Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Making Better Informed Decisions

In my last post, I wrote about the recently published book “What Counts: Harnessing Data for America’s Communities”, co-edited by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Urban Institute.  The book speaks to the improved application of data to community planning, including urbanism.

Today, I’ll let my fingers do some walking, sampling among the range of topics covered in the book.  To be fair, the reading isn’t light-duty.  Big Data isn’t called that because it readily spits out answers.  Instead, the mass of data must be tickled and prodded to yield valuable insights, which sometimes results in prose that reads as if it has spent years in the dust-choked halls of academia.

But the insights are there.  And those who wish to read along can download their free copy of the 441-page book here.

These are three insights that intrigued me:

Financial Reporting: I learned during a recent urbanism conference that the federal government has 23 categories of land-use assets for financial management reporting, 21 of which don’t fit well with an urbanist world.  This lack of categories complicates financial reporting which can in turn inhibit investment.

A similar problem exists for Community Development Financial Institutions, CDFIs, which exist to provide financial and credit services to underserved neighborhoods, often in urban settings.  In the absence of a standard approach to reporting the financial results of CDFIs, investment was inhibited.

But an organization called Aeris developed the Community Development Financial Institutions Assessment and Rating Systems (CARS), which moved CDFI reporting to a consistent basis, enhancing investment and encouraging resources to flow to where they can do the most good.  Paige Chapel of Aeris writes about CARS on page 238.

Mobility: A frequent urbanist goal is having a range of housing options within a single district so that people can move as their life circumstances changes, without breaking social ties or interrupting educational progress.

Thus, mobility data matters to urbanists.  On page 216, Claudia Coulton of Case Western Reserve University begins a review of different statistical measures of mobility, including the shortcomings of each.  She notes that even the definitions of mobility can be fuzzy.  If a child changes custodial parent, does that qualify as a move?  How about if a boarder moves into a spare bedroom?

Also, she notes that mobility can mask other social outcomes.  If the demographic makeup of a block remains the same despite a dedicated effort to provide upward mobility, does that mean that effort has failed or does it mean that the initial recipients have succeeded so well that they’ve moved elsewhere, leaving space behind for the next wave of residents in need of assistance?

Coulton doesn’t provide a lot of answers, but she helps define the questions, which is an essential step toward answers.

Healthy Design: In recent years, science has made great strides toward unwrapping the secrets of the genetic code.  However, many urbanists note that statistics point toward public health being more closely tied to location than parentage.  In an oft-used catchphrase, “Zip code matters more than genetic code.”

Beginning on page 95, Aaron Wernham of the Health Impact Project writes about applying a health impact assessment to a proposed low-income senior housing project in Oakland, resulting in a changed entrance location, better noise-proofing at windows, and an air-filtration system, all of which were expected to result in improved health for the residents.

None of these incremental changes solves all of the challenges between us and good urbanism.   But they knock down one barrier at a time, using data as the battering ram, and that’s a fine thing.

If you spend some time perusing “What Counts” and find an urbanist insight that you’d like to share, please do so.

In my next post, I’ll look at the current state of sprawl.  During the recession, sprawl seemed to have ground to a halt, although the question remained as to whether that was because developers were respecting the changing desire of the public or because tight money was limiting their options.  The constrictions of the recession are finally loosening, so it’s time to check back in.

Also, I’ll give an update on the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds study by Petaluma Urban Chat.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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