Data analysis

Developers see new analytics and data collection tools as key to fairer development

Even for city-defining multi-block developments, the plans often simply represent the best-laid plans. The reams of traditional visuals and data used to describe bold real estate projects (square footage, cost, economic impact, and varying sizes and proportions) don’t really communicate the true impact these projects can have on neighborhoods and cities, leaving an incomplete image. when these proposals are evaluated.

That’s why a new generation of data-driven tools and toolkits wants to change the way development is measured, to reshape what is ultimately built. With new ways to track and assess social and sustainable impacts, designers, planners and architects can bring more rigor, and ultimately achieve better results, with urban design.

“Bringing together the qualitative and the quantitative is where much of urban design resides,” said Mary Anne Ocampo, principal and urban designer at Sasaki, the interdisciplinary design and architecture practice. The firm has just launched an update to the Density Atlas, a collection of diverse urban case studies measuring population density, building size and floor area ratio, among other characteristics, to help planners, architects and developers better understand how different facets of density affect design and cost. Sasaki inherited the project from famed MIT urban planning professor Tunney Lee, who died last year, and revived it last spring.

Scenes from one of the Designing Justice + Designing Spaces workshops (Virginia Hanusik)

“The intersection of financial investment, climate change responsibility and fair and just cities is very important,” Ocampo said. “The Density Atlas provides tools to help quantify these components.”

Breaking down preconceptions about density into standard measurements at the same scale, the Atlas aims to create a common language around the impact of building layout. While planners tend to look at population density to determine the need for certain city services, real estate agents and developers can focus on housing unit density to understand salable or leasable square footage. This global directory of different urban neighborhoods, which covers the block, neighborhood and city scale, helps different practitioners understand how planning and massing can affect a design project.

“It doesn’t solve everything, but metrics can be useful for comparing different aspects of new communities,” Ocampo said.

Ocampo added that density lends itself to this type of tool because without a common understanding of what exactly is being talked about, the term can be misleading. Combining different measurement tools, such as floor area ratio and neighborhood scale, allows for more common denominators, which is especially important when pitching projects to community groups and local leaders. who often prioritize neighborhood character and preservation and fear the impacts of increased capacity and population. . Sasaki has just started using the tool in its own planning processes and hopes it will help the company achieve a shared understanding with stakeholders.

Density, for all its different dimensions, is a relatively easy concept to quantify in relation to inclusiveness. Canadian impact development company DREAM, which has a $10 billion portfolio spanning Europe and North America, believes it can, in the words of head of real estate finance and development Tsering Yangki, “making sure measurement and money go hand in hand”, and figuring out how to track and increase important social performance metrics.

The Change Vehicle, the company’s first annual impact report, seeks to track and improve progress toward community, health and wellness goals at its ongoing 34-acre multipurpose ZIBI project. , which straddles the Ottawa-Quebec provincial border. As the mini-city grows – it has been in the works for years, in part due to zoning challenges and protests that the land is sacred to Indigenous communities – DREAM will measure three key metrics : affordability, environmental sustainability and inclusiveness, the latter being the most difficult, according to Pino Di Mascio, head of impact strategy and delivery.

Diagram of a density modeling program
A screenshot of Density Atlas, an online tool partly developed by Sasaki (David Schalliol)

Creating communities where people have more social interaction and are happier in their surroundings can be difficult to quantify and measure, Di Mascio said, especially without overstepping the boundaries of privacy. The report analyzes job creation among different groups, especially women-led businesses, and attempts to map social interaction and gauge community happiness. DREAM also hopes to preserve the site’s connection to the Algonquin tribe and provide employment for the Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation.

Going forward, the development will ensure that large residential buildings, the first of which are due to open next year, include 30% affordable units and explicitly measure – via surveys and staff interviews – how common rooms are reserved and used and how different social strata interact. . The goal, according to Di Mascio, is to move beyond property management and focus on community conservation, with additional positions dedicated to the social welfare of the project.

“With impact investing, you should have data-driven answers about where you invest in order to invest money where you can achieve social good,” Di Mascio said.

This aspect of feedback is central to the work of Deanna Van Buren, a prominent restorative justice advocate and prison abolitionist who runs her own design company in Oakland, California, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces. The studio’s projects often build on a series of toolkits originally intended to incorporate inmate feedback into the design of correctional facilities. (Van Buren taught a class at a Pennsylvania facility.) The scope of these toolkits, intended to help architects design new community centers and spaces for nonprofits by tapping into needs and experiences of those these spaces serve, has since expanded into different areas, including the design of spaces for survivors of violence. There’s even a toolkit to help developers learn new ways to fund these unorthodox new projects.

“We don’t often talk with users, often only with managers,” Van Buren said of the architects and the design process. “It’s not really visionary.”

Van Buren argues that these series of exercises and activities – including creating paper and physical models and collecting images in a collage to communicate the values ​​of a new space – can help bridge the gap of design culture, a crucial barrier to greater community involvement and criticism of architecture.

“We live, work and play in architecture, and the fact that no one knows how to use it as a powerful tool to get things done and results is problematic,” she said. “We have to take responsibility for the fact that people don’t understand these things.”

For Van Buren, this type of engagement with those most directly affected by a new project is an example of co-learning within the development process, in which designers and users educate each other. She recommends these steps for any design project. If it’s impossible to improve what you don’t measure, perhaps it’s impossible to design for a community without designing with a community.

“Don’t do it to be warm and fuzzy,” Van Buren said. “Do it so as not to be mistaken.”