Smart Cities: Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature

PAS Report 599

By Petra Hurtado, PhD, Benjamin Hitchings, FAICP, David Rouse, FAICP

Product Image

APA members & PAS subscribers
Nonmember price
Sign In & Download

Not a member but want to buy a copy? You'll need to create a free My APA account to purchase. Create account

Today, big data, the internet of things, and artificial intelligence are spurring a digital revolution, changing entire societies, economies, and built environments. The concept of "smart cities" is a development of this era.

If deployed in the right ways, state-of-the art technologies can help resolve the myriad challenges communities big and small face today. This PAS Report prepares planners to lead the way in ensuring equitable implementation of smart city innovations that enhance livability, sustainability, and resilience while fostering innovation, collaboration, and participatory co-creation.

The report defines the smart city, offers a framework of three distinct but interconnected "ecosystems" to help planners better understand smart city systems, and describes the three elements that must be integrated to make a city truly smart. It explains the new skills, processes, and tools planners need to plan both with and for smart cities, and it explores the three primary approaches used by local governments to implement smart city applications. Finally, it describes the many benefits that equitable implementation of smart city technologies can bring to communities, and it takes a hard look at the challenges and unresolved questions of smart city development.

The digital era provides opportunities like never before. This PAS Report offers planners a guiding document to help them embrace these innovations and create smart cities that benefit community members, improve local government operations, correct planning mistakes from the past, and shape a better future for all.

Executive Summary

Today, big data, the internet of things, and artificial intelligence are spurring a digital revolution, changing entire societies, economies, and built environments. Advances in digital technology affect almost every aspect in life.

The concept of "smart cities" is a development of this era. It includes not just the operation of a city and related processes, systems, and communication streams, but also the practices planners use to make plans for a community, collect and use data, and implement their plans. If deployed in the right ways, state-of-the art technologies can help planners resolve the myriad challenges they are facing in their communities, big or small.

But for many planners, "smart city" is just a buzzword that does not connect with their community goals and is not part of their vision or toolkit. This is something that needs to change.

In this digital era, it is vital that planners learn about smart city concepts and how they can use these technological innovations so their communities can benefit from them instead of being harmed by them. Adjusting planning processes to this digital environment and adding new tools, relevant skills, and knowledge to the planner's repertoire will be crucial for planners to stay relevant and evolve in this era of digital transformation. This PAS Report provides guidance for planners on how they can do this.


 This report defines a "smart city" as follows:

A smart city equitably integrates technology, community, and nature to enhance its livability, sustainability, and resilience, while fostering innovation, collaboration, and participatory co-creation.

A smart city should deploy technological innovations in a thoughtful and efficient manner to resolve existing and future challenges. It should take advantage of technological progress to create great communities for all while protecting the environment, mitigating climate change, and considering future generations, independent of the size of the city or community.

This report makes the case that planners should be key players in helping to implement this smart city ideal. The smart city needs a plan, and integrating smart tech into achievement of the city's vision is crucial. The planner together with the community members create the vision and goals, while the technology expert provides the path to achieve them. Problems must be defined first so technology can create solutions.

It is especially important to integrate planning principles and ethics into the ways smart cities are being developed. Too many examples exist where new technologies resulted in inequalities in society. Smart city solutions must be implemented equitably to solve problems holistically. Planners must understand smart technologies and how they can be used to resolve community challenges, and they need to communicate community goals to technology partners so smart city tech can help achieve those goals instead of creating disruptions or adding additional challenges.

At the same time, while planners are used to thinking and planning over the long term, the pace of change has been accelerating. This acceleration and a constantly changing environment create additional challenges.

A lack of preparedness and agility can result in new technologies causing severe disruption. Combining long-range visioning with future literacy — being able to imagine plausible futures and understanding the role of these plausible futures in the community context — can help to minimize these disruptions. And to enable planners to respond more rapidly to change, planning processes need to be more agile.

The digital era and the related digital transformation of communities into smart cities offers an unprecedented opportunity to improve the quality of life for all. If done the right way, smart cities provide the potential to correct planning mistakes from the past and make cities more equitable and resilient than ever before. This PAS Report prepares planners to get involved, connect with the smart tech sector, learn about and prepare for smart technologies, and start spearheading the development of smart cities.


For a smart city to be successful, it needs a solid foundation. A fundamental piece of this foundation is the integration of smart city technologies and processes into plans and policies. This report offers guidance to help planners integrate smart city considerations within community planning documents and policies. Other foundational elements include modern information technology infrastructure that can support smart city applications and the needed safeguards to protect these infrastructure systems from cyberattacks, and digital governmental platforms and processes that embrace systems thinking and cross-departmental collaboration.

