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Open data

These days we are burning the midnight oil in order to finalise an analytical report about the capital of Norway: Oslo. This particular report has been on its way for about a year, but the Oslo/Gehl relationship was established 26 years ago when Jan Gehl, in collaboration with Karin Bergdahl, made the first Gehl’ish-survey of Oslo for the Norwegian Institute of City Development (IN’BY). In the true spirit of the office, the 2013 report builds upon the same clear principles of observation, as were applied in 1987; there are pedestrian counts and well-documented observational studies of stationary activities from both a weekday (Tuesday) and a weekend (Saturday). The data-collection and comparative ability of the data is crucial. Yet, as the footman that has to type-in, organise and keep track of these numbers, I would like to register a personal note of observation: It seems that the complexity of city-analysis has increased more than six-fold from 1987 to 2013.

StudyArea

Graphics showing how the study area has expanded since 1987.

In 1987 when Jan Gehl and Karin Bergdahl collected data, they had – quite ingeniously – chosen 8 primary locations for their survey. We chose 55. They also limited themselves to span 1½ seasons. We chose 3. They registered pedestrians and stationary activities. We added age/gender registrations on top of that. You might be thinking that this is a great improvement of the survey. I think that it is an insane amount of numbers to collect; 9.425 rows of figures in excel to be exact. I counted them…thrice.

The reasons for this expansion of the survey area lies partly in the expansion of the city itself, but also largely in the changing attitudes towards city boundaries. Today, the old city centre of Oslo only has 900 inhabitants, compared to 8400 in Copenhagen and 3100 in Stockholm (source: Gehl internal data).  Therefore, the city centre is dependent on the inhabitants of the surrounding areas, from where it draws its life. Figuratively, the city centre can be seen as the heart of Oslo, and in order to figure out the well-being of this ‘organ’ it is necessary to check the flows through all the veins that feed into it – hence the expanded survey.

At Gehl Architects, we still rely largely on being in the field. The Oslo report has had almost 100 helpers on the streets to collect data from the 55 locations, on Tuesdays and Saturdays throughout 3 seasons. Could we have digitalised the process? Yes and no. Because, although some counts could be digitalised, a computer is still not able to give us clues as to why the daily rhythms appear in the way that they do, on our data charts. When a count drops from 3000 pedestrians per hour at 3pm, to 100 pedestrians per hour at 4pm, the note from the observer stating that “A crazy rainfall left the streets bare” is essential to understanding the numbers. A digitised count would have left us to wonder about the dramatic change. A computer does not have the ability to register street-artists, kids playing, adults chatting, dogs being walked, gardens being tended, jugglers being cheered  by the shopping crowds or crows being fed by elderly ladies. Or any other wonderful, crazy and energetic activity that makes a city lively and lovely!

Once the data has been collected and organised it does create an amazing insight into the life of the city – throughout the days, the weeks and the seasons. The extensive survey is an endless goldmine to understanding the city’s rhythms. We need this understanding in order to deliver qualified recommendations for improving livability. Even if I have to go cross-eyed over 9.425 numbers for a couple of weeks.

In 2011, The Economist named Melbourne  the world’s most liveable city. In many circles this was celebrated as the culmination of two and a half decades of investment in the quality of Melbourne’s centre – particularly the amenity provided in the public realm. But this is not a fair reflection of the reality. The Australian and Canadian Cities that consistently top The Economist’s liveability indexes do so in large part due to their suburban densities, the very suburbs that are the focus of increasing criticism on environmental and public health grounds. The rural/urban dichotomy does not adequately describe the modern city.  As we edit our cities to prepare them for the 21st century, the last thing we should be doing is glossing over the form, the fabric that generates the differences, for comparison’s sake.

There are in fact two Melbournes: Greater Melbourne and the City of Melbourne. Greater Melbourne is the full extent of the Melbourne Metropolitan Region with a built-up area of around 2,152 km² and a population over 3.4 million. It can take two hours to drive across. This region is what The Economist bases its liveability survey on. The City of Melbourne is a small municipality within Greater Melbourne with a population of 100,000 in an area of just 37.6 km². It is the commercial hub of the region and can be cycled across in 30 minutes. The City of Melbourne has been celebrated for innovative urban design while Greater Melbourne has been criticised for suburban sprawl. 73% of residents of Greater Melbourne live in detached, single-family dwellings compared to 77% who live in apartments in the City of Melbourne. In this way, two distinct patterns of habitation are described by the same moniker: Melbourne.

