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Blog - Can you use ‘big data’ to map great places?

This blog post is the fifth in a series of guest entries written by the winners of the Catapult’s Future of Planning Open Call. Between February and April 2017, nine teams are developing new technologies and prototypes to create a more data-driven and digitally enabled planning system. This week, we feature a blog post from Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets who are working on an online tool to measure the quality of a place and analyze correlations between urban form and well being, health, happiness and value.

Follow @createstreets to learn more about their project.

What makes a place? Other things being equal, where are people more likely to be happy? And why? Can you map and predict such places?

David Halpern (Director of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Unit) once said that, “architecture and planning does not have an empirical, evidence-based tradition in the sense that… sciences would understand.” He’s right. There is no generally accepted ‘measure’ of the quality of a place. Indeed many planners and architects argue that quality is purely subjective. This is incorrect. While preferences may be subjective at the individual level correlations between urban form with outcomes are objective at the city level.

The social enterprise that I run, Create Streets, does research into associations between different types of building and urban form with popularity, wellbeing, long term economic value and density. We think that it is possible, with growing confidence, to answer these types of questions. Peer-reviewed work over the last 30 years and our own research is finding that what is popular and correlations between elements of urban form and good mental and physical health or value (though complex) are predictable. Of course, everywhere is different and needs to be so. However, the evidence does permit us to pull out the themes which need to find a distinct and individual form and flavour place by place. For example, a popular environment in which people walk a lot and are happy and which is a good long term residential investment is very unlikely to contain blocks that are too big or have long blank walls. ‘Walking architecture’ is more popular, more complex and more valuable than ‘driving architecture.’

Thanks to Future Cities Catapult we are now building a prototype tool which links the available data on urban form, heritage, connectivity and other data-points with analysis of where people are more likely to be happy and healthy. This will permit planners, development control officials, developers and member of the public, for the first time to measure what the quality and potential of an individual place or street is. We are calling it StreetScore. Additionally, it should be able to permit users to measure what impact different interventions (more street trees, less traffic, changes to building facades etc.) would have to ‘Street Score’ and to adjust the underlying ‘weighting’ as they desire.

A lot of rubbish is talked about ‘place-making’ which has all but lost its meaning so over-used is the phrase. We hope that StreetScore might restore some empiricism and some popularity to development discussions. Watch this space!

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