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December 19, 2012

Sustainable Urban Development and 'Smart Cities'



If you’ve ever driven through the poor ends of a major U.S. city, like many people, you’ve probably wondered what could be done to improve conditions there. While so-called “slums” in the U.S. may not compare to slums in developing nations, they are still considerably disadvantaged when it comes to infrastructure, and the adults and children who live there are usually at a higher risk for crime, health problems and general prosperity.

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Many cities have tried to tackle the problem with limited success. The problems that usually dog the attempts to improve conditions are familiar: limited budgets, bureaucracy and delays.

According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Eugenie Birch and Amy Lynch, co-authors of “Measuring U.S. Sustainable Urban Development” in State of the World 2012,” more than 200 U.S. cities have developed plans for improving economic, environmental and social sustainability, but few have established specific metrics to monitor their progress. Birch and Lynch say that a national indicator system would help cities more uniformly measure their success in moving toward sustainable development. 


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The report’s authors say that the best approach is for the U.S. to a establish a national sustainable development agenda and a set of standardized national indicators, and as effective indicators are identified; they should be assessed and culminated into a national monitoring system.

While monitoring and standards are great, how do U.S. cities make a concrete push to improve cities in need of a path to prosperity?

Ultimately, these ideas may converge with new ideas about “smart cities,” or urban environments that make the maximum use of technology and “smart” components to improve life in a number of ways. There are smart city technologies designed to improve the flow of traffic , public transportation (critical in poorer neighborhoods), like car sharing, centralized communications and public Wi-Fi, self-reporting of buildings and infrastructure and “smart housing” that can offer urban officials more control over crime and residents more security.

For now, smart cities are something still largely in the prototype stage. ABI Research predicted last year that while $8.1 billion was spent on smart city technologies in 2010, by 2016 that number will likely reach $39.5 billion. As of today, there are 102 smart city projects worldwide, says ABI, with Europe leading the way at 38 cities, North America at 35, Asia Pacific at 21, the Middle East and Africa at six, and Latin America with two.

As the world’s population continues migrating to its cities, those cities will become inevitably larger. To keep slums from spreading and the condition of those who live in them from deteriorating, cities would be well advised to include smart city concepts into their long-term sustainable development agendas.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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