What would ‘smart countryside’ look like?

Fo a start, these sheep would have wifi. Image: Getty.

Smart cities are often discussed as being the key to future urban living. The increase in capacity for more complex information can help solve human and environmental problems by saving energy and regulating traffic flow. But a new study has now highlighted the potential of adapting the concept of “smart” for national parks.

Historically, outdoor recreation gained its popularity because of its juxtaposition to urbanisation. Motivations included adventure, simplicity and immersion in “wilderness”, away from human progress. In many cases this is still true: we are often told that greater exposure to green space and natural environments benefits health and well-being.

But how can the so-called “smart” tech improve our relaxing countryside experience? The challenge lies in integrating technology into outdoor recreation while retaining these crucial elements of the experience. Here are some simple smart options for the future ramblers.

Waste control

The Lake District example suggests that sensors on bins can alert the national park authorities when they are full, which reduces the problem of litter and helps conserve the landscape. Research has shown that these kinds of messages work.

Smart car parks

It is also suggested that “smart” car parks will transmit information to motorists when car parks are full. This can reduce carbon emissions by reducing trips to multiple car parks. However, encouraging more travel by public transport and non-motorised modes of transport reduces carbon emissions more effectively. This alternative should be given priority.

Car-sharing apps

Planners and managers of national parks have long seen the need to reduce visitor car use. Aside from decreasing carbon emissions, visual pollution from large numbers of cars in natural areas is a long-standing problem. It takes away from the “natural” and “simple” aesthetics which are so important in attracting visitors.

There is considerable need to encourage car sharing, especially because the infrastructure in rural areas is less resilient to large numbers of cars. Academics are increasingly pointing to the power of new data sharing and smart capability to solve this through measures such as car-sharing apps and better planning for integrated travel.

People who travel to, from and within national parks can do so sustainably with greater confidence if they have reliable information on public transport – as well as walking and cycling options – at their fingertips.

Smartphone navigation

Research on walking tourism in natural settings highlights the growing use of mobile technology as a navigational aid. The internet is increasingly used both to showcase and research walks in national parks. But practitioners urge caution for more adventurous forms of recreation.

Interviews with national park staff revealed that in particular, mountain rescue services can be stretched when hillwalkers rely too much on technology. Navigating solely with a mobile phone or GPS cannot substitute map-reading skills when faced with difficulties.

Walkers in Windermere. Image: LDNP.

Walking tourists differ in their preference for heavily managed walking routes. Some look for relative simplicity of “wild” surroundings, isolation and solitude. Others prefer abundant directional signs, information and flat, well managed paths. These differences point to an important dichotomy as technology permeates more of the previously “untouched” areas of the world.


“Smart-free” is needed too

Technology is redefining how we engage with the natural environment. Sport England’s research on UK outdoor activity acknowledges a need for connectivity even in the most remote natural areas, and particularly for younger participants. Rapidly improving mobile technology and information capacity epitomise the fast society many live in.

There are clear benefits to integrating smart technology into rural and natural areas. Tourists in particular are a key focal point because of the capability for improving sustainability in national parks. But the wider implications surrounding this development still need to be considered.

The ConversationNational parks should continue to cater for all preferences and preserve some “smart-free” elements, enhancing the experience of those seeking adventure and wilderness. People should also rethink their relationship with nature. If smart technology can help the environment, preserve biodiversity and protect sensitive areas, then it should be considered as an antidote to past human negative effects.

Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.