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  • With a Walk Score of 63, Sydney has first ranking of the most walkable Australian cities and suburbs. Red indicates up to 25 errands can be accomplished on foot; bright green indicates up to 100 errands
Innovation New tools are allowing desired futures to be better known. Text: David Bennett

Reality Insight

Innovation New tools are allowing desired futures to be better known. Text: David Bennett

Cities have always been shaped by and for people. Data can now provide exciting new insights about buildings and urban places.

Design and home-buying decisions are typically based upon what we can afford and what we value. Before people purchase or design a house to live in they are curious and do their best to try to predict what it will be like to live there. Architects and our clients do this too – we imagine future possible living realities. Architects are specifically trained to do this. How citizens are making their decisions is now being transformed by new apps that access big data. Concurrently there are some changes in what our society values when they make decisions about our buildings, our living arrangements and how and where we aspire to live.

When briefing an architect for a renovation or in choosing a house and its location, clients and architects are making a complex set of trade-offs across many different areas including privacy, number of bedrooms, cost, the future of the suburb, ease of parking, commute time, value for money, the social mix of the community, build quality, the kitchen fixtures and the proximity to shops and schools and many others. What is the common link? Apart from build quality, they are all based in the imagining of a future reality. When we are considering where and which home to live we often wear our ‘let’s-imagine goggles’. What will it be like when we are there?

Sometimes real estate agents promote a home’s proximity to things; they understand that people value being near things that are important to them. Using an economist’s way of interpreting what we value (by looking at what we are willing to pay for) and according to property data, the median price for a house in Stanmore is similar for a house in Castle Hill. Leichhardt and Beecroft also are also on par with equivalent median house prices. This tells us that our society values these options much the same; however, the buildings and the suburbs they are in are very different. So our choice is being made by how we value the other components. But how do we really know what it will be like?

A new range of tools drawing on big data is now enabling people to better answer this question. To highlight the breadth of opportunity, here are a few examples: City Dashboards, Walk Score and energy monitoring and a recent NRMA insurance initiative. The rapid rise of City Dashboards (from London to Amsterdam) is an example of the interest in having insight about places in real-time or near real-time. These sites allow us to see how a city is performing compared to last minute, this time last week or this time last year. ‘Smart cities’ and open data platforms are now giving empowerment to city makers and citizens to make real-time decisions, not only on traffic or transport, which already happens via smartphones but other things like air quality, energy markets, sound pollution and microclimatic issues such as urban heat islands. In other words, what our lives will be like when we’re there. A comparable sentiment was recently captured by our PM and first-lady duo in the Cities Agenda and ‘the 30-minute city’.

Free apps such as Walk Score are rapidly transforming the North American real estate market by empowering purchasers with information about what a place will be like. Walk Score is based on research that found we are most likely to walk when there is a mix of destinations within a reasonable distance. The app harvests data from Google Maps to show how car-free your life can be at an exact address. Walk Score is transforming people’s decisions about places to live; this in turn, is positively affecting the quality of life, local communities, the cost of living and health.

Another example is in energy monitoring. The ability to provide real-time feedback to building users on energy use is available by a range of third-party products, many costing less than $100 that provide real-time information into homes you design. Beyond raising awareness such information can affect behaviour about usage before an unwelcome quarterly bill arrives. The last example is NRMA’s recent web-mapping service saferHomes, designed to allow citizens to know what the incidence of crime, bushfire, flood-risk and house fire is for a particular address. Data provides the opportunity to get answers to previously unanswerable questions on issues of finance, sustainability, time and quality of life.

Will there be less crime in a place with more trees? How many cars is my family likely to need to live there? What type of energy usage and financial outgoings am I likely to have? Is it safe to ride a bike on this street? What will my daily commute options and time be? Am I likely to get enough incidental physical activity by living in this location?

This real-time knowledge, coupled with the rise of the sharing economy, shared workspaces, Airbnb spare rooms, sustainability, collaborative consumption and shifting demographics are enabling new generations to question some fundamental aspirations of previous generations. ABS statistics tell us that the vast majority (73%) of us live in a single detached home. But Gen Y and Millennials are increasingly questioning the suburban dream and whether they need to own a car or even need a driver’s licence. Growth will typically occur first in established centres but low-rise suburbia and the Aussie dream is being reconsidered as the ‘great inversion’ phenomenon – and book by the same name – revalues proximity.

This is not a call for high-rise. Our proximity expectations do not have to shift so far as to living on top of one another to gain the benefits of walkability, transport options, shared social infrastructure and community. Also, there will always be differences in people’s attitudes – one person’s ‘valuing of community’ will be another’s ‘being too close to other people’. Whatever you or your clients may seek, new tools are allowing desired futures to be better known and they can help in developing new possibilities for our built environments.

It is probably true that we can now collect information faster than we know what to do with, but as the ability to process and interpret catches up, there will be new inputs in how we design and assess the built environment. So then architects, let me ask you: which professional group is best placed to synthesise the information from all this data to what it actually means for people?

David Bennett is co-chair of the AIA Sustainability Committee and is currently undertaking a PhD with the CRC for Low Carbon Living