Smart planning for better cities

Cities are growing fast in almost every part of the world. Traffic, energy and water supply, land use and human health are amongst the many challenges urban planners face.

The Climate-KIC project Smart Urban Adapt is developing a system, which integrates available data and models with visualisation tools and an interactive front end to provide public authorities with the user-friendly software they need.

City planners worldwide are struggling to solve the immense challenges arising from rapid growth in cities. These challenges are manifested in an increasing demand for traffic and public transport infrastructure, energy, water and waste-water facilities, air quality and urban heating issues affecting human health, just to name a few. In Europe, growth in metropolitan areas such as Zurich or London evolves more controlled than in many Asian or South American mega cities. Nevertheless, city managers in Europe face similar problems and seek easy-to-use tools for urban planning.

 

Testbed for experts from diverse fields

For these problems to be solved in their great complexity, experts from the various disciplines need to get together: architects and urban planners, mobility and traffic managers, ICT experts, energy and water managers, health specialists, climate and environmental scientists, sociologists, economists and policy makers.

 

Putting existing pieces together for complex queries

While there are numerous research initiatives and collaborations with industry that work on a single aspect of these grand challenges such as transportation, land-use or energy demand, what has been missing so far is an integration of the tools developed. For example, the ETH research institute for material sciences, empa, designed a piece of software that demonstrates the impact of tall buildings on the micro-climate in cities such as temperature and wind patterns; the ETH spin-off regioConcept developed a tool for scenarios on transportation and land-use changes; IBM invested in research on urban sensing technologies for monitoring transport systems, water and energy distribution networks (e.g., smart meters); and another ETH spin-off named TEP Energy together with the Swedish Chalmers University investigated the building stock of urban settings including energy-efficiency measures and supply systems in buildings from different decades.

“We were aware of the many initiatives and knew that we somehow had to make all pieces fit together. And this was how the idea of a data warehouse was born, a warehouse linked to the various applications and services that are needed by city planners and public authorities” says Jan Halatsch, Research Scientist at the ETH Chair of Information Architecture and Manager of the Climate-KIC project Smart Urban Adapt. Halatsch was one of the initiators of this two-year innovation project.

 

Meeting city planners’ needs for a user-friendly system

Halatsch and his team of colleagues from ETH Zurich and Imperial College London, and experts from IBM and Esri integrate all available data and software to build a user-friendly system. A strong visualisation component and interactive frontend are at the heart of this system. Halatsch knows: “An officer at the city authority seeks answers to questions like: what will be the energy and water demand in a district when we build a 30-story office tower; how will this building impact local winds and its steel-glass frontage contribute to summer heating in the building’s vicinity; and what if the 2’000 employees come to work by car every day, how will this affect transportation and traffic. The Officer has to find answers to these complex questions for which he needs a tool that is easy to use and provides easy to interpret results”. In his own research, Halatsch focused on this interface between user and software and developed interactive tools to merge visualisation and simulation. He is co-founder of the ETH spin-off SmarterBetterCities which is specialised on graphical applications of all sorts of geographical information.

The Smart Urban Adapt project will soon celebrate the completion of its pilot in Zurich and will then test-run the tool and its applications in different environments and on different time- and spatial scales. Other cities in Europe indicated their keen interest in the tool. It might only be a question of time before megacities in Asia or South America contact Halatsch and his colleagues requesting a demonstration of the system – in order to plan smarter better cities. 

 

More information

sua.ethz.ch

www.smarterbettercities.ch