Out-Law News 5 min. read

Smart garden communities can deliver for people and businesses

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Smart garden communities have an opportunity to use technology and data to deliver energy savings, improved health outcomes and transport efficiencies for their communities – and realise new revenue streams in the process, an expert has said.

Planning law expert Richard Ford of Pinsent Masons, who specialises in garden community projects, said that those behind garden community projects can look to smart cities for inspiration on the potential of technology and data.

Garden communities are bespoke new settlements or extensions of existing towns or villages that comprise a mix of housing, employment, transport and community infrastructure, such as roads, rail links, schools and health centres, as well as outdoor areas for residents and the public to enjoy. They are becoming increasingly popular forms of development as the UK grapples with the triple task of overcoming a shortage of housing, planning for the future of work and living post-Covid, and addressing the biodiversity and climate crisis.

Ford Richard

Richard Ford


Garden communities ought to be exemplars of embracing technology holistically given they are commonly situated on undeveloped, virgin land

According to Ford, it has been smart city initiatives, for example ‘Smart Leeds’, that have been leading the way in holistic approaches to integrating digital technology into the garden community programme. He said that it is becoming increasingly clear that garden community projects must not lag behind as is it is much easier to embed digital technology into a smart garden community from the outset than it is retrofit a city, albeit he added that the cost:benefit and viability considerations need to be considered carefully given the relatively lower land values and higher new infrastructure burden garden communities have to bear compared to cities.

The Smart Leeds initiative is a Leeds City Council programme that puts cutting-edge digital infrastructure and digital skills, open access to data, collaboration across sectors and data-led decision-making at the centre of the city’s present and future.

The specific ways in which technology and data is driving change in Leeds includes in relation to traffic management, where the city is exploring how signal control technology can be used to rebalance traffic light priorities towards sustainable modes of transport, and where data about housing is being used to target cost effective carbon reduction measures in council houses.

Ford said: “Garden communities ought to be exemplars of embracing technology holistically given they are commonly situated on undeveloped, virgin land. This offers a blank canvass for planning and implementing connected infrastructure and other digital solutions.”

There are reasons why the concept of a truly smart garden community is only now on the horizon, he said.

Ford cited factors such as higher land values in cities and the presence of existing physical infrastructure to work with, which he said stands in contrast to garden communities, which have “a massive infrastructure burden to bear” in terms of delivering homes, roads, schools, community infrastructure and public realm from scratch. This, he said, has historically left garden community initiatives with little money left to invest in technology. The price sensitive nature of the housebuilding market with landowners often seeking the maximum return from the highest bidder has further put pressure on the ability of the mainstream and SME housebuilder market to invest in smart new communities’ technology.

Other challenges in delivering a comprehensive technology solution can arise where garden communities are not implemented by a master developer or master estate landowner, but rather by multiple developers and landlords operating disparately, Ford said.

However, things are changing. A greater understanding of the benefits and income streams a whole lifecycle data strategy can bring is developing. Data trust solutions about how to overcome the risks of non-compliance with data protection law are breaking down further common barriers to the implementation of effective digital solutions in garden community projects, he said.

Ford said that data trusts are a vehicle for sharing garden community construction and user data in a way that complies with data protection law and other regulatory requirements. These legal structures provide independent stewardship of data and offer a framework through which the benefits of data sharing and analytics can be realised on a place-based model. They also offer the potential to generate new revenue streams for the stewardship of garden communities as well as contribute to a return on investment, he said.

Ford said: “The stewardship organisation vehicle can incorporate or work alongside a data trust to enter into data sharing contracts or other arrangements with data source providers, and to pool data sources, in order to maximise the utility of the data collected; ensure that data is used in a regulatory and ethically compliant manner; and monetise that data, where appropriate.”

“The stewardship vehicle will need to formulate a data strategy focused on objectives, management of and evaluation of data. The strategy should incorporate how to manage data security; the use of personal data, including GDPR compliance; data sharing arrangements and agreement with third parties; how data will be analysed and anonymised where appropriate; and the approach to how data is generated, gathered and flows,” he said.

Pinsent Masons has previously highlighted examples in respect of energy, transport, consumer and healthy living data where data trusts offer a means to, for instance, improve energy consumption and efficiency, encourage an uptick in the use of public transport, car clubs and electric vehicle networks, and better plan and deliver sports and recreational facilities.

Ford said that also integral to a whole lifecycle data strategy is the operation of digital models for built environment and infrastructure assets. True digital twins, not mere digital models or digital shadows, use live data that can inform planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance. Those that have first mover advantage towards that space, evolving from digital models towards digital twins will reap their rewards in the market, he predicted. There is an opportunity to implement them from the outset of a garden communities project and a number are now being progressed, Ford said.

Hayward Martin

Martin Hayward


In many ways Dubai provides a blueprint for how new garden communities can be delivered with technology at their core

Prospective garden community initiatives in the UK can look to the Middle East or Asia in particular. For example, Dubai and Singapore provide strong examples of smart cities globally, including how technology and data can be embedded in a new development, according to Martin Hayward of Pinsent Masons who is based in the emirate.

“In many ways Dubai provides a blueprint for how new garden communities can be delivered with technology at their core, given that what Dubai has achieved in rolling out smart city solutions has not been incumbered by the limitations of legacy infrastructure,” said Hayward, a specialist in technology contracts.

“There is increasing focus on using technology to effectively manage building garden communities in the desert, such as through the use of smart irrigation systems, to provide for resilience in an otherwise harsh natural environment.

The Smart Dubai 2021 strategy sets out the latest programme of work that the government is invested in towards enhancing life in the emirate through the use of technology. Sustainability, security and life enrichment are core aims of the strategy.

“There is a top-down government focus on making Dubai one of the world’s most liveable cities. This is important as Dubai is in competition with other major Middle East cities in terms of trying to attract business and skills,” he said. “A tech-savvy market expect high-tech living, so smart city concepts can be a differentiator within developments and draw in buyers.”

“Utilities companies have already rolled out smart city concepts around smart metering and lighting too as part of wider digital transformation initiatives, and there has been great stress put on using technology to create a safe and secure environment for residents and visitors alike,” Hayward said.

Ford said that the intelligent transport systems and use of smart cities energy efficiency and performance data are increasingly developed in Singapore and that Germany is also moving ahead with such solutions for new garden communities. There are many UK and international lessons to be learnt which will benefit the UK garden communities roll out programme, he added.

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