The trumpets have sounded and the critics have heralded mankind’s passage into an age of cities, with more than 50% of the world’s population now ‘urban’. Indeed, The London School of Economics has declared the beginning of the Urban Age. But is it too soon? Or as Malu Byrne in the NYT suggests, is it too late, and the young creative class is fleeing cities in search of affordability. In Melbourne’s case, is it right to label a predominantly suburban agglomeration (defined by a flexible administrative boundary) a city? Or is it the case, in fact, that we need a better definition of what constitutes a city, particularly when we discuss quality of life, sustainability and health in relation to urban form?

Suburban densities of the kind found in Greater Melbourne (1,567 ppl/km²) and many western cities are the subject of intensifying criticism for their environmental impact, exposure to increasing oil prices, congestion and over-representation in lifestyle disease statistics. These statistics are often embedded in an administrative boundary that describes both suburban and urban conditions, just as The Economist’s quality of life data is. The endemic lack of articulation has resulted in situations such as people leaving cities to pursue a ‘healthy lifestyle’ in the suburbs – when studies have shown they should do the opposite. Likewise, when we say the majority of the world’s carbon emissions come from cities this is misleading – they come from the suburbs (of cities).

A better definition

What if we took the rural/urban definition and added a third category: suburban. In Australia it may work like this: According to The Economist, 89.1% of Australians lived in urban areas in 2011. But if we include 2006 Australian Census Data for housing typology a different picture emerges:

11% of Australians lived in rural houses (rural)

67% of Australians lived in detached houses (suburban).

22% of Australians lived in apartments and attached houses (urban )

Australia is not in an Urban Age, nor is most of the Western world, and most of the cities that top the quality of life indices (Vienna is a notable exception worthy of further study) – the same cities that have some of the highest per capita carbon emissions and obesity rates in the world. We have declared globally that it is the beginning of the ‘Urban Age’, romanticizing humanity’s migration towards the cause and panacea of its problems: the city. In fact, many western cities are in a Suburban Age where large, detached, single-family homes are considered a birth-right. As liveability, health and sustainability merge, it will become increasingly evident just how suburban the world’s most liveable ‘cities’ actually are.  One of the great architectural challenges of our age will be urbanising suburbia. Another will be convincing developing countries what first world cities have experienced first-hand – that cities built for cars are less successful than those planned around pedestrians. Liveability data should be carefully studied before it is used for anything other than what it was intended: a tool for remuneration. Until we link urban form with quality of life in a more robust way it will be difficult to argue that sustainability, liveability, health, connectivity and competitiveness are one and the same – as many of us already feel to be the case. Meanwhile, we can celebrate Melbourne, the world’s most liveable suburb.

Further Reading: Urban does not necessarily mean central city, as this article by Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institute explores.

Gehl Institute bloggers are Simon Goddard, Claire Mookerjee, Jo Posselt and Jeff Risom

In the first installment of this series we discussed how data in cities can give visibility to values that were previously neglected or misunderstood. Here we will look at the city of Copenhagen and see how people- focused-data, people-first values have become embedded in the administration and institutionalised in the city over the last 40 years.  These, amongst other factors contribute to Copenhagen as one of the most liveable cities in the world (according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, and Monocle Livability indices).

The city of Copenhagen actually has a municipal department specifically for city life. In addition to the typical departments of planning, transportation and parks, the social life of the city, the human dimension of creating the conditions to encourage public life have also been allocated resources and a budget. Beginning already in the 1960s, people-first strategies began to be embedded in the governance of the city, and institutionalised at different levels. It was a movement, critically not of one individual’s political vision but a generation of politicians, planners, and citizens supported in-part, by the collected data to shape their vision by Prof Jan Gehl and Prof Lars Gemzoe.  The department now has the ambition that by 2015 80% of Copenhageners will be satisfied with the opportunities in the city to participate in public life.

