The Urban Observatory Uses GIS to Seek to Better Understand Cities

Rebecca Maxwell


Understanding life in the twenty-first century is growing increasingly difficult because of its complexity and interconnectedness. This is especially true for the large, urban areas around the globe. However, the Urban Observatory is hoping that their mapping project will help a wide variety of people better understand cities with their new exhibit and website. Launched on July 8, 2013, the Urban Observatory is a live museum that allows access to a large amount of data about major cities around the world. With this data, users can explore maps of major cities simultaneously. Consequently, these maps can have a large range of uses that include generating a better understand of cities, their inhabitants, and their impacts on the globe.

Created by Richard Wurman and Jon Kamen of along with Jack Dangermond of Esri, the Urban Observatory is a large collection of interactive digital maps that anyone can access in order to compare and contrast the organization and structure of urban areas. The purpose of the project is to provide a context in which a deeper meaning of our cities can be derived. The project came about in response to the growing urbanization of our planet. Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and the number is predicted to rise to nearly seventy percent by 2050. However, it is difficult to compare and contrast cities to increase our understanding because, so far, maps of these cities have been inconsistent. They are often drawn on different scales and use different symbols.

The Urban Observatory exhibit hopes to change that through the collection of a large amount of GIS data on cities and then displaying it visually on their interactive maps. The observatory allows users to compare and contrast a wide variety of systems and structures including water distribution, power grids, street networks, population density, public transit, open public spaces, among sanitation services among others. The hope is that users, whether it is government officials, business leaders, or ordinary citizens, can determine the impact of urban growth and how that growth is impacting the world. The maps from the Urban Observatory can also be used to view and compare such things as population age, quality of life, health care and cost of living in a dynamic way.

Comparison of population densities between London, New York, and Tokyo.
Comparison of population densities between London, New York, and Tokyo.

The exhibit has been called a live museum with data pulse. The Urban Observatory features maps, images, videos, and data sets for certain cities by taking advantage of such technologies as cloud computing and a large amount of GIS data. The Urban Observatory incorporates two basic elements: the exhibit and the website. The exhibit was unveiled on July 8, 2013 at the Esri International User Conference in San Diego, California. The website can be accessed by anyone with a web browser and it contains many of the functions found at the exhibit. Online users can compare cities side-by-side using the elegant web-based maps, and the application allows people to zoom in on maps with a common scale. The Urban Observatory hopes to add more web applications in the future.

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The Urban Observatory exhibit, on the other hand, is a map display on several separate large, flat screen monitors with computers so that users can interact with the city maps. Each one of the monitors is a dynamic display of GIS data: themed maps which show similar types of maps for different cities. The maps include color-coded maps, point location dot maps, planimetric maps, and two-and three-dimensional maps. Many of the maps and data sets are combined in order to create an interactive, vivid experience for users. The maps of the exhibit are organized into the five major categories of work, movement, people, public, and systems. The categories are then further classified into subcategories and themes, either by subject, specific issues, or specific phenomena like daily traffic volume.

The exhibit and website of the Urban Observatory is possible because of the large amount of data collected from urban areas. More than sixteen cities across the globe contributed data for the project. This rich collection of data can not only be visualized with the maps but they can also be set in context in order to help with analysis. This data provides a wealth of information about cities and its residents that can provide a large variety of uses. The maps provide data on work that include employment by industry and occupation, growth, and annual revenues. They can give more information about residential land use, demographic changes, and home and property ownership. The maps can also display the location of public services like hospitals, museums, and law enforcement while providing information on systems like electricity, gas, sanitation, and water.

Ultimately, the purpose of the Urban Observatory is to provide a better understanding of the world’s cities through interactive maps based on all types of GIS data. Plus, the Urban Observatory is encouraging both cities and individuals to contribute to the project by submitting their own data. The hope is that by being able to compare and contrast different aspects of cities, users can examine and analyze every aspect of urban life. The Urban Observatory provides a simpler way to comprehend the complexity of urban life in the twenty-first century.



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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on