manage the challenge of urbanization.
Despite a presumption in favour of sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework which should be “the basis for every plan, and every decision”, the manner in which the planning system currently operates in England does not result in sustainable development. It is unlikely to be able to deal with the scale and rate of urbanization. I contend that the NUA provides the basis for a paradigm shift in UK planning, with people at the very heart of the process and local authorities providing real community leadership.
Smart cities – what it means to the UK
Smart cities initiatives have the potential to manage some of these most transformative trends. The RTPI has published a position paper setting out the potential for local authorities to apply the smart city agenda to strategic planning.
Technology can enable local authorities to engage with a broader cross section of society and to solicit a wider range of views and opinion. It will also bring about more effective delivery of local services.
ARUP estimates that the global market for smart urban systems for transport, energy, healthcare, water and waste will amount to around $400 billion a year by 2020. On the basis of the UK’s share of OECD tradable services, it conservatively estimates that the UK should aim to secure 10 percent of this global market, worth $40 billion a year.
The UK Government has acknowledged the opportunities:
“On the back of better connectivity and better access to public information, we can manage cities more effectively, anticipate and solve problems more cost effectively, and raise the economic prospects and the quality of life in every British town and city. In so doing, the UK can strengthen its position as a global hub of expertise at a time when cities throughout the world are seeking innovative solutions to the challenges of urbanization.”
Reducing the need to travel can make a real contribution to reducing urban congestion. The annual cost of congestion in the UK will rise 63 % by 2030 to £21 billion. Teleconferencing, videoconferencing and other available technologies can help make cost and carbon savings for businesses. Encouraging more flexible ways of working can help ease congestion by spreading the peak travel times across the day and improve employee wellbeing.
Where technology meets local leadership
Local authorities are already leading on smart cities initiatives. For example, Reykjavik city council has committed to debating the most popular ideas from the Better Reykjavik website and discussing whether there is enough political backing to implement them. So far, almost 60 per cent of citizens have used the platform and the city has spent €1.9 million on developing more than 200 projects based on ideas from citizens.
In New York, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics is the city’s civic intelligence centre. It aggregates and analyses data from across agencies to address public safety and quality of life issues more effectively. The Greater London Authority created the Talk London community to bring Londoners into the policy making process. Through online discussions, polls, live Q&A events, surveys and focus groups, people discuss a wide range of topics from improving standards in the private rented sector to cyclist safety around heavy goods vehicles.
In 2013, the Government established the Future Cities Catapult as a global centre for urban innovation, helping cities engage with Smart Cities technologies and UK businesses turn urban innovations into commercial reality.
Sir John Egan in his 2004 Review of Skills for Sustainable Communities said:
“Places where people want to live – and that are sustainable – do not happen by chance. They are the product of visionary thinking and commitment by highly skilled civic and national leaders, developers and professionals, with the full engagement and support of local partners and communities.”
The NUA promotes cities that are participatory; promote civic engagement; engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants; prioritise safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and quality public spaces; and are friendly for families whilst enhancing social and intergenerational interactions. They are the type of sustainable communities envisaged by Egan, led by local authorities, and supported by smart cities functionality. This should be the new paradigm for UK planning.
Peter Geraghty FRTPI
Head of Planning and Transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
Peter Geraghty has experience of working across all sectors – public, private and voluntary. His previous roles have included Chief Planning Officer for Brentwood Borough Council and Head of Planning and Conservation at Broadland District Council. He was Chair of the RTPI Board of Trustees in 2012 and President of the Royal Town Planning Institute 2013 to 2014. Peter is currently chair of the International Committee of the RTPI.