This data has proved very important in the evolution of Copenhagen as a people-first city. Professor Gehl’s research has shown politicians on both sides of the aisle that careful investments in the public realm result in consistent increase in the vitality of public life. Prof Gehl and his students carried on doing these surveys of Copenhagen every 10 years, demonstrating the changes and advocating further change based on how the city was performing for people. This process of continual measuring, evaluating and creating new targets has embedded the values of a people first city at every level. A cycle account is published every two years and initially unsuccessful or unpopular projects are tested, refined and adjusted allowing the city to be courageous, to fail and learn from their mistakes.  Using these methods it is possible for all political parties to evaluate projects successes and failures from a common city for people perspective.

The culture this foments is evident in the streets and in how people engage with the city. If you wish to have an event in the city or start a business the municipality tries to help you – there’s even a special button on the website to press should you encounter any difficulties. Rather than acting in the negative as an imposing authority, the city seeks to act in ways that respond to needs with an intelligent and open attitude. Confronted with the problem of pizza boxes over-flowing out of the bins near a popular pizza restaurant along the newly renovated Søndre Boulevard, , rather than putting up signs saying ‘No Pizza Boxes!’, the city designed bins with an extra-large pizza sized slat to accommodate them.

Before and after changes made along Kompagnistræde, Copenahgen

Methods

The methods Gehl used to collect data were simply readings of the city from ‘eye-level’, which was a very important aspect of the data he generated. Rather than being another specialised data set, belonging to one silo of abstract knowledge Gehl’s research could be understood by all who lived in as well as acted on the city making it easily understandable in decision making discussion. Birgitte Svarre the co-author of the forthcoming title with Jan Gehl, How to study public life (working title), comments that ‘data that can evaluate projects can engender politicians with a qualified base from which to talk…..they can measure the success of projects and create momentum for asserted change’.

But what can we learn about this methodology and the way it has become embedded in municipality and culture of Copenhagen in light of Open Data?  As the European data forum 2012 came to a close in Copenhagen yesterday we reflected on the sheer amount of data that will be available in the coming years, both about the physical space, the hardware of the city collected by sensors but also digital fingerprints of our social behaviour, the software through social media, ecommerce and search engines. So many new opportunities are on the horizon from better informed mobility choices, to entrepreneurial opportunities in the exciting whole new sector being labelled the ‘data economy’.

However – if ‘empiricism will always confirm the status quo’ , it falls to us to make sure that as it becomes possible to measure, generate and collect more data, we have clear eyes as to what values drive the work, and whose interests it serves. We must be careful of not merely making correlations between that which is easy to compare, measuring the interaction between hardware and software of the city will continue to be difficult. And of course, we must remember to inject imagination into the political debate around city living. We want people to dare to dream, through projects such as Sustainia in Denmark- a collaborative imagining of what the sustainable future city might be. If data is the ‘raw material of the 21st century’ it will surely have a key role in its shaping, but we must be weary of a data determinism – to face the immense challenges of our urbanising world we must also be inspired.

Gehl Institute bloggers are Simon Goddard, Claire Mookerjee, Jo Posselt and Jeff Risom


What does a high tech, networked city look like? Credit; James Silver, Wired Magazine

Predicting the future of cities is somewhat of a misnomer  - if  a very enjoyable one. However redundant an exercise of itself it mostly is (posterity tells us how wrong it can be), as part of an ongoing process of imagineering our actual futures –  as a conversation, it is crucial.  In a time of rapid global urbanization, thinking and planning for the future of city life is vital if we are to sustain population growth whilst ensuring quality of life improvements across the globe.  The Future City Lab, is an open-source initiative for accruing ideas of our future urban environments by a means of crowdsourcing positive utopian ideas for 2050.   In a conversation with Martin Haas, partner of Stuttgart based Haas Cook Zemmrich and co-founder of Future City Lab, Jeff Risom Head of Gehl Institute, answers provocative musings about the role of technology in the city and how radically different – or similar – city life  in 2050 might be…..

1. Haas – In the age of ubiquitous and mobile computer technology, the longing for the “real” and the “tangible” will become a counter-pole that also shapes society. How will that influence cities?

