Smart Communities Require Smart Planning

APA is taking a close up look at the role of planners in creating cities built on the use of big data and technology. Esri — an international supplier of geographic information system software, web GIS, and geodatabase management applications — is working with APA to better understand the needs of planners in developing tools that lead to the creation of smarter cities.

I heard a presentation once at a Geodesign Summit titled "Where Are the Planners?" It turned out that the talk was really about sensors for parking stalls.

I learned later that the speaker regularly presented on this topic at smart city conferences attended mostly by information, communication, and technology companies, city managers, and mayors, but not necessarily planners. Today, that trend is changing. Planners are now keenly aware that big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) has and will continue to change the way we plan.

We're now seeing the convergence of smart cities initiatives and smart growth strategies, the first enabling the second.

Think about it. Everything you have to plan for — water, disaster response, traffic, jobs, housing — can be improved upon with big data. We have already seen the rise of big data in the form of smart city initiatives, with an increasing number of sensors and systems collecting greater and greater amounts of data.

But it is important to note that data taken alone is not necessarily smart. Data needs to be examined with a critical eye. Correlation does not predict causality. Data has to be examined in context, and that means the social and environmental contexts in which events happen.

The two things that all sources of big data have in common is that they occur somewhere on earth: that is to say, they have a location and they occur somewhere in time. They have a temporal component. GIS is the enabling technology — a location platform — that provides the geographic context required to make sense of big, little, and temporal data of all kinds.

What if you want to design a vibrant neighborhood?

It helps to quantify how people use and move through public spaces. Benchmarking before, and then collecting data after measures are taken, help confirm planning assumptions with hard data. Planners can use hard data to justify needed street or sidewalk treatments like bulb-outs or shade trees to improve people's ability to walk easily and increase pedestrian traffic. Sensors can help planners with this.

New technology companies are building location-aware video sensors that track and measure the volume of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, walking directions, store visits, and even the wait time at sites like food trucks. This is big data at work in local places — driving both active living and economic development.

Then there are always the benefits to be gained by enriching big data with additional demographic data to gain even greater insight.

Never before has there been such a variety of data available to identify trends and understand who is affected most by a particular development or zoning change. As cities open up and share more and more of the data they already capture, we will see an explosion of innovation to help us create better, healthier, and more sustainable communities.

Esri's Smart Communities effort, and in particular the Esri Hub Program, is an open data initiative that allows a city to publish and make valuable data accessible.

The City of Los Angeles, an early adopter of the Hub concept, created what is known as the LA GeoHub. The LA GeoHub provides access to geodata and a variety of useful applications to city departments, neighboring municipalities, and the public. In this way, the big data already collected by the city can be used by others and "mashed" together with other data to increase government effectiveness while improving residents' quality of life.

The platform is also a way to inspire entrepreneurs to start companies that design and build helpful applications using these open data sources. The GeoHub becomes the backbone of a smart community.

The City of Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development is combining Esri location data and spatial analytics with its SAP HANA operational data to improve city services across departments, including the planning department. Crime data and 911 calls are tied to parcel data to help identify problem parcels related to blight.

Business analytics and operation dashboards are exposing inefficiencies and have helped the city decrease its permitting backlog from 600 overdue permits to three. At each step of the way, analytics are saving the city time and money in the office so staff can devote more time to building the community.

Smart communities are those that link data to of all kinds to geographic locations, make it open, and share it across departments and with the public. It exposes synergies and cost savings in unexpected places. And data-driven decisions help take the guesswork out of planning for a desired outcome.

How do you see planning departments taking advantage of open data to create smarter communities?

To learn more about how your community can efficiently harness the power of data, check out Esri's Smart Communities initiative.

Top image: Screen shot from the City of Los Angeles GeoHub at

About the Author

Shannon McElvaney

Shannon McElvaney is the business development director at Critigen and a geodesign advocate who focuses on smart city planning and development to enable people to design, build, and maintain sustainable and resilient communities. He is the author of the book Geodesign: Case Studies in Regional and Urban Planning.

September 27, 2016

By Shannon McElvaney