The Intersectionality of Urban Form and Spatial Analysis

Can planners, developers, and architects incorporate spatial analysis tools to design more sustainable, equitable, and enjoyable cities? Andres Sevtsuk believes so and his work, incorporating urban design with spatial analysis, aims to allow practitioners and academics to envision built environments that foster walking and biking and which maximize street-level interactions, support street commerce and generate pluralistic community centers. He works with models that evaluate how the structure of the built environment—its physical form, land use patterns, mobility options and demographic characteristics—can generate pedestrian flows and social interactions that sustain local economic development, improve public health, lower transportation energy expenditure, and build social awareness. Sevtsuk is the Charles and Ann Spaulding Career Development Associate Professor of Urban Science and Planning and director of the City Form Lab (CFL), both housed within the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.

The CFL brings together spatial analysis and design to develop context sensitive and timely insight about the role of urban form in affecting the quality of life in 21st century cities. Examples of their projects include: the Urban Network Analysis Toolbox, a Rhino3D plugin that offers planners and architects methods for analyzing spatial accessibility, pedestrian flows, and facility patronage along spatial networks; and, Future of Streets, a collaboration with the city of LA, Ford, and Renault-Nissan that explores what planning and policy strategies city governments can leverage to ensure that implementations of new street-based mobility solutions (e.g. shared, automated and electric vehicles) help maximize multi-modal, socially inclusive, and environmentally sustainable outcomes.

Q1 Would you discuss your forthcoming book, Street Commerce: The Hidden Structure of Vibrant Sidewalks (Penn Press)?

Sevtsuk: The book examines the spatial logic and social importance of street commerce – fragmented and diverse sets of retail, food, and service establishments along city streets. It tries to offer a comprehensive overview of forces that shape street commerce in cities—economic theory, location analysis, urban design principles, regulatory policies, and merchant organization models—putting forth suggestions on how city planners, policy makers, and urban designers can bolster street commerce in different environments.

At its core, the book argues that “good” street commerce is part and parcel of building inclusive, diverse, and vital local economies, convivial neighborhoods, and sustainable cities. However, municipalities and communities will only realize such gains and benefits if they proactively plan and regenerate street commerce. Rarely is “good” street commerce achieved by private market forces alone—urban policymakers, planners, and the public all have to rise to the occasion, and if there should be one takeaway from the book, it is that there is no lack of practicable planning insights and templates.

For decades, American cities helplessly watched as retailers trailed the fleeing middle class out to the suburbs, taking with them a vital tax base and perpetuating an unsustainable wave of car-oriented shopping center development. Today, many of these malls are shuttering and many retailers are once again following the middle-class back to commercial corridors and districts in the urban core. But e-commerce has also emerged as a veritable force that is reshaping brick and mortar stores in interesting ways. Far from killing street commerce, I argue that we are witnessing a reorganization of urban retailing where malls and big-box chain stores are most affected, while urban street commerce has a lot to benefit.

Q2 You have worked both internationally and domestically – could you speak to some of the differences you have observed in how cities and city governments are adopting new technologies and incorporating data science into their urban planning processes?

Sevtsuk: I have collaborated with planning authorities in the US, Singapore, Estonia, and Indonesia. While it is hard to generalize about technology adoption in these varying contexts, I do think tools and data for planning tend get adopted when there is a clear opportunity to improve existing processes or ways of work. Good uses of technology can make previous planning processes easier, faster, and more equitable.

Singapore is a centralized state with a very high level of education amongst civil servants. Due to the heavy role of government in planning, there has been a lot of investment into data and planning tools. Singapore might well be the most planned city in the world and its planners tend to experiment a lot with technology.

The situation in Estonia is quite different—state and city governments are also highly capable, but due to the adoption of strong neo-liberal ideologies in the early 90s, the public sector sees its role more in regulating private sector initiatives than putting forth visions and plans. Technology is heavily used at the state level, where Estonia remains a leader in e-government solutions, but data and tools are not used as much in municipal planning. There is a rather strong private technology sector that has produced innovative software solutions for urban applications, such as e-parking, transit ticketing, mapping, location-based services, but these companies are pursuing their business interests, not necessarily primarily focused on creating better cities.

US and Indonesia are so large that the cases of technology and planning, I am familiar with, differ vastly between different cities and regions. Perhaps what I admire most about American government attitude to data is to that much of the data that is collected with tax-payer funding must also be made freely available for public use. I believe this has been critical to sustain a high-level of practical planning research in academia, which has helped establish admirable connections between universities, city governments as well as private sector planning and infrastructure firms.

Q3 What projects are you most excited about exploring in the near future?

Sevtsuk: One of the things I am most excited about with respect to returning to MIT is the research environment and culture at the Institute.

One of my current projects examines large anonymous datasets of pedestrian traces in cities to test, at scale, how people actually walk in cities, which routes they choose and why. This is helping us build better tools for predicting pedestrian activity in new urban developments and plans. I have been working on modeling pedestrian flows for years now, but we haven’t yet figured out how to scale up the approach so that city governments could start requiring “pedestrian impact assessments” (as opposed to “traffic impact assessments”) from new developments. I think if developers were required to demonstrate how their projects add to the walkability of an area, public discourse would also shift from its historic fixation on car-oriented transport to other important things that take place on streets and sidewalks, resulting in a better public realm.

Another avenue of research that I am excited about are rapid developments in software tools for planning practitioners. I think we will be seeing some interesting work that better connects analysis to design and analysis to policy using simulation tools. These could, for instance, allow us to study how different planning or policy proposals could affect mobility patterns, housing affordability, or urban energy use in newly designed or retrofitted districts. This will not only allow practitioners to make more informed decisions, it can also lead to the emergence of new development typologies that influence what kinds of built environments we produce in the 21st century.

The City Form Lab is also collaborating with the Harvard Kennedy School on studying underinvested and distressed properties in ten cities around New York state. We are collaborating with city governments and working with very fine grain, property-level data to better understand which factors are contributing to housing deterioration and related health issues, social stress and economic disempowerment. We hope to leverage the data to assess the root causes of property decline and work with the cities to come up with strategies and tactics to address them.