— Article by Julia Kozlova

In comparison to built environments, technology changes very swiftly. New digital technologies open up new possibilities to connect citizens and central authorities (or their agents), which are beneficial both sides, helping citizens to participate and influence on urban policy (“statactivism”) and political authorities to strengthen their power. However, all in all, it is about democratic issues.

According to Patrick Le Galès, there are two models of digital interconnections on urban policy:

1. Vertical or “Big Brother is watching you” where centralizing systems are put in place to gather data, optimize management, develop even more top-down processes.

2. Horizontal where are connected bottom-up processes, innovation, shared and collaborative economy, decentralized deliberation.

As far as the vertical scheme not only rising citizens anxiety on personal data protection but also due to democratic issues, a horizontal model is seemed more desirable.

Giving new opportunities to government and citizens to analyze and shape urban pattern, the digital economy also brings up new challenges, for instance, in the form of digital platforms (Uber, Airbnb, etc.) that are reshaping cities in the twenty-first century.

Following economic and social trends, those platforms are spatially concentrated in cities. On the one hand, there is a robust positive effect as connecting people and resources, blurring boundaries between formal and informal infrastructures and even make it possible for big data and monitoring logics to push urban planning development up, playing on the ground of the smart city and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Those peer-to-peer platforms contribute to sharing economy, which in the centre of interest lately building the trust between strangers.

However, also, there is a negative impact. The short-term rental’s impacts on urban contexts caused by such platforms peer-to-peer as Airbnb, enabling individuals to merit from short-term leases through protected transactions, in reality, is gained not by single private tenants but multiple investors, or by brokers and specialised real estate agencies. Listing a property on Airbnb shifts it from long-term rent which increases the rental rate, normally, in the most central quarters of the cities. It drives to the social segregation of the city, pushing less sustained people (low-income renters) out of the city centre. As high property prices put up by Airbnb-style short-term lets and deindustrialization push the middle and low classes out of the city. The biggest global cities became expansive even for its citizens as well. The number of Paris properties that are not permanently occupied has risen by 30,000 in five years.

Another platform provoked effect was called Disneyfication. “The massive tourist flows, nowadays favoured by short-term rents, a risk to transform the historical centres, especially Italian ones, from key places of local cultural and political life, into real consumption citadels”, said Monica Bernardi in her article. The city of Venice in Italy could be taken as a good example. According to recent statistics, there is a significant outflow of local citizens provoked by increasing households’ replacements by Airbnb hosts which are aimed to feed raising tourist flows. The growing tourism sector has a substantial impact on cities and local communities, shaping an urban environment for tourists needs and expectation.

There are some cities’ municipalities as Paris, Amsterdam, London and Berlin that were forced to issue new norms of legislation limiting Airbnb expansion. Even in the city of its origins, San Francisco, in 2014 was approved “Airbnb Law” in order to regulate short-term rentals.

However, the data provided by Airbnb service is an open resource for people preferences that could be useful for urban planners and urban policy designers.

Benat Arregi launched a project “Airbnbmaps” to map tourists’ perceptions of different urban areas through data retrieved from vacation rental platform Airbnb. It aggregates star-based rating of each Airbnb listing is publicly accessible, and after applying data on a map of the city, the result reveals interesting findings on safety, upkeep or convenience.

The most exciting results were given for Los Angeles and San Francisco showing that some territories are refused by tourist to stay because of unknown factors that could be safety, environment, poverty, pollution and other. This information can be used to design intelligent solutions on what services may be needed in given areas.

Uber’s impact on cities is evident too. Cheaper and easy-to-take service has risen the quantity of rides taken in a big cities, that in its turn led to increase of congestions. At the same time Uber implemented an open data initiative to contribute to city development. Uber’s movement platform provides open data on current conditions in a city that had been tracked with their app (in so far, the information is available for four cities–Boston, Manila, Sydney, and Washington DC). This information is aimed to help urban planners to design infrastructure in a better way.

Another valuable data source that was born by the digital era is social media. Analysing social media geotags and hashtags could be useful for planners for determining how urban resources are being used or what should be done to achieve citizen’s well-being. Geotags in social media provides valuable information on how well a city is planned for both residents and visitors. Estonian municipalities have started implementing social media analysis in Tartu, they collect data from apps and social media using information broadcast from smartphones, such as geotags, in order to plan the city better.

Another digital instrument used to support better urban development is the blockchain technology. Cybersecurity is a core fundamental of blockchain: Information is kept in a cloud and then it could allow to distribute it among all parties involved. Decentralization of urban governance is a vital point of the democratic approach: citizens are usually hungry for participation, democracy, and transparency. So, the United Nations and ITU created Blockchain4Cities, an initiative to coordinate, integrate and control different city services with transparency, efficiency and privacy. Blockchain has the potential for municipal governance because of its capacity to transmit information with no intermediaries, but still, it will not solve all urban management problems.

So, as we can see, fast digital development has a strong impact on urban pattern. Sometimes it affects worlds cities strongly negatively but other time being used wisely it turns to be an indispensable instrument to make our cities sustainable, resilient and inclusive.

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