Wringing Out New Truths From Data: Tracking Social Progress in Cities

Last year, Swale, a public food forest and foraging barge, was positioned along Brooklyn's East River waterfront.

Last year, Swale, a public food forest and foraging barge, was positioned along Brooklyn's East River waterfront. Gregor Macdonald / Special to Route Fifty


Connecting state and local government leaders

Urban designers are ready to help cities learn from each other, combing through data both old and new.

Starting back in 2009, MIT’s SENSEable City Lab began to use tiny RFIDs to track individual pieces of trash, hoping to learn something useful about the journey of city waste. In New York City, a radio-emitting tag was attached to a plastic soap container, and in Seattle, an aluminum can. The SENSEable City Lab at MIT was also the developer of a clever, attachable disc called The Copenhagen Wheel which, when fitted to a bicycle, promised to collect data on road congestion, and the route preferences of individual bike riders.

These early data-mining experiments flagged a kind of emerging intuition among urban scientists that cities, in all their complexity, had a lot more to tell us than the traditional metrics of GDP and population growth. Perhaps cities, if more fully interrogated, might give up their secrets to urban designers. And in turn, better solutions for recycling, transportation and the ongoing project of human well being.

The challenge, however, would be to formalize such data collection. And, to organize the results in ways that might not only be replicable, but transmittable so that other cities might learn from each other. When New York City began to experiment with pop-up parks, carving out over 70 small oases of safety from reclaimed streets across several boroughs in the last decade, the J. Max Bond Center at the City University of New York and the Gehl Institute and Gehl Studio of New York, a branch of Gehl Copenhagen, saw an opportunity to learn something new from this incremental greening of the city. And so, starting in 2014, they began to collect data.

The 2016 study, “Public Life in NYC Plazas,” went well beyond the standard economic metrics traditionally produced by such research. Indeed, the study showed that new indicators of community sentiment towards the parks, like stewardship, ownership, increased safety and beauty, and social connectivity, made for a more robust assessment of their total impact.

Toni Griffin, founding director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City, and currently professor in practice of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, said the inspiration to take such a new approach grew out of her own professional practice, and her time in the classroom. “I started to look back over my work, and I really began to ask whether the goals and intentions behind the design had come to fruition.”

Moreover, Griffin added: “Today, designers coming out of programs are much more entrepreneurial, and I wanted to help my students understand that, in design, much greater justice could be achieved.”

Griffin, along with Esther Yang, then JMBC deputy director and now a design director with the city of Detroit, and Julia Day of the Gehl Studio worked collaboratively on the NYC Plaza study, and spoke at length to Route Fifty about the new set of questions we can now ask, of cities. Griffin uses the phrase to interrogate the role of design, which nicely sums up the rich possibilities.

A conundrum in urban planning is that communities might want change but can often feel, afterwards, the change was not for them. The principles of community engagement are intended to close this gap and that’s why the findings from the NYC Plaza study are so useful: over 67 percent of those sampled felt a sense of ownership over the new pocket parks, so much so, that 64 percent had a sense of stewardship as well, reporting they would take a moment to keep the parks clean, picking up a piece of trash, if necessary. And really, when you examine the other indicators from the study, the creation of this ownership-stewardship makes perfect sense. Nearly all respondents, 87 percent, said the parks had improved the overall beauty of the area, with over half saying the parks had improved their social connections.

To create this data, of course, took time. Gehl Studio’s Julia Day reported that the study was two years in the making. And Toni Griffin explained that to collect this data required on-the-ground surveys, with polling and direct observation.

The Second Wave of Data Utilization

The advance of data utilization in the cause of better designed cities, and better policy, now appears to be proceeding along two, primary lines. Experiments of the kind first done by MIT have broadened outward, and there’s a flowering now of smart city technology that seeks to insert itself in urban infrastructure. Sensors placed in everything from park benches to water infrastructure are but a few examples. And the gathering of more qualitative data, of the kind undertaken by JMBC and Gehl, is part of this overall trend to produce new data series that, truly, did not exist previously.

But there’s a second wave of data utilization that wrestles existing data sets, combines them and uses statistical methods to wring out new truths.

“People are definitely building better tools, but we should also keep going back and looking at data that we’ve already created,” according to Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow at NewCities.

