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5 Ways Data Can Help Cities Persist (and Win) the Fight for Walkable Places: The Case of Long Island

Two weeks and dwindling to our SBIR Phase II deadline...and we, along with many others in this country, are nevertheless "persisting." So for this week's oldie but goodie, the story of Long Island's long quest toward walkability was particularly apt. They, along with most cities and developers, know walkability is no longer a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have in order to attract businesses, residents, and quite simply, thrive. However, navigating from stripmall-lined 6-lane arterials to sidewalk-laced tree-lined storefronts comes with legal, bureaucratic, and fiscal speed bumps, and naysayers bent on jamming up that roadway! And yes, we know you are nevertheless, persisting, but what we keep hearing is that you're spending a lot of time and money to defend your walkability plans but are still falling short - because in the end, you're still offering someone's opinion, albeit an expert one. We hear you. We've been "persisting" for 15 years; we heard the calls long ago that you needed hard quantifiable proof of the value of walkability, of urban design. And indeed, that persistence has translated into State of Place - that arms you with the data you need to not just persist, but win the fight. Accordingly, we thought it would be a good time to check back with our friends in Long Island and bring back their story and see how our now software can indeed help them persist - and win.

A lot of work has been done since we first reported on Long Island's "persistence" in 2013 to deliver on the promises of the Destination Long Island summit. Downtown Westbury was selected as the winner of the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative in the Long Island region. Organizations like Sustainable Long Island are working to "develop practical strategies to build safer, stronger, healthier, and more vibrant downtowns." Additionally, Long Island's efforts have continued through a project called Source the Station, a project led by CSPM Group to revitalize Huntington Station, Long Island into a vibrant downtown area with the triple bottom line in mind. It is nice to see communities like Long Island continuing to persist to make places better. Holding the Destination Long Island summit in 2013 was a good first step, and it's good to see that they've taken action to implement the ideas generated at that summit. There is still a long way to go, but we will continue our work to help cities become more walkable, livable places and we encourage you to join us. Please enjoy our updated coverage of the original conference below that showcases how Long Island and other communities like can use data to persist...and win. 


Plainview, Long Island was anything but “plain” at the Destination Long Island Summit back in 2013. While the folks behind the summit admitted that the area’s current “State of Place” is bleak, they are committed to turning it into a Magnet for Millennials. The 2013 summit, convened by Renaissance Downtowns, was a pivotal first step toward that end. Serving as a call to action to local developers, investors, non-profits and advocacy groups, summit speakers highlighted why young Long Islanders are not exactly longing to stay and offered ideas about how to reverse its fate and reinvent itself.

But Long Island has a long way to go… According to Dr. Martin Cantor, Director of the Long Island Center for Socio-economic Policy, over the past decade, the area has experienced sharp declines in high-wage job growth and has lost $1.5 billion (2013 estimates) in buying power. Yet at the same time, as Brandon Palanker of Renaissance Downtowns pointed out, an overwhelming majority of the housing stock was comprised of expensive single-family homes. In fact, with apartments and rentals represented only 17% (2013 estimates) of housing options, Long Island lags well behind the national average of 35% (2013 estimates), leaving young post-college-age Long Islanders with few job opportunities and even fewer affordable housing options.

Even more of a detractor for many young Long Islanders is its lack of PLACE. Most that have managed to stay in the area still make the trek to “the City” to experience vitality, to gather in dynamic spaces, heck, even to take a meandering stroll along a street bursting with sidewalk cafes and unique retailers instead of one lined with parked cars and strip malls. They also lamented the lack of everyday amenities and conveniences – they didn’t want to be in a car for thirty minutes just to get a carton of milk (or beer!). At the summit, 20 twenty-somethings – all born and raised in Long Island – had impassionately called for the opportunity to remain in the place they grew up, and help it thrive. They wanted to be future leaders of Long Island, they wanted to “career-in-place,” but they wanted that place to be one they could be proud of and brag about. Growing up wanting similar things for Westchester (in Miami, not NY), their resounding call for place poignantly resonated with me…

So how do we reinvent Long Island and fulfill their vision? Dr. Mary Wolshok, from University of California, San Diego, guided us through the journey of San Diego’s own reinvention from a quiet, and as she put it “Podunk,” Navy town, to a thriving, world-renowned center of airspace technology, with a unique, infectious culture. She outlined four keys: creating 1) centers of excellence; 2) a magnet for talent; 3) a supporting structure, and 4) land use and zoning that facilitates agglomeration. Building upon the last recommendation in particular, Neil Takemoto, crowdsourcing guru, talked about the pivotal role that crowdsourced placemaking – or placemaking that is led by a community with “a shared vision and values” – has on ensuring that this reinvention represents what people actually want. And finally, Chris Leinberger – my colleague and co-author on the Brookings report, Walk this Way – suggested that that reinvention required Long Island to develop two or three dozen walkable places that would address pent-up and growing demand, retain and lure young talent, and help the region remain competitive.

