Setting the scene: How will technology transform spatial structure and mobility in cities?

Alongside the legacies of the automobile, new forms of technology and innovation continue to emerge and intersect with urban spaces…..

Most of us live and conduct our daily activities in cities. Fundamentally, cities are the product of our desire to interact with others. This interaction may take several forms,  such interactions among individuals that over time give rise to social networks, and interaction between businesses and their customers.

In order to realize the basic human desire to stay connected,  and the additional socio-economic benefits it brings, we put up buildings, some for use as shelter and others to accommodate activities which serve different purposes and needs. As population increases so does the number of buildings serving different needs. 

We innovate and build sophisticated systems, including infrastructure systems such as roads, railways and streets to facilitate easy movement between the locations of the various land use activities. 

From these individual elements emerge the overall structure of the city, which we can define simply as the configuration of land use activities and the functional linkages among them that give rise to spatially anchored flows and interactions.

What is really fascinating is that the emergent structures of cities are a function of several processes that involved many actors, including individuals, households, businesses and public sector institutions. There are land and property market processes involving transactions, acquisitions and the construction of physical structures from which our built-environments become manifest. The location and magnitude of physical development realizable and the overall character of the built-environment in any given context are subject to a number of factors. Depending on the context,  spatial planning would have a profound impact on built-environments by providing a framework of plans, policies and strategies, and enforceable codes, standards and regulations intended to shape development towards desired outcomes.

The planning system has not been the only force shaping urban built-environments and the emergent structure of cities. There are other more fundamental factors too. Historically, advances in technology and innovation have had profound impacts on the way we design and build cities.

The diffusion of the automobile from the 1920s, for example, impacted cities in many ways. Urban streets which were originally built for modes of transport other than the car would be repurposed to accommodate the increasing motorization.

Cars would make it easy for people to overcome longer distances faster than before, implying that individuals could choose to live outside the main built-up areas of the city. Consequently, suburbanization and sprawl would typify many cities. Massive transport infrastructure such as highways would be built to connect sprawling suburban residential areas with city centres.

Alongside the legacies of the automobile, new forms of technology and innovation continue to emerge and intersect with urban spaces. Advances in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) continue to impact various facets of the city, including its spatial structure and the nature of flows and interaction that occur within it. The internet together with platforms leveraging it, have essentially constricted space, making it easy for us to fulfil our desire to stay connected to and interact with others. With the help of the internet, people can shop online and have their items delivered to them.

Mobile telecommunication technology has given rise to telecommuting—a work arrangement whereby individuals engaged in certain occupations can undertake their work remotely (e.g. from home) without having to travel in the traditional sense to work destinations located elsewhere in the city.  

This does not only have implications for urban land use such as the amount of space dedicated to offices and parking but also on overall travel patterns in the city.

The smart city, the zeitgeist of 21st century urbanism and urban development, is essentially a product of the convergence between the digital and physical worlds. Basically, cities get smarter as they leverage sensing technologies and the electronic data they generate to among other things, improve access and service delivery in transportation, health and education, and to support economic activities and generate economic growth.

In the transportation sector for instance, intelligent transport systems are leveraging ICT and sensing technologies to facilitate the efficient movement of people, goods and services. In recent years, new ICT-enabled mobility concepts such as shared-mobility (i.e. different forms of car-sharing and bike-sharing systems) have also become common in cities.

Yet another innovation that is expected to hit cities soon is artificial intelligence in the form of self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving cars are undergoing trials in cities across the globe, including One North District in Singapore, Greenwich in the UK, California in the USA and Perth in Australia for deployment in other cities.

All the aforementioned technological innovations will have profound impacts (intended and unintended) on cities. Perhaps, what is interesting from the point of view of research and city planning is that while we can relate to the impacts of technological revolutions in the past, such as the automobile, when it comes to new forms of technology such as artificial intelligence, we do not fully understand what the impacts are going to be.

That said, we can be certain, based on past trends that these technologies will significantly shape urban land use patterns, transportation systems, travel behaviors and patterns of flows and interactions that will emerge in the late 21st century city.

How can we gain a better understanding of the potential impacts, in order to effectively deploy systems to exploit the benefits and minimize the costs? How do we leverage advances in technology to build socially just, environmentally sustainable and economically viable cities?

The purpose of nexusUTM, is to provide a forum for exploring answers to the above questions. We will share ideas based on insights from my research as well as research by others in different urban contexts. Our focus will be on the nexus among urban spatial structure, transportation and technology, and their integrative planning in cities. In doing so, we will touch on themes including urban size and land use patterns, emerging mobility concepts and the human dimension of smart mobility transitions, and the nexus between travel behavior and the built-environment.

We would love to hear your views regarding this article and subsequent posts; Please leave your comments below and follow this page to receive updates. 

Author: Ransford A. Acheampong

Presidential Academic Fellow in Future Cities @ The University of Manchester, UK

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