The report offers a framework of three distinct but interconnected smart city "ecosystems" to help planners better understand smart city systems:

  • Gov tech is the use of technology to increase the efficiency of municipal operations and services. This ecosystem represents public-sector stakeholders (municipal government, local public agencies, and regional, state, and federal entities).
  • Civic tech is the use of technology to increase public engagement, participation, and co-creation, making government more accessible to residents and vice versa. This ecosystem represents civic-sector stakeholders (the people who live, work, and play in the city or community, community groups, and nonprofit organizations).
  • Urban tech is the use of technology to improve the built environment and urban infrastructure to serve the needs of people, businesses, and government. This ecosystem represents private-sector stakeholders (technology companies, entrepreneurs and tech developers, investors, and businesses).

The report also describes the three elements that must be integrated to create a truly smart city:

  • Technology. Smart city technology is rapidly evolving, providing a wide variety of functions and applications that can be used to make cities more efficient, livable, and sustainable. These applications are applied in many different performance domains, including transportation and mobility, energy, water, public health, and safety and security.
  • Community. Open government and civic tech empower individuals to create changes in their own communities based on their personal experience and available data. To support this shift toward participatory co-creation, planners must help create such opportunities, provide transparency to increase trust, reduce biases, support innovation, create inclusive processes, allow for feedback loops, and enhance digital literacy.
  • Nature. Technology alone cannot provide for all the needs of a community's members. Nature — land, water, air, flora, and fauna — is our essential life support system and will be increasingly important in the era of smart cities. A smart city incorporates natural systems into the built environment to provide mutual benefits for people and ecosystems, while using data and digital technologies as tools to optimize the performance of these systems in delivering these benefits.

The key to a truly smart city is the integration of all its components in the real world — and also in the digital world. A truly smart city combines the foundational elements, the three ecosystems, technology applications in different performance domains, community participation and co-creation, and nature. All these components generate data points that can be mirrored into a digital version of the city, which ultimately can evolve into a smart city digital twin (SCDT). SCDTs can be used to simulate, predict, optimize, and test policy options; visualize plans for better civic engagement; and improve decision-making processes. Eventually, the SCDT will become a state-of-the-art planning tool for the planner's toolkit.


The interdisciplinary nature of planning and the variety of skills planners can bring to a team makes planners perfectly suited to spearhead and lead the development of smart cities and their integration into all systems of a city. This report highlights the need for planners to add additional skills, processes, and tools to their repertoires to make use of the benefits of new technologies.

When planning with smart cities, planners can use smart city applications to enhance data collection and data analytics and to better inform plan making and implementation decisions. But they must understand how data is collected through these applications, where the data comes from, what is included and what is missing in that data, how to ensure data privacy, and how to address data gaps to ensure everyone is included and no one is left behind. All available and relevant data can be integrated into one platform, which can ultimately be used for the creation of a smart city digital twin, a virtual version of the city. Planners can then use that data to visualize and test the potential impacts and consequences of plans and policies in the virtual world. They can use virtual and augmented reality, among other technologies, to share these experiments with community members, foster community engagement, and spur interest among community members to co-create.

When planning for smart cities, planners can use existing and new skills and processes to integrate smart city strategies into holistic plans and use smart city applications to achieve community goals. These include soft skills related to community facilitation and engagement, as well as technological knowledge and know-how on how smart city applications can be implemented equitably and sustainably. People-centric, agile, and technologically advanced competencies include strategic foresight and design thinking. Planners can use these and other skills to facilitate the connections between the needs, goals, and challenges of community members and the available technological solutions to result in equitable smart city outcomes.


All cities strive to manage governmental operations, infrastructure, and facilities effectively and efficiently, and all can benefit from the application of smart city approaches to achieve these goals and help create more livable and sustainable places. This report explains the three primary approaches used by local governments to implement smart city applications.

A project-driven approach consists of a local government using a smart cities application to help solve a particular community problem or improve a community service. But without a bigger-picture approach, these one-off initiatives can have limited impact beyond their immediate application and represent missed opportunities to contribute to the development of a larger, more impactful smart cities ecosystem.

With an incremental approach, local governments use individual smart cities projects as pilot initiatives not only to solve immediate problems, but also to begin developing greater smart cities capabilities. Adaptive and opportunistic, this approach provides an opportunity to test and build capability over time, spreading out the cost of investment, facilitating identification and engagement with potential partners, and allowing for the tracking and integration of advances in smart cities technologies and system development techniques.

For communities that wish to pursue a more integrated, holistic strategy to smart cities development, a holistic-city approach establishes a comprehensive smart cities vision that is consistent with community goals, maps out a nimble and integrated action plan, and then works to implement it. Each smart cities initiative occurs within this framework and contributes in a strategic and intentional way to the development of a larger smart cities ecosystem. While more challenging and resource-intensive to implement, this approach enables a more transformative use of smart cities technologies to increase the intelligence and efficiency of services and functions throughout a local government. This PAS Report offers recommendations for how planners can help create this overarching smart city vision and plan as well as integrate smart city considerations into everyday planning practice.


