Measuring what matters: Reframing how we plan neighbourhoods.

If you’re a city-maker, urban designer or property developer, you are probably familiar with the following challenge: you’ve created a vision for a future place, but what’s delivered on the ground falls short of the vision, or expectation. Whether its empty tenancies instead of ‘active edges’ or a community that doesn’t behave the way you planned, there can be a lot of unintended outcomes.

city making.png

I’ve been an urban designer for 15 years and seen this happen all too often. And while we often get it right, what has often bothered me immensely is how often we deliver less value than promised. I don’t believe this is because of lack of good intention, or design (let’s face it there is a wealth of best practices out there), or budget (well, sometimes it’s budget), or knowledge, rather, we simply don’t have adequate information about the places themselves.

We don’t have adequate information about places

With remote sensing, google maps, street view, we have more information about physical places than we ever have before. This is great. But we still lack information about what really matters to people - our behaviour, values, expectations, memories, stories – all the messy human stuff that make neighbourhoods great.

 Without visibility of this softer side of neighbourhoods, it’s very difficult to predict what will work and what won’t. We’re left relying on what worked last time, or drawing inspiration from a great idea overseas that worked in a very different context. And then we up delivering less value, as outlined above.

Location data is up to 5 times more accurate in predicting behaviour and values than demographic information. (MIT)

So, what really matters?

If we think about the places we love and feel connected to - a favourite park, cafe, holiday destination, perhaps somewhere nostalgic where we grew up - they have distinct personalities, they’re memorable. It’s these intangible values that make places great but they can be difficult to describe, even in a survey.

So how do we know what matters? The best way to understand what we value is to look at our calendar (where we spend our time). Our feet don’t lie.

Location is one of the most pertinent indicators of how neighbourhoods work.

The same goes for places. Location is one of the most pertinent indicators of how neighbourhoods work. In fact, location data is up to 5 times more accurate in predicting behaviour and values than demographic information (Pentland, 2018).


And who we spend time with, our social network, is a major influence on our decision making. Researchers at MIT have proven that our social networks, who we are around, influences our patterns of behaviour and decisions as much as, or more than, our individual thoughts. The network effect.  

The place, plus social networks, are key determinants of what matters. For example, by understanding location data and spending habits, the MIT Human Dynamics Lab have been able to measure, and reduce, social segregation. Other researchers at NUS in Singapore, in partnership with the Sensable City Lab, have used similar data sets to determine patterns of friends, and friendliness in neighbourhoods.

At neighbourlytics, we look for similar trends and patterns from social data (social media, crowd sourced and other geo-tagged data sets): data created from unconventional sources that are indicative of people’s social behaviours and lifestyle choices. We look at how places work, and what that tells us about what really matters.

Now over to you – if you could measure what matters, what would you measure?

Lucinda Hartley

I’m an urban designer and social entrepreneur who has spent the past decade pioneering innovative methods to improve the social sustainability of cities, now being implemented around the world. 

As a co-founder at Neighbourlytics, I bring my social innovation and entrepreneurship strengths to harness big data, and deliver community insights that inform evidence-based urban development decisions. Neighbourlytics is backed by BlueChilli Group’s highly competitive She Starts program.