9 min read

A New Way to Plan and Manage Cities

Communities have long felt the strain of housing shortages, aging transit systems, and a shifting retail landscape; the COVID-19 crisis pushed them to the breaking point and exposed the shortcomings of how we plan & manage cities.

Published on
July 10, 2022

The business model of the built environment is broken. Communities have long felt the strain of housing shortages, aging transit systems, and a shifting retail landscape; the Covid-19 crisis pushed them to the breaking point and exposed the shortcomings of how we plan and manage cities. There are two driving factors:

  • The default planning process uses long-ago data to forecast a far-away future. Historically, getting trustworthy, near-past data was both difficult, fraught with inconsistencies, and undervalued. Combine this with a traditional mindset to think about planning and policy only with a 25-year lens. Add in a reliance on consulting firms (read: slow-moving) as the primary tool for analysis and you’re left with a planning framework that uses 2015 census data as a baseline for establishing a 2040 vision. It’s like asking someone to build the car of the future but only giving them the blueprints to the Model T.
  • Public agencies are organized and act in silos — mobility, buildings, health, commerce — which prevents and even intentionally minimizes the critical interdependencies in the built environment.Cities are one of the most complex systems on the planet, yet nearly every decision is made without identifying, measuring, and addressing the second-order impacts. It turns out pandemics aren’t just a crisis of public health, they’re also a crisis of mobility, economic activity, resiliency, and equity. If you feel unsafe, you won’t ride the subway to work, and if you don’t go to work, you don’t buy a cup of coffee, and if you don’t buy a cup of coffee, the coffee shop closes. Before you know it, you’re in a full-blown negative feedback loop that affects all parts of a place.

At Replica, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this challenge. We’ve walked in your shoes as former public sector officials, employees, real estate professionals, and consultants ourselves. Over the past eight months, we’ve also been fortunate to work with some of the largest public agencies in North America as they navigate the peril and ambiguity of our current situation. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • This is a very real and very hard problem. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t grasp the true nature of the situation. There isn’t some panacea waiting to emerge in the new year.
  • Covid-19 has created significant changes in travel and consumer behavior, rendering many of our traditional heuristics or data sets useless.
  • The work is complicated, as it involves multiple stakeholders across various areas of functional expertise — many of whom who have not had reason or purpose to work together in the past. Even the best data isn’t helpful if it can’t be considered outside of narrow areas of focus or communicated effectively to a diverse set of stakeholders.
  • For those whose work shapes the built environment, there are rarely “right” or obvious answers. Everything is a trade-off in a complex system. The goal must be to make more informed, holistic decisions, not searching for a silver bullet.

What does this mean for your work? We recognize it’s easy to wax poetic about what’s not working, but how can we address these challenges together? First and foremost, any solution(s) need to actually match the way work gets done on the ground. It has to be rooted in existing workflows; otherwise, the inertia of those workflows will prevent integrating new insights. In drawing from our experience and speaking with many of our partner agencies, it’s become clear there are generally three buckets of work:

(1) Needs Assessment/Current Conditions

The goal here is to understand the current state of the world, as near to the present as data allows. The overarching intent of this work is (a) identify areas that require urgent intervention, and/or (b) flag certain metrics for further monitoring and evaluation. This work is about understanding the relative change in direction — the trend lines across key areas of the built environment. In many ways, this phase is about embracing daily and weekly volatility. We need to understand micro cause and effect.

Are people moving again? Are people going back to work? How have travel patterns changed? Are people spending money on the same things they did before?

A snapshot of total trips and Covid case counts in Washington, D.C., since January 2020
Change in consumer spending for Los Angeles MSA (January 2020-September 2020)

(2) Systemic Solutions/Longer-Term Investments

The goal here is to identify more systemic, permanent solutions for a future world. The overarching intent of this work is (a) do our previously completed plans still make sense moving forward, and/or (b) do we need new plans for a new world? This work requires depth of insight and requires absolute, stable, and measured insights. For this work to be done, we must identify a point in time that we believe represents “normal” — a new baseline of sorts — and mute the volatility of the present. We are trying to identify opportunities to build and manage against the anticipated mid-term future of the world.

Should we extend the transit line as planned? Should we invest in more pedestrian infrastructure? Should we rethink our land use?

Vehicle miles traveled for Sacramento residents during the spring season
Map showing destinations for low-income transit riders in Chicago

(3) Impact Assessment/Are Our Plans Working as Intended?

The goal here is to understand the implications and trade-offs with the decisions we are making. The overarching intent of this work is (a) understand the impacts of lightweight, near-term changes, and/or (b) understanding the implications of longer-term, systemic solutions. For this work to be done, we must first develop a set of short- or long-term solutions/interventions, document our assumptions for those decisions, and utilize tooling to measure the impacts. This also requires that we identify a stable jumping-off point from which assumptions are made. We are trying to forecast, project, and ultimately measure less known and unknown future impacts across the whole of the built environment.

What if we banned private autos in the central business district? What if we extended the transit line? What if we implemented congestion pricing?

Replica Scenario screenshot — coming in 2021

We’ve structured our product offerings to fit into each of these respective buckets of work without further siloing the way we think about the built environment. It’s clear that to solve these immense challenges, we need data and tools that provide insight into all parts of the built environment — mobility, economic activity, public health — and appropriately sit within the workflows that already exist. Our Trends product is built specifically to help you monitor and act on current conditions. Our Places product is built with identifying systemic, longer-term solutions. Our Scenario product is built to help you understand the potential impacts of your decisions. Finally, our company is built to be your partner as you grapple with the extraordinary challenges facing cities today.

Share this post
Replica Editorial
Replica Editorial

Learn More?

Contact us to learn how Replica can help bring insights like these to your organization.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Thank you!

You will be hearing from us soon!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
see your city better
see your city better
see your city better
see your city better
see your city better
see your city better