Connected Metropolis: Smart Cities Take Hold Across the Country

Shutterstock / Wangbar / Chombosan
Published On
Apr 20, 2018

It seems data and technology have become the accelerant to achieving smart city goals. Infrastructure in the 21st century will contain a confluence of devices that include power-efficient sensors, wireless networks and mobile-centric apps. Combined with an expansion of clean energy and smart-grid practices, these enablers are setting the connected, smart city table.

Atlanta, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., are all actively involved in developing smart city infrastructure. Each city wants to transform in ways that sometimes look similar and sometimes different. Some smart cities are further along than others, but all are learning what works best for them as they employ data-collecting sensors, interactive devices and big data.

In the fall of 2015, SmartATL was formed to serve Atlanta’s smart city effort. Ultimately, Atlanta hopes to become a “living lab” for smart city standards and technology. Atlanta is exploring smart technology in a number of spheres including mobility, public safety, environmental sustainability, city operational efficiency, and public and business engagement. The city’s smart street lighting pilot is one project that serves several city goals.

The North Avenue Smart Corridor Project is a 5-mile stretch SmartATL is using to explore the growing capability of sensor technology and connected communication. Kirk Talbott, executive director, SmartATL, said the city’s initial effort to replace some 9,000 streetlights with interactive LED lighting has expanded in scope. Sensors and an internet of things (IoT) infrastructure are incorporating adaptive traffic signals and high-definition video surveillance to monitor and improve vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow. SmartATL also will test autonomous vehicles within the smart corridor.

“We are also evaluating how to optimize our smart lighting investment, adding additional sensors (nodes) to the light poles to capture parking offenses, gunshot detection and video evidence collection,” Talbott said. “The price points for technology have come down, making it feasible to employ large-scale installation of sensors and collect data. The trick is finding that right mix as a capital investment. Efficiency, safety, equity and a higher level of service can now be afforded us through technology that reads and gathers data that we can act on. For example, sensors can read if someone is illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant. When smart streetlight poles detect a traffic problem, a mobile device will alert the right people, be it traffic enforcers, police officers, EMTs or city staff. Equity also plays a role as sensors are reading any violation regardless of neighborhood.”

Talbott said data analytics is expected to play a central role, enabling city officials to discover patterns it never was aware of. A Smart City Command Center will compile and help act upon sensor data as it is received.

“From a crime perspective, sensors are helping us discover how many gun shots are coming from one section of the city versus another,” he said. “Technology is allowing us to deploy city resources more effectively, including sensor-based trash bins, which are helping manage garbage pickup and recycling.”

“The price points for technology have come down, making it feasible to employ large-scale installation of sensors and collect data. The trick is finding that right mix as a capital investment." —Kirk Talbott, executive director, SmartATL

An evolution or revolution?

Governing magazine and investment and research firm Living Cities gave the City of Phoenix top honors in the joint study, “Equipt to Innovate.” The city’s “data driven” operation is one area the study calls out.

“Innovation is important to us,” said Mark Hartman, chief sustainability officer for the City of Phoenix. “Being a smart-run city is something we’ve always considered, but what that looks like and taking action has really occurred in the last year. We just see more and more opportunity as we delve into ‘smart city.’ For example, so many things could be implemented with reliable power and unlimited bandwidth. We would love to be part of a pilot 5G roll out and are talking to major carriers to make that happen.”

The city’s “Phoenix at Your Service” project is a migration from old-fashioned phone calls to computers and mobile devices, allowing for online city services requests ranging from building permits to reporting potholes.

“Our public is more technically savvy,” Hartman said. “Moving from paper to online is a big, but necessary, step for us or any city.”

Hartman sees Phoenix’s smart city planning as evolutionary, and he wonders if civic planning across the United States is on the cusp of a revolution.

“While there is slight premium cost to some of our smart city pilots, we feel the need to bite the bullet now for future rewards,” Hartman said.

Phoenix also is converting to LED streetlights; the upfront cost is far offset by a projected savings of $22 million over the life of the lamps. Those savings don’t include the added benefits of smart lighting.

