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Small Cities Go 'Smart' by Developing More Direct Relationships with Residents

A survey released earlier this year looks at how smart cities projects are developing in smaller jurisdictions nationwide.

Residents of Queen Creek, Ariz., wanting to build, say, a swimming pool no longer need to head down to city hall to consult with officials about how to apply for the building permit or other details related to the project.

All of this information is now online, and the process will only get easier.

“They may want to build a pool, and rather than coming down to the town hall, they can submit their small plan through the system, and we could get their permit turned around a lot quicker,” said Bruce Gardner, assistant town manager in Queen Creek.

This city of 42,000 in Maricopa County, southeast of Phoenix, is partnering with Accela Civic Platform, which provides online submission of planning and other documents, to make plan submissons easier for developers and others wanting to build in the city.

“That gives online permitting and plan-review. So, if I’m a developer I don’t necessarily have to bring these large plans into the town anymore and print them off,” said Gardner.

That system is expected to be fully operational by some time this fall. It is but one of several “smart city” initiatives Queen Creek has taken on. Others include a comprehensive communications strategy, particularly around social media, making interacting with residents infinitely easier than in years prior.

“We’ve put a great team in place to handle our electronic communications,” said Gardner.

“A lot of our residents, for example, they see something out in the general public that they want answers to, and think that the town needs to take care of, they’ll take a picture of it, send it through one of our programs that is reviewed by staff,” Gardner remarked. “And the staff responds back based on those pictures that are given. And then we ensure that we close the loop back with that resident.”

Queen Creek is one of 54 small, medium and large cities that participated in a Smart Cities Survey, conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and released earlier this year. Respondents came from 28 states and ranged from the small town of Ketchum, Idaho (population 2,728) to New York City, home to 8.6 million residents.

The survey was designed to find out how “smart cities” initiatives are developing by asking them a detailed series of questions about smart projects being implemented or planned between 2015 and 2017. The questions covered topics including project goals, difficulties experienced when implementing smart city projects, and what type of funding and business models are most commonly used.

The study found a surprising number of smart city projects happening at the small- and medium-sized city level — in part, perhaps, because there are more cities of this size than in large metros like New York City or Chicago.

Also, smaller and medium-sized cities tend to invest only in one or two specific areas, implementing smart street lighting or an intelligent transport system, for example, rather than developing a centralized operations system for the entire city.

And small cities tend to be more focused on “smart city projects that deliver a clear, tangible return on investment, such as smart street lighting or resource management, rather than more experimental projects, which are more commonly seen in large cities,” reads the report.   

“It’s more of a practical, down-to-earth kind of need, rather than, you know, the latest bells and whistles, the latest technology,” echoed Dave Miller, a spokesman for C Spire, a Mississippi-based IT provider. C Spire works often with smaller cities to meet their IT needs.

Burnsville, Minn., which also completed the Smart Cities Survey, has been involved in a $7.4 million project to upgrade some 16,000 commercial and residential water meters to “smart meters” that will automatically transmit meter reads to the utility department at City Hall.

For customers, the new system provides real-time data on water usage and real-time leak detection. It will also allow meters to be read more cost effectively.

The city — with a population of 62,500 and located 15 miles south of downtown Minneapolis — has also initiated a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system, which monitors municipal water transport, distribution and treatment within the city’s pump houses, water towers and treatment facilities.

“It can turn devices on or off, display real-time operational data, provide equipment-wide to system-wide views of operation, trend data, set alarms, etc.,” said Marty Doll, spokesman for Burnsville, which also is partnering with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to coordinate traffic signal timing — a project that falls directly within the nature of most smart city projects, according to the survey.

“Most U.S. smart city projects fall within the functional areas of mobility and transport, governance, and physical infrastructure,” reads the report.

Ultimately, communities take on projects that will make them more appealing to residents, the survey found, noting that “mid-sized cities want to use these smart city projects to attract more citizens and bolster economic development, or they might be expecting large population growth and want to prepare for that.”

This is one of the driving concepts behind Queen Creek’s projects.

“A lot of the individuals who are moving out to Queen Creek have lived in other communities adjacent to us, and so they expect the same level in services that they’ve received,” said Gardner, the assistant town manager. “And so Queen Creek not only tries to match that level of service, but exceed it.”

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.