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Data* is one of the big ideas of our time, or better said, it’s a big idea following on the heels of a mammoth established trend. This makes it much more powerful than if it were merely an idea, because it’s an idea resting on a foundation of facts. Those facts are that our lives and opinions and environments are documented to a completely unprecedented extent, and that documentation – that data – is available to third parties. Frequently it’s publicly available, or available to anyone with the skills and savvy to figure out how to get it, or it’s the property of some Big Authority somewhere. Regardless, it’s not really under your control, particularly because there’s so much data that tracking what you produce is a full time job. Social media, photo sharing, fitness trackers, web use, remote sensing, financial transactions…the list goes on and on. 

Besides being the plot of nearly every dystopian movie ever, the rise of Big Data is a mega-trend. That makes it a good candidate for the biggest influencer of the next 25 years, which concerns us in this course and anyone planning to work anytime before 2041. I imagine (hope) that includes most of us.

So what does data mean for urban environments and their residents? What does it mean for urban design?
That’s a question without a ready answer, which is a good reason to study it: any question worth asking doesn’t have a ready answer. So, how to go about answering an answer-less question? 

Look at what’s already been done around the edges of the question. In this case, that includes data-based plans for very large cities, performance landscapes, and citizen science. Green building, to a large extent, relies on data, particularly in the myriad rating systems required to achieve various certifications or credentials. These are based on checklists, and checklists, like surveys or quizzes on Facebook, are data. These certifications also strive to be objective and quantitative in their measurements, so they rely on thresholds and ranges – data again.   

At the outskirts of data + design, things get really weird, meaning futuristic and mind-blowing, with just a hint of sinister. Environments that respond to individuals via real-time data. Buildings joining the “internet of things.” This is all pretty hard to imagine, but there’s this thermostat already on the market. Research on office systems that adapt to individual users is going on right here right now, at the Syracuse Center of Excellence indoor environmental quality lab.  

Most of these projects differ in scale from our interests, with the metropolitan region plans at one end and that thermostat at the other end. What does data mean for the neighborhood or site scale?

If you’ll indulge me in a Gen X moment, I’ll observe that back in the day when I was doing my first degree in landscape architecture (ca. 1995), we made a lot of assumptions and generalizations about site functions and use because we had no data. You could talk to the client, visit the site in person, and collect your aerial photos – taken from a real plane about every five years and available only in hardcopy –  from the county offices. If the project went forward and the client hired you, you’d have a survey done – with actual instruments on the actual land – and then you’d know the topography and the dimensions of structures. You could sometimes get as-built drawings of buildings. It was nothing like the data glut we live in today. So design decisions often got made according to what we “knew,” not what we really knew, following, for example, the boss’s pronouncement that “no one plays tennis anymore.” Therefore: the park plan without a tennis court. 

My point, digital natives, is that the atmosphere or paradigm then was data scarcity, so we created ways of doing things that compensated for or disguised that lack. Tradition, culture, and convention have great influence in design; perhaps they do in every profession. Realize that much of “the way we do it” may/is/could be based on this data scarcity. A big part of earning a professional degree in any design field is learning “the way we do it,” so be wary.

How will urban design practice embrace the era of data?

Let’s find out.

WHAT DO I DO FOR CLASS? 

  • Read this post and click on all the links within it. 
  • Read the articles; review (that means look through, but don’t read every word) the websites.
  • Think about what you agree with, what you disagree with, and what doesn’t make sense to you. 
  • Come to class prepared to talk to your classmates about it.

*Yeah, I know it’s plural. In keeping with the informal tone and breezy feel of this blog and my classroom approach, I’m sticking with the common usage of “data” as singular.