Hartman also pointed to the city’s investment in electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. The greater Phoenix area already has an estimated 158 EV charging stations from one vendor alone with more to come as outlined in the city’s Transportation 2050 Plan. Within that plan is a goal of lengthening the city’s new light rail system by 42 miles. The city is investigating autonomous vehicles and their interplay with smart road technology.

Sustainability and resilience are important drivers for Phoenix and influence its interest in smart technology. The city is working to reduce carbon pollution 30 percent by 2025 and be carbon-neutral by 2060. Hartman sees a future that includes interactive clean battery storage for power and smart-grid applications, including green microgrids. Storage also would provide resiliency from the region’s extreme heat conditions that spike power loads.

“Buildings could become energy-storage devices with systems that interact with utilities,” Hartman said. “In some cases, utilities have agreements with building owners to pre-cool buildings and curtail use during times of exceptional loads. Smart systems are a critical component.”

Solar arrays abound in Phoenix. City properties alone offer 32 megawatts (MW) of solar energy. Its Lake Pleasant Water Treatment Plant features a 7.5-MW high-efficiency solar-power system generating approximately 70 percent of the plant’s electrical power needs.

The city will require all new buildings to be net-positive by 2050, meaning they will produce more energy than they consume.

“Buildings could become energy-storage devices with systems that interact with utilities." —Mark Hartman, chief sustainability officer for the City of Phoenix

“Buildings make up approximately 35 percent of total emissions—based on our 2016 [greenhouse gas] inventory—and play an important role in all the sustainability goals,” Hartman said. “For example, buildings can collect and reduce water use inside and out, use recycled materials in their construction, provide clean and renewable energy—which benefits air quality and energy supply—and be constructed in a way where people can walk or bike to the majority of services they need, reducing the need for more energy-intensive forms of transportation.”

The city has earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s new (pilot) LEED for Cities Platinum certification. Recertification is required every three years.

A smart district

Washington, D.C., has been leveraging smart-city technology in terms of intelligent infrastructure, connected devices, sensors and big data. The Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) is leading an interagency effort called Smarter DC.

One of the agencies working to support Smarter DC is the District’s Department of Energy & Environment.

“While the D.C. sustainability plan came first, Smarter DC is an initiative sparked by today’s technology from fiber to wireless,” said Jay Wilson, green building program analyst for the department. “To create smart neighborhoods, we are embracing IoT and wireless technology to tackle security, climate and resiliency in an equitable and transparent way.”

Nina Liggett, communication specialist for Smarter DC, said the effort is bringing departments together to find solutions through technology.

“We define and discuss issues working across disciplines,” she said. “For example, Smarter DC’s goal is to help D.C. become the greenest, healthiest and livable city by 2030. DC Smart helps to accomplish those goals using data.”

The District was the first to be awarded LEED for Cities Platinum certification. It currently lays claim to the most LEED-certified space per capita. Federal buildings represent just 10 percent of the building stock in D.C.; the private sector is leading the sustainability charge.

“We need electrical contractors who stay current on the technology available, who can inform and work with the other trade disciplines as they are integrating their efforts." —Jay Wilson, green building program analyst for Washington, D.C.'s, Department of Energy & Environment

Smarter DC is actively studying the big data gathered from smart sensors installed throughout the District.

“Bringing the different D.C. departments together gives us valuable perspectives,” Liggett said. “When looking at the same data, the Department of Public Works may find one value while the Department of Energy and Environment discovers another.”

Similar to Phoenix, Washington, D.C., has discovered the merits of smart light poles. Phase 1 of its Pennsylvania Avenue 2040 (PA2040) project saw the installation of sensor-based LED street lighting and gigabit Wi-Fi. Phase 2 will add sensors to capture air quality as well as assist in smarter parking. Video nodes and movement analytics will be added to support public safety and transportation management needs.

D.C.’s smart technology also is extending to flood management with water level and flow sensors, and smart devices for valves and hydrants. The District is laying the infrastructure for participating healthcare facilities interested in adopting smart technology, and developing an eco-district.

“The built environment is becoming more complicated as smart technologies are rolled out,” Wilson said. “We need electrical contractors who stay current on the technology available, who can inform and work with the other trade disciplines as they are integrating their efforts. Smart DC is interdisciplinary. The same can be said for implementing today’s smart tools, which require the EC to work with plumbers, HVAC installers, even IT staff.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at

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