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How the City Planners of Tomorrow Will Differ From City Planners Today

The world is changing, and city planners are changing along with it.
Kayla Matthews | @KaylaEMatthews | January 28, 2019, 5am PST
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City planners play an essential role in making great places to live in and visit. Although they'll continue focusing on that goal in the years ahead, tomorrow's city planners will differ from the ones working now in some significant ways.

1. They Will Depend on New Safety Assessment Options

City planners have to ensure buildings are safe during the initial construction process, as well as after natural disasters such as earthquakes occur. For example, even if a building seems structurally sound, it might have hidden cracks that are only identifiable through a specialized testing process.

Currently, city planners tackle safety-related disaster preparation with seismic engineers who use shake tables fitted with models of the buildings to see how they stand up to stress. Those evaluations assess the structures before disasters happen, and plans are underway for high-tech tests that occur after those events occur, too.

In September 2018, a panel discussed nondestructive testing techniques using nuclear technology. Places like Nepal and Japan have already applied nuclear means to safely carry out building tests after disasters happen or are planning to do so soon. These advancements could mean future city planners have an array of new options to pick from when deciding how to verify structural integrity for disaster preparedness or ensure buildings are safe for occupancy during disaster relief efforts.

There’s also Vision Zero, an initiative based on the belief that everyone has the right to move safely in their communities, and both policymakers and system designers share the responsibility for making that happen. It encourages collaboration between professionals who historically have not worked together, such as local traffic planners and public health officials.

This program and others like it means that city planners will diversify the strategies they take to maintain or check safety, which might mean before and after disasters, as well as during residents’ everyday lives.

2. They'll Increasingly Use Tech to Manage Areas Dominated by Tourism

When tourists can flock to popular locations, they help stimulate local economies and can simultaneously make life miserable for residents. In 2017, international tourism contributed $1.6 trillion in revenue. Rather than imposing tourist-related taxes or establishing visitor caps, cities are evolving.

Established systems inform people of the most efficient routes as traffic levels change in a city, such as Google Maps and other navigational systems on smartphones that notify people of accidents or parade routes and race routes. Google also has a feature that provides the best times to visit a local business such as a restaurant by advising users of average peak activity periods and shows up as part of the search results when people look for information.

Some city planners are already familiar with such measures and regularly use them. The city planners of tomorrow will see these smart strategies as the measures they go to first rather than options that are relatively new and untested in some localities.

3. They'll Regularly Apply Machine Learning to Disaster Relief

One thing city planners have to keep in mind is that the growing destruction and frequency of natural disasters make it necessary to integrate emergency plans when creating infrastructures.

Today's city planners often use technology to help them manage disaster-relief needs. For example, they might use pavement that absorbs water to cope with the aftermath of floods.

Future city planners will still use some readily available interventions if they make sense for the disasters that most commonly occur in an area, but they'll become more reliant on machine learning to determine where to send emergency crews or otherwise dedicate resources. A startup called One Concern uses machine learning to make such decisions. It generates specialized maps that could help city workers act decisively when under pressure.

It's too early to predict the outcome of One Concern, but it's likely companies will continue to investigate how machine learning and other kinds of artificial intelligence could help cities and their residents survive disasters.

4. They Could Specialize as Tech Experts

Statistics indicate that two-thirds of city planners work for governments. Such a likelihood is even higher for people who are new to the city planning sector. Eventually, after proving their competency, city planning professionals may break away from government roles and specialize in tech-centric subjects.

Some of today's city planners have specialties, but in the years to come, the opportunities focusing on new tech should rise. For example, these professionals may become established as planners with above-average levels of experience in creating smart cities or act as consultants for municipalities that want assistance implementing innovative ways of measuring traffic patterns.

Planning officials are also looking at ways to use augmented reality (AR) to help people visualize the appearance and effects of future cities. If that application of the technology gains momentum, city planners could specialize in assisting other professionals in deploying AR during the early stages of city planning or when improving parts of a city.

5. They'll Make More Decisions With Large Amounts of Data

In the days before big data platforms, city planners had no choice but to analyze smaller amounts of data and form educated guesses based on what those statistics indicated.

Now, city officials can rely on real-time information and look back in time to pinpoint trends. As such, it's likely that future city planners will have strong data science backgrounds or have members of their team with that expertise.

It's also likely that the data will help create "digital twins" of cities, thereby removing many instances of doubt. In Singapore, there's a project intended to build a digital city and allow for data collaboration between various authorized parties.

A city's residents can help generate data, too. When city planners in California set their sights on the downtown area of Santa Monica, they gave people access to a Tinder-like app and website called City Swipe DTSM. When using it, individuals are presented with photos and questions that let them clarify their preferences. Some of the content shows plans in the works and allows people to show opposition or support with swipes.

Today's city planners have access to data and depend on it, but thanks to advancements like the 5G network, it'll be more straightforward than ever for a community's inhabitants to weigh in — even if they can't come to local meetings to give their thoughts in person.

6. They'll Have New Ways of Storing Renewable Energy

Pumped hydroelectric power is the main method of renewable energy storage around the world. However, it's not suitable for some places because pumped hydropower requires access to water, along with a significant altitude, to work as intended. The fact that wind and solar facilities intermittently produce energy is another complication to storing energy via pumped hydroelectric power.

A Swiss startup called Energy Vault thinks it has an alternative. It stores energy in concrete blocks that get moved by cranes to create a tower.

A fully charged structure contains enough energy to power 20,000 homes for a day. Even if city planners don't consider this exact approach soon, they'll still have opportunities to look at energy storage options that go beyond hydropower.

Other possibilities that have emerged recently and could help city planners move away from hydropower include the utility-scale projects headed by Tesla that so far total a gigawatt-hour of energy storage technology in places around the world ranging from Australia to Puerto Rico. But, the company hasn’t overlooked households. Its PowerWall starts at $3,000 and works as a battery backup system for people who want to reduce or eliminate their dependence on the grid.

BYD is a Chinese company that wants to gain prominence in the energy storage market, too. The entity will complete a power battery factory in 2019 that’s as large as 140 football fields. It’s also worth keeping an eye on in the coming years.

An Exciting Future for City Planners

Many of the things mentioned here are options for forward-thinking city planners. However, the change that becomes apparent soon will be that these pioneering ideas will become part of the mainstream and not thought of as far-fetched ideas.

As such, city planners will have a wide variety of new and tech-driven choices at their disposal.

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