From the most basic standpoint, planners who work in municipalities are responsible for the overall growth and development in their city. Having a strong understanding of the city’s past and present, as well as an idea of what the future could look like, are crucial to the men and women in these roles. But, how does one predict the future? I believe that it starts with having the best possible knowledge of what has and is happening in the municipality. Most planners that I’ve spoken with understand this, but not all truly grasp the importance of being able to see what is happening in all facets of the city.
As part of my role, I talk to planning directors regularly about what sorts of data and information they are collecting and taking a look at to influence their work. When asked, they are typically quick to jump to things like zoning and land-use information, traffic counts, and individual parcel information, which I would consider the standard information that most planning departments are collecting. However, I have recently had a number of conversations with planners who have taken things one step further by bringing in and analyzing data collected from sources that might not typically be considered.
“All cities collect a wealth of data in each of their departments, and utilizing as much of that information as possible can help planners be more confident in the decisions they make.”
Arguably, planners have some of the most important jobs out there. Without them, communities would not grow and adapt to the citizens that call them home nearly as well as they do today. With that being said, it makes total sense for planners to use every tool at their disposal to influence the decisions that they make. Similar to how cities are growing and adapting to fit the needs of their residents, the data and tools which planners are using to determine how those cities should adjust are also growing.
As municipalities move to become more data driven, there is certainly no shortage of insights that can be derived from information collected outside of the planning division. Taking a look at permitting information to understand which areas of a city are developing faster, or analyzing the average assessed value of a neighborhood to help with future affordability predictions may seem obvious, however, working with the Police Department to get a better understanding of how neighborhood crime is affecting the overall health of an area might not be. All cities collect a wealth of data in each of their departments, and utilizing as much of that information as possible can help planners be more confident (or make them second guess, convincing them to take a second look at) in the decisions they make.
One last data-related trend in urban planning that I have been reading about recently is the use of social media to impact planning decisions. As I mentioned before, it is crucial that planners understand what has and is happening in their cities, and perhaps one of the best ways to determine those is to simply follow what residents are doing in the town on a daily basis. Although not often thought of as a relevant tool in municipal government, social media can be a great way to do this. Most posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are geo-tagged in some way, and as long as they are available to the public, offer an easy way for planners to understand what residents are doing as well as where they are doing it. If one were to aggregate check-ins to certain places in a city on Facebook, it might help them to understand how different areas in that city are being used, as well as if some areas are utilized in higher concentrations than others. Ultimately, planners could use this data to enhance existing services or to recognize potential for new services in the area.
Hopefully this blog post got you thinking outside of the box as to the possibilities for data that can be aggregated and analyzed to enhance the decisions we make regarding our cities. I certainly believe that the topics discussed in this post were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of information that planners can collect and study in order to derive better insights as to how cities should adapt and grow over time. The age of technology, data, and analytics is here, and I for one am truly excited to see how planning practices will evolve to allow planners to more accurately predict and craft the future!
Andy Brown is part of the Customer Success team at Tolemi, and is passionate about assisting cities with leveraging the data they collect to influence the policies and programs they have in place. He has a background in urban planning and code enforcement, and prior to joining Tolemi, worked as the Blight Management Analyst in the City of Flint, MI.