Smart precincts: A conversation with the development industry

Among the diversity of sessions at Smart Cities Week earlier this month was 'The City Builders', a deep dive into how we develop the building blocks of smart cities — the urban regeneration projects, district developments and campus projects — and how smart strategies can contribute to delivering more sustainable outcomes.

Joining me in this session was Beth Heider (Chief Sustainability Officer, Skanska) and Charles Kelley (Lead Urban Designer, ZGF), who between them are working on some of the largest development projects in key markets across the world.

Kelley is fresh from helping shape the Kashiwanoha project in Japan into the world’s largest LEED certified Smart Precinct. And Skanska continues to build some of the world's most sustainable buildings.

So, our discussion focused on the concept of the smart community, its definition and whether the industry was positioned to advance the idea in a strategic way. Below is a summary of four key discussion items that resulted.

Prototype communities
It was clear from the discussion that testing, learning and adjusting our practices from project to project is key. This was particularly true as demonstrated by Kelley as he presented on the decade long journey of ZGF's sustainable precinct planning work which came to the fore in Portland, Oregon's Pearl District, before being refined and delivered on the SW EcoDistrict in Washington DC. These two projects, and the learning around sustainability performance-based investment roadmaps, set themselves up for their work in Japan at Kashiwanoha.

This evolution of planning, urban design and sustainability road mapping has included a more creative form of precinct governance on each project, with it now a critical part of the sustainable and smart district, that a backbone organisation is established to ensure investments are transparent, implemented and impactful.

A green building foundation
In her presentation, Heider neatly articulated the importance of the green building agenda in driving transformation in the development sector. Through their 20-year history of building certified green developments, Skanska has mastered performance-based design and construction, which embraces green building strategies that outperform business as usual developments.

She highlighted the key steps in driving change in the construction sector, and how to advance the uptake of new and often risky technology. Whether it be lighting, energy systems or performance monitoring systems, embracing a green building agenda has likely positioned Skanska for its next evolution as a developer, which is to dive deep on smart cities technologies and data solutions.

People give data analytics a purpose
A common vision and purpose by the community, and its ability to engage, provides the perfect opportunity for data collection and analytics to be impactful. This was the experience of the Kashiwanoha precinct as presented by Kelley, where the initial focus on technology systems for greater efficiency was prioritised over making a great place for people to live and work in.

Kelley described the original community as a dormitory community, with no life and no reason for people to stay there during the day. Now with a greater level of vibrancy and activity, the community's area wide data analytics system has a real purpose, which is to monitor the life of the precinct and the level of sustainability performance.

Common language is key
Heider, while claiming the smart cities definition as still an ambiguous one, holds out hope that the Code for Smart Communities will provide an important baseline for the development sector's awareness around smart cities and that the Code will catalyse investment in smart technologies.

She concluded that the LEED rating system for green buildings was instrumental in driving change in the sector, and this was echoed by Kelley whose Kashiwanoha project embraced the neighbourhood development version of LEED.

The wrap from the session clearly highlighted that the urban development sector will be a significant contributor to smart cities, via its work in building out key components of our cities — brownfield sites, campuses and master planned communities. However, all efforts to transform markets need structure.

To help with this transition, the Smart Cities Council through the Code for Smart Communities, will be providing clear definition and a methodology to make this journey as effective as possible.

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