Planning for Smart Urban Ecosystems: Information Technology Applications for Capacity Building in Environmental Decision Making

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Since the 1850s, the world has witnessed incalculable technological achievements, population growth and corresponding increases in natural resource use. In this new millennium, we recognize the negative effects of our activities: Polluted urban environs; agricultural runoff; regional air pollution; abandoned hazardous waste sites; urban sprawl; habitat loss; declining biological diversity; global climate change; deposition or recycling of pollutants among air, land, and water; landfills at capacity; toxic waste; natural resource and ozone depletion. These pressures are straining the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity and its ability to provide the resources required to sustain life while retaining the capacity to regenerate.

While the world's population continues to expand, implementation of resource efficient measures in all areas of human activity is imperative. The built environment is a clear example of the impact of human activity on natural resources. Buildings have a significant impact on the environment, accounting for one-sixth of the world's freshwater withdrawals, one-quarter of its wood harvest, and two-fifths of its material and energy flows. These structures also impact areas beyond their immediate location, affecting the watersheds, air quality, and transportation patterns of communities (Public Technology, 1996: 8).

It is projected that more than half of the world's population will be living in urban areas by 2025 (United Nations, 2000). This projection shows the importance of urban ecosystems. It will be vital to consider the physical conditions inside urban boundaries, such as, watersheds, parks, soil systems, mini climates and living ecosystems such as trees, grasslands and biodiversity.

In this context, sustainable development can be a positive change which does not undermine the environmental or social systems on which we depend. It requires a coordinated approach to planning and policy making that involves public participation. Its success depends on the widespread understanding of the critical relationship between people and their environment and the will to make necessary changes.

Sustainable development goals can not be achieved by the efforts of technicians, politicians and environmental groups alone (United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, 2000). Communities are frequently invisible actors in environmental discussions. Specialized environmental departments and groups can bring expert advice to multi-stakeholder dialogues, but must not be expected to bear the burden of the defence of what must be considered an important common and public interest.

A growing number of publications point out the importance of capacity building in communities for urban ecosystem enhancement. To build the capacity and ability in community for creating sustainable futures, community-based decisions and environmental decision making process should be encouraged. Community-based environmental decision making integrates environmental management with human needs, considers long term ecosystem health and highlights the positive correlations between economic prosperity and environmental well being.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are changing the way people communicate by enabling many more people throughout the world to access, share, analyze and use information over time and space. ICT are not only a significant factor in the performance and growth of economies, but also represent a novel and effective tool to help advance sustainable urban development. They do this by enabling multitude of modelling, visualization and simulation solutions that help conserve resources.

This paper aims to answer the question of whether integrating ICT for involving communities in environmental decision making process can support the emergence of smart urban ecosystems. The paper also explores the potential and constraints of the ICT tools for collaborative environmental decision making. …