Sure, smart cities are compact. But are they really that smart?

The side view of how Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai will look after its full regeneration. Image: SBUT

One of the few things we can say with certainty about the near future is that it’s going to present a few challenges, including, but not limited to, climate change, rising populations, food shortages and threats of nuclear war.

But over the next few decades, two thirds of us will be living in the very places that will bear the brunt of these challenges: cities.

The world’s urban population is expected to surpass 6bn by 2045, according to the UN – and one way governments are preparing for this is by building smart cities.

While the phrase may conjure images of flying robots and hovering homes, their main purpose will be to help cope with population growth – necessary, if a little less exciting.  

The Indian government announced plans in 2015 to create 100 new smart cities, leading the way with urban smartening. But while it was promised that these cities would be sustainable, new research suggests otherwise – casting doubt on the real impact of heavily funded projects both planned and underway across the world.

Professor Hugh Byrd, a specialist in urban planning from Lincoln University, spent four years analysing Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai, a 16.5-acre site at the most advanced stage of all the country’s redevelopment proposals, and hailed as the flagship for the country’s future smart cities.

Bendhi Bazaar as it will look once complete. Image: SBUT.

Sitting in the densest city in the world, Bhendi Bazaar’s overhaul will likely increase population densities from around 3,500 people per hectare to about 5,000 by replacing medium-rise housing, between three and five storeys high, with high-rise towers of 40 to 60 storeys. 

 “We knew that the more people that are put in a small area, the more resource consumption and waste production would increase,” Byrd says. “The more important question is whether high-rise, high density is more environmentally beneficial on a per capita basis than the medium-rise existing housing. Are they creating a bigger problem than they already have?”

Bendhi Bazaar as it used to look. Image: SBUT.

Byrd analysed Bhendi Bazaar and used his findings to predict the impact on the entire city’s proposed smart developments – and the answer to that question is yes.

In his paper, 'Density, Energy and Metabolism of a proposed smart city', published in the Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs, he outlines his findings that the resulting increase in population density will indeed place more demands on resources – and they might not be fulfilled. 

Byrd writes: “Urban form will inevitably grow vertically, [and this] grows dependence on centralised 'flows' of energy, water supplies and waste disposal.”

Bendhi Bazaar as it looks now. Image: SBUT.

The work required involves, “digging up streets for a supply network, and building new power plants, sewage treatment plants, landfill sites and new dams for water”.

Developers are taking plots of land and maximising development potential, Byrd said, but developers don’t want to pay for the rest. Increased demands, therefore, are unlikely to be properly supplied, causing outputs such as waste and carbon dioxide production to increase disproportionately.

Byrd predicts repeated blackouts, water shortages and inadequate water and sewage treatment – causing “health and accelerated climate change issues”.  

The full site to be redeveloped. Image: SBUT.

The detrimental environmental impact will increase at a greater rate than the population increase, Byrd said, warning that these cities will have a significant adverse impact on the environment. 

“The challenge is the same as many cities are facing,” Byrd said, adding that these problems are likely to be “amplified” elsewhere, too. The reason Byrd carried out his research was that despite the climate change challenges we face, there has been little reassurance that smart cities will help.

 “We were compelled by the lack of evidence supporting environmental benefits of compact cities,” Byrd said.

Street-facing floors will offer commercial frontage. Image: SBUT.

“There are claims that compact, high density, cities are more environmentally sustainable. ‘Eco,’ ‘livable,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘green’ are just a few of the claims of compaction.”


Former Mayor Boris Johnson set out smart plans for the city in 2015, which prioritised measures to deal with increasing waste, healthcare pressures, energy supplies and travel. And building new tower blocks is a big part of London’s future.

A record 24 residential towers, all 20 storeys are more, were completed in London last year to help house the capital’s projected 10m residents by 2030. Another 455 tall buildings are planned or under construction.

But London isn’t alone. Many other countries have outlined plans to build smart cities, including in Australia, the Netherlands and France. When asked if the problems found in Bhendi Bazzar could be repeated across the world, Byrd said that the meaning of “smart” is interpreted differently in different places.

