The (Place) Doctor Will See You Now

February 9, 2017

How a small town in Oregon used a data-driven, analytical approach towards putting policies in place to increase their economic and environmental resiliency.

How Bad Is It, Doc?

Ok, so we have a ton of data. Now what? We sometimes hear from folks who have managed to amass a ton of their own data. And some of you have even used our old-school paper version of our data collection tool to do so! But then, the story often goes, what do we do with it? How do we pull this all together in a way that is not only statistically sound but also not just, well, a series of numbers? Data for data's sake is (mostly) useless (unless you're a super-duper data geek!). For us, data is about telling stories...and not just any stories, stories that ease your PAIN and make it easier for you to create more walkable, high-quality places.  

For Tigard, data was about knowing where they were starting from - what they were dealing with. How big of a challenge did they actually take on? How much more TLC does the Tigard Triangle need than their Downtown? How do they compare to other places struggling with the same issues. How far off are they really from where they aspire to be?

The State of Place Index tells cities struggling to increase place quality what they need to hear - how bad is it?; and it tells cities who have made strides toward walkability what they want (and deserve) to hear - how much can I boast (kind of like when I ask my fiancé about how - good - my cooking was - how was the food?)? Specifically, our proprietary algorithm aggregates the 290 data points into a place quality index, ranging from 0-100 that indicates how walkable – convenient, safe, comfortable, and pleasurable – a block, group of blocks, or neighborhood is. Cities can compare themselves to other cities in our database, which contains neighborhoods along a full continuum of walkability, from rural, exurban, suburban, and urban. As the highest score is determined by the highest observed score in our database, cities can use the State of Place Index as a benchmark. They can also compare themselves relative to their own highest scoring block, which helps gain a more nuanced understanding of their walkability and quality of place.

State of Place Profile for one block in Tigard Triangle

The State of Place Profile then gives cities the low-down: What am I doing wrong? How can I improve? That is, the Index is broken down into ten urban design dimensions empirically known to impact people’s decisions to walk, perceptions, location decisions, consumption patterns, etc. In other words, the State of Place Profile serves as a walkability and place quality diagnostic tool, highlighting an area’s built environment “assets and needs,” or why a community is or is not walkable. It's not enough to know your Index - you have to know how to make it better...especially since two blocks or neighborhoods with the exact same Index can have vastly different profiles (more than one road leads to Rome)!

So how is this different from Walk Score? Why not just do an existing conditions analysis? As for the former, Walk Score primarily measures the number and mix of different destinations you can walk to within a certain distance. But as you can see from the State of Place Profile, that's only one aspect of walkability (we call it Proximity). And while proximity can indeed serve as a good proxy for the urban design features we collect on the ground, it's only reliable when using it for places with a Walk Score above 70 - so for all those cities struggling to increase walkability, it's probably not that great a tool in this regard. But even if it does happen to correlate with the nitty-gritty features we collect data on (like benches and trees), cities cannot pinpoint why they got the Walk Score they got. So they're still left answering the question, OK, now what? As for the existing conditions analysis, those are great, but the fact that we quantify the Profile into a score from 0-100, allows cities to use it as a standardized benchmark, gives context to the Index, gives a relative comparison between different sets of built environment features, and helps visually represent those differences.

As for the City of Tigard, the Tigard Triangle scored a 33 out of 100 on the State of Place Index - while it was a bit of a harsh dose of reality, the City saw tremendous value in benchmarking where they were truly coming from and understanding what facets of urban design needed to be prioritized. We also ran the State of Place Index and Profile for every block in the Triangle, which also helped them identify specific geographic areas in which they should intervene, as well as the Downtown, so they had a local basis of comparison.

So. Much. To. Do!

Ok, so the Profile tells you what you need to improve. The Index helps you identify where - geographically - would make the most sense, strategically, to focus on. But for most "Tigards," that's a lot of TLC you'll need to dish out! Should you prioritize the urban design dimensions that scored the lowest? Those that your community has been asking for for a while? Those with the biggest economic development potential? Well, it's up to the city! We're not ones to ever tell you apriori what to do based on "normative-based," "expert-driven" assumptions. We're the data geeks, remember? Instead, you tell us.

You see, our forecasting model predicts the relationship between State of Place and a variety of outcomes, like pedestrian volumes and retail revenues. In other words, we can estimate how much say a 10-point increase in State of Place would impact office rents. And, the ten urban design dimensions - they matter differently based on how you are measuring success. So cities enter their goals on our platform and get evidence-based urban design priorities!  

State of Place Prioritization Feature

Also, some of the ten dimensions are harder to "fix" than others - like once the street layout is in place, connectivity is pretty hard to change, but aesthetics and personal safety are much easier, as you can slap a coat of paint on a building or repair some broken windows and it can make a world of difference (and it's cheap too!). So cities can also adjust the "feasibility" of making certain changes based on their own circumstances (if you are redeveloping something from scratch, it might be completely feasible to change density, form, and connectivity, for example). Finally, cities can even take into account citizens' preferences and satisfaction levels (coming in the next version of the platform, but doable as a custom add-on now).

Adjust Feasibility of Making Changes

The City of Tigard's goal was to increase walkability in the Triangle area. So the urban design dimensions that would most boost pedestrian volumes took priority over others. We also ran an in-depth analysis for Tigard, looking specifically at the urban design features they needed to address - and on which blocks - to most effectively increase walkability (we're also working on adding this feature to an upcoming version, but can also do it "back of house" style now). In other words, we pinpointed the built environment attributes that they needed to increase or decrease in order to increase the State of Place Index and Profile.

From City of Tigard Prioritization Report

Specific recommendations for one block within the Tigard Triangle

Next: So, what's next?

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