Risom - From the telegraph to the telephone to Twitter, statistical evidence indicates that the creation of new communication technology has always increased the demand and frequency of physical meeting. Otherwise why would the computer industry’s innovators, with the means to connecting collaborators from afar, all choose to locate in an area with some of the most expensive real estate in the world: Silicon Valley.  Yet Silicon Valley as it exists today is the manifestation of 20th century paradigm based on the proximity to a leading university and the concentration of the best and the brightest working in elaborate and expensive, but often isolated corporate office parks. It is cities, with their diversity, opportunity for chance encounters, proximity to customers and related industries that provide the fertile ground for cultivating the ideas that will shape the future.

People still choose to engage in private use of media out in public space

Alone-together. With opportunities for planned or spontaneous meetings, Broadway, New York

2. Haas – In the near future most commodities and services will be available through networking and digital means. Is that the end of shopping malls and retail stores?

Risom - The virtual cannot be conceived as a replacement for “bricks and mortar”, but rather an extra layer that enhances the physical. This added layer of the virtual (which has the potential to lead to more urban density and complexity) only increases the need for thoughtfully designed streets and public spaces. While the potential for technology is huge, we must be careful to not to confuse a city – which is really defined by the people and their interconnected daily lives with its infrastructure, buildings, or technology. Therefore shopping malls and retail stores (or some form of market spaces) will always exist, perhaps not for consumption, but certainly as places for people to meet and interact.

Retail Mall, Pearl St, Boulder

3rd Avenue Promenade LA. Places for cultural exchange and recreation/ play as well as shopping

3. Haas – A responsive mobility network will be created. It will respond to the demands of each individual but will at the same time be linked to a ‘collective mobility’. There will no longer be a need to separate private and public traffic. How does this influence the quality of streets?

Risom - I believe that notions of public and private are fundamental to human co-existence and ownership is a very powerful right.  So rather than the blurring of public and private, I foresee a form of mobility based on “The Sharing Economy”. This concept of more effectively sharing commodities like private vehicles (the average car is used only 10% of its lifetime and during rush hour in a typical high-income city, only 25% of all private vehicles are in use) will allow us to consume less, more effectively use existing capacity of systems and resources, and provide more freedom of choice in mobility options.  This will allow us to build denser along existing streets and transit corridors, meaning street space will become more vibrant but also more contested.  In a typical city, streets comprise 20% of all urban space and up to 80% of public open space.  In the future, the incredible resource and potential that streets provide will be better utilized.

Flexible parking space for cars and bikes depending on the time of day, Copenhagen

Welcome back to Gehl Institute’s partnership with Untapped Cities in New York, looking at the impact of data, both open and collected, in the design of cities.

On March 7, New York City became the first local government to pass legislation ensuring public access to data. The passing of the bill symbolizes a political embrace of the “open” culture already underway in New York City’s “Silicon Alley.”  City agencies and non-profit organizations in New York are making new correlations between urban conditions and social phenomenon, utilizing crowdsourcing and open data, to support traditional methods of data analysis.

Open Plans, a New York-based non-profit organization with a focus on transportation and urban planning, is an example of such a progressive group. The Open Plans team builds software which enables public agencies and non-profit organizations to crowdsource input from the community. You may recognize their work with New York City’s Department of Transportation’s interactive bike station suggestion map from this past year. In its decade of existence, Open Plans developed open source projects which include OpenGeo, Streetfilms, Streetsblog, GothamSchools, Civic Commons and OpenTripPlanner. According to the non-profit, all the tools serve to facilitate open source software, information transparency and progressive transportation planning.

Recently, Open Plans co-hosted a panel at the American Planning Association (APA) Conference in Los Angeles with Denver-based firm Place Matters, highlighting the challenges to come as we navigate amidst a constant and sometimes overwhelming flow of data. Important questions loom: How do we make sense of the data? With limited resources, should companies focus on making the quality of data better or the analysis tools better?

Publicly submitted requests for bike share stations in NYC

In partnership with Open Plans, the NYC Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) has also embraced this trend towards a more “open” culture by utilizing crowd-sourced information to plan station locations for the soon-to-be-launched Citibank bike share program. Bicycle commuting has increased in the city (35% from 2007 to 2008), but there are still significant challenges associated with bike ridership, including access. The collected crowd-sourced data, submitted via an interactive map on the NYCDOT website, allowed the public to suggest bike share stations for the rollout.

To read the full article visit Untapped Cities

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