A few weeks ago I attended a Chicago neighborhood meeting for residents of the wards affected by the end-of-life of a nearby overpass, a stretch of roadway that runs about 1,000 feet and allows motorists traveling north-south to vault over a tricky intersection caused by one of the city's diagonal thoroughfares. The viaduct forms part of the western edge of the neighborhood I live in. Like much road infrastructure built in the middle of last century, it needs to come down for reasons of material fatigue. The question was whether to rebuild or try something different.
But it wasn't posed as a question.
The session brought together local residents, three aldermen, and the engineering firm hired to survey the options. Set up like a science fair project, representatives from the firm were stationed at a dozen or so easels that started with the problem and ended with the proposed solution: A plan to build an at-grade intersection where the viaduct now stands.
Most urbanists would applaud the pedestrian-friendly solution -- and I'm certainly all for tearing down what I consider a blight -- but I'm less convinced the method of community engagement deserves praise. On the one hand, well-illustrated posters from the engineering firm depicted alternate scenarios showing that travel times would actually improve if the overpass were not rebuilt. Of course, being so contrary to conventional wisdom, a position like this demands clarity of methodology and transparency of source information -- neither of which were available.
On the other hand, some residents ardently supported rebuilding the overpass because of the barrier it forms on the edge of the neighborhood. They preferred the way the wall of concrete prevents people from "cutting through" side streets. This anecdotal, sense-of-the-street strain of argument is no less valid as a starting point than the engineering firm's charts. And yet there was no way to evaluate it, no baseline to judge it against.
This is not an atypical example of local government interaction with community groups. It's a situation of information imbalance -- and it taints both the professional, urban planning side of the equation as well as the on-the-ground, lived experience arguments of residents. The "winner" in these meetings is often the possessor of the least opaquely sourced, decontextualized, or outright missing data sets. Hardly the best way to plan a city.
For example, where's the data on all the other factors that affect the complex system of traffic that feeds the overpass? Does non-arterial street traffic really avoid the neighborhood because of the overpass? How might travel times at this intersection be affected by plans for diverting other nearby intersections? Have inevitable slow-downs caused by pedestrians in the proposed human-scale intersection been included in the calculations?
What makes this situation intolerable rather than merely annoying is that we've got more data about cities than we know what to do with. It's residing in archives, published on government web sites, being sensed from instrumentation in the environment, deduced from aerial imagery, and built from the ground-up by citizens updating, tweeting, and texting a kind of pointillist tableau of city life.
There's simply no reason that we can't design tools to bring city-dwellers into a closer relationship with information that can inform their choices. Sites like SeeClickFix, Sunlight Labs, Everyblock, and countless local web tools, transparency initiatives, and data sources show us that the raw materials are there. Data, visualization, analytics, and tools for socializing one's insight or commentary (many of them public or open source) do not eliminate the need for town hall meetings or public presentation of a city's plans, but a data-centric approach to urban planning and community engagement equalizes the information (and thus, power) imbalance, bringing a Jacobsian emergent planning ethic to a critical mass that can interact with top-down planning around a common set of facts.
Data alone is not sufficient for problem-solving in our communities. We need greater data literacy, open applications and, most of all, a responsive urban information architecture; but an involved community informed with data is much closer to asking the hard questions that solutions require.