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USA: Smart Cities & Urban Planning

The American dream home of yesterday is slowly disappearing. It is being transformed for the future.


The idea of a large house with an equally sized garden and a white picket fence is no longer the desired future for most people.  Increasing urbanization, with 2020 showing that roughly 86% of the US population lived in urban areas or cities – the demand for cities that are  sustainable is increasing. This is where the smart city movement has flourished.


Smart Cities: What Are They?

The term ‘smart city’ refers to an area that uses infrastructure which is underpinned by information and communication technologies (ICT) and the Internet of Things (IoT). A smart city is connected by sensors that collect data, which is then analysed and then solutions for citizens are developed. For example, sensors on cars and streetlights can measure and predict traffic conditions and subsequently adjust traffic lights in surrounding areas to optimize traffic flow. 

Above all, the goal of a smart city is to:

– Make conveniences easier

– Increase economic growth

– Optimize city functions

– Improve the quality of life for citizens 

– Make cities sustainable



Smart Cities: The Role Of Renewable Energy & Eco-Friendly Vehicles

With cities across the globe consuming 78% of the world’s energy and simultaneously producing 60% of the world’s greenhouse gases, the time for a sustainable overhaul is now. However, if Smart Cities are not utilizing renewable energy, they can be contributing to the problem, not the solution..

Smart cities are internet and data-heavy; they rely on information extracted from across the city on different devices to function correctly. The sheer amount of internet and power that needs to be used requires a sustainable energy source to keep it eco-friendly. Using renewable energies, especially solar which can be easily implemented and integrated into the city’s landscape, can make the city green. 

Eco-friendly vehicles like electric vehicles (EVs) and commercial EV vehicles, like hydrogen buses and trucks, are essential to making a smart city truly green. Smart cities need to not just focus on technology but also on infrastructure that supports a budding EV industry. 

EVs are estimated to make up  10%  of global energy usage in the future, necessitating the need for a power grid that can produce large amounts of electricity, without being overloaded. Renewable energy is the key. If we can have parking lots that utilise solar energy on the roofing and bring energy into the grid to be used, it will ease the energy burden. 



The Benefits Of Smart Cities (An Environmental Look)



1. Reduce Transport Sector Emissions

The transport sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases. In 2017, transportation emissions made up 29% of the US total energy use. Any way to mitigate the fuel emitted before we have widespread adoption of eco-friendly vehicles is a plus. Sensors for parking around the city (just like you see in shopping mall parking lots) lead to less circling around for spots, reducing traffic congestion and emissions. 

In addition, smart cities are built to remove the need for driving. By arranging the city to have all necessary amenities only a short walk away, it will make the roads safer and more green.



2. Develop Smart Waste Solutions

2.01 billion tons of solid waste was generated in 2016 (33% of which was mismanaged), with it expected to grow to 3.40 billion tones in 2050. Mismanaged waste negatively affects our oceans and poorer nations, consequently causing up to a million deaths annually. It’s not just deadly but costly as well, with plastic pollution estimated to cost US$7.1 trillion by 2040. In addition, The US Environment Protection Authority (EPA) estimated that in the US, while 75% of its waste stream is recyclable, only 30% of it is recycled.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a smart city, you can build a smart waste solution that minimizes cost and environmental impact, as well as make areas safer and cleaner. For recycling, Internet of Things (IoT) systems can collect, separate, reuse and recycle waste. In Songdo, a smart city built in South Korea, a tube garbage disposal system is used: an air pipe sucks the rubbish underground where all the waste processes are conducted. This helps mitigate the usage of rubbish trucks and keeps the streets clear and clean. 



3. Building / Construction Industry

Close to 50% of our world’s total carbon emissions come from, in one form or another, buildings: 20% for construction and another 27% for building operations. Building decarbonisation needs to happen, and soon. The increase in urbanization means more buildings and construction. A smart city approach can be the solution to not just decarbonize the construction of buildings, but their running operations as well. 

