How London became the first smart city back in 1854

Broadwick Street: the site of London's first data revolution. Image: Google Streetview.

 London became the first smart city back in 1854, argues Eddie Copeland, when it first used data to solve a civic problem by creating a life-saving map. But, he adds, the powers overseeing the capital still struggle to follow through on that legacy.

Those keen on London historical trivia may recognise the story that Copeland, the director of government innovation at future-looking quango Nesta, is referencing from the date alone. 1854 was the year of the Soho cholera outbreak, when Dr John Snow famously saved the day by figuring out that the disease was spread by water rather than “bad” air.

At the time, Copeland explained before a talk at Nesta’s FutureFest conference in London over the weekend, people thought disease came “from bad smells passed through the air. And poorer people who were less hygienic were [seen as] vulnerable due to their poor moral standing.”

As an anaesthetist who used gas to knock out his patients, Dr Snow realised that the digestive symptoms of cholera suggested it had nothing to do with lungs, as public health officials believed.

“So he started plotting the data,” Copeland says, “literally drawing on a map where people had died, and traced it down to the fact all those people lived in proximity to a certain water pump.”

Dr Snow didn’t just pinpoint the deadly water source: he spotted that a brewery within proximity of the infected pump saw no deaths, because the workers drank their product rather than local water.

Rather apt, then, that there’s a pub celebrating Snow in Soho. “It was fairly unprecedented. The use of statistics to diagnose and confirm a hypothesis was relatively new at that stage.”

Snow's map. Image: public domain.

Still not very smart

As much as we all love a good map, is that alone enough to be called a “smart city”?

Copeland argues the term “smart city” is less about the technology – “the internet of things, driverless cars, talking lamp posts” – and more about using data to solve urban problems. “Those kind of data techniques basically inform the way cities are doing data analytics today – including projects by the mayor of London right now – and have barely changed at all.”

Indeed, Nesta is at this very moment running a similar project, plotting housing complaints on a map to find hot spots of unlicensed landlords overstuffing rental properties.

Such data isn’t always either welcome or understood – but that’s not new, and reflects another lesson we could have learned from Dr Snow’s experience in 1854. “They basically ignored him,” Copeland says of the health experts of the day, who instead cherry-picked facts to support their existing beliefs about smelly air.

Dr Snow’s data crunching did convince some local government leaders, who famously removed the Broad Street pump handle to prevent further outbreak. But the government wasn’t ready to “recognise it as a legitimate process”.

Fast forward to today. The idea we should collect and use data about citizens to inform city work – whether health care or infrastructure or transport or whatever else – is well established. But as Dr Snow learned, actual action can still depend on the existing beliefs of the local council.

“There’s a famous expression that we don’t so much have evidence-based policy making as policy-based evidence making,” Copeland says. Confirmation bias means we pick and choose data to fit our pre-existing ideas, just as the bad air theorists did in 1854.


Joined up jigsaw

London itself is “very forward thinking on open data”, Copeland said, with particular praise for the London DataStore. “But still, the GLA [Greater London Authority] does not collect any data sets from the London boroughs, other than stuff with a statutory obligation or planning applications.

“Even today,” he adds, “we have very few cases where we’re using data at a London scale – one exception would be TfL, which has a remit for transport across the capital, but it’s really rare.”

There are reasons for this. For a start, it’s not easy. Councils face technical challenges, with many using legacy systems that lock data into proprietary systems or hold it in different formats: location, for example, could be held as a grid reference, post code or full street address.

There are also legal barriers around data protection, real and perceived, and the usual cultural inertia, with some staff as yet unable to make the leap to sharing resources with neighbouring organisations.

And that doesn’t work, Copeland argues, if we’re to make leaps forward in our urban understanding as Dr Snow did. “Everyone has their piece of the jigsaw, no one can see the big picture,” he says. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, put the jigsaw together so we can start tackling these issues in a more intelligent way.”

Until we manage that, when it comes to data use in London, we still know nothing – sorry, John Snow.

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What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.