The Story of Place

Hey, hey! I’m famous! Well, um, in Norway. Errr, well, in Oslo. Ahem, ok, within the architecture, urban design, and development realm in Oslo! :)

So this week (tomorrow, actually - Tuesday, September 18th), I’m presenting at the Oslo Urban Arena - making the case for Data-Driven City-Making - especially as a way to reclaim our streets. Super cool, right? Well, guess what - there’s more. I somehow got the attention of a Norwegian architectural magazine who wrote up a great piece about our work and my personal journey that guided me to our current data-geekdom! The original version is in Norwegian, but courtesy of Google Translate (and a little finessing), we have pasted an English version below! We’ll also post the PPT (and hopefully video) of my talk from the Oslo Urban Arena on next week’s blog! So stay tuned for that!

Source: Arkitektnytt by Oda Ellensdatter Solberg, printed September 17, 2018;

"With three ongoing missions in Norway, lectures under Arendalsuka and the Oslo Urban Arena , and funding from, among others, billionaire tharald Nustad through Katapult, Dr. Mariela Alfonzo is current on many fronts.

State of Place, founded in 2011, has developed a digital tool for planning better cities. By counting the presence of 300 different types of objects or features at street level, one will be able to get a score for a given street, neighborhood or city. The points are registered in ten categories where the customer can enter and see which category most needs improvement, depending on the goal they have set, be it increased traffic safety, aesthetics or rent.


Alfonzo has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning from the University of California, where she studied how to quantify social and health values of planning a city that focused on pedestrians instead of cars.

 - I undertook to promote better urban design, but my background from the university was originally psychology and architecture. The social science approach I'm trained in, which is data-driven and evidence-based, does not allow you to just tell people what you think is the right way to design. I wanted proof of what that meant and what design elements were likely to facilitate a given behavior. What will make people choose to walk instead of drive and what benefits do you get from it?

 Alfonzo was keen on creating better urban development after growing up in the suburb of Miami, where the planning revolved around private cars, and where the option for pedestrian transport was poorly developed.

 - I did not understand why we designed our city that way, when it was obvious that other neighborhoods in Miami were not designed [only for cars]. 


By counting the presence of 300 different types of objects or features at street level, the State of Place method makes a score for a given street, neighborhood or city.Photo: State of Place

In 2005, as part of her doctorate, Alfonzo began working as a consultant, and worked on how to link the research work to real-time planning and implementation. Via the think tank The Brookings Institution in Washington DC, she came into contact with property developers who challenged her to link the findings to economics. The numbers were clear: Increase in points on the index correlated with, for example, increased rent and increased sales in stores.

 "Economy was the most important thing to show in order to make people want change, but some wanted proof of the benefits, too, in a broader perspective. Our method, which links the State of Place Index to economic gain, can be linked to other benefits, such as safety for pedestrians, greenhouse gas emissions or happiness and well-being. Wider economic factors, such as how many new jobs are being created or changing the number of empty premises, can also be measured. We intend to measure a lot. We do not want to end up as a tool for gentrification. That's not why we started this.

 - Have you had customers who are concerned about the economic consequences of gentrification, who do not want these changes?

 "You want a place to get better, but you want those who live there to also get to know the benefits the improvements bring. This system makes it possible to start planning for the inevitable. It allows you to estimate what the appreciation will be quite concretely. It's an eye opener for developers, whether it's the municipality or private, so you can start planning five years before it happens. Can you remedy these consequences by making subsidies, local workout programs, or helping local merchants with how they can adapt to the changing market?


For several months, State of Place has been in Norway and has been commissioned, among other things, by the Space Group architectural office, where they guide the design process of a competition for Nytorget in Stavanger, and for SoCentral working on an alternative plan for Økern. Alfonzo says that they are typically involved in the start-up phase of a project to mapping needs, and later towards the final phase to run different scenarios in the State of Place index.

Alfonzo and the team came to Norway for the first time when they were selected to participate in an Accelerator Program for Startups organized by Katapult in Oslo. The Katapult and Accelerator program is owned by Nordic Impact Group, an investment company that focuses on future optimistic and technology-based companies.

 - We got capital in exchange for shares. We also participated in a three-month mentorship program and got access to their network in Oslo and Norway. So we got more customers here, explains Mariela.

 Alfonzo is currently living in Shanghai, while the Oakland-based Chief Technology Officer, [Andy Likuski] has decided to move to Oslo because he likes it so much [and Oslo has been quite good to State of Place! :)].

A longer version of the interview will be published in the next edition of Arkitektnytt.

Mariela Alfonzo