By 2050 over 80% of the population in the developed world will live in cities according to predictions by Frost and Sullivan. In United States, that number is already around 80%. Amid this urbanization, technologies such as autonomous vehicles and flying cars are poised to transform how we construct, inhabit and traverse our cities. Some research even suggests that the smart cities market will be worth $1.5 trillion dollars by 2020 and that the global autonomous vehicle market will be worth hundreds of billion by 2030.
Often overlooked in the enthusiasm around smart cities and next generation transit, however, are the needs of suburban and rural communities. Although data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the nonmetro poverty rate is only about 3% higher than metro poverty rate, the gap increases dramatically when filtering out large metro areas. In actuality, nearly 66% of the country's poor population lives outside of major metro areas. Rural communities also have a much higher rate of concentrated poverty, which tracks counties in which more than a fifth of the population is poor—31% rate of concentrated poverty compared to 19% for cities. Suburban poverty has also risen in recent years, with suburbs accounting for 48% of the increase in the national poverty rate from 2000 to 2015. Additionally, the vast majority of job growth in the last decade has been in metro areas, a period which saw the rural job market shrink over 4%.
This urban versus non-urban dichotomy has been the subject of much conversation and controversy since the last presidential election, which highlighted the rifts between these seemingly incompatible cultures. Historically, suburban and rural areas have been critical to the social and economic well-being of America. Unfortunately, many of these same communities have been excludedby the fruits of forces such as globalization and digitalization.
Far from being lost causes, these communities still have a tremendous amount to offer America, from affordable land to family-friendly neighborhoods to untapped knowledge and know-how. Making these resources accessible while connecting suburban and rural areas to the benefits of cities is not only economically wise, but perhaps necessary for restoring a sense of national unity. Doing this will require rethinking the notion of smart cities to include non-urban communities as well. Abandoning the current smart cities paradigm that envisions islands of prosperity and technological sophistication connected by advanced transit systems that skip over rural America for a vision that champions smart regions.
A more equitable and unifying model would look at how smart cities can serve as hubs for regional networks of interconnected smart regions. This might mean connecting all the urban, suburban and rural areas in a region through a web of next generation transit systems like aerial taxis, ultra high-speed rail and Hyperloop services. Solutions like these can cut down transit times to a transformative degree. As Bain & Company research indicates, this could reduce the cost of distance, allowing people to live in and enjoy non-urban areas while still having easy access to urban centers. It might mean sharing data in real-time to allow smart traffic lights in a small town to adapt to an imminent influx of people traveling in from the city for a big event. It might mean establishing regional smart grids that dynamically move power from a rural neighborhood that’s gone to bed to a city supporting nightlife. It might mean creating autonomous delivery networks that bring fresh produce in from agricultural centers on-demand. The possibilities are legion.
Given the potential of interconnected smart regions, it behooves private and public sector leaders across the country to help fund and foster the expansion of smart technologies regionally. Not only would smart regions help unlock new economic value, but they can help mitigate cultural divisions and unite disparate cultures. This was, after all, one of the original goals of the nation’s early transportation infrastructure. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, railroad and highway developments drove the emergence of new towns across America. There were no fly-over states. Today, however, we seem determined to build technological and ideological walls around our cities rather than use technology to connect places and people.
This drive to divide is supported by the prevailing sociopolitical reality in many places, where fragmentation and rivalries exist between cities, counties, suburbs and wealthy exurbs. In some cases, developers behind regional transit projects between cities pass over rural and suburban areas, viewing them as unimportant stretches of land that slow progress. In other cases, citizens in rural areas and in some instances wealthy suburbs actively resist new mass transit developments, viewing them as a threat to their way of life. This fear of difference and change keeps communities apart. Hopefully, by committing to building smart regions—not just smart cities—technology can help bring them together.
This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.