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Electricity from Footsteps? The Future of Urban Infrastructure

A shopping street in London has been designed with cutting-edge eco-friendly technology which could be developed on a much larger scale.

Bird Street, a small alleyway just off Oxford Street, has been transformed with the installation of several environmentally friendly innovations.

The CleanAir bench has been designed to filter harmful toxins from the air, making polluted cities cleaner and the air easier to breathe.

Similarly, Airlite paint has been used on several surfaces to break down major atmospheric pollutants found in the air.

The Street has also been designed with a unique energy generating walkway. Developed by UK startup company PaveGen. Tiles along the walkway convert footsteps into clean electricity which power the street lights along the route.

“Bird Street is a case-study in technology that can improve air quality and reduce energy consumption in urban settings,” says Connor McCauley, Associate Director, Sustainability at JLL. “Within several years, it’s quite likely that some of these features will be rolled out to high streets across the country.” Driven by a demand for cleaner urban spaces, PaveGen is clearly keen to see these innovations going mainstream and incorporated into existing city infrastructure.

Recent studies show consumers rarely consider pollution levels as they shop, however this could be about to change with the development of low-cost air quality sensors which can be embedded into the road. Tech-giants such as Samsung and Apple have considered this technology for their smartphones as developers look for a variety of ways to convey the resulting data.

One considerable challenge however, is identifying who has the responsibility of funding these developments. “Shopping destinations that are owned and managed by a single entity – like London’s Carnaby Street – have the ability to act faster and may be more open to investing in new technology before demand is strictly at critical mass,” McCauley says. However, there are many urban environments which would require collaboration from numerous parties if development was to happen.

The installations on Bird Street have received funding support from government body Transport for London, who has invested in several similar projects across the capital. Larger shopping areas, not just in London, would possibly face further hurdles in the development of their high-tech urban spaces. With the onus being on retailers, landlords and local councils to work out the funding division.

The impact of congestion and pollution on the health of city dwellers across the world is increasing. Future high-streets could ultimately be defined by clean tech that battles the detrimental effects of high-density urban life.

“There’s a big push in the property industry for companies to be net-zero or net-positive,” where they put more back into society than they take out,” McCauley says. That includes restorative measures such as generating energy from sustainable sources and cleaning up the city air.

Key data will be required if retailers are to be convinced to invest. “Take footfall data – having insight into when pedestrians are near their store lets retailers know when to turn on lights or how to target store advertising,” McCauley notes. Savvy brands are already using tech to enhance the in-store experience; down the line, they will also focus on an out-of-store experience, McCauley says, using beacon technology that can push tailored messages or offers to the phones of passers-by.

Perhaps of greatest relief to the would-be shoppers circling today’s congested shopping areas, are the rise of autonomous electric vehicles could bring about a total rethink of parking – where they are needed and whether they’re allowed on high streets at all. “Instead of the traditional high street, we would have open, green and pedestrianised spaces where shops and restaurants run along an outdoor corridor,” McCauley says.

Smartphone apps might redirect the flow of shoppers based on footfall, while the air would be filtered by the storefronts and benches and the lights powered by footsteps.

For now it may seem futuristic but as the smart technology evolves and demand grows, it could herald a new era for city shopping areas.