CityScope Riyadh

Exploring density, walkability, energy, and daylighting in one of the world’s fastest-growing cities

We recently led a workshop in Saudi Arabia, with staff from the Riyadh Development Authority, to test a new version of our CityScope platform.  With only an hour to work, four teams of five professionals competed to develop a redevelopment proposal for a neighborhood near the city center.   The goal was to achieve the highest scores for three variables:  walkability, building energy performance, and access to daylight.  As participants placed optically tagged Lego bricks on our augmented reality table, the design performance was revealed in real-time by changing color-codes projected onto the pieces, and data displayed on the dashboard.  Fundamentally, the challenge was to achieve an optimal density and mix for commercial and residential buildings.

Riyadh, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, is an extraordinary place to explore these issues.  In 1940, Riyadh was a small, compact city with a density of approximately 38,000/km2.  Today, Riyadh is a sprawling metropolis of 5.7 million, with roughly 1/8th of the density before oil was tapped and cars took over. Although the city center has high-rise commercial buildings, density steadily declines from the core. Riyadh is experienced as wide streets, traffic congestion, stand alone low-rise buildings in parking lots, and residential neighborhoods with 2-story villas separated from commercial districts. 

Officials realize that Riyadh must reduce the near total dependency on private cars, and the city has started work on an ambitious new subway system.  This will surely help, but it is extraordinarily difficult to serve such a dispersed population with mass transit.  In the long term, Riyadh must address the challenges of extreme urbanization by: 1) creating much higher density, walkable, live-work districts within the city - particularly at the new subway stops, 2) developing largely self-sufficient satellite micro-cities in the outer areas as the city expands, and 3) implementing public policy and new systems that create more convenient alternatives to private automobiles.  CityScope Riyadh is a first step towards an evidence-based, data-driven platform that cities can use to help achieve these goals.

What did we learn from the workshop?

First of all, I was pleased to see the level of engagement, as is revealed in my 30 second video (above). This team was so engrossed in the process that they seemed oblivious to the intrusion of my camera.  Afterwards, the participants reported that the instant feedback, with changing color-codes and data, was extremely valuable.  Each team could immediately understand impact of their decisions on walkability, energy, and daylight as they placed elements on the table.  It encouraged an iterative, collaborative decision-making process. In the discussion that followed, there seemed to be a general frustration with the lack of metrics for evaluating an urban design proposal with traditional media, such as plans and renderings.  There seemed to be an appreciation for the power of such a new tool, even if we just hinted at possibilities.  Not insignificantly, they all appeared to have fun in the process.

Of course, there is much work to do. It is critical that we develop real-time feedback for the impact of density and walkability on traffic congestion.  We must model a range of new mobility modes, such as shared-use autonomous vehicles.  We should work towards the simulation of possible creative interactions and entrepreneurship activities so critical to a successful innovation district.  Eventually, we should be able to predict safe and high-crime zones, or perhaps the GDP of a district.  But CityScope Riyadh is a good first step.

Note: density figures are notoriously problematic: administrative boundaries often include undeveloped land, parks, and industrial areas.   But these figures for Riyadh, even if not precise, reveal the steady trend towards low-density sprawl.

 

Sprawl vs. Smart-Growth - A Study

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate just published a study on the effects of urban sprawl. The report not only investigates the costs of sprawl, but also points out benefits of “smart growth”, i.e. compact, mixed and multi-modal developments. Furthermore, it identifies policies that can improve health, safety and wealth in communities.

A glimpse into the future of city halls?

The new ideas on Design, Urban Planning and Policy Making are inspired by the rising of a new type of citizen who is less territorial, more environmental sensitive, and willing to engage in direct public, social discourse. Architecture has historically played an important role in setting up  or breaking down power structures and barriers, both from a symbolic and technical stance. 

An array of interesting examples of new city halls that are mirroring the shift in the way citizens envision political power, and the ways to engage with it, is presented on the guardian: 

http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/mar/18/future-city-halls-malmo-tallinn-communities-power

The vision described in the article coincides greatly with the Changing Places' vision on Cityscope, particularly the interactive, data intensive aspect of a dynamic observatory that conveys something different from a frozen monumental city view.    

All Night Long: The Impact of Night Delivery

Could we solve a lot of our traffic problems if we delivered more goods at night and took the trucks off the street during the day? Good question that we were thinking about these days and Eric Jaffe just wrote about.

