Measuring the Performance of Place

How we quantify place-based qualities.

Long Island City Partnership neighborhood map with local information about LIC, Queens. http://www.longislandcityqueens.com/maps/

We live in an exciting time for cities. Urban life is rapidly evolving with the introduction of new technologies. Once sci-fi movie-like tech advancements, such as autonomous vehicles, smart sensor networks, 3D printing in construction, and even buildings that grow themselves, are now becoming realities and impacting the way we develop our urban environments.

Certain cities are primed for the advent of these technical advancements. For example, Detroit, Michigan is an optimal place to integrate an autonomous vehicle fleet with existing vehicles. What better place to test-drive (pun intended) autonomous car fleets than an under populated sprawling city with many underutilized streets? Sounds like a perfect opportunity to improve infrastructure and quality of life without disrupting the lives of citizens. The autonomous car might enable Detroit to stitch together its disconnected communities, while simultaneously experimenting with the application of this new form of mobility. Think of what the world could learn from Detroit’s experience. For, learn, we must…

The impact of social experiments such as autonomous vehicles connecting urban communities cannot be effectively understood without a feedback and measurement system. Consider the value of effective feedback loops between policy makers and local communities — loops that drive better decisions about the impact of urban innovations on the specific characteristics of a place. Such place-based feedback for decision making could bring us closer than ever before to optimizing the performance of a place and help us make the best use of urban lands.

“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” — Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson)

How, then, do we measure the performance of a place? Identifying the right indicator to measure the performance of a place is problematic. Places are complex, especially places where we do the best job of using urban land already; in dense mixed-use neighborhoods. When it comes to these places, millions of separate, yet related variables all lead to a single thing; our day-to-day experiences.

Presumably we should value a place more as a result of an improved experience. So value may be the best way to quantify qualitative elements of a place that impact experience, but value is a tricky thing to measure. It can come in several forms: sentimental value, financial value, ecological value, and one may conflict with another. So, in terms of measuring “performance of place”, how do we measure it based on a combination of values?

Here I briefly explore “place-based experience”. The goal; to better understand how places perform and what makes some more valuable than others. Whether a building, a district, a city, or even an entire metropolitan region, places are measured by value in a variety of ways.

The Village Alliance map of dining and nightlife venues near public wi-fi hotspots (http://villagealliance.org/nyc-widgets/)

The Quality of Life Experience

People walk. We are bipedal creatures and our built environments, our cities, are designed around this fundamental reality. Some places are even designed for those of us unable to walk, yet our solutions to these challenges are inclusive, not exclusive, of this same reality. People walk.

It makes sense then, that our ability to get from point A to point B using our own two feet would be a natural way for us to experience a place. An innovative spatial data analysis tool, walkscore.com measures the performance of places from the perspective of “walkability”. That is, strong pedestrian linkages between specific destinations in an area create a higher quality of life for that area. Walk Score puts a lot of credence on the relationship between walkability and real estate values as a direct result of this quality of life aspect. For example, based on Walk Score, a place that enables you to walk from home to work, shopping, and recreational amenities, should rank high on a scale of walkability, which might correlate with real estate value. That said, there are situations where rating systems like Walk Score simply lack the local insight to apply an accurate assessment of how a place performs on the ground.

The Sustainability Experience

Another example, urban metabolism is a term that references the measurement of performance of place from the perspective of energy efficiency and the sustainable use of materials. If a place has robust recycling and renewable energy infrastructure in place, it may have a lower urban metabolism, which ranks high for sustainability. People experience sustainability less directly as a day-to-day, but it does impact one’s experience with a place. It relates to things like availability of energy, monthly energy bills, food supplies and options to eat well, waste management — to bring it closer to home for those of us in New York City — how much garbage is on the street on a daily basis.

The need for sustainability to play a role in how we measure places is becoming more apparent as the correlations between our daily experiences with a place and the sustainability initiatives that impact that place become more clear. As decision makers confront challenges tied to less sustainable land use practices, it is becoming more difficult to ignore the need for sustainability to play a role in all aspects of place-based decisions.

Yet while these two examples measure an important aspect of a place, how it’s valued in terms of walkability and sustainability, neither of these is comprehensive enough to translate the qualitative values of a place into a quantitative measurement for feedback. In other words, a place might rank high for walkability and sustainability, but still fall short of providing a valuable experience, or high performance of place.

The Built Form Experience

So taking a step back, one clear measurable way to assess the performance of place is through the financial value of local real estate. Real estate values are indicative of performance of place by virtue of how they reflect the demand for a place, or more specifically the existing built form or opportunity to build something in that place. If a place is performing well, whether sustainable, walkable or not, people want to be part of it, which drives demand for real estate in that place.

That said, real estate values alone also lack the necessary sense of local insight to effectively measure performance across the board, or rather the range of land uses. There are two well known ways to understand the value of real estate, and thus the performance of place: 1) public records on assessed value for tax purposes, and 2) the value established by a transaction, also known as the fair market value for property. The issue here is that even though real estate values are considered economic leading indicators, they are not publicly represented in a timely manner. Public records on assessed value are only updated quarterly at best in most localities, and real estate transaction timelines vary from property-to-property, place-to-place. Here too, we have an opportunity to improve how we measure built form’s value as it relates to the performance of a place.

At Citiesense we build technology that measures the performance of place in as close to real-time as possible. Our solution is a Neighborhood Knowledge Platform for community-based development organizations in cities. Right now neighborhood groups in New York City that manage Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) use the platform to analyze their own local information about a neighborhood in order to understand what makes it perform its best and how they can improve that performance.

Citiesense organizes local neighborhood-scale data into two primary categories for analysis; streetscapes and properties. Anything pertaining to either of these place-based categories can be mapped, tracked and instantly analyzed to make the relationships of the many different data points that impact our experience with a place more clear. The neighborhoods currently using Citiesense track things like vacancy of commercial space along certain streets, pedestrian activity on some corners verses others, the mix of local retail businesses, and the status of development activity at certain locations.

Photograph by Vincenzo Di Giorgi

As urban innovations scale and impact the way we change our cities, the way we confront challenges and embrace opportunities, measuring performance of place will become more necessary than it has ever been before. The proliferation of quasi-governmental community organizations like BIDs are key to unlocking insight about the performance of place at the local level. These organizations need the right digital tools to understand the data and share their insights with the rest of the world. Citiesense, among other technology providers, is working to equip our cities with these tools in order to optimize the performance of place through urban innovation.

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