How Planners Can Thrive In Connected, Data-Driven Cities

By Kirk Rappe

To be effective at our jobs, planners need to keep up with trends influencing other disciplines, such as business, real estate, and environmental protection. Yet many of us are unfamiliar with the information technology trends that are poised to revolutionize the planning practice as much as the first personal computers, the Internet, and ArcGIS have in the last three decades.

Technologists are starting to apply advances in information technology to city-scale problems, deploying tools and services through Smart City initiatives. Of course the definition of a “Smart City” depends on whom you talk to, but a good thumbnail description by Anthony Townsend in his book Smart Cities, is “places where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems.” Cities looking to become “smart” needn’t rely on the big tech companies selling their solutions, but rather can emphasize public inclusion, open data, and bottom-up solutions as much as - or more than - top-down implementation.

A key concept stitching together the topics Townsend discusses in Smart Cities is the Internet of Things, or IoT for short. IoT refers to the interconnection of devices through sensors and the wireless internet to connect everything from buses to garbage bins, streetlights and water mains. As consumers we’re already seeing this happen in household devices like LED lightbulbs that are activated with our smart phones and learn our living patterns. For planners at work, smart cities and IoT will provide benefits and challenges to how we do our jobs.

One of the big promises for planning in smart cities is new, more granular, and frequently collected data. Seattle has opened its municipal data to the public through and Bruce Blood of the Open Data Initiative says it has made work easier for departments and allowed them to better tell their story to city leadership. This data initiative is also spurring new startups. Seattle Planning Commissioner Luis Borrero developed DRIVE, a Google Earth based tool for land use professionals to instantaneously analyze and visualize property data across the city. Other Seattle startups, some planning related, are popping up at co-working spaces and through initiatives like Code for Seattle.

But like any new technology there are big risks. What if our devices fail? How do we protect our security? Privacy? With our experience in community engagement and city processes, these are issues planners can, and must bring to the fore as smart city initiatives proliferate.  How can planners adapt, get engaged, and continue to lead?

  • Find out if your city has a smart cities initiative or chief technology officer and get engaged.
  • Read up on the APA’s Smart Cities and Sustainability Task Force and get involved.
  • Learn how to speak the language of information technology – much like transportation planners knowing the language of transportation engineers – we need to know how to communicate with technologists.
  • Consider what information would be useful for resident participation and plan-making and find out how to get access to the data you and your constituents need.
  • Provide perspective – planners understand how cities work and how citizen participation does and doesn’t work. Make sure these smart city initiatives keeps citizens at the forefront.
  • Emphasize equity – raise your voice with and for the digitally powerless. How can ALL of your city’s residents participate and shape this change?


Technicity. Explore the sweeping changes that our cities are undergoing as a result of networks, sensors, and communication technology. A free online Coursera course starts March 4th, 2015 for 8 weeks. Register at Coursera or download the free Android or Apple iOS app.

Books and Articles:
Townsend, Anthony S. Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. (W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2013).

Evans-Cowley, Jennifer and Brittany Kibinski. We Built This Technology. Planning Magazine – June 2014.

Websites and Blogs:
APA Smart Cities Task Force
Smart Cities Council
Code for Seattle

Kirk Rappe is a 2010 graduate of the University of Washington Urban Design and Planning Master’s Program and Project Specialist at the Smart Buildings Center. His interests are in addressing city and regional-scale energy issues and climate change.


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