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The City, by the Numbers

A new National Building Museum initiative tries to define the city through data

By Sara Fernández Cendón

Most people might guess there is a relationship between family size, house size, and energy consumption. Most people might imagine that relationship has changed over time. A new initiative by the National Building Museum, introduced in the November issue of TIME, is leaving little room for guesswork or imagination. The ad is a graphic that illustrates how energy consumption and house size have both skyrocketed even as family sizes have shrunk since the 1950s. The ad is the first manifestation of Intelligent Cities, an exploration of the intersection of information technology and urban design.

Awash in data

Scott Kratz, the Building Museum’s vice president for education, says the initiative is an attempt to make sense of a barrage of data about cities at a time when the majority of the world’s population is living in urban areas. In the report “State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth,” the United Nations Population Fund estimated that by 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population (about 3.3 billion people) were living in cities. The same report estimated that by 2030 that number would grow to about 5 billion urban residents, and it called for a pre-emptive approach to prepare cities for the transition.

Intelligent Cities is an attempt to explore ways in which information can help cities function better. And, Kratz says, the project is flipping the typical museum exhibition process on its head.

Typically, curators examine a subject and eventually present the product of their exploration to the public. Intelligent Cities is inviting public engagement as a first step. The museum is asking the public to share perceptions of the built environment and will use responses to shape the events to be held next year. Intelligent Cities is starting out as a series of six spreads, one per month, running in TIME magazine and online at Each ad has an accompanying online poll, each focusing on a different theme. The first poll is on the home, with questions such as, “How did you decide where to live? Was it the city? The size of your place? Would you make the same decision today?”

Upcoming themes will include the neighborhood, the community, the city, and the region. The last set of questions, which will run in April 2011 and focus on the entire country, will be crowd-sourced. Once all this input is gathered, it will serve as a treasure trove of data for architects, engineers, city planners, and other built-environment professionals.

The year-long initiative will include online public polling, six infographics, a January discussion of the book Makeshift Metropolis by architecture critic Witold Rybczynski, Hon. FAIA, a public forum in June 2011, and a publication in the fall 2011. The data gathering and public conversations will culminate in an exhibit that will open in early 2013.

Outreach and limitations

According to the United Nations Population Fund, today one billion people live in urban slums. By 2030, more than 80 percent of the world’s urban dwellers will live in a developing country. Though Intelligent Cities is not likely to reach the urban slum dwellers of today, or the future urbanites of the developing world, the initiative is making an effort to reach beyond the expected group of self-selected participants.

The museum has selected about two dozen experts to serve on the project’s advisory committee. (The committee includes architects, university professors, non-profit executives, government officials, sustainability experts, etc.) Each of these experts is helping the project reach a wider constituency by establishing connections beyond the museum’s core audience. Through the advisory board, the museum is also assembling a larger group of “Intelligent Cities Delegates,” which will eventually consist of a group of 150-200 people. This panel is expected to include community leaders, innovators, and people from various backgrounds to help the project spread to diverse constituencies across the United States.

Still, Jess Zimbabwe, AIA, advisory board member and executive director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use at the Urban Land Institute, says the project is not about gathering scientific data. “We’re not saying this is as accurate as the U.S. Census,” she says, “but [the initiative] is reaching an audience that is tuned into these issues and interested enough to write down the domain name when they see the ad and then go take the survey.”

What good is data?

Rybczynski, also an advisory board member, says that with plenty of disciplines represented, discussion could focus on the many complicated questions regarding data gathering, interpretation, and use. “One of the limitations of urban research is that you need a very large sample to get a sense of what’s going on,” he says. “The challenge is that gathering that kind of information is prohibitively expensive.”

Though Rybczynski himself doesn’t conduct this kind of research, he knows that urban research depends on existing data. “Usually the information is not being gathered in the name of research, but for some other reason,” he says. “The trick is to find the correlation between the sources of information and some kind of useful interpretation. There is a lot of information out there, and very few people who can make use of it. Eliminating inconsequential variables and focusing on what causes what is very difficult. It’s not surprising that architects throw up their hands when faced with so much data. They’re just not equipped to interpret it.”

Bert Gregory, FAIA, of Seattle-based architecture firm Mithun, agrees. Also a member of the advisory board, Gregory says part of the purpose of the project is to have a discourse on how to turn raw data into consumable and usable information. And beyond the discussions and dissemination of results, Gregory says people answering the questions and thinking about their own choices is an important part of the project.

He thinks the project has the potential to show how information can be gathered on a broad scale, and that it will reveal how respondents feel about their place in the city, as well as hint at their profile. “The website now shows the location of all respondents from around the world by zip code, for instance,” he says.

For architects, Zimbabwe says that if the exhibit can break down silos and help designers understand how data points from other fields can useful in their practice, the exhibit can be very useful. Ultimately, she says, because cities are one of the most sustainable things humans have ever designed, any attempt to make them more cost-effective and desirable is a worthwhile investment in the future and sustainability of the species.

Kratz, with the Building Museum, recognizes that more than being revolutionary, the initiative continues an ongoing trend. “Data and technology have always informed the way our cities function, but there are always unexpected consequences,” he says. “How can we learn those lessons from the past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes?”

Kratz cites rise of the automobile as an example of urban planning blunders that ended up exacerbating the problems they were meant to fix. Cars were originally conceived as an environmental solution to manure-filled streets. Highways were theorized as a boon to commerce, but the proliferation of the two together led to fuel consumption and pollution of a scale never before seen.

By juxtaposing data from different sources and representing the results visually, the project hopes to show the unintended impact that development in one area might have on another. But more importantly, the project hopes to reveal the people who make up cities--urban residents who drive development and also are affected by it.

“We have to remind ourselves that this data represents people,” Kratz says. “Data can be very seductive. It can be empowering, but ultimately we don’t want to use it to make a more efficient city. We want to make a better city.”


Recent Related:

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Evidence-Based Design: The Deeper Meaning to Sustainability, Building Performance, and Everything Else


Visit the AIA Communities by Design Web site.

Image courtesy of the National Building Museum.


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