Data-driven Simulations Can Lead to Big Changes for Urban Planners

UrbanSim aims to help urban planners better understand the impact of interventions, but also to increase the inclusiveness and transparency of planning processes by involving citizens throughout.

In cities across the world, governments use data—about infrastructure, health and safety, or citizen satisfaction—to improve services. But data also has a critical role in shaping the very space of the city, informing the design of new buildings, infrastructure, and neighborhoods. With the help of big data and analytics, urban planners can now use simulations to anticipate the impact of urban development programs. Using these tools, cities can become more sustainable and strategic, while the planning processes become ever more inclusive.

The most fundamental benefit of simulation is the ability to mitigate the problem of “unintended consequences” by using realistic models to predict effects on land valuation, employment patterns, and transportation mode choice. In urban planning, optimizing one system often comes at the expense of functionality in other areas: the construction of much-needed housing can lead to overburdening the local transportation infrastructure; campaigns for water conservation can, ironically, damage a city’s water infrastructure.

Simulation allows planners to anticipate cascading effects across urban systems from water management to energy and waste management to parking. Simulations are an important bridge between theory and experiment: without affecting real-world situations, designers can predict the outcome of interventions across a range of scenario specifications. Simulations have thus become an indispensable tool for urban planners.

Simulations driven by big data can also help to ameliorate long-standing democratic deficits in the planning process. Making decisions about the future of cities has always relied on in-person interaction, as officials solicit the input of citizens in the context of city hall hearings or community planning meetings. Such meetings historically exclude many residents: parents who are taking care of their children cannot attend an evening meeting; working people cannot attend during the work day; and citizens with limited English language capabilities might have difficulty participating without translators. But a range of new tools are allowing urban planners to expand the scope of their input by drawing in data on urban systems and allowing residents to voice their ideas online.

Simulations have been used for many years, with land use models and economic forecasting serving a central role in urban planning since at least the 1970s. But these models were hampered by limited technologies: at the time, data collection was difficult and costly, computational power was severely limited, analytic capabilities were rudimentary, and computer-based visualization still lay in the future. Planners used statistical models to estimate the relationship between factors like population growth and urban density, but these simulations were still a far cry from integrated analytical tools and vehicles for public outreach and engagement.

Much has changed in recent years. Today, online data collection and sensor systems in the environment are generating unprecedented quantities of data, enhancing the predictive power of statistical models. Spatial information systems are becoming more advanced, allowing for better geographical analysis and compelling visualizations that can communicate potential outcomes to citizens. And the growth—by leaps and bounds—of computing power allows planners to easily calculate the interrelationships of multiple urban systems. On the basis of these transformations, platforms for urban simulation have proliferated, including both comprehensive systems and system-specific prediction tools.


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