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One of the biggest trends of recent years has been the huge growth of our cities. Nearly half of the world’s population now live in a city, and as these numbers grow, officials and policy makers are grappling with the numerous challenges posed by growing resident numbers.

UK universities are operating at the forefront of the drive to make our cities smarter, but whilst the smart cities movement has often been driven by technology, a number of recent studies highlight the various low-tech ways in which our cities can become smarter.

Big park, little park
A recent study from the University of Exeter, for instance, looked at the role greenery plays in the wellbeing of urban residents. Amongst urban planners there has been an ongoing debate between the merits of compact developments with large parks versus sprawling developments that contain a lot of smaller parks.

The study analysed nine cities around the world to explore the impact their layout had on the functioning of the city. The analysis concluded that dense cities with large parks appeared to be the most effective, although the authors are at pains to point out that the virtues of small parks should not be overlooked.

“As populations continue to grow, it’s vital that we expand our cities and build new ones in a way that is most sustainable for ecosystems, and which provides the greatest benefits to urban residents. Our research finds that compact developments that include large green spaces are essential for the delivery of ecosystem services. For humans to get the most benefit however, combining this approach with greening of built land using street trees and some small parks and gardens is the best method,” lead author Dr Iain Stott (@IainMStott) says.

Cycling friendliness
Of course, a major part of the environmental friendly credentials of any city is the ability of its citizens to complete journeys either by foot or on a bicycle. A recent study from Leeds University’s Dr Ian Phillips (@IanPhilipsITS) explored the capacity for individuals to go about their day by foot or bicycle in the event of a fuel shock.

The analysis revealed a significant variation in a city’s ability to cope with such an event, with areas such as the outer edges of London and districts such as Sevenoaks scoring particularly badly.

“The factors that affect your chances of being able to get to work depend on where you live, meaning the results of this study are particularly useful when mapped for small areas. For example, bicycle availability has a bigger effect in Cambridge than in Sheffield,” Dr Philips said at the recent Annual International Conference.

The biggest factor was found to be the distance people would be required to travel to work. In suburbs that were up to 10km from the centre there was a marked drop in adaptability levels.

Rural connectivity
The challenges of living further from urban centres were highlighted by a study from the dot.rural RCUK Digital Economy Research Hub at the University of Aberdeen, and the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford.

It shows that over one million people in Britain face challenges in engaging with normal online activities because they reside in areas with poor connectivity levels.

There was a distinct gap between connectivity levels in urban and rural areas. Whereas just 5% of those in rural areas suffered with low broadband speeds, this grew to over 50% in areas identified as ‘deep rural’.

“This report clearly demonstrates there is a growing social and economic gap between those who are connected and those who are not, the ‘digitally excluded’,” lead author Professor John Farrington said. “It is generally seen in differences between remote rural internet use on the one hand, and less remote, rural and urban internet use on the other.”

The connectivity gap was particularly pronounced in upland areas of England, Scotland and Wales, with approximately 1.3 million people affected. There were also a further 9.2 million people in ‘shallow’ rural areas that also suffered from weak connectivity.

“Rural businesses are penalised because they are unable to take advantage of the commercial efficiencies afforded by the Internet, as in the creative industries, or have to resort to the use of paper systems which are more costly, as in the farming sector where there is a push to move administration such as sheep registrations online,” Professor Farrington says.

So not only might those in rural areas be unable to get into cities via their own steam, they may also struggle to connect virtually too. The authors suggest this ‘two speed Britain’ represents a significant hurdle to any attempts to create a ‘digital by default’ society.

As part of attempts to understand these changes and plan accordingly, the Foresight department of BIS is producing a paper on the future of cities, which will contain dozens of inputs and insights such as these into a coherent narrative. The challenge then will be to take this knowledge and ensure it is effectively combined with the knowledge of industry and urban planners to ensure our cities remain thriving places to live and work.