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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


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

Excited conversations around Open City Data in our office have kept returning to the past – to our own experiences and stories that have framed our understanding of data in cities more broadly over the last 12 years in practice (and 40 years of Jan Gehl’s research). Here we will share some of our thoughts based on these experiences. Our practice’s foundational values are grounded in understanding the human experience of the city, and this sensibility extends to how we approach technological changes that affect it. Open data for us and the increased salience of transparency it evokes should be understood as social change, not simply technological development. There has been a cultural and political shift in will that has created a climate for the emergence of a collaborative spirit. Innovation through mining latent values is – it could be asserted – the spirit of our time in an age of scarcity.

Smart cities, smart phones and censors will create a flood of data and measurements, however it is still what we choose to do with this data, how we apply it, how we process it and of what quality it is that will influence decision makers and create a shift in the city – not the quantity or digital nature of it.

‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’                -  Albert Einstein

All over the world there is a shift by governments and organisations to try to capture alternative measures presenting a more even spread of values and interests that can be drawn on by decision makers.  From National Gross Happiness to measures of well-being, these attempt to capture changing societal values as they move away from the material towards quality of life concerns. This presents a significant challenge for statisticians but is necessary if we are to strive for socially and environmentally minded governance and escape the data ‘cage’ in which the economics of the twentieth century has left us. To continue to base decision making solely on that which is most easily measurable undermines the possibility for achieving the changes which our age demands. For instance, we believe environmental challenges require a more diverse set of responses than those offered by the currently myopically focused approach.

Open city data could offer the backbone to a new ecosystem of shared data, captured for different reasons and to alternate ends. It could sound the death knell for cities’ over-reliance on static sources of data, and provide the platform for much-needed change.

With permission of the Charles Booth Archive at the Library of the London School of Economics http://booth.lse.ac.uk/

Seeing is believing

In 1889 in London the philanthropist and social researcher Charles Booth, frustrated by the lack of data on the city’s changing demography and in particular on the city’s poor, set out to complete an extensive study of the people and places of the industrial city. Claimed to be a more lively and accurate portrait of London than even Dickens’ novels, his mixture of ethnographic, observational and spatial data filled many volumes and was expressed as a colour-coded, beautifully intricate map. This displayed the inequalities that went to form the ubiquitous paradox of the urban industrial society: ‘poverty in a land of plenty’.

Booth’s social survey caused a significant discursive shift – it served to dispel the myth that poverty was the punishment for idleness and immorality; that poverty was due to the failings of the poor themselves rather than society or the poor conditions of the city itself. Booth produced data which showed that 30% of the population lived in poverty caused by low pay, old age, sickness disability and unemployment – and that unemployment was in fact a spatial issue. This led to the urban malaise being treated as a spatial problem as well as an individual one. Areas of low-employment needed targeted injections of jobs, and so began the place based nature of urban regeneration and policy. The work proved to be revolutionary in the scientific spatial representation of society – social cartography or mapping began to interrogate the correlations between urban conditions and social phenomena. Journalistic accounts at the time reported poverty, and the places in which it was endemic – Dickens’ serialised and widely distributed novels dramatized the issues -  but picturesque narrations do little for the legislator. Social-scientific presentations, on the other hand, were more adept at forcing institutional responses. City managers ‘manage what they can measure’. This was – and still is – the bureaucrat’s remit, and this data gave the visibility necessary to spur change.  Booth and Rowntree (who conducted a social study of poverty in York) are cited in the reform of the poor law and their data is said to have inspired the Liberal government of 1906 to embark on their extensive welfare reform programme. The programme explicitly targeted children, the sick, the elderly and the un-employed  and is the basis of the modern-day welfare system.

Have we been measuring the right things?

Booth was a game changer, revolutionising the way in which data was used to feed into social policy.  Does ubiqutous data generated by mobile devices, data sensors and apps only promote a form of surveillance that can infringe on freedom of expression? Or can we use these feedback loops to ensure the city’s structures and systems can better adapt to the rapid change of the culture and lifestyle of urban living? It has been said that we will experience 100 years of social change over the next decade. Perhaps the emergence of open data as a new basis for urban decision making will respond to the uniqueness of our time in the way that Booth’s map did, with equally radical results. After all, that is precisely what we need.

Bloggers are Simon Goddard, Claire Mookerjee, Jo Posselt and Jeff Risom

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