Tired Urban Phrases: Big Data, or Moneyball for Cities

Does “Big Data” lead to a better future for cities, or are we simply going down a rabbithole?  Source: greenbookblog.org

The start of a new year is always a time to reflect on things from the past and reconsider a new approach for the future.  Last week the Atlantic Cities ran a piece on urbanist buzzwords to reconsider for 2014.  Some of the words or phrases for reconsideration I agree with: although I use “urbanism” and “urbanist” all the time, I concede that their meaning is totally in the eye of the beholder, which renders it just about meaningless.  You could reduce the words to mean “the practice or study of urban places”, or someone who demonstrates those traits, but then the question is what is exactly urban?  What’s the threshold?

“Smart Growth” is also up for reconsideration.  As Emily Badger put it:

“Smart growth” is so much more succinct than “compact development that keeps housing, jobs, transportation, and amenities in close proximity, reducing pressure on the environment and public services.” The idea is a valid one. But the phrase itself awkwardly implies that all other ways of living are “dumb.” And, surprise, people who don’t use terms like “smart growth” in casual conversation don’t like to feel like they’re dumb.

Having done a lot of work on the margins of metropolitan areas, I know how the people who live and work there view the term as a big city bludgeon to do better.  I agree with the sentiment but the phrase needs to be something better.  “Placemaking”, also on the list, is also a word that’s seen better days.

On the other hand, I’m not ready to retire the phrase “Rust Belt”.  Like most everyone else who’s either from here and moved away, or remain here, I tried running away from the term.  I wanted to connect the so-called Rust Belt cities with the rest of America: “we’re just like you, we share the same concerns.”  But I’ve since learned to own the term, because it describes a pretty unique development landscape (at least in the older parts of it), its residents have a place-specific psychology and pathology, and because its revitalization requires a pretty unique model that is still being developed.  There are bad spots everywhere, and cities across the country can benefit from learning about revitalization approaches, but Sun Belt bad spots are not always like Rust Belt bad spots, and vice versa.

But if there’s one phrase I’m ready to put an end to this very instant it’s “Big Data”, at least as it relates to cities.  For years I’ve been hearing the tired rhetoric that Big Data, or technology, will transform cities, improve efficiency, and, according to some urbanists, pave the way for the return of cities.


Many urban advocates (I’m slowly moving away from using that “urbanist” term) seem to see Big Data as the leveler or equalizer that older and more dense places need to compete with conventional, sprawl-based suburbia.  You know what?  I actually believe that the application of technology to urban challenges is a great — and long overdue — achievement.  It’s clear that more technological approaches are working to reduce crime, to improve public transit efficiency, to deal with traffic congestion, and to improve public service delivery.  And large cities are leading the way in the implementation of the new approaches.

Cities will have a distinct advantage — until suburban areas start to implement them, too.

In the end, my guess is that the Big Data approach to urban issues will produce initial huge gains in productivity and efficiency for cities, especially relative to suburbs.  Then, the gains will level off as a new equilibrium is established.  At roughly the same time as the new equilibrium sets in in cities, suburban areas will start to implement the Big Data approach and also receive huge gains in productivity and efficiency.  And it will level off.  And ultimately we’ll be left with a metro area that will be a little better off than it was prior to the Big Data blitz, perhaps with fewer city/suburban disparities.  Better for everyone?  Absolutely.  Transformative enough for the oldest parts of cities to reestablish themselves at the pinnacle of the development hierarchy?  Probably not.

It seems to me the model for this is the sabermetric approach in baseball.  The data-driven approach to creating winning baseball teams worked for teams like the Oakland A’s and the Boston Red Sox in the early 2000’s.  Both were led by early adopters (general managers Billy Beane in Oakland and Theo Epstein in Boston) who focused on a new set of stats that valued production and efficiency over volume.  And that approach works when some utilize it and others don’t.  Over time, other teams saw the value of the approach and began implementing it.  Once everyone is doing it the advantage diminishes.  The ultimate impact is that it’s created better baseball overall, but made it more difficult for individual teams, even the early adopters, to use the approach to their advantage.  Witness Theo Epstein’s struggles to get the Chicago Cubs off the ground since leaving Boston for the Windy City two years ago.

“Urbanists” need to give “Big Data” a rest.

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