Royal Town Planning Institute, CEO
The New Urban Agenda and Smart City-Regions
The new urban agenda recognises the critical role that urban planning and design must play in its implementation. Signatories have committed to promoting urban spatial frameworks, supporting compactness, density, polycentrism and mixed-use, planning at the scale of city-regions and metropolitan areas, and promoting equitable growth.
Much of our work at the RTPI focuses on how these broad global issues translate into specific challenges facing UK cities and many others across the globe. These include the lack of affordable houses in sustainable locations, a legacy of low-density suburban settlement patterns and long car-based commuting journeys with costs of congestion in terms of wasted productivity, fuel and air pollution. The lack of infrastructure capacity and its fragmented delivery is a further challenge across all sectors, as are the growing environmental risks from climate change and the need for radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
The failure to properly tackle these problems has contributed to a range of problems. In the UK, these manifest in relatively low productivity in our secondary cities compared to their European counterparts and constrained growth in our more economically successful towns and cities. This contributes towards widening regional divides between successful and struggling places and the migration of young, skilled workers to places like London. There is then a gap between people and places which have benefitted from globalisation, and those which have not. The UK is far from alone in having to address these issues but they play out differently in different parts of the globe.
The New Urban Agenda is clear that these challenges require action at a range of scales. While some can be addressed at the level of the neighbourhood, local areas and towns/cities, many require a coordinated approach at a much wider scale: entire city-regions and metropolitan areas.
The need for strategic planning has been the focus of much of RTPIs recent research. Our studies have shown that cooperation between local authorities brings major benefits to all those involved.
At the start of this decade in England, regional spatial strategies and economic strategies were abolished. This was accompanied by a shift towards local decision-making in some areas, but greater centralisation in others. Over time this created difficulties in addressing issues which are larger than local but sub-national in scope, and which are of key importance to both the Nation and individual communities. This, in turn, has resulted in more and more devolution and cooperation at the city-region scale to develop holistic strategies for boosting housing, jobs, infrastructure, health and environmental quality. However, the governance, accounting, planning, financing and community engagement in these remain complex and diverse.
The smart city agenda is important in addressing this complexity, looking beyond new technology and data to think about the critical issue of governance. A successful smart city means knowing what information you want, being able to access it, and then having the governance arrangements in place that allow you to deploy it in pursuit of wider objectives. RTPI wants to see this driven by city leaders and planners in partnership with the private sector, rather than cities simply reacting to new technology as it disrupts the urban environment.
This is the focus of a new project at the RTPI, which looks at the link between smart cities and strategic planning. It asks what the rise of smart cities means for our ability to tackle larger-than-local issues, and how new types of data and information are being used to support governance at the city-region scale to resolve conflicting policy agendas between local authorities, negotiate between different actors in the planning system and beyond and produce commonly agreed outcomes.
Through this project, we are looking at examples of city regions which are using data to inform plan-making, from understanding patterns of travel by different social groups, to how vulnerable groups might be impacted by climate change.
The Greater London Authority (GLA) has made great strides in making data work for it. Working with the city-regional transit authority Transport for London, it has developed recommended density levels based on accessibility to public transport, which are standardised across the entire city-region.
Greater Manchester is making similar moves to use data in exciting new ways by having an Open Data Infrastructure Map which helps to show how proposed new sites for development are served by different types of infrastructure – helping planners to see where development would be most sustainable.
RTPI is supporting Birmingham and Northumbria Universities to develop a tool which can assess the long-term impact of development on ecosystem services, based on a comprehensive dataset of ecological data. This is being used to shape development proposals so that they deliver net gains to natural capital, which helps to get local communities (who might otherwise oppose development) on board.
These are just a snapshot of the tools and approaches which can be used to make city-regions work effectively and sustainably for everyone. By widening the concept of smart cities to encompass thinking about smart city-regions, we can drive a new wave of strategic planning and chart a course for planners in a more digitally-enabled future.