Europe's urban centres are undergoing significant demographic changes, with aging populations, immigration, and changing family structures. However, the current urban planning systems in many cities have not kept pace with these shifts. In this blog, URBANAGE explores why modernising urban planning in Europe is long overdue and how new disruptive technologies could change the status quo.
Why we need Disruption: Ageing Populations
Europe is facing a significant demographic shift as its population ages. By 2030, over 25% of Europeans will be aged 65 or over, and according to a report by the United Nations, by 2050, one in four people in Europe will be over the age of 60. In response to this, urban planners must adapt to create age-friendly cities that work for all. Cities which cater to everyone, regardless of their age or ability, that enable older adults to live independently, participate in community life and stay connected with family and friends.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines age-friendly cities as "an urban environment that encourages active aging by optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security to enhance quality of life as people age. To design spaces that meet the needs of those that use them requires a strong focus on ensuring inclusion in the planning process. This means talking to older adults, people with disabilities, whether physical or cognitive, to ensure their requirements are captured. Planners can then work with these needs in mind to create accessible environments to help everyone fully participate in society. Accessibility is about making sure that all people, regardless of their age or ability, have equal access to services and facilities.
However, many cities are not meeting the needs of an aging population due to the current planning systems and processes in place. Planning information usually consists of several long and hard to read documents and plans, and whilst decisions may take place in open meetings these can be hard to reach by many older adults, that's if they know about them in the first place. As a result, poorly designed public spaces, inaccessible buildings, and inadequate public transport can make it difficult for older adults to enjoy their cities. They can struggle to move around independently, leading to issues of social isolation and loneliness, which can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of older adults.
New Digital Technologies
Just as new technologies have revamped several other sectors, enabling people to work from home, learn remotely, and access services online, they can also transform the urban planning sector. Here are some examples that the URBANAGE team believe are already making a difference.
>>Smart City technology refers to the use of data and technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban services and infrastructure. Most European cities are investing heavily in smart city technology to improve everything from transportation to waste management. Barcelona is using big data and AI to optimize city services, reduce traffic congestion, and improve air quality. The city has also implemented a smart lighting system that adjusts the brightness of streetlights based on the level of pedestrian and vehicle traffic to conserve energy, but also make the streets for safer for users.
>>Local Digital Twins are related to the above and visualise smart city data in real time to provide a virtual 3D replica of the city which can be used to simulate the effects of planning decisions on areas such as transport flows, footfall, air quality and noise. Helsinki has implemented a 3D city model that provides a detailed, interactive visualization of the city's buildings, streets, and public spaces. The model is being used to support urban planning and design decisions, and provides an easy way for the average citizen to quickly understand what changes to the city infrastructure could look like and/or mean.
>>Internet of Things refers (IoT) is an interconnected network of sensor devices which communicating with one another. In the urban planning sector, IoT data can be used to monitor and manage everything from traffic to energy consumption as well as populate Local Digital Twins. The city of Santander has installed over 12,000 sensors (20k envisioned) throughout the city to monitor everything from traffic and air quality to noise levels and waste management. The data collected is used to improve urban services, making it easier for all citizens to understand the city and provide usefull feedback which can inform decision-making.
>> 3D printing is being used in the urban planning sector to create detailed, three-dimensional models of buildings and other structures. These models can be used to visualize the impact of proposed projects on the surrounding environment. Oslo started the foray into 3D printing to create a scale model of the city back in 2015 that is being used to help city officials and developers better understand the urban landscape. A useful tool for people not online. The model is also being used to visualize proposed projects and assess their impact on the city's historic architecture. Future use of 3D printing in cities looks set to be creating needed items in situ, where they will be used, without the need to transfer materials for thousands of miles.
>>Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used to analyze large amounts of data to identify patterns and trends in urban development. This can help urban planners make more informed decisions about how to allocate resources and plan for the future. Flanders is using data and AI to optimize its transportation system. The city of Ghent is developing a mobility management platform that uses real-time data to manage traffic flow, reduce congestion, and improve public transportation. The platform will include a mobility dashboard that provides citizens with information about transportation options and traffic conditions.
>>Augmented reality (AR) technology is being used to create virtual simulations of proposed urban development projects. These simulations can be used to get a better sense of how a project will look and feel in its real-world environment. London is leveraging AR technology to create a virtual model of the city that overlays proposed development projects onto the existing urban environment. The model is being used to more easily engage citizens in the planning process and to provide a more realistic visualization of proposed projects.
These are just a few examples of technologies and cities that are working to reform urban planning and make the process more accessible and inclusive to residents and citizens. As technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see more cities adopting these and other disruptive technologies to improve the urban planning process.