“‘Smartening’ means different things in different places. But we need to ask ourselves: when is density enough? Mumbai is an extreme example and is therefore a metaphor for the rest of us.”

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Here’s why you can’t bridge the north/south divide just by moving public sector jobs

Media City, Manchester. Image: Getty.

The question of how to tackle the north/south divide in the UK economy has plagued policy makers for decades. In recent years, attempts to do so have mainly focused on the Northern Powerhouse initiative, which initially aimed to boost Manchester’s economy to create a counterbalance to London, but subsequently broadened out to focusing on strengthening economic performance across the North through improving rail links.

However, to improve the North’s economy, we need to make some hard choices about where to make policy interventions – and this means reverting to a particular focus on Manchester and other big cities.

The Centre for Cities’ recent briefing sets out the role that cities, and city centres in particular, play in the national economy. The big problem for the north is that its cities are punching well below their weight. If the North’s cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the North’s economic output would be £154bn larger. That’s three extra economies the size of Manchester.

Clearly then, focusing on boosting growth in cities outside the Greater South East will be critical in improving the economic performance of the North and other regions. The question, therefore is how best to do this.

One of the most direct tools that policy makers can use is to move public sector jobs around the country – as we have seen, for example, with the BBC’s relocation to Salford and the ONS’s move to Newport. This issue is again high on the political agenda, with the government considering moving 800 Channel 4 jobs out of London

But how effective are such relocations – and if the government wants to move Channel 4, where should it go to? In August we published a new briefing looking at the economic impact of public sector relocations, which offers two key findings in response to these questions.

Firstly, a note of caution: our analysis shows that while the BBC’s relocation to Salford has been positive for Greater Manchester in bringing jobs to MediaCityUK, its impact on employment across the wider city region was small – equivalent to a maximum of 0.3 per cent of all the jobs in Greater Manchester in 2016. By extension, the jobs impact of the potential Channel 4 relocation shouldn’t be expected to be very large either.

The analysis also suggests that if the BBC had moved to a smaller city than Manchester – with fewer high-skilled workers and a less diverse economy – it’s likely that the limited employment boost it brought would have been less significant. This leads us on to our second key point: if the government does move Channel 4, it should move the jobs to a major city which is already home to a large-share of high-skilled workers and firms in related industries – in another words, a city like Manchester.


Of course, this raises the issue of fairness. Given that Manchester has already received a great deal of policy focus in recent years – from the BBC’s relocation, to the four rounds of devolution it has enjoyed and the introduction of the new mayor – is it right for Manchester to get Channel 4 too?

The answer, in our view, is probably yes – despite the political difficulties it may bring in terms of Manchester being seen to be prioritised over other cities. Moving Channel 4 to MediaCity would build on a project that was started back in 2011, and would allow it to benefit and expand the existing specialist pool of workers and suppliers that has been created since the BBC’s move – and working with the scale of the city in the way that the ONS’ move to the much smaller city of Newport could not.

Sure, an extra 800 jobs from Channel 4 would be a positive thing for the other cities bidding to be the new station’s new home, such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Sheffield. But the bigger issues for these places is the barriers that for decades have deterred high-skilled businesses from investing in them in sufficient numbers – and which moving Channel 4 would do little to help break down.

To boost growth and prosperity, these cities need many thousands of knowledge-based businesses in many different sectors deciding to set up shop in their economies, creating tens of thousands of new jobs in an emergent way that successful cities foster, rather than through ‘big ticket’ policies. For that to happen, these places need to address the skills and transport issues that hamstring their economies, which should be a higher priority than headline grabbing initiatives such as securing Channel 4.

Birmingham, for example has the highest share of people with no formal qualifications of any city in the UK, and Liverpool doesn’t fare much better. Meanwhile no other city in the UK has a body with Transport for London style powers, despite this being very much in the gift of politicians to change – this too should be a priority for northern cities.

Policy is right to focus on specific places. But it has to be clear on how it is tackling the challenges that each place faces. Looking to give everyone a prize, and being unclear on what an intervention is aiming to do, ultimately doesn’t help very many people.

Paul Swinney is senior economist at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was first published.

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