Can Smart Cities be Smart Green Cities? We’ll See

Gary Grant, London. 
18 December 2017

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Smart cities are coming. It is important that they be as much about nature, health, and wellbeing as traffic flows, crime detection, and evermore efficient provision of utilities.

As yet, there are no smart cities. I read of plenty of people and organisations working hard to create them. However, so far, we have had initiatives, policies, strategies, and some projects, but no examples of cities where it all comes together in a genuinely city-wide way. In addition, most of us are still wondering what is meant by the term “smart city”. When I read that Bill Gates was planning to build a smart city from scratch in Arizona[1] and that the global market for smart cities will be more than a trillion dollars per annum by 2022,[2] I thought I should find out more.

It is my understanding that smart cities will use internet-connected sensors to supply information that will make them more efficient. Sam Musa[3] defines the smart city as one that engages its citizens and connects with its infrastructure electronically—a process whereby the city becomes part of the Internet of Things (IoT), something for which the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has now agreed standards.[4] Most of the efforts to develop smart cities have involved the monitoring of transportation networks and power and water supplies, with other projects looking at waste management, crime, educational establishments, and hospitals. Stated aims are to reduce costs and resource consumption, with many cities interested in improving communications between officials, service providers, and citizens. There is much excitement over the possibility of cities monitoring activity in real time and being able to adjust service provision, in some cases immediately by remote-control. The hope is that the smart city will be able to adapt more effectively to climate perturbations, demographic changes and the budgetary cuts being made in most developed countries.

As I said in my opening remarks, although the smart city is still more of an aspiration than a reality, many cities have initiated programs and projects. The European Union has smart city projects under the auspices of the European Digital Agenda,[5] and there are similar initiatives in cities in North America, Asia, and the Middle East. According to Boyd Cohen,[6] the top ten smart cities are Vienna, Toronto, Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, and Barcelona. In North America, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver are said to be leading the way.

I will describe projects from some of these cities in order to provide an insight into current thinking and priorities. Since 2011, Vienna has been setting ambitious targets for the management and consumption of energy, with a strong emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.[7] Toronto is working with a Google company to create a community in the eastern waterfront that will use connected technology to provide self-driving vehicles and “climate-friendly energy systems”.[8]  In 2014, the Innovation Path of Paris was launched.[9]  This puts people at the heart of the initiative. It is looking for modernisation of the administration for better services and places great importance on ingenuity. Themes include better planning and transportation and more efficient resource consumption. Under the Ingenuity heading, resilience, revegetation and the circular economy get a mention. The authorities in Paris have recently attracted attention for their initiatives to promote urban greening (including the green roof law that turned out not to be a law).[10] However it is not clear how the smart city agenda is being integrated with urban greening initiatives.

In New York City, there has been much excitement over talking lamp posts. Street lamps send messages to smart phones. There is a serious aspect to this: ubiquitous street lamps, with their access to power, could become a useful way of bringing about a range of smart city projects.[11]

London has a congestion-charging system which uses vehicle license plate recognition software. Police in the United Kingdom use the same technology to operate a nation-wide vehicle tracking system. The companies behind these vehicle-tracking operations are also active in developing the sensors and software for the smart city, working with Urban Systems Engineers at Imperial College[12] and other institutions, who are looking for new opportunities to tackle urban problems. License-plate recognition is just the beginning – algorithms that allow computers to recognise things will become increasing important, speeding up the identification, mapping, and analysis of all kinds of objects, living and inert, static, and moving.

Tokyo, which will host the Olympic Games in 2020, has put energy security and efficiency and showcasing technology as the key objectives of its smart city program. One initiative involves the relocation of utilities below ground to allow more space for advertising, emergency information, hotspots and power outlets for pop-up businesses.[13]

Berlin sees the smart city as an interdisciplinary process which uses information and communication technologies to make the city more efficient, healthier, more sustainable, more livable and cleaner. Berlin’s smart city strategy[14] is comprehensive and refers to the need to maintain green space and unsealed surfaces and evaporation, as required by its urban climate plan. However, there is no mention of biodiversity in the city’s smart city strategy (I checked).

Hong Kong pioneered the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in smart cards. Hong Kong citizens access public transport and pay at convenience stores and fast-food restaurants with their Octopus smart cards, which were launched in 1997.[15] Hong Kong also pioneered the use of smart cards for use in libraries, buildings, car parks and other facilities.

The technology has spread to other cities in China and across the world.[16]

The smart city agenda has a strong green emphasis regarding reducing the production of carbon dioxide, through the operation of smart electricity supply grids, increasing efficiency and harnessing low-carbon energy supplies. Nature, however, in terms of soil, water, habitats and species, does not usually feature in smart city thinking. There are themes and initiatives which could bring nature into the planning and operation of smart cities, and I consider some of them here.

Thermal image of living wall, Rubens at the Palace Hotel, London. Smart cities could continuously monitor habitat and microclimate across the whole conurbation. Image: Courtesy of Victoria BID

We know that water, soil,and vegetation modifies urban microclimates. Studies by Akbari[17] and others since the 1990s have shown how shade and evapotranspiration provide summer cooling and winter wind-shielding. Now researchers are placing sensors beneath and upon green roofs and green walls to understand how buildings are protected from the extremes of weather. An example of this is the work in Vienna by Scharf and others on green walls.[18] The next step with this research will be to place temperature and humidity sensors and thermal cameras across whole precincts, to understand how the microclimates of whole neighbourhoods change through each day, through the seasons and extreme weather events.