So how do they go from here to there? Where should these 20-30 walkable places be located? How does Long Island – and other communities facing similar issues – develop these 20-30 places? Energized as I was after the meeting, these were the questions that naturally first came to mind – as those are the questions that State of Place helps communities answer! So here are five things we would do next:


1) Assess Long Island’s current State of Place

Identify the set of places that might be primed for “reinvention” or ready for a State of Place boost. Some things to look for:

  • Places along transit

  • Places with approved mixed-use friendly land use or zoning plans

  • Places with an active, engaged business community

  • Places with a strong advocacy or community group calling for change

These suggestions reflect the requirements outlined by Wolshok, Takemoto, and Leinberger.


2) Diagnose Long Island’s State of Place

Collect data on:

  • Existing built environment features – the nuts and bolts and  bells and whistles of “urban design” that those young Long Islanders were talking about! (We collect information on 290+ of these features! including things like sidewalks, street trees, curb cuts, and other micro-scale features)

  • Economic performance (including real estate and economic development indicators)

And as the community itself can easily be trained to collect the data, the State of Place process helps foster engagement and naturally feeds into the crowdsourced placemaking paradigm.


3) Profile the State of Place of Long Island communities

Using the on-the-ground data, establish a State of Place Index for each community assessed, which provides:

  • An overall “place” score that can be used to benchmark progress on the road to reinvention
Sample State of Place Index

Sample State of Place Index

Sample State of Place Index

Sample State of Place Index

  • Ten urban design dimensions that measure: Density, Form, Connectivity, Proximity to Destinations, Parks and Public Spaces, Recreational Facilities, Traffic Safety, Crime Safety, Pedestrian Amenities, and Aesthetics –  all of which are key facets of the types of places those young Long Islanders are yearning for!

human needs and comfort.png

Communities now understand their existing assets and needs making it easier for them to answer the “how do we get there from here” question!


4) Strategically activate Long Island’s State of Place!

Based on the State of Place of Long Island communities, identify the best targets for and the most effective paths to reinvention. In other words, use the State of Place Index to answer the questions “where and how do we develop these 20-30 walkable places?” Specifically:

Sample Financial Forecast

Sample Financial Forecast

  • Stakeholders identify the interventions, investments, and/or policies that maximize the bang for their buck – each of the ten features that make up the State of Place Index have a different impact on the bottom line (or varying predicted return on investments – see chart below) facilitating cost-effective, transparent decisions regarding a community’s reinvention!
  • Stakeholders can conduct scenario analyses to determine what type of development proposals could maximize a community’s State of Place or propose changes to/modify existing plans accordingly.

  • Stakeholders identify the interventions, investments, and/or policies that maximize the bang for their buck – each of the ten features that make up the State of Place Index have a different impact on the bottom line (or varying predicted return on investments – see chart below) facilitating cost-effective, transparent decisions regarding a community’s reinvention!

  • Stakeholders can conduct scenario analyses to determine what type of development proposals could maximize a community’s State of Place or propose changes to/modify existing plans accordingly.

Existing and Future State of Place Index

Changes in State of Place Index
  • Using engagement techniques like crowdsourcing and charrettes, stakeholders can understand community needs and further inform the identification of the most appropriate interventions.

  • Stakeholders can prioritize interventions or investments and create phased action plans that will best help reach community goals (e.g. Phase 1: invest $500k in pedestrian infrastructure improvements, Phase 2: allocate $100k to public space improvements, Phase 3: create joint-venture mixed-use development proposal)

Sample Prioritization

Sample Prioritization


5) Evaluate Long Island’s State of Place progress

State of Place allows stakeholders to monitor the impact of their interventions, investments, and policies by tracking changes to Long Island communities’ State of Place and examining its actual impact on key performance indicators. This invaluable feedback facilitates a more nimble (and efficient) approach to Long Island’s reinvention and again, feeds nicely in the crowdsourced placemaking model!

The good news is that Destination Long Island gets it. They get that retaining their youth is vital – as Don Monti, CEO of Renaissance Downtowns puts it, “It’s not about us; it’s about them.” And just as critically, they get that today more than ever, PLACE is key!

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