Big Urban Data: Supporting Sustainable City Growth

Cities are complex and intricate systems that face a mix of challenges when it comes to decisions about development. As cities continue to grow, so too does the need for the sustainably integrated infrastructure, improved social cohesion, and better quality of life for residents. Urban planners must apply practical and critical thinking skills to solve problems and think decades into the future.

How we plan our cities today undoubtedly shapes our residents’ lives tomorrow.

With the evolution of technology as a tool, we are now able to capture and analyze massive amounts of data about our cities’ many facets. This big urban data is being used to optimize how our cities function, grow, and prosper long into the future. Essentially, city planners use big urban data to intelligently – and intentionally – design better cities.

What is Big Urban Data?

The term “big data” has been trending for some time. Facebook and Google both collect big data on their users in order to better target their specific characteristics with information, advertising, and other resources. Big data consists of massive amounts of data sets which are so detailed that an Excel spreadsheet just won’t do.

When applied to cities, big urban data is the very detailed information gathered about residents of a city. The information can be analyzed as a whole, or it can be broken down into segments such as neighborhoods or socio-demographics. The big urban data is then used to help city planners make decisions about development projects, city services, community programs, infrastructure plans, and many other systems we may not yet know we even need.

In a nutshell big urban data is used to help cities find metrics and set operational standards and goals based on those metrics. It then helps to ensure those goals are being met.


What Type of Big Urban Data is Being Captured?

The big urban data is captured on almost every point of function and interaction you can think of. All around us there are sensors which capture and record information about our lifestyles such as transportation methods, garbage disposal, and energy and water consumption. By recording when and where all of these data sets occur, in which neighborhoods, and by which demographic segments, city planners are better able to analyze and serve their customers: you.

What do Cities do with Big Urban Data?

Capturing big urban data is the first step in understanding exactly how our cities operate. Technology helps us see the whole picture of a city’s impact on business, individuals, and the planet, in real-time. The very purpose of these tools is to show us things we can’t possibly conceive – and we certainly can’t guess. By knowing minute by minute how our cities are operating, we can use big data to project growth, consumption, and lifestyle activities. Here’s an overview of how big urban data will improve our cities over time:

Big urban data…

Makes cities more liveable through community engagement, better access to varying types of transit, and community planning that’s conducive to lifestyle such as mixed-use developments, co-housing, or any other form of innovative living/working spaces.

Makes cities more efficient by finding where energy and water are primarily being consumed and where waste is being accumulated, and making adjustments to improve technology in these areas.

Makes cities more sustainable by using the information to reduce impact on the planet while designing cities for better economic opportunities as demographics shift.

Makes cities more impactful by projecting population growth and lifestyle changes. When cities grow and a population ages there will be new requirements of the city’s infrastructure and services. Big data helps predict these needs.

Makes cities healthier through improved air quality initiatives, increased presence of green spaces, enhanced walkability, increased access to fresh food, and better communication and culture among residents.


Examples of Big Urban Data in Action

In North America, the fastest growing cities are often seen as the most desirable in terms of livability. However, these are often the ones with the most challenges. High crime rates, air pollution, traffic congestion, energy consumption, waste management, water supply, and high costs of living are all characteristics of North America’s most prominent cities. If we want to keep these growing populations, safe, healthy, happy, and prosperous we need to use the data we have to improve all facets of a city’s design.

Seattle and Microsoft

The City of Seattle, the local power utility provider, Accenture and Microsoft have been working together using Microsoft’s cloud computing technology to help downtown Seattle office buildings reduce their energy consumption. The big data collected form this initiative is expected to help implement performance systems that will lower energy consumption by 15 to 25 percent in each building. Not only that, but Microsoft can use the data collected to help implement similar initiatives in other cities.

San Francisco and Synthicity

Synthicity is a Berkeley-based tech startup that’s using big data to help the city of San Francisco face some of its biggest urban planning challenges. Their unique software programs will analyze various data sets including buildings, transportation, land use, and housing prices among others. The data collected can help the city make urban planning decisions including the re-design of existing policies.

Chicago and The Array of Things

Chicago is America’s third largest city and also the biggest sufferer of Urban Heat Island effect. This has had serious repercussions on the overall health of the Windy City. A new initiative called “the Array of Things” will help the city at any given time monitor current levels of health. This includes a complete ‘array’ of metrics like temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, light, and sound. The data collected will be able to tell residents of Chicago which neighborhoods are more prone to certain issues than others. The City will then in theory be able to make appropriate adjustments to future planning decisions based on the data collected.

Though big urban data models seem replicable from city to city, it’s important to understand that cities are unique. Though they face similar challenges, the severity of certain challenges may differ from one region to another. That being said, we can all learn from the positive solutions that are being implemented in various cities around North America. That’s part of what makes each city desirable in its own way.

About The Author

PowerHouse Growers
PowerHouse Growers teaches you how to sustainably integrate urban agriculture into your cities, businesses, and homes. We provide clear solutions and benefits for better health, increased productivity, and lower environmental impact. By connecting you with experts, we bring awareness to solutions that may not be top of mind.