How can we tell if the city where we live is performing well?
The management guru, Peter Drucker, laid the foundation of modern management – insisting that you cannot improve what you cannot measure. It is something similar to our children’s school report card. We can track our children’s performance across subjects and over time, and use their grades on the report card as a reference for improvement.
Applied to the planning and management of cities, this line of thought has enabled mayors, urban planners and managers to set goals, track progress and analyze the effects of implementing polices and projects. Measuring a city’s performance helps communities and their leaders make informed decisions and ensure that results meet goals.
I would like to share some of what I, as an urban planner, believe are the most important urban metrics to be taken into consideration when thinking about your city’s performance – both on the barangay level and on a broader city-wide scale.
Land Use Mix
A mixture of land uses has been shown to encourage non-motorized modes of travel such as walking and bicycling, which in turn have a proven positive impact on public health.
It is a key component of livable communities where everything is within reasonable distances. This can range anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes of walking distance to a cluster of services or public place.
We assess land use data to determine accessibility to basic services. This observation is helpful for establishing the number of potential destinations in a neighborhood within easy walking or commuting distance. While local activity centers and public spaces provide the places for people to meet and socialize, housing is the key to populating places that actually bring people together.
Destinations (Points of Interest)
These provide a reason to walk. This can be a place to eat and drink, buy food and groceries, or the local school where your child goes to.
Points of interest may be clustered around a local center or distributed along a main street. Ground level commercial activity not only provides a reason to walk, but also ensures transparent facades, more eyes overlooking the street and a safer urban environment in general.
These can also include a street corner store, a food court, medical facilities, a large office building with lots of employees, a cluster of retail shops, a place of worship or any place that attracts people.
Compact and connected urban environments is the ultimate anti-sprawl strategy to try to reduce our carbon footprints and reverse the effects of climate change.
Denser cities encourage walking, allow for shorter trip lengths and complement the benefits of mixed land use.
There are different ways to measure density but the three most common metrics are population density, floor area ratio (FAR), and number of dwelling units per land area.
Some people do not like high density, believing that it causes congestion and overcrowding. But high densities can be achieved without being overcrowded. It depends on how the space is designed.
This is closely related to the block and respectively to the scale of the city. It refers to the number of street intersections in a given area.
A well-connected street network allows for shorter trip lengths and encourages walking. Short blocks result in more intersections and ultimately in the generation of diversity and more opportunities for people to meet.
Mobility metrics measure a city’s ability to allow flows of people and goods to move efficiently. These metrics usually observe volumes, capacity and travel times. For example, pedestrian volumes, number of mass transit riders or the number of people in private vehicles are key performance measures.
Mobility can also be measured in terms of access to destinations in set amounts of time, or simply by the number of LRT or MRT stations within walking distance. Research suggests that most people are willing to walk for about 5 minutes before opting to drive or take public transport. This suggests that the ideal spacing between bus stops is 400 meters and 800 meters for jeepney and bus stops as well as railway stations.
The quality of the pedestrian walkway also has a big influence in attracting people to walk. The elevated pedestrian walkway in Makati, from Greenbelt 5 to the MRT station on EDSA, for example, is about 600 meters. It is fully roofed and thus encourages people to use it even during heavy rains. Its being elevated separates pedestrians from motor vehicles, making it safer to walk.
Safety can be measured by the number of car crashes or the proportion of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in road traffic accidents.
Some traffic safety experts claim that when you double the size of a block, you quadruple the number of fatal accidents on non-highway streets because drivers tend to drive faster through longer blocks.
Street design has a direct impact on safety. For example, reducing street width can limit speeding, improve pedestrian experience and encourage walking.
Safety can also be a perceived quality of the urban environment corresponding to the number of people living in disaster-prone areas. For example, we know from disaster risk maps where flood-prone areas are. Installing flood warning alarms in such places will make them safer.
A city’s economic vitality depends on a number of factors: some of them are location-specific, while others reflect its connection to businesses in other parts of the world.
In general, there are two driving forces that lead to the concentration of jobs and economic activity in densely populated urban areas:
- Scale economies refer to the number of businesses as well as consumers in a given location, which encourages the formation of large commercial areas and production establishments in that location.
- Agglomeration economies refer to the concentration of businesses and consumers in a particular place, which encourage businesses and services to cluster together. These are what ultimately attracts people in the compact setting of a large city.
There are numerous other indicators for economic vitality. Data on new development in square meters or financial investments, real estate sales, rent and property values are all metrics that should be taken into consideration. Demographic data on employment rates, access to jobs and services also reflect a city’s economic prosperity.
On the neighborhood or barangay level, local retail sales are great short- and mid-term indicators for evaluating the effects of streetscape improvements, renovations and major infrastructure projects.
Census data is one of the best sources of demographic insights and allows isolating trends both on the micro level of the barangay and macro level of the entire city.
We can observe how population declines or grows over time, and identify what causes these changes. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has made some city residents move out to the suburbs or even the countryside.
Household income and poverty rate are key demographic metrics. When paired with data on education, labor market and crime, these metrics provide a socio-economic profile of the population.
Comfort and Design
The quality of public space – streets, sidewalks, plazas, parks – is a snapshot of the quality of life in a city.
Well-designed public spaces have good pedestrian, bicycle and public transport connectivity. They also provide good comfort and multiple opportunities for people to socialize.
A comfortable place to sit and enjoy street life requires benches, shade trees and all the other amenities of a vibrant urban environment such as street food, public events or simply a water fountain ledge to relax on. T
he presence of tree canopy and shade, as well as the quality of the light and the availability of ground-level activity are essential for bringing people together.
Another important metric for a comfortable walk is the sidewalk width and the ratio of building height to street width that affects our sense of enclosure.
There are many other indicators of a city’s performance, but the ones I have cited are what I believe to be the most important. In the ultimate analysis, it is a matter of what you – as a city resident – believe are the city’s features that work for you, depending on your tastes, your adaptability, your expectations, and your resources.