“Smart” cities. They’re places that promise big improvements in important areas: better traffic flow, improved public safety, better optimized utility systems, and many other public benefits from an extensive, high-bandwidth digital network.

But this vision invariably refers to large cities with resources to invest in expensive software and infrastructure. Could “smart” technology also improve life in smaller towns?

It’s a question that Wei Li, Texas A&M associate professor of urban planning, is answering with ENDEAVR — an ambitious project he’s leading in which more than 120 students from a wide range of university degree programs collaborated with residents in Nolanville, a small Central Texas town 10 miles eas t of Killeen, to help it take its first “smart” city steps.

Nolanville’s forward-thinking residents have embraced the partnership.

“Working toward being a ‘smart’ city gives us an identity we didn’t have before,” said Kara Escajeda, Nolanville’s city manager. “It means everything in the way of providing a cohesive vision and plan for our community to work toward.”

Li launched ENDEAVR in 2018 with a $300,000 grant from the Keck Foundation, which supports projects that promote inventive educational approaches. At the project’s outset, students majoring in urban planning, landscape architecture, visualization, computer science, and civil, electrical and mechanical engineering gathered in seminars that covered the history of city development and learned how to shape proposals that spring from groups in different disciplines.

These seminars also prepared them for an intensive envisioning process with Nolanville residents, who provided ENDEAVR students with specific ideas about improvements and concerns they had about their community.

At the end of the spring 2020 semester, undeterred by the coronavirus pandemic, students presented “smart” city ideas for Nolanville via online presentations to community residents based on the envisioning process.

Escajeda, the city manager, was especially intrigued by students’ concepts of a train notification system. Train tracks run right through the middle of town, regularly causing delays and frustration for Nolanville motorists. “A couple of teams came up with notification system ideas, including an app-based alert system,” said Escajeda.

Another group proposed a district that would incentivize the establishment of high-tech startups or established companies. “One team proposed a district that included a smart city museum, a possible high- tech replacement for a traditional library, which is a very clever idea,” she said.

“Smart” Van to Help Residents with Mobility Issues

Another aspect of the ENDEAVR project will become a reality this fall: a van that, for the most part, drives itself and will ferry residents lacking easy access to vehicle travel — senior citizens, disabled citizens, and others without transportation — to appointments and other trips. A volunteer operator in the driver’s seat will guide the van through parking lots; other than that, the van, using a publicly available guidance system, will be on its own.

“The vehicle will also be equipped with mobile telemedicine facilities so that patients without internet access at home will be able to see a doctor virtually and safely inside,” said Li. “Residents and leaders in Nolanville are eagerly expecting this part of the ENDEAVR project stage.”

Wei Li stands in front of the ENDEAVR smart van.
Li will also be researching how a semi-autonomous vehicle affects the mobility of Nolanville residents without easy access to vehicle travel.

Self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles have been in various stages of development and testing for several years. Such vehicles promise to make transportation more readily available to the more than 75 million people in the U.S. who lack everyday transportation options.

“There are 25.5 million Americans with travel-limiting disabilities, 29.8 million people age 75 and up for whom driving might be a considerable safety risk, and 20.6 million Americans who live in households without cars,” said Li.

A significant hurdle to providing transportation relief to people in these demographics are the high prices that are common for autonomous vehicles.

But there are lower-cost options available, including relatively affordable kits that enable a mechanic to convert a standard vehicle into a semiautonomous car in just a few hours — the kind of vehicle that is part of the ENDEAVR/Nolanville project.

After a fall 2020 test of the semiautonomous van, ENDEAVR- affiliated scholars from several disciplines will assess how it affected users’ mobility, what kind of trips they used it for, and overall, how it affected their lives.

Student/Community Partnership Pairs Problems with New Solutions

To further strengthen Texas A&M’s collaboration with Nolanville, the ENDEAVR project also includes participation from Texas Target Communities, a College of Architecture outreach initiative whose urban planning students assist small communities that lack full time urban planning staff.

The spring 2020 collaboration moved online after a February event in the city’s Monarch Park where ENDEAVR and TTC students provided tech demonstrations and gathered ideas from residents about future improvements.

“We assigned an active community resident to each student group,” said Jaime Hicks Masterson, TTC associate director. “The resident served as a group mentor and a go-to person for students’ questions about Nolanville’s current conditions and needs at the Monarch Park meeting and follow-up virtual meetings. They provided lots of great feedback, knowledge about local conditions and the challenges their community faces.”

Based on this input, students crafted concepts and presented them online to community members for possible inclusion into an update of the city’s comprehensive plan — a document approved by city policymakers that guides a community’s development.

“There are proposals for waterway improvements to prevent and/or reduce flooding in a creek that runs through Nolanville, a new commercial area downtown, a park dedicated to bird watching, and many more,” said Escajeda. “We will add nuggets from each of the student presentations and put them into various chapters of a Nolanville comprehensive plan update.”

That seemingly small item — putting these ideas in an update of a comprehensive plan — is a really big deal.

To understand how important this is, it’s helpful to go back to 2013, when the Texas Target Communities partnership with Nolanville began.

Funding Community Initiatives with Urban Planning

Back then, Nolanville typically issued bonds for city improvements. “Bonds help get projects completed, but they also create a long-term financial burden on a community,” said Escajeda.

At the time, the city was looking to create a new comprehensive plan. TTC students fulfilled the role of city planning staff, creating proposals after learning about the city’s needs in meetings with residents.

Many of their proposals for city improvements were included in the comprehensive plan, which was approved by the city in 2014.

Jaime Masterson gives a presentation to front of a room full of people. Wei Li can be seen in the background.
Masterson oversees planning students’ interactions with residents looking to update their town’s comprehensive plan.

“Because those proposals were in the plan, we received grants for a number of projects instead of issuing bonds for them,” said Escajeda. “Their inclusion in the plan showed funding agencies and organizations that the proposals had the community’s support.”

It was the first time the city had undertaken projects with grants instead of bonds. Within five years of the comprehensive plan’s adoption, the city received 11 grants totaling more than $2.6 million, said Masterson.

These grants funded public projects that significantly improved pedestrian and bicyclist safety, created a new splash pad, financed numerous city park improvements, and other new city amenities.

The partnership is the very definition of a win-win scenario, said Masterson.

“Nolanville city officials said students presented a wealth of innovative ideas this spring that can be included in an updated comprehensive plan,” she said. “The town is becoming a regional leader in community action and ‘smart’ city ideas.”

Students are also learning how to work with residents to bring funded improvements to the community.

“The partnership is yet another example of how planning can alert residents and youth to the possibilities of the future,” said Masterson.

This sizable undertaking couldn’t have taken place without a sizable number of faculty from several departments: Anatol Bologan, instructional assistant professor of visualization; Tyrene Calvesbert, visiting professor of architecture; Theodora Chaspari, assistant professor of computer science & engineering; Chanam Lee, professor of landscape architecture, Kiju Lee, associate professor of multidisciplinary engineering technology and industrial distribution, and Sivakunar Rathinam, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

For more information, contact rnira@arch.tamu.edu or doswald@tamu.edu.