Being the new kid on the block can have its advantages. While many municipalities struggle to fund innovative smart-city technologies out of already-established budgets, Peachtree Corners, Ga., found it had an edge.
“Cities that are older can have a lot of budget constraints," said Finance Director Brandon Branham. "For us, a lot of those structural expenses are not in place yet, the money is not yet pre-dedicated.”
Incorporated in 2012, this city of about 40,000 leveraged that flexibility straight out of the box, setting aside money for a big smart-city initiative before competing needs could scarf up every line item in the budget.
This city invested $267,000 to generate lidar maps of its rights-of-way, building a comprehensive database of street lights, utility poles, storm drains and other infrastructure. While it may not have the glamour appeal of some other smart cities efforts, city leaders say the lidar mapping will drive everything from cost savings to community development in the coming years.
Lidar — Light Detection and Ranging technology — uses laser pulses to measure distances from surfaces that can provide a return signal, in order to generate visual maps. In Peachtree Corners, it arrived in the form of a Ford F250 loaded with an imaging system. Operators paced the city’s entire 224 center lane miles in spring 2016, feeding information back to the county’s geographic information system (GIS).
Gwinnett County had tallied these assets back in the 1990s, taking an inventory by visual count, but the city has grown by about 25 percent since then, making that data obsolete. The lidar effort identified 35,000 assets — twice as many as were on the existing inventory.
While city planners see a range of possible uses for this information, the first order of business is an effort to improve lighting throughout the city.
“The lidar capture of the utility features showed the existing lighting coverage and showed existing poles in place that did not have lighting attached,” said Director of Public Works Gregory Ramsey, adding that the picture was very clear in those areas where lighting gaps existed.
"We determined that we could very efficiently and effectively improve on those areas where existing utility poles and power access was in place by simply adding a light to those poles," he continued. "There is zero upfront cost associated with that process, so the return on investment will be significant.”
While the local utility will shoulder the cost of putting lights on existing poles, the City Council has earmarked $500,000 over the next five years to pay for operation of the new lights. Based on the lidar mapping, the council approved 25 new lights this spring, and in August was on track for approval of 100 more in the near future. Eventually the maps could lead to placement of 900 new lights.
That’s the kind of baseline civic improvement that helps to justify smart city investing. “Cataloging your assets, getting them onto your map, is an important first step," said Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council. "You need to know where everything is."
In addition to boosting the overall quantity of lighting in the city, the map also could serve as a resource during power outages, helping responders to prioritize their efforts. “When you can see it on the map," he said, "then you can figure out which houses are affected, which crews are closest. But first you have to get it on the map."
City planners say they see an ever wider potential for these lidar databases.
A GIS overlay of sewer covers and storm drains might not sound like a driver of economic development, but Branham said there is a direct connection.
“Community development focuses on growth: What is our city going to look like 20 or 30 years from now?" he said. "You can take this same data that you use in public works, and you can apply that to capital improvement planning."
The maps also should help keep city budgets in line, since having a more accurate inventory will allow planners to better manage things like routine-maintenance schedules.
Lidar mapping could drive environmental quality improvements too.
“This is a very wooded city, we are right along the river, so when we plan for growth we want to be able to look at that visually," Branham said. "If we put this here, will that cut off the deer population? Do we need to look at alternative solutions because of that?”
More abstract, perhaps, but not less significant, is the possibility that a lidar right-of-way inventory could ultimately enhance the quality of civic engagement.
“We all want sidewalks to make the city walkable. Now community developers can lay out maps at a public meeting and say: Show us where you want a trail or a sidewalk to connect the city," said Branham. "We will know exactly where the public assets are, so when the citizens draw their ideas on that map, they can have a clearer visual understanding of how that works. It gets them a little more closely involved."
In the smart cities vision, Berst said, this kind of enhanced citizen involvement is a chief goal of any technology implementation. “We have found that mapping is one of the most powerful tools for both citizen engagement and interdepartmental collaboration," he said. "When people can see stuff on a map, suddenly it is tangible, suddenly they can see the interrelationships.”
Being a “new” city gave Peachtree Corners the flexibility it needed to incorporate a big smart city investment in the budget early on. It helped, too, that the city had outside guidance from a team already versed in smart city technologies.
In addition to serving as the city’s finance director, Branham wears another hat: He is a project manager with CH2M Hill, the consulting firm that actually runs this town. Yes, Peachtree Corners government operations are entirely outsourced. Public works, planning and zoning, revenue collection, code enforcement, courts — all of it is farmed out to this outside firm on a contract that originally ran through 2017 and has since been extended through 2020.
Access to smart city technology is one advantage to this approach.
“With CH2M being a global company, we can reach out across other countries, other places, and that was how we came across the lidar. We actually saw it being used first in the London highway system,” Branham said. “Having that global reach, we get exposed to different ideas. We find that having those outside connections can be very beneficial when cities are looking to push to that next level.”