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Community Improvement Districts Ripe for Smart City Innovation

Based on an analysis of community improvement districts in the Atlanta metro area, Georgia Tech researchers have concluded that CIDs are primed to spearhead any number of smart city initiatives.

A digital rendering of a busy smart city.
A new report by Georgia Tech, examining a number of community improvement districts in the Atlanta metro region, outline how CIDs are well suited to head up smart city initiatives.
A new report indicates that community improvement districts (CIDs) are well poised to explore smart city technologies.

The report, titled Ready for the Smart(er) City: How Community Development Districts are Building the Future, details how the public rights-of-way, infrastructure and operational structure of CIDs translate to ideal areas for testing and deployment of smart city initiatives in fields like transportation and safety.

“Because CIDs are a public-private partnership, and [because] they handle some basic infrastructure operations, they are in a really good position, not only to leverage economic development impact locally, but also be seen as an ideal test bed and partner for smart cities type work,” said Debra Lam, managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Tech's Institute for People and Technology.

The research examines the Atlanta metropolitan area, where CIDs average 6.5 square miles in size and in 2019 had a combined assessed value of more than $16 billion. Thirty-four CIDs currently operate across 30 commercial areas in Atlanta. They reflect public-private partnerships generally established around commercial real estate, with the aim of managing growth and development and attracting investment. The districts include public infrastructure and focus on projects related to public safety, mobility and beautification under the guidance of a board of directors who represent private property owners. 

“It’s that constituency that determines how the funding gets spent,” said Malaika Rivers, a partner with Lexicon Strategies. 

With their relatively small size, taxing structure and governing boards, CIDs can function somewhat like the numerous “innovation districts” cities have formed as locations to pilot smart city projects. They are places to explore operational improvements around transportation, public safety or communication, say researchers. 

“The CID could act as a very micro testbed to test out some perhaps new public policy, relative to an operational improvement,” said Rivers. 

“And that might be something that’s adopted and scaled in a larger instance,” she added.  

Early CIDs were established in the car-centric 1980s, well before today’s desire for “walkable urbanism,” say researchers. But CIDs have evolved and are still ripe for innovation across a number of areas. 

These districts are well positioned for projects that involve broadband, fiber-optic communications or other physical infrastructure located in the public right of way, said Rivers. 

“Most of the CIDs have seen a lot of early successes, and ongoing success has been on the delivery of capital projects — and those capital projects have been around public infrastructure,” Rivers added. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.