Smart cities can provide many opportunities for improvements in cities and communities — but they can only be successful if they are implemented equitably, allowing access for all, and without compromising the safety and privacy of all community members.

This report describes how equitable implementation of smart city applications can improve operational efficiencies of a city by connecting the city directly to its residents, connecting people to people, and interconnecting infrastructure systems; reduce natural resource consumption and environmental pollution, providing a better quality of life and healthier communities, while mitigating climate change; and create financial efficiencies through collaboration with the private sector, experimenting, and prototyping. Smart city technologies offer the opportunity to fill certain gaps in existing systems or services in a city. Planners can use the data collected by smart city applications to inform planning and policy decisions. And cities can leverage their data, using it as a currency to negotiate with third-party vendors and partners in exchange for services and insights.

But while smart cities offer many opportunities to make cities better and improve residents' quality of life, challenges need to be resolved for smart cities to be truly smart. The report touches on the unresolved questions of how data will be sorted, managed, and shared — and the growing threat of cybersecurity. Cities also face the threefold challenges of the "digital divide": digital literacy, access to devices, and the provision of broadband infrastructure. And planners must understand the problems of data gaps, data bias, and the resulting inequitable outcomes that can be compounded when artificial intelligence makes decisions with algorithms that use incomplete datasets. Finally, funding is needed to help local governments innovate and support the transition from pilot projects to city-wide implementation and integration in equitable ways that benefit all population groups.


Smart cities are a product of the digital era we live in today. Planners need to become a driving force of this revolution and embrace meaningful innovation. The question is not whether planners should plan for smart cities, but rather how they can do so in equitable and sustainable ways. Smart technologies offer myriad opportunities to enhance the quality of life in communities, if planned and implemented in the right ways.

The world around us is changing and the planning profession needs to evolve with these changes. This may mean adding new processes, tools, and planning competencies; it may also mean a reinvention of what planners do and what their roles are supposed to be. While the goal of planning remains the creation of great communities for all, the path to get there can be improved and made more effective and inclusive by using state-of-the-art technology.

The deployment of smart city technologies will happen with or without planners. However, planners are needed to integrate these technologies into a holistic community vision, to ensure equitable and sustainable implementation and operation, and to create solutions all community members will benefit from.

The digital era provides opportunities like never before. This PAS Report offers planners a guiding document to help them embrace these innovations and create smart cities to benefit community members, improve local government operations, correct planning mistakes from the past, and shape a better future of livability, sustainability, and resilience for all.


About the Authors

Petra (Stieninger) Hurtado, Ph.D., is the research director at the American Planning Association, heading APA's research programs and foresight practice. Her areas of expertise and research include urban sustainability, smart cities, emerging technologies, and environmental psychology. Before joining APA, she worked as an advisor, planner, researcher, and educator in the global urban sustainability arena.

Benjamin G. Hitchings, FAICP, CZO, is the principal of Green Heron Planning, LLC, and a member of the board of directors for the American Planning Association. A past president of the North Carolina Chapter of APA (APA-NC) and the former planning director for the Town of Chapel Hill and the Town of Morrisville, North Carolina, he has 30 years of experience working on planning issues and has developed award-winning plans at the local and regional levels.

David C. Rouse, FAICP, ASLA, is a consultant, educator, and author with over 40 years of experience in urban and regional planning and design. From 2013 to 2019, he served as managing director of research and advisory services for the American Planning Association. Before joining APA, Rouse was a principal at the planning and design firm Wallace Roberts & Todd in Philadelphia.

You May Also Like

Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Dec. 1, 2021
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

Table of Contents


Executive Summary

Chapter 1: Introduction
What Is a Smart City?
Why Should Planners Care about Smart Cities?
About This Report

Chapter 2: Evolution of Smart Cities
A History of Smart Cities
The Evolution of Smart Cities
Smart Cities of the Future

Chapter 3: Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature
Foundational Elements for the Smart City
Smart City Ecosystems
Technology Applications in the Smart City
Community in the Smart City
Nature in the Smart City
Digital Integration of the Smart City

Chapter 4: Planning in the Era of Smart Cities
Key Competencies to Plan With Smart Cities
Key Competencies to Plan for Smart Cities

Chapter 5: Planning Approaches for Smart City Implementation
The Project-Driven Approach
The Incremental Approach
The Holistic-City Approach
Integrating the Smart City into Planning Practice
Collaborating to Create a Smart City

Chapter 6: Smart City Opportunities and Challenges
Smart City Opportunities
Smart City Challenges

Chapter 7: Looking Ahead
Preparing for a Smarter Future
Shaping the Smart City
The Future Is Now