Cities are complex systems. We should analyse them as such

They don't get more complex than this: Lower Manhattan. Image: Getty.

The way we design our cities needs a serious rethink. After thousands of years of progress in urban development, we plateaued some 60 years ago. Cities are not safer, healthier, more efficient, or more equitable. They are getting worse on these measures. The Conversation

The statistics on chronic disease, rising road tolls and congestion in our urban environments paint a bleak future. The clues to why lie in how we think about and design our cities.

Cities are highly complex, yet we are not thinking about them that way. We argue cities are complex and sociotechnical in nature. This means that, stripped back, they comprise people and communities interacting with one another and with objects (such as roads, buildings and parks) within a range of urban settings or contexts.

Complex sociotechnical systems (urban, transportation or warfare) are difficult to analyse. However, ergonomics and human factors methods such as cognitive work analysis allow an understanding of the whole system rather than the parts.

Cognitive work analysis was originally developed to support the analysis and design of complex engineered systems. We are using it to analyse and design cities.

The quest for better cities

Theoretical and practical efforts to create better cities have a long history. Before Walter Christaller’s “central place theory” and Charles Lindblom’s exploration of the “science of muddling through”, there was Ebenezer Howard’s utopian “garden city movement”, the enduring “concentric zone model” of Ernest Burgess, and the “multiple nuclei model” of Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman.

More recent approaches provide guidance on good city structures relating to quality of life, infrastructure efficiency and city futures. The Congress for the New Urbanism advocates for quality of life through “walkable” urban neighbourhoods. Transit-orientated developments seek to have commercial, residential and community facilities close to public transport.

In the 21st century we recognise and conceive “creative”, “smart” and “knowledge” cities. These focus on the use of human resources, social capital, education, innovation, communication and digital technologies.

We argue that the limitation of these approaches is their reliance on sets of standards and guidelines. They provide reductionist principles for how cities “should” be designed and developed.

While useful for articulating the goals and values we would like for cities, their consequences within the broader city system are not well considered.

Cities as complex sociotechnical systems

The priority of sociological and technological systems is to optimise the interactions between people, technology and environments.

Cognitive work analysis is concerned with constraints rather than goals. It is based on the notion that by making constraints explicit, and exploiting them, we enhance system performance. It comprises interrelated phases including work domain analysis.

This approach allows us to model the city system across five hierarchical levels. This detailed model describes and links the purposes, values and priorities, the activities that are performed, right through to the physical objects that make up the city and the functions they serve.

Work domain analysis in action – tracing how public art contributes to a footpath design.

The findings are compelling. For example, we can show that public art on a footpath has the function of both a landmark and a form of communication, in the same way signage does. This is then linked to improved way-finding, legibility and social interaction in the street. And that, in turn, results in greater levels of perceived and actual safety, user comfort and a sense of community.

Ultimately, this supports both the technical intention of a footpath, as a pedestrian right of way, and its urban design contribution, as an important social place. As it is now possible to understand the system-wide implications of including or excluding key elements, we can start to design better cities.

Additional analyses have focused on: the design of active transport corridors; public space; main streets; school zones; playgrounds; and urban design and CCTV. The findings demonstrate the complexity in these environments and show how existing design approaches may not be fit for purpose.


Exploring a new approach

In a rapidly changing world in which smart cities are desired and urban megacities are a reality, we need to explore new knowledge and new approaches. Current descriptive and disparate approaches to the review, analysis and design of our cities need to be challenged.

The profession and politics of the built environment continue to operate within discipline silos. Planning, architecture, engineering, transport, water, power, commercial and retail development, urban design, community services and more are all dealt with in relative isolation. The links between them are only examined as necessary, or as legislatively required.

As a result, our cities are a legacy of incremental solutions, fragmented decision-making and competing urban priorities.

Managing complexity in city design is challenging. There are very few ways to examine all of the parts of urban development. We contend that ergonomics, human factors and sociotechnical systems methods offer a way forward.

While it may seem far-reaching to apply the methods used to design work, transportation and warfare systems to urban development, it has been shown to have significant value.

Our approach allows decision-makers, designers and the community to understand the complex nature of humans, technology and their environments. It is possible to create cities that cope with complexity rather than collapse under the weight of it.

Nicholas Stevens is senior lecturer & researcher in urban design, and Paul Salmon is professor of human factors, at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.