How Florida and Colorado are trying to build smart cities from the ground up

Ambitious new cities Songdo and Masdar may not have lived up to their promise, but smaller projects in the US aim to be laboratories for sustainable city planning

Illustration of the development around Peña Station
Plans for the development around Peña Station, led by Japanese tech giant Panasonic. Illustration: L C Fullenwider, Inc

Masdar, on the edges of Abu Dhabi, was billed as the world’s first sustainable city when it was conceived in 2006. It was intended to be a zero-carbon, zero-waste city, with smart technology embedded across all the city’s functions. A decade on and ambitions have cooled. The completion date has moved from 2016 to 2030 and city authorities have said it won’t achieve the original aim of being a net zero-emissions city.

In South Korea, the purpose-built city of Songdo was built on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. It is an “aerotropolis”– where an airport, in this case Incheon, is the anchor for a city rather than vice versa. Planned as “the world’s smartest city”, it has sensors embedded into everything from waste management systems to roads, tracking citizens by measuring consumption, emissions and other activities. Yet the tech-driven city remains under-populated and unfinished.

While these cities may not have lived up to their original promise, new, smaller scale projects, spearheaded by private companies are aiming to act as laboratories for smart city planning.

The American aerotropolis

In a 400-acre space just outside Denver International Airport, Japanese tech giant Panasonic has taken a lead role in the development of a US aerotropolis, Peña Station NEXT.

The commercial and residential project is influenced by a Japanese smart city that Panasonic teams have spent the better part of the past decade creating. Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town is a 45-acre community of 1,600 homes, around 30 miles outside Tokyo, which opened its doors in 2014.

“We’re taking the genesis of Fujisawa and adapting that to Peña Station in an American way,” says George Karayannis, vice-president of Panasonic’s CityNow.

Illustration of the plaza at Peña Station
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Illustration of the plaza at Peña Station. Photograph: L C Fullenwider, Inc

The American way means less emphasis on security through video surveillance and facial-recognition technology, for instance. And while Fujisawa is residential, Peña Station is a commercial hub, connected to Denver mayor Michael Hancock’svision of the city’s airport as an aerotropolis, and Panasonic is starting with the commercial and travel aspects of the future community. As the last pre-airport stop on the new 22-mile light-rail line that connects central Denver with the airport, the company beckons travellers with an 800-spot parking garage that also hosts a 1.3-megawatt solar array.

Panasonic is also at work on its own office building in Peña Station, which should open in September with space for 300 employees. Next in line is the development of a 219-unit apartment building, a hotel and several restaurants.

Peña Station is built on the smart infrastructure technologies that figure into smart city projects the world over – fast internet, a microgrid with battery storage for all that solar energy, kiosks and smart displays, smart street lighting, smart parking, autonomous electric shuttles and more.

The community run on solar

Nearly 2,000 miles south-east of Denver in south-west Florida, Babcock Ranch, perched on the edge of a nature preserve, is being billed as America’s first solar community. It eventually aims to be a city of roughly 50,000 people living in an area the size of Manhattan.

Built on a former cattle ranch and current wildlife corridor, and spearheaded by private developer Kitson & Partners, it hopes to be a model of how to build a hi-tech, low-carbon development.

A coalition of government, environmentalists and Kitson purchased the property in 2006, designating 74,000 acres of land for conservation and another 17,000 acres for development. Construction started on phase one of the planned 25-year project late last year and the first residents are scheduled to move in from January 2017.

Babcock Ranch, aerial progress.
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An aerial shot of Babcock Ranch. Photograph: Babcock Ranch

Since 2010, Kitson has partnered with IBM to design and develop the technology aspects of the city, which include gigabit-speed internet connectivity and a shared fleet of autonomous electric vehicles. The city will host microgrids throughout the community, and – perhaps the most high-profile aspect – a huge 75-megawatt solar farm being installed by Florida Power & Light.

That array will be enough to meet the town’s entire needs during the day, although the city will be powered by an existing, natural gas-fired power plant at night. Kitson, and the developers who will build the homes in each neighbourhood, will also offer home solar facilities as an option for every buyer. As energy storage technology continues to improve, it is hoped that demand on the power plant will dwindle as Babcock Ranch grows.

There is no shortage of challenges to planning and developing a tech-reliant city along a 25-year timeline, especially as the landscape of available technologies is changing on a near-daily basis. “The cornerstone of a successful development is the ability to be flexible,” Kitson says. “You have to be able to change to meet people’s [changing] demands.”

Limitations to smart cities

While smart city projects – such as Songdo and Masdar – have in the past over-promised and been over-hyped, it may be that smaller projects such as Babcock Ranch and Peña Station – built from the ground up with future residents in mind – represent the future of smart city development.

“We’re not trying to create a utopia,” Kitson says. “It’s the opposite of that. We’re trying to offer people the ability to live their lives the way they want to.”

But one lesson from the world of urban planning remains true, says Jennifer Henaghan, manager of the Green Communities Center at the American Planning Association – collaboration and consensus are what makes a new city development able to stand the test of time.

“You’re seeing with these communities that they’re developing partnerships with tech companies, utilities and the state so that there are other stakeholders who’ll be there, involved long after groundbreaking to support and maintain those relationships and that development,” she says.

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