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Step Back on the (Place) Scale

C’mon Citymakers, Let's Achieve Your New Year's Resolutions to Get Awesome Places People Love DONE, Together!

Ah the new year! A time when we reflect on all that we've accomplished (hopefully!) in the past year, as well as make (sometimes lofty) plans and resolutions for "the new me." But making successful resolutions that stick is hard work...because you actually have to like, change stuff!, which is no easy feat (especially for cities, since that usually means getting others on board too). Dropping 15 pounds, quitting smoking, organizing your closet, or creating better places (our wheelhouse!) can be difficult without the right tools and support. Although we can't help organize your closet, we can provide cities with an invaluable tool to achieve their place quality resolutions - to help make your neighborhoods and communities more walkable, livable, sustainable - truly Smarter! Here's how...

Let’s Get SMART - for real

If you’re a frequent reader of our blog, you’ve likely heard us talk about the original meaning of “SMART,” which we believe is actually a much better definition for Smart cities than whatever nebulous, loose set of principles currently define the term - or rather, not. The acronym, which heralds from the world of project management, stands for:

  • Specific (focused as opposed to a higher level mission)

  • Measurable (quantifiable milestones - think Key Performance Indicators)

  • Actionable (tangible - you can actually touch, see, and feel an outcome)

  • Realistic (don’t try to become Paris, let’s say ;))

  • Time-bound (something you can achieve within a reasonable time frame - you know, like this year let’s say!)

As with any goals - that you actually want to achieve - it’s important to make sure they are SMART. For example, saying you want to “lose weight” or “eat healthier” in the new year is basically a recipe for failure. However, turning that intention into say, I want to lose 10 lbs in the next 4 months by cutting back my daily caloric intake by 20% and limiting carb intake to 20 grams a day, is a much smarter - read achievable goal. It’s no different in the citymaking space. Proclaiming you want your city to be more walkable - or even saying that you want to eliminate road deaths (a la Vision Zero) - alone, just doesn’t cut it. Insert any laudable planning goal here - increase affordable housing, curb “gentrification,” provide better access to transit, improve public spaces - they all fall flat as is because they simply aren’t Smart goals. So how can citymakers set themselves up for success in 2019 and beyond? What does a Smart citymaking goal look like and how can it be achieved?

Go Ahead, Step (BacK) on that Scale

The first step is to understand what you’re starting with - it's like stepping on the scale to find out how much you actually weigh if you're serious about shedding some pounds and getting healthier! The State of Place Index (based on over 290 urban design features collected for one block, aggregated into a score from 0-100) is like stepping on the place quality scale. It helps citymakers better understand where they’re starting from by creating a baseline of their place quality and walkability. It also helps citymakers understand what areas are performing better or worse than others, so they can inform their acquisition strategies, prioritize certain places or create redevelopment districts or overlays, tailor interventions, or adjust their comprehensive plans - in a very Specific way. For example, when we worked with the City of Tigard, they started off with a very noteworthy, yet lofty goal - to become the most walkable city in the Pacific Northwest. So we started with an assessment of a fairly large redevelopment district they had identified (once we automate our data collection using visual machine learning - or top 2019 goal as it were, we’ll be able to assess an entire city instantaneously! Stay tuned!). Above, you can see the overall State of Place Index for the area.

OK, so How bad is it?

But the City of Tigard was also able to dig deeper into the scores for all blocks in this district in terms of which State of Place level they fell in AND how they compared specifically to each other with respect to place quality. Now, the City no longer had to rely on gut and intuition to prioritize where to start within the district. Instead, they could make Measurable goals: they could create tailored RFPs to ask for what they needed and objectively explain why that was the case (making that process way more specific - and yes, effective!); they could see how they stack up to other areas in the country (and understand just how far they actually were from their goal). Also, and perhaps most importantly, they could put numbers behind the - why - of their goal and get other stakeholders - including the community - more easily onboard.

Calories in, calories out?

Now, just as not all calories are created equally - and just deciding to cutdown overall won’t necessarily help you achieve your goals - a State of Place Index of 50, 70, 80, etc. are not created equally. The State of Place Index is composed of ten urban design dimensions - two neighborhoods with the same Index may have very different State of Place Profiles. And some matter more than others depending on what goals you want to achieve. This is yet another reason to step on our our "place" scale! and why State of Place, uniquely, isn't a black box.

