Putting the Heart Back into Urban Development

Judith, Senior Director at Expedition Engineering, reflects on why it’s important to put the heart back into urban development.

The era of smart infrastructure is upon us, but are we approaching it in the right way? A recent research project led us to question what it will be like to live and work in developments led by smart infrastructure, and whether we are in danger of creating very clinical, placeless smart city environments?

Emerging technological trends in mobility are hugely exciting. Recent years have seen a remarkable surge in the supply, variety and demand for electric vehicles in the UK, alongside a significant rise in Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail Networks especially in emerging economies. Smart motorways and ICT-enabled roads, are improving transport logistics, with associated environmental benefits. Autonomous vehicles are being trialed across the globe, Japan are investing in the next generation Maglev, and Tesla / SpaceX in the US have proposed the Hyperloop. These transport innovations promise desirable improvements to city living, however my concern with technology led development, without the intervention of governance, is that it may not result in the sustainable development outcomes we desire.

Looking back, we need to be reminded how the car has shaped of our cities, moving from compact walkable forms to sprawling car dependent places, often creating areas cut off by high speed roads, and hostile pedestrian environments. The stark reality is that these environments are making us ill.

Our urban realm is at least in part responsible for the fact that 1 in 3, 10-11yr olds are overweight [1]. In cities like London air pollution is a major issue with significant health impacts. In fact, it has been claimed that air pollution is the cause of over 40,000 deaths per year in the UK alone.

Access to transport is economically and socially divisive. Some 38% of job seekers say transport is a key barrier to getting a job [2]. Additionally, the cost of congestion in urban areas on the UK economy is estimated at an annual £11bn.

However, if we put quality of life and sustainability at the heart of what technology can help us do, then a ‘good’ smart city is one that is accessible. By creating walkable neighbourhoods, with local employment opportunities and access to services and facilities, you reduce the need for travel as so well illustrated in Richard Rogers’ ‘Cities for A Small Planet’.

Examples that show how smart infrastructure and user centred regeneration is creating cities for people include: Exhibition Road in London’s Kensington: a working example of a clutter free pedestrian friendly environment; The Greater Green project in Sheffield has seen the value-added transformation of a business district through investment in green infrastructure; and Barcelona’s superblock program creating citizen spaces, pocket parks and prototyping new approaches.

Unlike product designers, built environment professionals have not always taken a user centred design approach, partly because large infrastructure projects are often one offs, and difficult to prototype. Simulating environments through virtual reality, and trialling masterplan concepts through meanwhile space is starting to change this, as is advocated by Nesta in their recent report.

Smart Infrastructure must also be built on public support. The HS2 project has shown the challenge of building public consensus for infrastructure where the societal benefits have not been clearly demonstrated. Collaborative governance models can help us bring people on the journey and exploit the opportunities that technology can bring, for the better of society.

From a design perspective, this requires improved collaboration across the spheres of engineering, urbanism and sustainability along with public discourse. Too often these spheres work in silos, but by drawing these professions together we can create a much stronger narrative on how smart technology can be used to create successful places which have people at their heart.


[1] Public Health England (2014/2015) Prevalence of excess weight among children
[2] Social Exclusion Unit (2003) Making the Connections: Final Report on Transport and Social Exclusion

Barcelona Super Blocks
Barcelona Super Blocks