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Quantifying the Livable City

NYU's Constantine Kontokosta sees Big Data as a tool not just for saving energy—but for making cities healthier, more resilient, and more equitable.

Hudson Yards, as it will appear from Central Park. (Related-Oxford)

By the time Constantine Kontokosta got involved with New York City's Hudson Yards development, it was already on track to be historically big and ambitious.

Over the course of the next decade, developers from New York's Related Companies and Canada-based Oxford Properties Group are building the largest real-estate development in United States history: a 28-acre neighborhood on Manhattan's far West Side over a Long Island Rail Road yard, with some 17 million square feet of new commercial, residential, and retail space.

Constantine Kontokosta

Hudson Yards is also being planned as an innovative model of efficiency. Its waste management systems, for example, will utilize a vast vacuum-tube system to collect garbage from each building into a central terminal, meaning no loud garbage trucks traversing the streets by night. Onsite power generation will prevent blackouts like those during Hurricane Sandy, and buildings will be connected through a micro-grid that allows them to share power with each other.

Yet it was Kontokosta, the deputy director of academics at New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), who conceived of Hudson Yards as what is now being called the nation's first "quantified community." This entails an unprecedentedly wide array of data being collected—not just on energy and water consumption, but real-time greenhouse gas emissions and airborne pollutants, measured with tools like hyper-spectral imagery.

New York has led the way in recent years with its urban data collection. In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Local Law 84, which requires privately owned buildings over 50,000 square feet in size to provide annual benchmark reports on their energy and water use. Unlike a LEED rating or similar, which declares a building green when it opens, the city benchmarking is a continuous assessment of its operations.

"Buildings and neighborhoods aren't perfect the minute they're finished," explains Charlotte Matthews, vice president of sustainability for the Related Companies. "You really have to operate and tweak and hone and get feedback loops."

At the then-mayor's request, Kontokosta authored a 2012 report evaluating that process. He went beyond identifying the primary drivers of New York buildings' energy efficiency (age, fuel type, location and size of lot, for starters), to find a correlation between neighborhoods with high median building energy use and asthma-related emergency-room visits.

Since then, he and CUSP have continued to explore and compare new data sets, which is why Matthews says Related partnered with them. "He's very interested in how people connect, and how ideas move and how people move through the city," she adds.

Many cities have used information technology to improve how cities work, such as demand-responsive pricing for parking in San Francisco or usage-based road taxation in Singapore. But Hudson Yards is unique, Kontokosta says, "in that we're trying to really measure along multiple dimensions of not just the buildings or the infrastructure, but also how people are interacting with the space, and how the design of the physical space influences activity, public health, and social interaction." He emphasizes that all disclosure of information for the Hudson Yards quantification project is voluntary.

The development provides an ideal laboratory for CUSP, a new public-private research center, inaugurated by Bloomberg in 2012 and based in Brooklyn, that seeks to pioneer a "science of cities" using large-scale data. Areas of investigation include transportation—are enough taxis serving the city's outer boroughs?—and urban noise, which has an impact on health, crime, educational outcomes, and real-estate values, as the CUSP website notes.

A visualization of a recent New York City energy-use analysis
(Constantine Kontokosta)

Kontokosta doesn't just crunch numbers himself. Since CUSP welcomed its first students in 2013, he also teaches a cohort of students to apply data to cities.

"There's two camps in terms of how people are looking at this data-city connection," he explains. "One is, 'We have so much data, let's just correlate it all, analyze it all, and see what interesting patterns we find and respond to them.' And others are saying, 'No, let's think of the important, interesting questions and then find the data we need and then begin to address those questions.'"

Kontokosta says both ways have merit, but it's clear which way he leans. "I think so much is really formulated on ... the nature of the questions you're asking."

While his education is a mix of urban planning (doctorate), real estate finance (master's degree) and civil engineering (bachelor's degree), Kontokosta says the core of his work is "thinking about issues of social equity and social justice, and what's the social impact of some of the things we're trying to accomplish. That's been a useful perspective that most people coming up in the engineering fields or the sciences don't really have a chance to explore."

The leaders of CUSP hope the center will be truly interdisciplinary—that social scientists will come to them with a question, they will obtain the relevant data, and the two groups of experts can interpret it together. So far, its students bring with them a range of backgrounds, mainly in computer science, engineering, environmental studies, and the social sciences.

"I think my view is certainly not the view of some of the larger technology companies, for instance, who are very focused on the physical, and what data can do on physical infrastructure," Kontokosta continues. "My focus is much more on understanding how the data influences behavior, and using the type of information that's now available to really democratize the planning process much more."

Will this behavior-driven approach to "smart cities" become the norm? The next few years should tell, as CUSP looks to dramatically increase its student intake from dozens to hundreds. "I see this as an incredible opportunity to make information more accessible and transparent to people, which will then give them the ability to make better decisions about what kinds of cities they want to live in," Kontokosta says.

About the Author

  • Brian Libby
    Brian Libby is a Portland-based journalist and photographer. He has written previously for the New York Times, Salon, Dwell, and Metropolis, and authors the Portland Architecture blog.