So when Tigard looked “under the hood” (ahem, we’re not allowed to use car metaphors here at State of Place, so inside the sole?) of the blocks that made up their redevelopment district, they discovered both the overall neighborhood’s and each block’s specific assets and needs. And were able to understand what was working and what wasn’t - what “calories” - or urban design features - to cut and which to add, if you will - quickly and accurately, so they could more effectively reach their stated goal.

Tipping the Scales...

Ok, so the State of Place Index and Profile helps citymakers hone in on specific and measurable goals...but what about actionable, realistic, and timely - you know, the part of Smart that lets you achieve the hard part…change...

So just like with Tigard, once you’ve pinned down your State of Place Index and Profile, the next step is to set priorities. Here’s where the Actionable and Realistic parts come in. Yes, you want to increase place quality, but what goals are you trying to achieve by doing so? Increase actual walking? Rental values? Property tax bases? And what resources do you have to achieve them? Can you change your zoning easily? Do you have a capital improvement budget? Are you starting a new development from scratch? The answers to all of these questions influence where and how you should start "bulking" up your place quality.

Tigard was able to use our fun, easy-to-use software to automatically generate recommendations for not only which built environment changes to change - making their goals Actionable, but also prioritize which changes they should make given the feasibility of making these changes - making their goals Realistic. Let’s face it, just as with losing weight, some changes - like changing the entire street grid (i.e., urban form, connectivity) - are harder to make than others - say adding some street trees, bike lanes, or even some paint (i.e., pedestrian and bike amenities, aesthetics, crime safety). Tigard was able to identify changes they could actually make - and even phase them out, by actioning some as short-term goals, vs. others as more longer-term ones.

It’s all about results!

Ok, so now you have a nice set of Specific, Measurable, Actionable, and Realistic goals…but oh man, how can we ensure they actually get DONE?! Like today, not ten zillion years from now? Well, you know those before/after weight loss pictures, right? Imagine if you could generate them right from the start to motivate you, convince you you could do it, show you what success would actually look like?! Nothing like positive reinforcement to actually produce results! Well, that’s exactly what Tigard was able to do with State of Place! They were able to run various scenarios to show how currently proposed plans would measure up on the State of Place Index.

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And one of our other amazing cities we’ve worked with, the City of St. Gallen, actually generated a truly virtual before/after photo that showed their stakeholders what their proposed transformation would actually look like - not just with data, but with visuals, by tapping into the State of Place database (with over 7,000 blocks and counting) and identifying blocks that mimicked the existing conditions of their current blocks, and then finding blocks that matched the proposed conditions, if they were to execute their goals! Instant faux before/after rendering - a super affordable, quick, and effective way to help citymakers achieve results in 2019 and beyond! :)

Getting it done

One of the biggest hurdles citymakers - STILL - face to achieving their goals is having to corral, convince, and justify to others why they should spend money to add on the "place muscle!"...They are still spending a lot of excruciating time making the case for great places, made harder because their goals weren’t SMART to begin with - and more importantly, they lacked the data for how and why they should make places better.

Well, in the case of Tigard, they were able to use our forecast feature to convince the “powers that be” why they should go for gold and invest in a mixed-use proposal (think long-lasting, healthy change) over a standard run-of-the-mill revamp (think short-lived, diet fad). Specifically, they were able to show that not only did the mixed-use version produce better place quality, it also led to higher real estate premiums, generated more value-capture, and ultimately yielded a higher ROI! There’s nothing like “show(ing) (them) the money” to generate results. Rather than futilely trying to gather anecdotal evidence or point to case studies of other communities, or relying on “beautiful” pictures alone, they were able to use our super fun Sim-City tool to quickly, affordably - and effectively - produce a convincing argument. Now citymakers can easily justify their SMART New Year's resolutions to make better places and be equipped to add on that "place muscle" anytime! 

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We’d totally love to help all you citymakers get SMART(er) - but for real, though - and realize your 2019 place goals, stat! It all starts with one simple step - onto to that place scale! We know it’s scary, but don’t you owe it to yourself - and your city - to actually produce results in 2019 (ahem, quickly, affordably - and effectively - oh, and fun too!)? Most people give up on their new year’s resolutions in X days. So don’t wait! Find a time to chat with us or heck, check out State of Place for free right now! Seriously, though, regardless, we wish all you amazing citymakers a happy, healthy, prosperous year full of amazing places people love.