Urban Mathematics: Big Data Can Help Us Design Better Cities
Many actions we take to make our cities more economically active or improve community vitality are shots in the dark. Zoning codes, building design review and other regulatory actions are based much more on emotions or personal taste than on data. Both those pushing for radical redevelopment and NIMBYs operate from the same irrational basis–they “know” what’s best but typically don’t have any scientifically valid evidence to back them up. It is pretty disturbing that we make decisions with long-term implications without science or data to guide our decisions. Look no further than the nearest urban freeway for a graphic example of the disastrous consequences of decisions that fail to consider how these decisions might affect the future of a city and its citizens.
In the October Scientific American Magazine, Alex Pentland argues that our ability to gather and analyze “big data” can show what works and doesn’t in cities as well as in companies and organizations.
Most politicians and especially mayors claim that they want to make their cities/citizens be more productive and creative. But their strategies can be all over the map and often backfire in embarrassing ways–witness the many “innovation funds” that have sunk millions of public dollars into questionable and often unsuccessful companies. Pentland says,
“…Patterns of idea flow (measured by purchasing behavior, physical mobility or communications) are directly related to productivity growth and creative output. Individuals, organizations, cities and even entire societies that engage with one another and explore outside their social group have higher productivity, greater creative output and even longer, healthier lives… Idea flow seems to be essential to the health of every society.”
Actions that increase people’s ability to engage with each other will increase their civic engagement, economic productivity and even their health and safety. Some of the strategies in the urbanist toolbox promote this engagement, including increasing population concentration, building public spaces like parks and plazas as well as having mixed neighborhoods with bars and restaurants. Slower traffic speeds as well as bike lanes and sidewalks encourage people to get out of their cars and increases their engagement with others. What doesn’t work are the key components of what is now called suburban sprawl: cul-de-sacs, single use zoning, car-dominated public space, and strip commercial.
Unfortunately, the resurgence of urban neighborhoods –driven by major demographic and market shift–has lit a fire of protectionism in the very neighborhoods that were almost destroyed by the anti-urban policies of the past and that are benefiting from strong interest in urban living. And this protectionism takes the form of opposing actions that increase the flow of information and new people that Pentland identifies as key to urban vitality. Opposition to multi-family housing as well as mixing housing and businesses along with demands for continued subsidies for auto ownership (eg, required parking and free on-street parking) are common examples of this counter-productive approach. Under the banner of “protecting their quality of life” advocates for freezing development in late-1900s patterns ignore that their neighborhoods have been resurrected by the recent inflow of people and investment.