Reviving our Original Social Networks: Cities

Over 2000 years ago, humans gathered around resource rich land and built the real life social networks we know today — cities. This human experiment has been so successful that by 2050, an estimated 70% of humans will live in cities.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Cities are superstructures for culture, lifestyles, aspirations, and well-being for half of the world’s population. Today, cities represent 80% of global economic output and 70% of total energy consumption. If cities were an industry, they’d be the world’s largest.

And yet today, our cities are slipping, fast: poor air quality, lack of pure drinking water, inequity and poverty, failing healthcare and education -all confounded by poor planning, execution and a lack of goal-oriented development.

Post-Hurricane Harvey flooding in Houston caused 40,000 people to seek shelter, caused $125 billion in damage and 738,000 people registered for assistance with FEMA. Our cities are unprepared for shocks like this.
The air quality problems in Emerging Cities that are growing rapidly take an immense toll on the health of their citizens. Last year Delhi had an AQI level of 999, the maximum points on the scale — so residents were warned to stay indoors.
Favelas (slums) like these in Rio are not confined to Brazil alone. Homelessness, inequity and great disparity affect all our cities from the United States to Latin America.

How could we have let this happen?

In an investment environment where social media and enterprise software have controlled the narrative over the last 10 years, critical problems like social mobility, affordable housing and the environment we live in have started to fester and rear their ugly heads. At the center of this problem is sprawl and poor urban form — the creation of fractured spaces where the rich live separated from the poor.

What can be done about this? The truth is abundantly clear. As a society and an industry, we can either continue to ignore these problems, or we can learn as much as we can about the challenges our cities are facing, and then apply our learnings from the business and technology worlds.

Learning about Cities

At Social Capital, we’ve spent a year immersed in meetings with mayors, planners and city officials. It’s tempting to say let’s build new cities from ground up — after all, technology has ripped and replaced so many ecosystems in the past — but that would be both chaotic and unfair. Instead, we’re relying on the legacy knowledge of the people who have been involved in the policy and decision making for cities for decades. We’ve learned that a lot of our problems are related to consensus. And building consensus starts with the ground truth — geospatial data, scenario modeling and analytical intelligence — that aids planners and designers to build smart, compact cities with better urban form.

Improving Cities with UrbanFootprint

On our journey to learn about city development, we met Peter Calthorpe and Joe Distefano — two brilliant and world renowned urban planners who have worked on improving cities over the past few decades. They’ve helped cities ranging from Chongqing in China to Columbus in Ohio, one city at a time for 30 years. They’ve packaged this knowledge into a technology product over the last three years, including the planning best practices, data, models and insights, so that city officials, planning firms and even citizens can build sustainable, safe and resilient cities. They’ve tested the platform in a few cities over the last couple of years, including Los Angeles, Madison and Columbus.

Today, UrbanFootprint is coming out of stealth, and announcing a major partnership with the State of California, which is making UrbanFootprint available to urban planners in all its 440 municipalities.

We’re excited to be an investor in and a partner of UrbanFootprint as it launches its product to empower planning at a parcel, neighborhood, city or region scale, simulating unlimited scenarios for development with an unprecedented understanding of outcomes.

Look at how simple this could be!

One topic of interest locally is the campus Google is building right by the Diridon Station in San Jose. The impact of these developments are critical to determining if the city will approve the project. It’s also essential to cities as mayors try to build better urban form, preparing our cities for the stresses and shocks they’re bound to face.

I’m neither a planner, nor an expert on cities, but as a citizen user I decided to take UrbanFootprint for a spin to see what kind of scenarios I could produce for the Google Campus. My assumptions on the location of the Google Campus are based on this recent article in The Mercury News. I also made some liberal assumptions on how they would handle housing for their employees. I was surprised to see the location of the campus was alongside the airport runway, so I’m not sure how high they can build, but I decided to run two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Compact, Mixed-use, high density and heavily Urban

Scenario 2: Slightly more spread out, lower density and more suburban

Now that I set up the scenarios, I ran what’s called a scenario analysis. In essence, the analysis provides me with a set of insights on how these two scenarios stack up against each other based on 60+ geospatial indicators from energy use, transport to jobs created and more.

Scenario Analysis:

Both these scenarios have a high walk and bike score, and great transit opportunities by train and bus. However, it’s clear based on the analysis above that the high density urban development is cleaner, has a low energy and water footprint and creates more jobs for the city as well as a higher density campus for Google. The other interesting factor is the conversion of mostly single family homes in the area to high density, compact apartment living.

With this tool, what used to take months of the most sophisticated, tedious methods by costly and specialized consultants can now be done in hours if not minutes — and it’s critical to changing urban form -to rebuilding our cities as mixed-use and mixed-income social networks.

This is an area with endless challenges, but of massive importance. The impact UrbanFootprint will have is crucial to a more sustainable, durable planet.