Will the pandemic leave smarter cities in its wake? Lehigh Valley officials say ‘yes!’

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//January 12, 2021

Will the pandemic leave smarter cities in its wake? Lehigh Valley officials say ‘yes!’

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//January 12, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating smart city innovation, and impacting urban micro ecosystems along its way.

Traditional and smart city ecosystems – the relationships between people, places and things include public and private sectors and how they interact, infrastructure such as roads, bridges and parking; utilities and emerging technology, which is driving robust change.

Technology offers the biggest opportunities to reinvent urban spaces as smarter, more resilient, better connected and safer cities.

“If [a] city isn’t taking advantage of how technology is becoming mainstream they’ll be left behind,” said Terrence DeFranco, CEO of Iota Communications, Inc. in Allentown.

The coronavirus pandemic has hastened smart city planning – especially digital and internet connectivity generating the need for greater accessibility to move at a swifter pace, said smartcitiesdive.com.

“Covid shone a light and there aren’t gaps [in digital resources], there are massive chasms between communities that have, and communities that don’t,” said Jack Hanley, COO of Connected Cities Integrators Inc. in Tampa, Florida.

Hanley said Connected Cities is currently consulting on a project in York Pennsylvania, and has worked on projects throughout the U.S.

The backbone tech – from data to internet connections, WiFi and broadband capabilities, is the foundation upon which all other aspects of smart city planning can grow. Data gathering and management techniques are critical in turning “physical assets into smart assets” to benefit communities, DeFranco said.

Data, networks, environmental problems and solutions, public utilities such as water and waste water treatment, public safety and transportation can and should be incorporated into the smart city conversation, he said.

Each of these components represents a micro ecosystem within the whole of smart city planning.

“On [one] side you have all the data…[to] gather and turn it into something that is valuable” and on the other side are the business, consulting and private partnerships necessary to create successful outcomes, he said.

As Pennsylvania is one of several states that do not allow municipalities to own broadband services, private partnerships are essential in providing them, one example of a crucial public/private partnership.

“Who will own it and [who] manage it?” DeFranco asked of the two entities in the internet provider relationship.

Those public/private partnerships are vital to implementing and administering other technologies, too. For a successful smart city program to be sustainable leaders and administrators must think about the “business case behind the use case. It’s not one individual company with one gadget – there are a lot of companies selling

“smart connected gadgets,” Connected Cities’ Hanley said.

“Historically the approach between people, places, and things in cities has been done pretty poorly, and the landscape is littered with failed and abandoned proof of concept and pilot projects,” he said.

Any smart city implementation goal must include economic sustainability at its core.

Building connectivity in Easton

Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said the downtown is starting with digital access and building its overall smart city ecosystem around a fiber optic loop.

“We’re expanding broadband in our lower-income neighborhoods, offering better connectivity in City Hall…better connections remotely and broadcasting council [meetings]” to keep residents and stakeholders informed, Panto said of the digital outreach plan.

A digital database is underway to capture resident and business information in order to make communication faster and easier.

Other goals described by Panto include shifting from gasoline engine to electric vehicles in the city’s fleet and outfitting snow plows with GPS systems to better manage winter street maintenance and snow plow progress reporting.

He said transportation and transit development is another ecosystem on the list for the smart city treatment. Panto envisions a transit link to the Easton Intermodal Transportation to connect to light passenger rail.

But, for public transportation to become a mainstream reality, public attitudes must change and funding sources from state and federal sources would be essential for it to economically sustainable. “In the Lehigh Valley people are still accustomed to having a car… and we don’t have a good light rail system to connect to, or passenger service, to northern New Jersey, Philadelphia or New York,” Panto said.

Hanley said snow removal and street care – a public service ecosystem – could include mapping salt truck runs and using smart technology to monitor them. Smart tech can also be used for trash collection services to make the process more efficient.

“Historically you work on a route schedule, because that is how it’s always been done and you have people emptying trash cans,” Hanley said. But sensors can detect when trash cans should be emptied, creating an as-needed schedule for collections and saving time and money with digital mapping processes.

Panto said electric charging stations at city owned parking garages are making it easier for those drivers to travel in Easton’s downtown.

Green gas emissions inventories have been completed to help set goals for carbon free emission timelines in Easton, too.

“Cities in the future will deal with [natural] disasters, and while we’re not dealing with fires or hurricanes, we do have flooding,” Panto said.

Easton’s location along the Delaware River makes it vulnerable to heavy rains, storm surges and flooding. Promoting green infrastructure would be a benefit to Easton, too, the mayor said. Green infrastructure uses natural elements in conjunction with city buildings and planning to manage wet weather, flooding, erosion and create healthier, more sustainable urban environments.

Since 2019, Easton has been charging permit fees on impervious surfaces to offset the cost of green infrastructure to benefit its water discharge into river tributaries. The fees, which are charged to residents, businesses and tax-exempt properties, offset costs for storm water management and its cleanliness, he said.

Hanley said smart cities and those who are undertaking smart city planning and implementation attract thriving business and talent.

“Having access to state-of-the-art tech makes businesses become more successful, and people become more employable.

“Smart cities are about the why. This is about people, it’s not about gadgets.” Hanley said.