Even for multi-block urban settlements, blueprints are often just the best blueprints. The plethora of traditional images and data used to describe bold real estate projects – square footage, cost, economic impact, and various dimensions and proportions – don’t really convey that true impact such projects can have on neighborhoods and cities, and leave an incomplete picture when evaluating such proposals.
Because of this, a new breed of data-centric tools and toolkits are looking to change the way development is measured in order to reshape what is ultimately built. With new ways to track and evaluate social and sustainable impacts, designers, planners and architects can achieve more rigor and ultimately better results in urban design.
“Bringing the qualitative and the quantitative together is the place where a lot of urban design is based,” says Mary Anne Ocampo, Principal and Urban Designer at Sasaki, the interdisciplinary design and architecture office. The office has just released an updated density atlas, a collection of various urban case studies that measure population density, building size and area ratio, among other things, to help planners, architects and developers better understand how different facets of density affect design impact and costs. Sasaki inherited the project from famed MIT urbanism professor Tunney Lee, who passed away last year, and relaunched it last spring.
“The intersection of financial investment, responsibility for climate change and just and just cities is very important,” said Ocampo. “The density atlas offers tools to quantify these components.”
The atlas breaks down prejudices about what density means in standard measurements on the same scale and aims to create a common language about the effects of the layout of buildings. While planners tend to look at population density to determine the need for specific urban services, realtors and developers can focus on housing unit density to understand square meters for sale or rent. This global directory of various neighborhoods, covering the block, neighborhood and urban area, helps various practitioners understand how planning and building can affect a design project.
“It doesn’t solve everything, but metrics can be useful for comparing different aspects of new communities,” said Ocampo.
Ocampo added that density lends itself to this type of tool as the term can be misleading without a common understanding of what to talk about. The combination of different measuring instruments, such as area ratio and neighborhood scale, enables more common denominators, a particularly important element when presenting projects to community groups and local executives, who often prioritize the character and preservation of the neighborhood and fear the effects of increased capacity and population. Sasaki has just started using the tool in its own planning processes and hopes it will help the company achieve a common understanding with stakeholders.
Despite all of its different dimensions, density is a relatively easy to quantify concept compared to inclusivity. Canadian impact development company DREAM, with a $ 10 billion portfolio in Europe and North America, believes it can, in the words of Head of Real Estate Financing and Development Tsering Yangki, “ensure that measurement and money are connected are ”and find out how to track and increase key social performance metrics.
The Vehicle for Change, the company’s first annual impact report, aims to track and improve progress on community, health and wellness goals within its ongoing 34 acre multi-purpose ZIBI project, which is bordering the Province of Ottawa-Quebec extends. As the mini-city grows – it’s been in the works for years, partly due to zoning challenges and protests against land sacred to indigenous communities – DREAM will measure three key metrics: affordability, environmental sustainability and inclusivity, the latter according to Pino Di Mascio, Head of Impact Strategy and Delivery, the biggest challenge.
Creating communities where people have more social interaction and are happier around them can be difficult to quantify and measure, Di Mascio said, especially without breaking the boundaries of privacy. The report analyzes job creation in different groups, particularly in women-run businesses, and seeks to map social interaction and measure community happiness. DREAM also hopes to maintain the place’s connection to the Algonquin tribe and create jobs for the Algonquin Anishinaabe nation.
In the future, the development will ensure that larger residential buildings, the first of which is to be opened next year, comprise 30 percent affordable units and use surveys and employee interviews to explicitly measure how common rooms are booked and used and how different social classes interact. The goal, according to Di Mascio, is to go beyond property management and focus on community curation, with additional posts dedicated to the social welfare of the project.
“With impact investing, you should have data-driven answers about where you are investing so that you can invest money where you can achieve social good,” said Di Mascio.
This aspect of feedback is key to the work of Deanna Van Buren, a well-known restorative justice and prison abolition attorney who runs her own design firm in Oakland, California, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces. The studio’s projects often rely on a series of toolkits that were originally designed to incorporate prisoner feedback into the design of correctional facilities. (Van Buren once taught a class at a Pennsylvania facility.) The scope of these toolkits to help architects design new community centers and spaces for nonprofits by tapping into the needs and experiences of those who serve those spaces. has since focused on various areas including the design of spaces for survivors of violence. There’s even a toolkit to help developers learn new ways to fund these unorthodox new projects.
“We don’t often talk to users, often only to those responsible,” said Van Buren about architects and the design process. “It’s not really visionary.”
Van Buren argues that this series of exercises and activities – including creating paper and physical models and collecting pictures in a collage to convey the values of a new space – can help bridge the gap in design proficiency , which is a decisive obstacle to more social engagement and criticism of the architecture.
“We live and work and play in architecture, and the fact that no one knows how to use it as a powerful tool to get results and outcomes is problematic,” she said. “We have to take responsibility for people not understanding these things.”
For Van Buren, this type of confrontation with those who are most directly affected by a new project is an example of joint learning in the development process, in which the designer and user train each other. She advocates these steps for any design project. If it’s impossible to improve what you don’t measure, it may be impossible to design for a community without designing with a community.
“Don’t make it warm and hazy,” said Van Buren. “Do it so you don’t go wrong.”