3 reasons why urban integration isn’t that straightforward after all…

Blog by Rachel Macrorie and Simon Marvin, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield


Created
4 Oct 2019, 4:55 p.m.
Author
Rachel Macrorie & Simon Marvin
DOI
10.1177/0042098018812728

Read the recently published paper Bifurcated Urban Integration: The selective dis- and re-assembly of infrastructures by Rachel Macrorie and Simon Marvin on Urban Studies - Online First.

 

The UK has ambitious infrastructure development plans, but their success hinges on understanding what it means for city networks to be joined up, or not.

Concrete, pipes, steel and electricity cables form invisible networks in our cities, and make our modern-day lives possible.  How we travel, communicate, trade, power our homes, run businesses, get clean drinking water and dispose of waste all rely on seamless connections between, often hidden, city networks.  The way we plan, build and manage these urban infrastructures today will shape our quality of life, the strength of the economy, and ability to respond to a changing climate.  As our cities grow, we consume more, and our natural environment becomes more unpredictable, greater pressures are being put on an ageing and fragmented infrastructural network, whilst delivery of the UK’s major infrastructure projects has too often been patchy, slow and unreliable.  A new approach to infrastructure is needed for the UK. 

In July 2018, the first-ever impartial National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) was completed, which looks across different sectors to map out the UK’s energy, transport, digital, water, wastewater and waste infrastructure needs up to 2050. These include that 50% of the UK’s electricity is to come from renewable sources by 2030, a national charging network for electric vehicles, and for city leaders to receive new powers and £43 billion funding between now and 2040.

Underpinning these recommendations, and urban planning more broadly, is the belief that for city networks to work well, infrastructures should be designed, planned and delivered in a ‘joined-up’ or ‘integrated’ way that works across departments, sectors and services.  Seems like common sense.  But what does this mean in reality? Will this approach make city processes run more smoothly and reliably?

New research from the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield, questions this imperative and reveals three reasons why integration isn’t the magic bullet for all our urban planning challenges.

 

The urban nexus – ecological urban integration

Inspired by lean industrial production processes, so called ‘urban nexus’ strategies highlight connections, similarities and overlaps between water, food and energy systems.  They aim to ‘join-up’ policy and management solutions as well as efficiently organised physical infrastructures.  The claim is that integration will allow continued urban growth, whilst providing resource security for all, reducing costs and supporting a resilient natural environment.

For example, in Germany, the Hamburg Water Cycle, is being piloted in the new Jenfelder Au district, the municipal water company has developed an integrated resource conservation approach inspired by nature that treats wastewater, saves water, generates fertiliser and produces electricity and energy to meet the heating needs of the neighbourhood. 

 

Smart cities – digital urban integration

Smart digital products increasingly shape how cities and their infrastructures are imagined.  These ‘operating systems’ – hardware and software that direct urban processes – understand the city as a set of ordered relationships within a system.  City problems are understood in terms of disconnection – multiple separate infrastructure systems support different aspects of everyday life.  The ‘smart’ solution is a ‘digital platform’ that breaks down the complexity of the city into a series of simplified modules.  Drawing parallels with how software systems operate, these modules are disassembled and reorganised to form efficient links between previously unconnected city elements.

The iSMART project in Switzerland exemplifies this digital form of urban integration.  Domestic hot water tanks are heated automatically by software depending on the balance between home electricity needs and the availability of renewable energy. The renewable energy, produced from solar and wind sources, is stored as thermal energy in refrigerated warehouses, and dispensed or sold to the smart grid as needed.  Warehouse sensor data, warehouse logistics, real-time energy data and even weather forecasts are combined to make decisions about which infrastructure connections to make or break in this integrated energy management process. 

These two examples of attempts to integrate urban infrastructure highlight three important concerns.

 

1. Economic and Data-led urban integration

As opposed to the modernist planning approaches of 20th and early 21st century, or the effects of the privatisation of national infrastructure networks, today’s urban integration techniques are inspired by corporate contexts, business schools and economics.  The design, planning and building of urban infrastructures now follows assumptions embedded in economic models or software products, rather than the historical, geographical and political context of the city.  Commitments to social cohesion, spatial geographies and fair and equal access often no longer form the prime drivers of urban integration, which has clear implications for people’s everyday lives.

 

2. Creating premium enclaves

How urban integration is thought about and practiced today adopts a highly selective and segmented city planning approach.  Whilst aiming to benefit the whole city, the vision is partial and selective in its focus.  Claiming to cut through the complexity of contemporary city challenges by tackling discrete problems, new approaches function at the level of districts or large-scale developments. Valuing, categorising and selecting particular city elements creates premium city enclaves, where new economic opportunities can be fostered.

 

3. Reinforcing urban divisions

Urban integration often masks or accompanies local authority funding cuts, leads to difficult political decision-making, and raises questions of who benefits or is marginalised from the provision of essential infrastructures and services.  New logics of urban integration, whilst privileging the minority who gain from the reorganisation and reassembly of city elements believed to be of value, can create and/or reinforce social and spatial divisions.

 

Conclusion

How we (re)design, connect, maintain and upgrade our city networks is crucial for how cities function.  The U.K. Government will publish its response to the National Infrastructure Assessment’s recommendations later this year in the form of a National Infrastructure Strategy.  Whatever its outcomes, it is important for calls for ‘urban integration’ not to be uncritically accepted and for their assumptions, processes, outcomes and implications to be thoroughly examined.

 

Rachel Macrorie and Simon Marvin's recently published paper Bifurcated Urban Integration: The selective dis- and re-assembly of infrastructures is available on Urban Studies - Online First.

 


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