City Leaders Want to Make Equity-Based Decisions – But How?

At the Fall 2021 Smart Cities Connect Conference, leaders from cities large and small expressed a consistent desire to center their work around equity. The global pandemic, which continues to magnify devastating disparities in outcomes and resources within marginalized communities, compounds the commitment to equity, and has spurred a Smart City Equity Movement.

The Smart City Equity Movement is an effort among local leadership to both understand and acknowledge that decades of underinvestment in under-resourced areas – often tied to structurally racist urban policies and plans – have led to depressed quality of life outcomes such as higher rates of chronic disease, crime, environmental quality, fewer economic opportunities, etc. The aim of The Smart City Equity Movement is to course correct and adopt new policies, plans, and frameworks to eradicate economic and racial inequities. 

Research conducted by urban design researcher and entrepreneur Dr. Mariela Alfonzo shows that the quality of a community’s built environment exponentially impacts nearly every single aspect of its residents’ quality of life. Yet, most cities are not structured in a way that allows them to effectively address – and fund – these cross-cutting issues. Those cities that do understand the impact of these spatial inequities, often lack the tools, data, and evidence needed to identify and advocate for community-scale infrastructure investments. However with the right support, city leaders can optimize economic, health, social and environmental value as well as prioritize communities that have long-suffered from spatial injustices. To provide additional insight in this area, the following is an interview with Dr. Alfonzo:

SCC: Dr. Alfonzo, for several decades, you’ve been studying how urban design impacts people’s lives and more recently have begun to leverage the power of AI to support evidence-based decision making. What are your thoughts on The Smart City Equity Movement and the role of smart technology?

“As a first-generation Latina, growing up in an underinvested part of Miami, it was painfully clear to me that zip codes – and their design – predetermined more about our lives than genetic codes. Poorer neighborhoods mean poorer schools, poorer infrastructure, and poorer mobility. For me, that translated into my single mother sacrificing to send me to a private school across town, long daily commutes for us both, hard-earned dollars spent on car repairs, and most painfully, the death of my 15-year-old friend, killed while crossing a six-lane highway dangerously masquerading as a neighborhood street. 

My work over the past 20 years has aimed to quantify this exponential power of place to shape all aspects of our lives so as to better advocate for improved urban design and ensure more equitable and effective citymaking.

Now, this effort started back in the days of pen and paper-based field work – collecting data on 100s of “micro-scale” urban design features – such as sidewalks, trees, benches – street by painstaking street. This limited our ability to tell the full story of how the vast disparities of quality of life outcomes within areas that had long-suffered from divestment were tied to these seemingly nice-to-have, detailed aspects of the built environment. 

Fast forward 20 years, advances in AI have allowed us to use techniques such as visual machine learning to automate this data collection – by extracting this information from digital street-level imagery. While some may call this “big data,” for me, it’s human-scale data, well, at scale. This data helps us quantify spatial inequities – and with that, quantify how the quality of the built environment impacts people’s lived, human experiences. In turn using super geeky social and data science models, we can translate this data into evidence that helps citymakers set priorities as to where, when, and what to invest in – from a built environment perspective – that will deliver the biggest impact socially, economically, environmental, and health-wise, especially within high-potential communities (shout out to Karla Ballard of Yingme for that empowered term!).

This is the power I see in smart city tech – the power to amplify people’s stories, shape their experiences for the better, and raise us all up.”

SCC: So you’re saying that by digitally mapping a cityscape, we can see what factors contribute to community inequities?

“Exactly – but it’s not just about visualizing these spatial inequities, it’s about tackling them with evidence-based policies and plans that will eradicate them. So, yes, we collect a massive amount of built environment data that most cities don’t have access to – but that’s just the first step. We also crunch that data into an index from 0-100 that measures how walkable, bikeable, and livable a community is (we call this the State of Place Index). We then break down the index into ten areas of urban design performance, such as pedestrian and bike amenities and traffic safety. The data is then visualized to help communities identify spatial inequities and understand baseline assets and needs. 

This serves as a diagnostic, but while this is necessary, it’s not sufficient. Dashboards and maps alone do not translate into needed actions that impact people’s actual lives. That data must be transformed into evidence – in this case, evidence of how the quality of the built environment – or in our case, the State of Place Index – impacts quality of life. So we have developed several  forecasting models that show how changes to the Index impact a variety of social, economic, health, and environmental outcomes. So when a community asks, what are the top ten urban design changes we should make – the answer is, well, it depends. And while this is a common, often frustrating academic retort – the state of technology is at a point now that our software can actually take that “it depends” and translate it into actionable, evidence-based urban design recommendations that are indeed most likely to deliver desired community outcomes. So for example, the built environment recommendations for reducing vehicle collisions are slightly different than those aiming to mitigate heat waves or reduce diabetes – and our software makes that very clear. 

