Wiring trees? Smart urban parks are missing the point

This blog post represents the opinions of Olga Horn, Roman Serdar Mendle and Monika Zimmermann, Smart Cities Team, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability


Urban parks come in many shapes and sizes ranging from small pocket parks to large expanses, but they all serve the key purpose of providing natural settings and ecological functions for urban landscapes. As the ‘lungs of the city’, parks improve air quality by filtering out pollutants and mitigate the urban heat island effect. They reduce urban noise levels, serve as stormwater retention areas and provide a vital habitat for a declining flora and fauna. On top of this, they provide a green oasis for nearby residents to relax, unwind and disconnect from their fast-paced urban lifestyles. In short, parks offer a multitude of benefits to urban areas, and all of that without the need for technological intervention.

Some digital technologies make sense…
Increasingly, however, digital technologies are being introduced in order to transform urban parks into smart ones. The implementation of smart park technologies can prove beneficial, particularly when it comes to park operations and green space maintenance. Sensor-enabled irrigation systems, for example, are able to monitor plant health and optimize water use based on real-time soil humidity, temperature and light condition data. Similarly, smart lighting systems can effectively reduce energy consumption through LED lamps and automatic light dimming technology. By replacing conventional solutions with digital ones, park managers are thus able to conserve natural resources and significantly cut utility costs.

… others simply don’t.
Nevertheless, the added value of smart solutions has clear limitations, especially when their implementation becomes a goal in itself and profit interest from technology providers constitute the driving force behind urban park design. Entertainment-focused infrastructure such as sound installations and interactive playgrounds, run the risk of turning a green space into a small-scale amusement park. Wifi-hotspots and solar-powered phone charging stations ensure that urban residents can still be bombarded with work emails and social media notifications. Instead of enabling park-goers to disconnect from technology-driven urban life, touch screen information boards have them hooked to yet another screen. In addition, the proliferation of digital technologies embedded in natural environments can also negatively affect biodiversity, either through the replacement of natural elements with artificial infrastructure or through the noise and light pollution originating from loudspeakers and illuminated gadgets.

Let parks be parks.
The true value of parks is the access to nature that they supply in dense urban spaces. They create a healthy balance to our technology-focused daily lives and provide essential ecosystem services that no other type of urban infrastructure can substitute. Digital technology can play a supportive role, if selected purposefully and carefully. However, smart park technologies are tools, and like all tools, they require reflection and knowledge on how best to use them. As much as possible urban parks should be created as natural spaces with as little technological intervention as possible.