Over the past century, cities have become the most common habitat for humans, yet, purposefully creating places that make people feel happy, safe and robust remains a struggle for city planners. On some levels, we’re facing similar social issues as we did during the Industrial Revolution; cities are experiencing rapid growth and those responsible need to make decisions that ensure they remain liveable in the future. Ebenezer Howard, a founding father of modern planning, envisaged his Garden City concept in response to a rise in dependence on machinery and the resulting ways people used cities. 

It was the Industrial Revolution that spawned urban planning as a profession, but it’s our current digital revolution that’s giving life to cities built for human behaviour. City-shapers and authorities are already employing exponentially growing digital tools to future-proof our cities. In doing this they’re making the planning process more participatory and our cities more focused on people-centric design.

Planning policies are as overwhelming and difficult for the common person to understand now as they were at the start of the 20th century, but they don’t have to be. London startup company Urban Intelligence recognised this and turned their attention to simplifying the many different planning policies that relate to a particular site. Their interactive platform (named Howard, after Ebenezer), collates and digitises national and neighbourhood policies, giving citizens the chance to simply click a place on a map and see everything relevant in one go. It’s a step forward in democratising the decision-making behind our cities by increasing accessibility and giving everybody a say.

Ebenezer Howard's concept plan for the Garden City

“Planning policies are as overwhelming and difficult for the common person to understand now as they were at the start of the 20th century, but they don’t have to be.”

In Santa Monica, California, city authorities have taken things a step further. Determined to streamline the user experience of their city, they tasked themselves with gauging public opinion on everything from parking to murals, street furniture and market stalls for their forthcoming urban plan. Public engagement isn’t new for planners, but the method they’re using is: a digital tool modelled on the dating app Tinder. CitySwipe provides local residents with images of potential scenarios and simple yes/no questions, encouraging people to swipe through the options as if assessing prospective partners. It makes the consultation process effortless when compared to the usual feedback mechanisms of filling in lengthy mailed-out response forms, downloading wordy PDFs or being accosted by a chirpy volunteer with a clipboard.

Both these examples show how cities can be proactive in shaping outcomes for users, but there’s another line of thought. Cities are data mines, and we’re going to know what you think even if you don’t tell us. Whether we like it or not, targeted data collection is already happening through passive sensors built into streets and buildings, the GPS in our phones and every purchase made with a non-cash payment. In Toronto, the Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs are turning this data into cities in real time. Their new waterfront neighbourhood feeds information from sensors and cameras to urban planners as it comes in. Alphabet claim the data will be used to create new technologies, develop efficiencies in city planning and aid sustainability efforts, but the smart city has been met with a wave of criticism surrounding privacy and anonymity. There may be some creases to iron out, but the first garden city didn’t perfect the model either. 

It’s inevitable that by 2050 the way we plan cities will be very different to today. If local government and city authorities don’t embrace technology, do they run the risk of being superseded by private business? Whether or not this is a bad thing remains to be seen but it certainly redefines democracy if our cities become privatised. Maybe the question shouldn’t be about whether data is the harbinger of our democratic urban doomsday. Asking what we can steal from anywhere in our digital revolution to sow the seeds for a new, collectively-engaged and data-backed garden city might be where the answers lie.

Urban planning meets Tinder UX in CitySwipe


Tom Harper is a registered landscape architect and multidisciplinary designer with 10+ years experience working at the intersection of architecture, design and communications. He is adept at translating architectural and landscape design into placemaking strategies and transforming those strategies into branding and communications. As Place Experience Designer, Tom loves working alongside clients and other consultants to crystallise their vision and help present it confidently to stakeholders and the public.

Feature image: A Festival of Urban Living in the UK invited the pubic into their Utopia Station for a “quasi-scientific, speculative experience, where a participatory, playful process draws out utopian visions and thinkings from all.” Photograph by Andy Stagg, courtesy of AFCUL.