One example that Lindsay likes to cite is the breakthrough that researcher Mike Flowers made in New York City last decade, when his team discovered that residential building fires were highly correlated with illegal conversions—the breaking up of buildings into smaller apartments. The finding was particularly useful because it also had predictive value. Flowers, who had poked around the edges of big data for years, was eventually named chief analytics officer under the Bloomberg administration and led a team known as the geek squad.

Currently, the most high-profile researcher sifting through existing data sets is Raj Chetty, of Stanford, who is a co-director of The Equality of Opportunity Project. Fittingly, Chetty also offers an open course, free to the public, on the methods for using big data “to solve some of the most important social problems of our time.” That turns out to be an understatement. Chetty’s just released blockbuster study on social mobility combined both older and newly available data series from both the IRS, and the Census Bureau, to show that the constraint on upward mobility falls disproportionately, and tragically, on black men.

Chetty’s landmark studies have been attracting attention for some years now. His 2015 paper, showing that the neighborhoods themselves in which children grow up impact social mobility, was cited in the JMBC/Gehl study of NYC parks. If the life trajectory of children is impacted by the urban landscape they encounter, especially in their early years until the age of 12, then the opportunity to make an outsize impact on children’s lives is urgent. Here, we have an example of the two pathways of human-centered data coming together. If researchers continue to cull existing data to reveal the deeper layers of social inequality on a national level, then city-centered, or rural-centered, planners can make use of those insights to test further for those specific issues, and ameliorate them through design. This cycle of discovery and problem solving is not new, but it can be leveraged, for example, to create public facing dashboards like the kind now offered by Austin City Hall. Governments, who are often the custodians of data, can get wheels turning simply by making that data more available, and reader friendly.

The "Spirit of Detroit Pop-Up Park" in downtown Detroit. (Photo by Gregor Macdonald / Special to Route Fifty)

The Next Steps

The next steps in this emerging field can be seen in the formation of indexes, which by their nature, are shareable, and whose usability comes to fruition as a benchmark. Now at Harvard, Toni Griffin continues to pursue the work she began at JMBC, and has created The Just City Index. Here, 50 individual values have been identified and the presence of these values, or lack thereof, would determine an Indicator, of which there are 12. For example, in the Just City Index, freedom, knowledge, and ownership are the values that would determine how to read the presence of the indicator, Rights. And, adaptability, durability, and sustainability would determine the presence of Resilience.

Griffin said the index was just released this year, and, although it can be used as a platform, achieving a just city can be very contextual. “We want cities to be able to craft solutions that are particular to their city. So we believe the Just City Index can be used as a prompt, that can be used to align with their aspirations.”

The sharing of indicators, and the ability of solution-sets to propagate across domains, harkens back to an earlier study which Griffin and Esther Yang conducted on legacy cities, in 2015. Legacy cities are generally those cities that have lost industry and population over time, and as a result suffer from a surplus of land, and a lack of opportunity. It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon.

The intent, Yang explained, of their study Mapping American Legacy Cities, was to formalize problem indicators so that comparable cities could learn from each other. “The idea of the study,” Yang said, “was to be usable, to find out if other cities were trying a strategy that you might have tried. You could use the study to find your peer city.”

Learning from other cities, either within the U.S. or in other countries is an idea that’s very much ongoing. A new alliance, launched at last year’s COP23 meeting in Bonn, Germany now sees such legacy cities as Pittsburgh, Beijing and the German city of Essen collaborating on ways to go from green, to gray, to green again.

The evolution of everything new in this field has antecedents, of course, in the past. Gehl, as Julia Day explained, was founded in Copenhagen and has been undertaking studies of public life for decades. What’s new, Day said, is that “we have needed a way to understand people’s sentiment for a place.”

Perhaps the strongest indication that real progress is taking place is that cities, and city governments themselves, are also starting to adopt these views. According to Day, New York has now created a public plaza equity program, through its department of transportation, creating extra funds for these plazas. And the Gehl Institute, in partnership with Gehl, has just launched a  public life data protocol, in partnership with the cities of Copenhagen, San Francisco, and Seattle, to formalize the collection of public life data. “One thing we’re finding,” said Day, “is that cities now are wanting to learn a lot more about the impact public spaces can have.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Gehl Institute and Gehl Studio of New York are branches of Gehl Copenhagen.

Gregor Macdonald is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon and has written for Nature, Talking Points Memo and The Petroleum Economist.

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