MIT releases software to help cities get better not just bigger

Most of the world now lives in cities, but that doesn't mean that cities are great places to live. MIT has released a new open-source urban planning toolbox that it hopes will mean cities are just larger but also more liveable.

In 2008, the world passed an important milestone. For the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in the countryside, and the move to cities is expected to continue. In China alone, it is estimated that 70 to 75 percent of the population will be living in cities by 2030.

This is all putting tremendous pressures on rapidly expanding cities, but technology could play a role in making the cities of the 21st Century not just larger but more liveable.

MIT has released open source urban planning software which could improve how cities work. The City Form Research Group has created a state-of-the-art toolbox that allows planners to carry out spatial analysis on urban street networks. Planners can use this information to help them prioritise future development.

Improving quality of life in cities is essential, given that about 3.3 bn people now live in an urban environment.

But few cities are designed at all, let alone designed well. In the developing world, 30 percent of urban populations live in slums and, globally, 70 per cent of urban growth happens without any formal planning. This leads to inefficient, dysfunctional cities that struggle to provide inhabitants with basic services.

Urban Network Analysis Map

This Urban Network Analysis map shows job density, with red areas having most jobs.

The Urban Network Analysis toolbox may help change this by analysing cities around five properties: reach, gravity, betweenness, closeness and straightness. 'Reach', for example is a measure of how many buildings, jobs, transit hubs, etc., can be reached on foot from a particular point, measured not as the crow flies but as the pedestrian walks. Whereas 'betweenness' counts the number of potential passersby at each building.

The analysis then creates maps that illustrate "on which streets or buildings one is most likely to find local commerce, where foot or vehicular traffic is expected to be highest, and why city land values vary from one location to another," says Andres Sevtsuk, CFRG's principal investigator. The map above, for example, shows job hotspots in red and could be used to suggest potential new public transport routes to ferry people in from the underserved areas in green.

But as groundbreaking as this tool may be, cities need to have not just the expertise to make use of it, but the political will to see city planning all the way through. When science fiction writer William Gibson said "the future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed," he described a fundamental problem.

Many urban issues are already understood, but without the political will, solutions are not forthcoming. Cities often struggle with poverty-stricken ghettoes, cut off from commerce and jobs by train lines or wide roads. Urban sprawl, which is at its worst in cities that grew up after the invention of the car, destroys city centres by moving commerce out to the edges, starving the centre of passing trade. And poor zoning and tax laws rewards greenfield building instead of the redevelopment of brownfield sites. And that's just in western cities.

In the developing world, where infrastructure can often be poor, cities fall into even well-known traps that they should avoid. Thriving communities should not be divided or isolated by new motorways. Slum redevelopment plans cannot simply ousts residents, destroying their local economy and community and failing to providing them with new places to live and work.

Building healthy, functioning cities requires a clear understanding of city planning in not just the planners, but policy makers and politicians. And in areas where corruption is rife, such considerations can be overwhelmed by bureaucracy and bribery.

The Urban Network Analysis toolbox is a great beginning, but for it to make a difference it needs to be part of a wider package of awareness raising and reform.

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