The Smart City is only as smart as the tools that enable its users to make more efficient decisions. City-making is proven technology thousands of years old. The digital revolution had, until recently, been unable to offer a distinctly new option for building human ecosystems. Starting a few years ago we have seen the advent of a new discipline that deals with the neuroscience of cities. Researchers have measured the behavior of users in different types of urban contexts and found that traditional patterns of spatial organization seem to be the optimal for efficiency, prosperity and sustainability.
Thanks to neuroscientific research applied to urban ecosystems and architecture we now know which parts of buildings catch observers’ eyes and where does the attention focus. With those data sets we are able to determine the type of architecture that gives more pleasure and adds to a good experience, versus uninteresting . We can also measure the chemical response of our brains when exposed to different types of enclosures. Those data sets provide information about whether our brains produce serotonin and oxytocin –happy hormones- and which give us a rush of the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol, prompting a “fight or flight” response.
Advances in these fields go hand in hand with the growing ability to process the enormous quantities of data that is produced in our daily activities. Knowing the optimal characteristics of urban spaces and buildings offers a chance to redefine de design profession to better suit the needs of communities.
One area that technology has not quite disrupted yet is zoning. For all the knowledge that has been accrued regarding optimal urban form, there is still a gap between the intentions of urban plans and their corresponding zoning ordinances.
Good intentions are not difficult to put in paper, but where plans have sought to increase the quality of life, inclusion and wellbeing of the people, their corresponding zoning codes have more often than not produced bland, inefficient and costly development that has not lived up to expectations. Especially from the second half of the 20th century.
We are living in one of the most exciting moments of human history, where digital tools are enabling humans to revert potentially fatal behaviors like the use of disposable plastics, as the city of Rotterdam in The Netherlands has shown, by creating floating parks made of recycled plastics. Or the pollution of the oceans, with cleaning systems that are launched to sea and operate autonomously with minimal nuisance to the fauna. But these tools also enable us to build better ecosystems, by processing information, visualizing what is written in codes and streamlining them to produce the precise quality of urban environment that we are looking for.
ZoneIQ is the name of a new visualization tool by Gridics (full disclosure, I am the zoning code analyst for the company). At its present stage, it enables users to view an enormous quantity of data sets in layers that easily switch on and off. It is now incredibly easy to review in 3D and with a few clicks what kind of buildings exist on a given zoning district and how much development potential is there in an entire city or a single lot, per the zoning allowance established in the code. It is possible to search for unbuilt area and see incompatibilities of the code with existing conditions, or requirements that make it physically impossible –and surely also economically unfeasible- to build.
Considering what was discussed before about neuroscientific research that informs about optimal urban form, the best application of this revolutionary software is to inform planners about the outcomes of their proposals beforehand, so we can know for sure what we will achieve while writing urban codes.
Technology will not miraculously produce a better urban realm. City making has maintained constants about scale, enclosure, ecosystems, land use and other critical issues from Ur to Athens to Rome to London. Centuries before we had the tools to measure good urban practices and enable a better implementation of policy, we were building cities that accommodated trade, diversity, history and prosperity.
There are few wrinkles to iron out, which is precisely where digital tools such as ZoneIQ serve to better match the building blocks of the regulatory framework to the knowledge about human-centered urban design and produce streamlined, optimized codes that guide development in a way that is conducive to the flourishing of communities and local economies.