Chapel Hill: the Next Smart Town?

By Jo Kwon

With the introduction of new technologies and the pandemic forcing many people to work from home, the media has increasingly used the term “smart cities.” There will be more smart cities worldwide in the coming years, from Toyota’s Woven City to Copenhagen Connecting. However, some have also been scrapped, like Google’s Sidewalk Toronto project, due to the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19.[i] So what are smart cities? The term is a buzzword, but most people are not sure what it means. Does it simply mean that smart cities are more intelligent than previous cities? What does it mean to be smart? Is Chapel Hill a smart city?

Smart City Example: Toyota’s Woven City

Many institutions have come up with different definitions. Urban planning news site Planetizen states, “A smart city uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability, and sustainability.”[ii]  Moreover, smart cities bring technology, economy, mobility, environment, people, and government together.[iii] This technology includes apps for real time data, such as leaf collection or free public Wi-Fi. The concept of smart cities encompasses the use of technologies in cities to increase connectivity in various sectors. 

Cities have been eager to implement new technologies due to the benefits of efficiently connecting different city sectors,[iv] reducing environmental footprints,[v] improving public transportation,[vi] and increasing economic development,[vii] digital equity,[viii] and more. However, there are also concerns related to smart cities. Some significant issues are surveillance,[ix] security,[x] data bias,[xi] and the digital divide impacting smart city residents.[xii] Cities also have difficulty creating and connecting infrastructures, consistently updating new technologies, and collaborating with the private sector.[xiii], [xiv]

The Town of Chapel Hill is also envisioning itself as a smart town, and has embedded parts of the smart cities initiatives into projects such as the technology solution business plan and the West Rosemary Street Development.[xv] The Town has also participated in AT&T’s Spotlight City project to develop a smart cities framework, and encouraged North Carolina Science Festival participants to use the iNaturalist app to identify plants and animals in Pritchard Park and share knowledge on insects in Chapel Hill. Additionally, Chapel Hill uses sensors to offer real-time, mobile-friendly data on adverse weather activity, leaf collection, and street maintenance. The Town continues to further smart city initiatives by providing internet access for residents and businesses, adding electric vehicle charging stations, implementing parking deck sensors, increasing cyber asset security, and more.

Chapel Hill’s Mobile-Friendly Street Maintenance

As cities and towns become “smart,” resident participation is vital in order for any plans to incorporate their concerns and ensure an equitable approach. Several cities are committed to developing smart city plans with equity goals, such as Portland’s Smart City PDX.[xvi] As the future of Chapel Hill moves towards a smart city model, it will be necessary to start talking about digital equity in order for Chapel Hill to become the next smart equitable town.

If you would like to know more about smart cities and Chapel Hill’s smart cities initiatives, or want to offer input, please visit Smart Town.


[i] Cecco, Leyland. 2020. “Google Affiliate Sidewalk Labs Abruptly Abandons Toronto Smart City Project.” The Guardian. Technology.

[ii] Planetizen Courses. 2020. What Is a Smart City?

[iii] Ahvenniemi, Hannele, Aapo Huovila, Isabel Pinto-Seppä, and Miimu Airaksinen. 2017. “What Are the Differences between Sustainable and Smart Cities?” Cities 60 (February): 234–45.

[iv] Remes, Homi Kharas and Jaana. 2018. “Can Smart Cities Be Equitable?” Brookings.

[v] Johnson, Katie. 2018. “Environmental Benefits of Smart City Solutions – Foresight.”

[vi] “​Secure, Sustainable Smart Cities and the IoT.” 2020. Thales Group.

[vii]Can Smart City Technology Supercharge Economic Development in Urban Areas?” 2018. IntechnologySmartCities.

[viii] Horrigan, John B. 2019. “Smart Cities and Digital Equity.” National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

[ix] Zoonen, Liesbet van. 2016. “Privacy Concerns in Smart Cities.” Government Information Quarterly, Open and Smart Governments: Strategies, Tools, and Experiences, 33 (3): 472–80.

[x] Elmaghraby, Adel S., and Michael M. Losavio. 2014. “Cyber Security Challenges in Smart Cities: Safety, Security and Privacy.” Journal of Advanced Research, Cyber Security, 5 (4): 491–97.

[xi] Hao, Karen. 2019. “A US Government Study Confirms Most Face Recognition Systems Are Racist.” MIT Technology Review, December 20, 2019.

[xii] Shenglin, Ben, Felice Simonelli, Zhang Ruidong, Romain Bosc, and Li Wenwei. 2017. “Digital Infrastructure: Overcoming the Digital Divide in Emerging Economies.” G20 Insights.

[xiii] Stone, Sydney. 2018. “Key Challenges of Smart Cities & How to Overcome Them.” Ubidots Blog.

[xiv] McKinsey. 2019. “Public-Private Partnership: Smart City.”

[xv]Town of Chapel Hill, NC.” n.d. Town of Chapel Hill. Accessed June 15, 2021.

[xvi] City of Portland. n.d. “Guiding Principles Smart City PDX.” Smart City PDX. Accessed June 15, 2021.


Jo (Joungwon) Kwon is a Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She hopes to interweave various data sets and narratives of housing and communities together with new digital technologies. With a background in Statistics and English Literature, she received her M.A. in Computational Media at Duke University. In her free time, she enjoys watching indie movies, going to live performances, and drinking good coffee.


Edited by Emma Vinella-Brusher, Managing Editor

All images courtesy of author