Visualize This

December was a blur and this is a post about an NCC / Carleton University joint Urbanism Lab event that took place way back in early in December at the National Gallery here in Ottawa. The event was called ‘Imaging The City’ and speakers included Emma Greer of Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) in Turin, Fadi Masoud from the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, and Stephen Fai of Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism.

Together the three of them represent some fascinating ideas about big data, cities, and some unique applications of urbanism and mapping. I hope you’ll find their work and what they talked about as interesting as I did.

Emma and CRA have an ongoing partnership with MIT’s Senseable City Lab and digital imaging and mapping are constantly part of what they do. They enagage in a process they call ‘futurecrafting” where they employ many sources of data to measure urban dynamics. Transponders on taxis and cel phone locations and usage, just for example.

In one project they engaged with trash to find out where standard plastic water bottles are manufactured and where they go to be recycled at a national level. The group has also analyzed the bacteria and viruses in sewage systems to better understand urban health trends. Findings from both these explorations are fascinating.

Their group has studied prescient questions like: can the city operate with 20% of the cars we use today? What will a more robotized world look like? How can we better align buildings’ use by occupants and energy use? CRA imagines the challenge of the 21st Century to be one where the designers use big data and become mutagenic agents, improving every aspect of how we do things.

In Heidelberg, Germany, CRA worked with Commune Patrick Henry to create a new identity for the site. They proposed a new commune for the sharing economy. Residential garages became fab labs, co-living blocks are to be used for ‘sharing’. Corporate and institutional entities became very excited about the project.

Fadi talked about zoning maps and his work to improve how they’re made and used. He showed an amazingly simple photo of a suburb outside Yuma, Arizona, by Ed Burtynsky to illustrate how the danger of land use classifications as we know them today is that they grossly over simplify issues. He pointed out that the tools used are the same all over North America.

Yuma, Arizona from the air. Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

Around Florida’s Biscayne Bay, because of rising sea levels, tides are causing ‘good weather flooding’ in urban areas. Symptomatic of the issue, an octopus recently turned up in a parking garage. Nevertheless, Floridian politicians have recently struck the word climate change from official government documents.

Fadi pointed out that the last time even our Canadian Capital region’s flood plain maps were updated was in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s time; last spring’s flooding in Gatineau provided evidence that it may be time to take a second look.

Stephen Fai talked about projects he is engaged with at CIMS. They are working with Public Services Procurement Canada (PSPC) to model the Parliamentary Precinct in considerable detail. They also have an ongoing relationship with the Dominion Sculptor, Phil White, where they scan sculptures on buildings and use CNC milling and Mr. White’s own sculpting skills to restore them. Stephen talked about modelling the Capital, a project he’s working on with the NCC, the City Of Ottawa, and others. He showed a project he’s doing in Prince Edward County mapping breweries and the associated suppliers, and talked about how that could translate into economic research for the whole region of eastern Ontario.

Catherine Bonier of Carleton University and Stanley Leinwand of the NCC moderated a discussion with the speakers after the presentation. They talked about the importance of the work they’ve been doing as public, accessible, and easily available to the general public. Some of the work the speakers are doing seems so simple from a certain point of view; they’re connecting dots that really should have been connected before, but no one had an ability to do it. Sometimes they’re work simply opens up a new way of looking at a problem.

Fadi talked about how excited government officials in Florida have become about the work that they’re doing. The public and officials, both, have much more access to this information.

Well known Canadian urban designer Robert Allsopp was in the audience and pointed out the utility of Google Earth Pro, then asked whether insurance companies’ data is publically available. Fadi said mostly the data they use in his work comes from public sources, and hopefully it is open source.

Stephen Fai mentioned that the US is considering repealing some of the laws that make the internet free and open to all. He indicated this is causing great concern among the ‘big data’ and mapping community.

A programmer in the audience decried the fact that so many programmers are involved in such unimportant work. He indicated that people of his background should get involved in solving the urban scale problems he saw at work in the presentations.