But priority-setting and recommendations are still not enough – to truly achieve equitable places, you need true co-creation. To address this, again, we’ve turned to tech and designed a fun, Sim-City like scenario tool that cities and communities can use together to co-create potential built environment improvements and test their impact in real time. So for example, guided by the evidence-based recommendations generated by the data and software, perhaps a community decides they want to add a park, bike lanes, curb cuts, and street furniture. They test this out and it turns out their State of Place Index would increase by 25 points – and that means they can reduce the likelihood of vehicle collisions by 55% or boost retail revenues by 80% or reduce violent homicides 8-fold – in other words, communities can calculate potential returns on community-scale infrastructure investments in real time. So now that exponential power of place becomes real tangible in a way that matters to people’s everyday lived experiences – and in a way that helps cities get the community support, buy-in, and funding they need to make real change happen.”

SCC: How does all of this relate to the current COVID-19 Pandemic?

“State of Place recently helped the City of Philadelphia undertake an effort to understand how the built environment impacted Covid outcomes as well as other health, environmental, and safety outcomes. We collected urban design data for about one third of the city across all different types of neighborhoods. We also collected information on Covid rates, chronic disease, heatwaves, floods, crime, and a variety of equity-related factors. 

The resulting digital maps revealed patterns of spatial inequity – areas with lower quality built environments had higher rates of Covid and chronic disease, a higher concentration of black and latino residents, lower incomes, higher household sizes, lower education, less access to vehicles, and fewer people working from home. 

This means that pre-existing disinvestments in the built environments of vulnerable communities – which are tied to structurally racist urban policies and plans – were already tied to higher rates of chronic disease. Covid merely preyed upon that. We also showed that the urban design of these same communities is tied to crime, environmental quality, and other quality of life outcomes. This helps to create a narrative around why community-scale infrastructure investments are not only needed – but poised to deliver exponential value. And with the passage of the Infrastructure Bill, this evidence can help guide what kinds of projects should be funded and where, and this technology enables the co-creation of those solutions.”

SCC: So how does creating the connection between community underinvestment, COVID-19 and these other outcomes help city leaders make smarter decisions?

“It’s about tackling the two-fold problem of making better decisions in the face of limited resources AND engaging and communicating better around those decisions. Quantifying spatial inequities – and the disparate quality of life outcomes tied to these patterns of built environment divestment – paints a stark reality that cannot be unseen. Given that people often have difficulty understanding what they don’t experience, this is critical. This data also starts to set an objective basis from which to start breaking silos, making decisions, shaping policies, and engaging communities. Additionally – whether it be a city facing increasing budget cuts or a community poised to receive hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure funds, this kind of evidence will help guide limited – or coming – investments into the kinds of community-scale built environment improvements (e.g., sidewalks, crosswalks, smart lighting, benches, etc.) most likely to actually improve quality of life outcomes – not just what’s “shovel ready.” It also helps to clearly establish that investing in high-potential communities is not merely morally right, it’s the kind of investment that raises all tides. And having data that clearly shows this upside is key to successful engagement and communication that shepherds action instead of division. Further, data and technology that enables co-creation significantly increases the likelihood that benefits will equitably accrue to existing residents – or those who need them most. Bottom line, making the connections between the built environment and quality of life crystal clear makes it easier to make better decisions that improve people’s lives and do so in an inclusive, transparent, accountable, and productive way.”

SCC: Any last thoughts on the Smart City Equity Movement? 

“Infrastructure – especially community-scale infrastructure – is personal. There are very real ties between land-use planning, transportation, and the built environment that translate into very tangible impacts across all aspects of people’s lives. Smart technology can support evidence-based citymaking, which amplifies and leverages the quadruple bottom line value of making places better, leading to more effective and cost-efficient planning, design, and development decisions, while also helping to build community trust and drive consensus to effect change – and ultimately deliver more livable, equitable, and sustainable communities. We can, so we must.”


Smart city technology gets its fair share of criticism for being all about the “shiny-object” and perhaps it’s well deserved. But the Smart City Equity Movement is ushering in a new wave of smart tech, one that could live up to the true promise of what smart cities is all about – data and analytics to inform better, more equitable decision making that makes people’s lives better.

As is common across many smart city applications, the pursuit of the ideal outcome is a careful balance between people and technology. Combining innovative approaches such as analyzing and integrating street-level data with other methods such as those outlined by The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) can begin to overcome the information insecurity that has stymied efforts to course correct past poor community development decisions. 

Dr. Mariela Alfonzo is a Research Assistant Professor at New York University (NYU) and Founder/CEO of State of Place, an AI-driven urban design data and predictive analytics software company.