The Role of Digital Datasets, Public Policy, and Cultural Heritage in Sustainable Urban Development

By Briana P. Grosicki, Director of Research for Heritage Strategies International
Large-scale digital datasets are all around us. From the international “open-data” movement to sustainability and climate change measures, large-scale datasets are driving innovation and collaboration of urban planning analysis and solutions. The Habitat III New Urban Agenda reminds us that good data is important to crafting good policy, and acknowledges “leveraging cultural heritage for sustainable urban development.” What do digital datasets, good public policy, and cultural heritage have to do with each other? Recent studies utilizing large-scale datasets indicate historic centers and cultural heritage areas are the most dense, active, and equitable spaces of a city. Furthermore, the New Urban Agenda points to cultural heritage and historic city centers as improving planning, livability, and sustainability of both older and newer urban areas. Urban policies that build upon reliable data analysis to promote spatial development of mixed-use, mixed-age buildings lead to sustainable development and transparent governance.
Advancements in digital innovation, data mining, and the international open-data movement are steering city planning towards an evidence-based approach. Examination of historic city centers and cultural heritage areas through data mining have yielded fascinating results. Italian researcher Marco De Nadai and his colleagues at the University of Trento’s recent project, titled “The Death and Life of Great Italians Cities: A Mobile Phone Data Perspective,” extracted mobile phone data to examine human behavior in six Italian cities. This data was cross-referenced with other large-scale datasets such as land use and Census information, and overlaid on Open Street Maps to test Jane Jacobs’ theories of vibrant city life. The four conditions central to Jacobs’ theories on urban dynamism – mixed-use, intersection density, diverse building age, and population density – were analyzed to measure vitality. The authors summarize their findings by stating, “active Italian districts have dense concentrations of office workers, third places at walking distance, small streets, and historical buildings.” Indeed, Jacobs’ theories still hold true today in Italy’s vibrant cities, and can be proven and visualized using open data and mapping systems.

District activity density in Milan and corresponding value of mixed land use, from The Death and Life of Great Italian Cities: A Mobile Phone Data Perspective.
District activity density in Milan and corresponding value of mixed land use, from The Death and Life of Great Italian Cities: A Mobile Phone Data Perspective.
In the United States, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab (PGL) created a methodology that utilizes a mix of public and private large-scale datasets to examine the role that older, smaller buildings play in the context of overall urban development. In 2014, PGL released Older, Smaller, Better, a report that examined the diversity of building age and size along with 40 economic, social, cultural, and environmental performance metrics in Seattle, Washington DC, and San Francisco. These metrics included data mining from Yelp business ratings, evening and nighttime cell phone activity, and These data layers were mapped and reviewed at a 200-meter-by-200-meter grid across each study city. The results show older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable, host greater population density, and more businesses per square foot. These older, mixed-use areas also house a significant portion of creative jobs, new businesses, and minority-and-women owned businesses than streets populated with only large, new buildings.
The New Urban Agenda specifically calls for a “transformation of policies” to highlight “spatial development that promotes mixed, connected, and compact cities and human settlements through integrated and participatory planning.” Across the globe, the historic city centers and older cultural heritage areas of cities are already fulfilling these goals. But just because data affirms historic areas are sustainable, vibrant, and vital to city development does not necessarily change the pernicious habit of promoting and enabling urban sprawl. The fight to convince policy-makers to use data to change city planning policy is ongoing across the world. A great example is Annette Kim’s book, “Sidewalk City: Mapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City.” There, she chronicles her work to prove that while Vietnamese officials want to clear the sidewalks of street vendors to impress tourists because they are not seen as clean or “modern,” street vendors play a critical role in the Vietnamese economy.
Simple open-data initiatives and analysis enabled by advances in modern technology allow us to examine what really make cities vibrant. Initiatives like Dublin’s “Dublinked” share city datasets such as public transportation, arts, heritage, and public health data with citizens and researchers. Sharing this data with the public at large is a critical component of advancing change in policy, and facilitates innovation and collaboration that would not have otherwise been possible. Open data enables citizens, such as Eric Fischer, to undertake creatieve projects and share them with the world. Fischer, a data artist and software developer, developed the Geotaggers’ World Atlas, which visually communicates how tourists navigate through cities by mapping the number of pictures taken, time spent in each location, and path of photographers in cities around the world. Fischer states:
“A cluster of geotagged photos is a good indicator of the interestingness of a place because it signifies that people went there in the first place, saw something worth taking a picture of, and put the extra effort into posting it online for others to appreciate. And a sequence of photos along a route is even more significant, because it indicates that someone sustained their interest over distance and time rather than taking one picture and turning back.”
In many of the cities the Geotaggers’ World Atlas maps, cultural heritage areas have the most photo routes, including New York’s Central Park and Moscow’s Red Square.
Eric Fischer
Eric Fischer’s Geotagger World Atlas Image of New York City.
The data points to historic city centers and cultural heritage areas as livable, sustainable, and dense. The international open-data movement leads to greater transparency and sharing with wider audiences. In the year of Habitat III, let us take the New Urban Agenda and facilitate a conversation with policy leaders about a data-based approach to planning that will promote revitalization of older and historic areas. Backed by evidence of vibrancy, density, and livability, leveraging cultural heritage will be the best way to advance sustainable urban development across the globe.
Caption for header photo: Volunteer surveyor gathers data using her smartphone in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Open Data:
Annette Kim’s Sidewalk City:
Preservation Green Lab:
Marco De Nadai’s Death and Life of Great Italian Cities:
Eric Fischer’s Geotaggers Atlas.

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