What Makes a Vibrant City? Lessons from Data Mining

| |

We’ve all struggled our way around cities that absolutely make no sense to us directionally. Streets flow into one another, nothing seems very organized, and maybe someone decided to slap a few one way roads in there for good measure. How did some cities escape this meandering life with a grid system, while others were left in the chaos?

The answer may be somewhat simple- a lack of evidence. Up until the late 1960s urban planners couldn’t figure out why some cities were booming and others were seeing populations leave by the thousands. Right now Denver is seeing huge growth in terms of population; is this a phenomena that can be explained by data?

Urban planners have started to gather massive amounts of data to figure out what makes a city thrive. A book on urban planning and successful cities postulated that there were a few conditions that needed to be met in order for a city to be vibrant. These conditions included a diverse physical environment, small city blocks with more pedestrian interactions, a good mix of people and buildings, and a mix of low and high rent structures.

A team in Italy has set out to investigate the book’s claims by finding new data sources to test the vibrancy of a city. The team used a collaborative mapping tool, census data, land use data, and mobile phone data to compile information about the movement, interactions and life of an urban area. The information was gathered for Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna, Milan, and Palermo.

District activity density in Milan (left) and Rome (right). From: De Nadai et al., 2016.
District activity density in Milan (left) and Rome (right). From: De Nadai et al., 2016.

The team’s measurements included urban vitality and urban diversity. In cities like Rome the percentage of old buildings to new is skewed in some areas, simply due to the long history of the city. Cities in Italy have greater pedestrian interaction because of smaller cities blocks, as compared to American cities. Producing mixed areas in urban centers can be difficult in America and in Italy, where a predominance of new or old buildings is common.

As the science of urban planning grows, cities in the United States and elsewhere will likely be guided by findings in the future.


Data Mining Reveals the Four Urban Conditions That Create Vibrant City Life.  MIT Technology Review, March 24, 2016.

De Nadai, M., Staiano, J., Larcher, R., Sebe, N., Quercia, D., & Lepri, B. (2016). The Death and Life of Great Italian Cities: A Mobile Phone Data PerspectivearXiv preprint arXiv:1603.04012.

See Also