Planning for your smart city's future? How two tools you may already have can help

Oct 21, 2016

By Jesse Berst, Chairman, Smart Cities Council

The planning process for a smart city never really ends. The technologies that make smart cities possible evolve quickly; markets and economies change; priorities change, and what a city's residents expect — whether it's a better, faster transit system or more convenient ways to get healthcare or pay bills — changes too.

Some local governments have found ways to accommodate the changes the future inevitably brings by using and adapting tools they already have. Representatives from two of them shared their approaches during a Smart Cities Week panel discussion. Your city may be able to do the same or something similar with tools you already have at your disposal.

Loudon County, Va., takes land conservation and protection very seriously, and one of its primary tools to accomplish those efforts is geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology. The county also uses GIS for other applications such as recreation and transit planning.

County Supervisor Phyllis Randall explained that the county's GIS is used to permanently protect land (including historic areas) from development and ensure adequate open spaces and green spaces. GIS mapping also helps the county determine the best use for specific areas, such as growing hops or other crops.

"Mapping historical areas helps with maintaining history and adding to our knowledge. But it's also used for planning." The county's GIS allows the county to provide apps for trail walking and to help walkers find amenities along trails as well as establish bike trails and bus routes—and determine interim property uses over the next 20 to 40 years. And those trails and bus routes the county's GIS helps it develop also dovetail nicely with another goal: to encourage people to stay out of their cars on weekends.

Rob Kerns, Development Division Chief for Alexandria, Va., said the city's efforts to become a smart city incorporate public outreach, land use planning, physical design, site planning and more. Its primary tools? A comprehensive plan and zoning. Kerns said the city's comprehensive plan and zoning address all aspects of how the city will grow and that the process continuously involves public and private stakeholders. And like Loudon County, the city also uses mapping. Small area maps provide a way for planners to analyze at the city block level and identify which locations would be appropriate for pedestrian-only use or multiple uses.

Alexandria's initial smart cities work has involved a green building policy, a parking standards update, a stormwater management utility and more. And Kerns is sold on the comprehensive plan as the most effective tool. As he put it, "To approach smart cities, the comprehensive plan is the place to start."

Jesse Berst is the chairman of the Smart Cities Council, which helps cities use technology to become more livable, workable and sustainable. The Council has announced challenge grants with the White House challenge to help five U.S. cities in that journey. Learn how to win one for your city at

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