Governments need to prioritize and incentivize sustainable practices in the building and operating of buildings. Doing so could significantly change the planet for the better. According to Al Gore, businesses are the drivers of change; without the new products, there will be no change. 

From an ongoing operations standpoint, a smart building has so many sustainable possibilities. The company GoodWe has recently launched Building-Integrated photovoltaics that can turn a smart building into a self-sustaining and power-generating ecosystem. With sensors measuring and extracting all kinds of data from inside the property and on our phones, we can identify patterns and reduce power output in areas that don’t require it. This significantly reduces our energy usage. 



4. Optimize Traffic, Reducing Air Pollution

Standstill traffic produces more emissions that expel harmful carcinogens and other pollutants in the atmosphere and decrease air quality. A study found that the inside of cars has 40% higher pollution levels in traffic jams. 

Smart cities can mitigate that by using sensors on cars and street lights. The sheer amount of data harvested by the sensors can give analysts a way to identify patterns (say at 8:30 am, a certain intersection receives heavy traffic every business day) and then be able to address them. 

Data harvesting can help in optimising traffic lights to ensure a steady flow of traffic. They can additionally (just like Google maps) alert other road users of which areas to avoid and re-route them elsewhere. This will prevent stationary traffic build-up, minimize emissions, improve air quality, and save fuel for drivers. 



Smart Cities: A US Perspective

The newly introduced Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (or Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) will provide over $1 trillion of funding for broadband connectivity, infrastructure (both cyber and tangible), EV chargers and much more which will make smart cities become smart areas that can reach even the most rural locales. This commitment will increase technology-reach and through the restoration and maintenance of roads and buildings, a chance to make them more sustainable. 

In regards to smart cities specifically, in September 2015, the White House announced a Smart Cities Initiative with funding focused on developing IoT sharing models, increasing collaboration between governments and tech companies, as well as looking at intelligent public transport. Smart cities are designed to make life simpler and more convenient for their residents. This idea has been adopted across the US, where cities have implemented various technologies to modernize their infrastructure and way of living. Some of these forward-thinking cities include: San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle.


San Francisco

The tech capital of the world, it’s no surprise that San Francisco, which has the highest concentration of tech companies and a population of early adopters, has embraced smart city living. San Francisco has several emerging mobility options including: car, moped, and bike sharing programs, and commuter shuttle buses in addition to their already energy-efficient fleet of electric trams and hybrid buses that service the city. Being the second-most densely populated city in the US, its abundant transport options make it a much more accessible and less car-dependent city. It has been estimated that 30% of car share members had removed one or more of their cars. 


New York City

The city that never sleeps has implemented several innovative smart city initiatives to help the most densely populated city in the US. From traffic to waste management, the big apple has utilized sensors, water meters, and touch-screen kiosks to not just help with air quality and minimising wastage, but also empower residents by giving them that information freely. 



The Emerald City has implemented many projects to make the city smarter. For example, in their 2021 Grid Modernization Plan and Roadmap, the overarching aims are to update the current grid to make it more secure from cyber and physical attacks, stronger to withstand intense usage, flexible, and carbon-free. Washington (Seattle’s state) is one of 46 states to have enacted or legislated the modernization of the grid. 

Additionally, Seattle has an adaptive traffic system that can use weather and traffic conditions to alter stoplights to ease congestion and increase flow. This was possible through the consolidation of 15 different departments; by centralizing the data, they managed to get a full picture and be able to effectively deal with potential  situations. 



Smart cities are the future. However, a smart city can be implemented into already built structures and cities. A commitment by the government is necessary to encourage companies to be the drivers of change. Their innovations are what can transform our cities. Smart cities are a win-win situation for all: they ease congestion, simplify emergency operations, increase collaboration and make our cities safer and more convenient



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About the Author:

Linda combines her technological expertise with extensive experience placing senior and specialist positions for an array of big-name clients in Silicon Valley, Sunnyvale, Berkeley, and abroad.
Read more about Linda Nero.

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