The measurement of rainwater flows through downpipes, into tanks, and drains can also be added to this capability. City planners will be able to identify places where green infrastructure is urgently needed to improve microclimate and drainage, and the information will allow architects and urban designers and those planning, design and operating buildings and streets to be more sophisticated. Software that can monitor weather forecasts and remotely empty rainwater tanks in advance of downpours in order to avert flooding already exists.[19] Such systems could become city-wide, not only reducing flood risk, but also boosting irrigation rates of roof gardens and other irrigated plantings in advance of heatwaves.

Global positioning system (GPS) technology allows organisations to follow vehicles and equipment like cell phones, but these techniques are also being used by biologists to follow free-ranging and migratory animals.[20] Although there are policies that promote the creation city-wide ecological networks, the planning and enhancement of these networks tend to be based on theory rather than the observation of the movement of individuals of various species through the city. GPS technology could be applied to the study of the movement of wildlife through cities, helping planners to identify barriers to movement and where best to create new habitat.

Less intrusive than tags are cameras (including camera-traps)[21] and listening devices. The ultrasonic calls that bats make, for example, enable us to identify species and to plot the places where bats feed and the routes that bats take when they commute between roosting and feeding sites. Permanently stationed bat detectors can automatically monitor and map calls in real time. This is already being done by University College London in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, for example.[22] It is easy to imagine such a scheme being expanded to cover a whole city, so that habitat networks for bats could be monitored and improved. As well as bats, many other species can be identified by sounds, from insects to birds, to whole ecosystems, so that work of Krause[23] and his natural soundscapes could be brought into the city, in a way that will help us to green the city in a more effective and informed way. Machine learning will mean that the identification and mapping of habitats, species and green infrastructure types using aerial photography, cameras and camera-traps with both visible and invisible wavelengths can be expanded and refined.

In conclusion, it seems that smart cities are coming. However, it is important that smart cities are as much about nature, health, and wellbeing as traffic flows, crime detection, and evermore efficient provision of utilities. Making the city more permeable to both wildlife and people is a process that could be informed by bringing sensors that monitor the movement of wildlife. Climate change adaptation using natural interventions is already on the agenda of many cities. However, the efficacy of green infrastructure types and combinations in providing cooling and absorbing rainwater will be significantly improved through both detailed and wide-scale real-time measurement of temperature, humidity, evapotranspiration rate and flows. Combining this data with maps of hardship and deficiency will help cities to become smarter in the way they prioritise greening efforts.

Gary Grant

On The Nature of Cities


Gary Grant

About the Writer:
Gary Grant

Gary Grant is a Chartered Environmentalist, Fellow of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, Fellow of the Leeds Sustainability Institute, and Thesis Supervisor at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London. He is Director of the Green Infrastructure Consultancy (

Gary Grant

Gary Grant

Gary Grant is a Chartered Environmentalist, Fellow of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, Fellow of the Leeds Sustainability Institute, and Thesis Supervisor at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London. In the 1980s, he worked for the London Wildlife Trust, managing urban wildspace. He conceived the London Wildlife Garden Centre, which won a RIBA/Times Award, and led the Wildlife in Docklands Project for the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. In the early 1990s, he worked on the design of London Natural History Museum's Wildlife Garden. From the early 1990s, he has specified green roofs, beginning with the CUE Building at the Horniman Museum. Gary wrote English Nature’s Research Report on Green Roofs (2003); is author of Green Roofs and Facades, published by BRE Press in 2006; wrote Ecosystem Services Come To Town: Greening cities by working with nature, published by Blackwell-Wiley in 2012; and authored The Water Sensitive City, published by Wiley in 2016. Now Director of the Green Infrastructure Consultancy, he was formerly a Director of AECOM Design and Planning, working on large scale planning projects including the London 2012 Olympic Park, the Bedford Valley River Park, the Whitehill-Bordon Eco Town, Education City, Doha, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi and Zavidovo, Russia.

4 thoughts on “Can Smart Cities be Smart Green Cities? We’ll See

  1. Thanks a lot my dear friend for your excellent article – I am absolutely with you !

  2. Gary,
    Good to chat in Budapest at EUGIC’17 recently.
    I remain deeply skeptical and suspicious of so-called Smart Cities. Why ? would take too long to explain elaborate here. Except to sketch a frame embracing Tech-Utopia, Demcoratic Deficits in Urban Placemaking and what George Monbiot (writing about the related delusions of ‘Natural Capital’) decribes as a capitalist trap.
    In the USA, smart cities is a broader more inventive connotation – around greening, smart urban planning and design and re-naturing. I’m more incilnded to that and to human-centred democratic cities. Skeptically Yours, Aidan J. ffrench Landscape Architect/Past President, The Irish Landscaspe Institute, Dublin

  3. In my view a smart city is a place where the needs of local communities and the quality of the environment are put first. Technology is simply a tool which changes over time. In Britain the post war redevelopment of our largest cities focused on the technology of the time as if it was a panacea. We know now that the technology of that time created its own problems and it has since evolved further. I believe smart cities should be planned for future adaption knowing that our built and green spaces will have further opportunities to change and will need to be able to adapt and evolve over time.

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