Freight delivery during daytime seems to create a lot of problems for cities. Delivery trucks not only contribute to traffic jams, they also suffer from it. In DC, the cost of truck traffic is about $650 million a year. Off-hour delivery programs (trucks deliver their freight at night rather than during the day) promise to improve the traffic situation, to decrease shipment time, and to improve the air quality.


However the noise from beeping and rumbling trucks during nighttime can seriously impair peoples’ sleep (I have been suffering from that). Eric points out that the noise could be reduced by good practices (not slamming doors) and technologies ("noise-reducing vehicle coatings"). Back-up beepers should be turned off, too.

I would add that it is important to rethink our delivery strategies: In the case of nighttime deliveries it obviously makes sense to incentivize deliveries with little neighborhood impact but high impact on road traffic (these goals might be contradictory). Furthermore, we are currently thinking about new vehicle types, new distribution hubs and new concepts of combining people and goods movement. This might include new bundling strategies, small-scale autonomous vehicles, micro hubs, transformable freight-stations, or new delivery docks on a building scale.

City to City Dialogue: Innovations in Energy and Mobility Affecting the Future of Our Cities

March 12, 2015
Iceland is partnering with the MIT Media Lab and the City Science Initiative to host an energy innovation panel discussion on March 12. The panel will focus on Boston’s and Reykjavik’s efforts in innovating energy for a better future, including the work being done around electric cars and data centers. The Mayor of Reykjavik and executives from Iceland’s national power company, Landsvirkjun, will represent Iceland on this panel. The panel's moderator is Greg Lindsay. Click here to register - tickets are required.

For information on Icelandic Events organized in conjunction with the City-to-City Dialogue please go here

The Implications of Peak Car on Highway Construction

An article in New Geography saw some attention several weeks ago by claiming that we can build our way out of congestion. One particular passage saw the most mileage:

“In a world of peak car, where traffic levels are flat to declining on a per capita basis, induced demand no longer holds court, certainly not to the level claimed by those who believe it’s pointless to build roads.”

Consider this post an answer to that call.

Changing Places Researchers awarded with “10-Year Impact Award” from Ubicomp!

Ling Bao, Emmanuel Munguia Tapia, Kent Larson, and Stephen S. Intille  from our group have been recognized with the “10-Year Impact Award” from Ubicomp 2014 for their two papers:  "Activity Recognition from User-Annotated Acceleration Data" and "Activity Recognition in the Home Using Simple and Ubiquitous Sensors" presented in Vienna in 2004! They received the award at the opening ceremony of the 2014 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing in Seattle.  

Congratulations!

=== Update 9/26/2014 ===

More on the price can be found here: http://ubicomp.org/ubicomp2014/awards.php

The House of the Future at IFA, Berlin

Last week, I had the opportunity to join Samsung`s CEO BK Yoon for a keynote session at the IFA in Berlin, one of the world’s largest and oldest consumer electronics shows (Albert Einstein spoke about the possibilities for radio at IFA in the 30's).  Yoon presented Samsung’s vision of the home of the future and pointed out: “The biggest change, the biggest transformation, will happen in our Homes, at a speed we can barely imagine”.

Six Nontechnical Questions on Self-Driving Cars

Six Nontechnical Questions on Self-Driving Cars

In his recent article “Self-Driving Cars Will Mean More Traffic”, Joshua Brustein refers to a major downside of autonomous cars. He points out that people tend to travel more whenever traveling gets easier. “Hanging out on a moving couch” would make commuting more convenient and increase the attractiveness of living in suburbs. The result: More traffic! In contrast, he asserts that it will be easier to share cars and thus to reduce the number of privately owned vehicles – this argument is often used by technology enabled transportation companies.

These contradictory scenarios and the controversial discussion about how the future of self-driving cars will look like illustrates that the discussion on autonomous cars has reached a new level. We’ve reached a point where autonomous driving is much more than just a matter of technical feasibility. 

Helsinki's ambitious plan to make car ownership pointless in 10 years

The Guardian reports on Helsinki's new mobility action plan. It's good to see research on Mobility-on-Demand Systems finally getting traction in early pilots and cities taking serious strategic measures. Here's a bit of the text below. 

 

The Finnish capital has announced plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point "mobility on demand" system by 2025 – one that, in theory, would be so good nobody would have any reason to own a car.