Do spinach and smart cities benefit your health?

By Cecília Pires (PhD Candidate at the School of Law of the University of Minho)

The pure and simple acquisition of technologies to make the city smarter is a bit like the analogy employed by Arnstein[1] and resembles eating spinach – at first nobody is against it because, after all, it is only beneficial to one’s health. So how can these positive effects be denied? Indeed, it is not simply because a solution proposes to be smart that it will in fact be so for everyone. Hence, what is the real goal of a smart city?

Smart cities emerge as a new urban planning paradigm that seeks to incorporate information and communication technologies (ICTs) to address urban issues in an innovative, sustainable, and resilient way to promote the quality of life for all citizens.

Cities have been given a central a role due to the need for effective responses to urban problems, mainly the high levels of energy consumption and CO2 production. Yet, there is no single definition for a smart city: it is a polysemic concept that can be understood from different perspectives, according to different areas of knowledge. Therefore, the understanding of what smart cities entail is gradually being built.

The Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities (2007),[2] the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015),[3] the United Nations New Urban Agenda (2017),[4] the Urban Agenda for the European Union (2019/2021),[5] and the New Leipzig Charter (2020),[6] and other commitments and pacts are strategic references. Those instruments function as normative guidelines for urban planning, urban public policies, and actions by the EU Member States.

As part of the EU Missions programme, the EU-Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities has launched an Implementation Plan to achieve 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030. A second objective of the program is to ensure that these cities act as experimentation and innovation hubs to put all European cities in a position to become climate-neutral by 2050.

From 2022 to 2023, €360 million will be allocated under Horizon Europe funding to 100 cities from the 27 EU Member States. According to the seventh activity of the Implementation Plan, people and civil society must play an active role in developing an innovative governance model.

The Mission action plan[7] should have two central pillars: digital and green transition connected with the goals of the European Green Deal.[8] Therefore, solutions that make cities smarter should monitor the reduction of climate emissions in the context of mobility; promote smart energy supply networks; improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and monitor air pollution; water and waste management, notably.

A participatory platform will also be implemented to support the cities involved. The intention is that it functions as an integration and support point (technical, regulatory, financial, and socio-economic) for sharing and monitoring innovation, research, governance, and funding initiatives. Research centres, academia, industry, entrepreneurs, the financial sector (investors, philanthropists, NGOs), authorities, and citizens must be involved.

In Portugal, the proposal and action plan for the “National Strategy for Smart Cities”[9] is in progress. It attempts to align and integrate the efforts of municipalities, companies, and stakeholders to implement smart cities in the country. The initiative is foreseen in the action plan for digital transition. In addition, Guimarães, Lisbon, and Porto are three of the 100 cities that must participate in the European mission for smart and climate-neutral cities.

If smart cities are understood as a body, their intended purpose is fundamental and matches their soul. However, from a philosophical standpoint, the soul is autonomous or partially autonomous from the materiality and practices of the body. In order to understand what smart cities are becoming, it is essential to explore the smart practices implemented in cities, considering participation, choices, interests, and the power of political, economic, and social forces involved or overlooked in the process.

Smart cities correspond to an object that is not only imprecise but is also under dispute and being mobilized according to different interests. As in Western Europe,[10] implementation practices in Portuguese smart cities are mainly characterized by increments in the infrastructures of existing cities and not by building cities entirely from scratch.

Considering the initiatives already taking place in Portuguese municipalities it is essential to be aware of a specific trend that could be in place: the adoption of smart actions supported by strategic principles such as integrated, sustainable, and resilient development, but which do not always serve this purpose.

Therefore, many of the good practices associated with smart cities are based on instruments to assess and monitor how smart a city is. In this context, top-rating cities earn seals, certifications, and awards. Not accidentally, quite often the sponsors or producers of the assessment instruments also detect urban problems whose technological solutions they sell.

As a result, market instruments give practical meaning to what smart cities must be. In doing so, smart cities projects adhere to an urban entrepreneurialism model[11] in which cities are run like businesses and conceived as a source of profit at the expense of being a realm for the fulfillment of citizens’ rights. 

However, actions to build smart cities must not be reduced to the acquisition of technology that is offered on a large scale and occasionally used. Furthermore, they cannot only satisfy the needs of a market that often creates the problem of selling the solution.

On the other hand, technological resources used must be connected to a structured plan of activities committed to promoting the right to the city, especially for vulnerable groups.

Moreover, smart cities actions must be focused on promoting human rights in the urban environment, specifically those provided for in the World Charter for the Right to the City.[12] The different social actors must build smart cities from an active citizenship exercise that overcomes the “innocuous euphemisms of an empty ritual of participation” that cannot affect the outcome of the process.

Indeed, many and more profound are the challenges and reflections involved that must be thought through in the construction of a new urban paradigm that is truly intelligent. However, the engine room[13] of any urban planning model must be in the hands of all those who live in the city.

In a smart city, it is crucial to build a collective, inclusive, alternative, and disruptive citizen power to enable it to impact the living models of the city, guarantee access to fundamental rights and achieve digital autonomy and sovereignty.

Returning to the spinach analogy, even if proposals for inclusive and innovative models of governance in smart cities fit well into theoretical plans of action, the voices of all citizens must have the real power to influence the results of the process.

Research Fellow at Research Centre for Justice and Governance “Smart Cities and Law, E.Governance and Rights”, IP Isabel Fonseca – Projeto NORTE-01-0145-FEDER-000063.

[1] Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, vol. 35, issue 4 (1969),

[2] Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities, 2007,, or

[3] United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 2015,

[4] United Nations New Urban Agenda, 2017,

[5] Updated version – Urban Agenda for the EU: Multi-level governance in action, 2021, or file:///C:/Users/cecil/OneDrive/Disserta%C3%A7%C3%A3o/Documents/Cec%C3%ADlia/Documentos%20Smart%20Cities/urban_agenda_eu_2021update_en.pdf.

[6] European Commission, “New Leipzig Charter – The transformation power of cities for the common good”, 2020,

[7] European Commission, “EU Mission: Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities”,

[8] European Commission, “The European Green Deal”, COM(2019) 640 final, 2019, or

[9] Portugal Digital, “Estratégia Nacional das Smart Cities”, 2022, Estratégia nacional de Smart Cities – Portugal Digital.

[10] Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria, “Rethinking the smart city: democratizing urban technology”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, January 22, 2018,

[11] David Harvey, “From managerialism to entrepreneurialism: the transformation in urban governance in late capitalism”, Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, vol. 71, no. 1, The roots of geographical change: 1973 to the present (1989),

[12] World Charter for the Right to the City, or

[13] See Roberto Gargarella, La Sala de Máquinas de la Constitución: dos siglos de constitucionalismo en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Katz Editores, 2014),, and Roberto Gargarella, “La «sala de máquinas» de las constituciones latino-americanas”, Nueva Sociedad, no. 257 (2015),

Photo by Aleksejs Bergmanis on

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