Urban Life: the real value behind our cities (part 1)
June 16, 2021

Urban Life: the real value behind our cities (part 1)

Urban Life is the entire point of citymaking - it’s time we understood it better.

Urban Life is the entire point of city making; it’s time we understood it better

Since as long as we’ve been building cities, cities have fundamentally been about people. They’re the physical stage on which human interactions unfold – buying, selling, working, connecting, playing, living.

As a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic, cities around the world underwent dramatic, sudden change. But it wasn’t the buildings, street lights or parking spaces that changed overnight – it was the Urban Life. This change in human activity, lifestyles and behaviours altered the way our cities and neighbourhoods functioned.

Our cities and ‘normal’ – the whole world – has changed forever. It makes sense that the old way of observing and measuring cities has to change too.

Laneway street art, Melbourne Australia.
Laneway street art, Melbourne Australia

Physical spaces rarely change – but people do

Cities can be understood in two simple ways – their physical environment, and their Urban Life. Put simply, the hardware (the things we can see and touch, buildings, streets and pavement) and the software (economic activity, social life, cultural events, activities and places for social connection).

Cities can’t exist unless they have both hardware and software, infrastructure and communities, buildings and people, offices and businesses.

To truly understand cities, neighbourhoods and people, city makers need insights on Urban Life.

But before we can quantify changes to Urban Life, we need to fully understand what it means.

Preston Market [images by Lucinda Hartley].
Preston Market [images by Lucinda Hartley].

What is Urban Life?

Neighbourlytics defines Urban Life as the everyday activity that goes on in a city, both within and between buildings. It’s about how places are used, occupied, experienced and valued.

Urban Life is also about community behaviors and lifestyles within a neighbourhood.  It’s about the places and ways people connect, create enterprise, meet with friends, visit points of interest, participate in culture and social life. It encompasses local businesses and community groups, attractions and events, hospitality and socialising, hobbies and family life.

Urban life data can even be used as a basis for measuring wellbeing and social prosperity.

Public life, social life, and public activity are other terms often referred to by placemakers and urban designers when it comes to quantifying cities and making data-driven decisions. But these tend to zero in on the public realm alone. Our definition of Urban Life goes beyond these things to encompass a wider range of human activity and behaviour – referring to the destination appeal, economic and social activity of a neighbourhood.

In short: buildings and physical spaces exist to create and enable Urban Life, and Urban Life is the entire point of city-making – which is an excellent reason for it to be measured and valued.

What Urban Life isn’t

Urban Life isn’t about understanding people’s opinions and aspirations for the future. That’s important, but also an entirely different type of information. What people actually do (their behaviour) is often different from what they say they will do.

Urban Life isn’t about personas and demographics either. While these can add value to the way places are understood, personas and demographics aren’t great predictors of human behaviour.

It’s also not about zoning or building type. Here’s an example of what we’re talking about: a place might be zoned for commercial or business use, but this doesn’t tell us anything about the type of businesses that exist. Whether an accountant or a fashion boutique, these bring vastly different experiences to the neighbourhood. Urban Life measures how places are used, not their zoning.

Neighbourlytics measures Urban Life through rich digital data to uncover what really makes a neighbourhood ‘tick’.
Neighbourlytics measures Urban Life through rich digital data to uncover what really makes a neighbourhood ‘tick’.

Measuring Urban Life

The benefits of measuring Urban Life are numerous. It provides city and placemakers with critical context for planning, building and managing cities, as well as evidence for quick decision making and effective strategic planning.

Until recently, community behaviours and lifestyles, the places we go, the things we engage with – have all been too difficult to measure and quantify. Many planners and citymakers tried to piece together incomplete data sources to show a representation of Urban Life, typically using manual methods like standing on street corners taking observations (which didn’t work), while some professionals left it out of their methodologies entirely.

Urban Life is vital to cities, and one of the biggest indicators of change during crises. City and place-makers need to have a way of measuring it to inform their strategies and responses because the alternative – patchwork or completely missing data – is no longer good enough.

To uncover, understand and measure Urban Life as it exists right now, we have available to us the most dynamic and rich source of information available: digital data.

Digital data refers to the digital footprints we leave behind about how we use and interact with neighbourhoods: business and community pages, maps, ratings and reviews or photos.

In part 2 of this deep dive, we’ll show you how to use digital data to measure Urban Life, and how this knowledge can be applied out in the real world.

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