Can Big Data Solve The Urban Planning Challenge?

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Big data is helping cities plan their urban renewal projects, and leading to citywide improvements.

As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, planners are faced with the question of how to accommodate more people – and the traffic that goes with them – while creating a more pedestrian-friendly city. Can more cars and more people peacefully coexist? Can cities use data to improve traffic, walkability, and environmental factors?

The city of Moscow says “yes,” and it's taking this challenge head on through their My Street project, by leveraging big data to influence a citywide urban redevelopment project.

Human Cities for Human Beings

Sustainable urban planning is a complex issue, with myriad problems surrounding utilities, energy, housing, transportation and infrastructure posing significant challenges. And many cities have yet to tackle these challenges using all the resources at their disposal.

“Cities are evolving faster than ever and encountering unprecedented demographic, environmental, economic and social challenges,” explains Alice Charles, Community for Infrastructure and Urban Development with the World Economic Forum. Yet she notes that most cities lack the ability to ensure sustainability in their urban planning.

Charles notes that multi-stakeholder cooperation is “essential to fill this gap and build transformation strategies to better shape urbanization outcomes and lead cities towards growth, well-being and prosperity for all.”

Many cities are looking toward big data, and especially the internet of things and all the data generated, to turn their municipalities into smart cities. London and Dubai are prime examples of cities that are leveraging big data to manage waste, reduce costs and enhance the quality of living and working in large urban centers. (Learn more about this in How Big Data is Helping Build Smart Cities.)


Now Moscow has officially joined these ranks of the smart city, with a large public/private partnership aimed at making intelligent use of data in housing, security, health care, education and every aspect of life.

How Big Data Is Making Moscow More Livable

A key part of Moscow’s smart city initiative is a focus on livability for the more than 10,000,000 people living within the city limits, and specifically how to accommodate increased road traffic with more usable foot paths.

Through Moscow’s My Street project, billed as the biggest urban development project in the world, the city was able to renovate 233 streets, squares and embankments in three years, with an investment of US$1.6 billion.

Their researchers started by analyzing the population density, vehicle and foot traffic, and the efficiency of existing public transportation. The aim was to understand where they could maximize green space to purify the air and control temperatures, improve traffic flow and safety, and create a better and safer pedestrian experience throughout the city.

For example, the project introduced smart traffic lights to save energy and improve safety, and updated their paid parking model, while listening to resident input on their commuting needs. Data helps them understand the actual traffic patterns, while resident input helped them make important decisions about livability and public use.

To help assess the public need, they conducted citywide e-voting via the “Active Citizen” platform. Over 1.8 million Moscow residents voted on which streets should be renovated first, what they should look like, and what materials should be used. (Blockchain is another important development being used in smart cities. Learn more in 5 Industries That Will Be Using Blockchain Sooner Rather Than Later.)

Researchers also analyzed population density in each area, traffic patterns, and the efficiency of public transportation. The result was the public transport capacity in the city center was increased by 50 percent, which allowed city planners to actually reduce the number of driving lanes in many areas and turn them into pedestrian and bicycle space.

Smart lighting systems, buried utilities and seamless Wi-Fi coverage further enhance the pedestrian experience, giving Moscow a much more walkable city center.

Putting Humans First in Urban Development

Data is, of course, the underpinning of modern planning decisions, but it’s important to understand how a project of this scope is impacting the citizens it’s designed to help.

And how has the My Street project been received? Like any massive undertaking, naturally it has its detractors. There have been some delays, cost overruns, and the expected inconvenience to citizens as the work was carried out.

“Central Moscow has been a scene of digging and dredging for about three years now,” writes Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large for independent Russian daily Vedomosti. “Muscovites have gone from denial, anger, bargaining, all the way to acceptance. The current mood in Moscow: ‘We are in this forever.’”

Yet even with cost overruns and quality concerns, Trudolyubov sees the benefits of the projects first hand.

“One has to give the Moscow municipal government its due,” he writes, saying the recently finished pieces “look top class and would stand up against the best examples of urban renewal projects worldwide (think New York’s High Line or Berlin’s Park Am Gleisdreieck).”

According to project officials, the numbers are proving this out:

  • Overall traffic speed within the city has increased by 10 percent, while accidents are down by 40 percent,
  • Foot traffic pavement areas have expanded by 50-200 percent in many areas of the city, and
  • Pedestrian traffic is up by 70 percent on redesigned streets.

“Moscow’s trendy cafes are bursting with patrons,” Trudolyubov notes. “Barber shops, a relatively recent fad, are staffed with hairstylists so hip, I cannot remember such a concentration of fashionable young men with beards and tattoos anywhere in major world capitals.”

Project planners agree the project has exceeded their expectations, and so, apparently, do the citizens. They note that three out of four Moscovites say they are satisfied with the new look and feel of the city.

Effective urban planning and development will continue to challenge city leaders around the globe. As more cities embrace big data in their development efforts, smart cities will continue to become safer, more environmentally conscious and better places to live and work.


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