Atlas of the Senseable City: Unveiling the Dynamic Urban Landscape

by Liam O'Connor
6 comments
dynamic urban mapping

Carlo Ratti from MIT, in collaboration with Harvard professor Antoine Picon, presents their latest publication, “Atlas of the Senseable City,” which explores the realm of dynamic urban mapping. Through the use of digital technologies, this innovative approach captures the essence of a city in motion, providing insights into pollution, traffic, pedestrian flow, crowds, commuting patterns, and other elements that shape our daily urban experiences. Credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT

MIT’s Senseable City Lab has been at the forefront of visualizing urban dynamics, offering various tools to understand the functioning of cities. Their new book contemplates the potential of dynamic urban maps.

New York City can be mapped in numerous ways, such as the iconic street grids of Manhattan, the vibrant subway maps, or the souvenir maps showcasing skyscrapers. However, these maps primarily depict long-term features. Alternatively, a more dynamic approach involves utilizing digital technologies to visualize the city in motion, illustrating real-time aspects like pollution, traffic, pedestrian flow, crowds, and commuting patterns—elements that define our urban existence.

MIT’s Senseable City Lab specializes in this second type of mapping, employing pervasive data, mobile sensors, and cellphone data to expand the realm of cartography. Their data-driven maps, whether in video or still image form, reveal an extensive range of phenomena, portray changes over time, and provide policymakers, residents, and community members with new insights to govern cities more effectively.

Carlo Ratti, the director of the Senseable City Lab, emphasizes the indispensable role of maps as tools for democracy, stating, “Well-utilized maps make the world more accessible to everyone. They help individuals navigate the complexities of modern life and empower activists to identify and address community issues.”

In collaboration with Antoine Picon, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Ratti co-authors a visually captivating book that explores the power and potential of dynamic mapping. Titled “The Atlas of the Senseable City” and published by Yale University Press, the book showcases a rich collection of Senseable City Lab maps while providing in-depth analysis of the evolving field of cartography.

Picon highlights the transformative nature of these maps, remarking, “They have transitioned from being static representations to becoming vibrant tools for visualizing information. They play a vital role in diagnosing problems and offer a new level of depth in understanding cities.”

The book presents an array of images from the Senseable City Lab’s previous work while delving into the ways these maps enhance our comprehension of urban functionality. The authors express their intent to reveal an urban landscape that encompasses not just physical spaces and objects, but also motion, connections, circulation, and experiences.

One of the lab’s early projects, “Real Time Rome,” gained widespread attention by tracking people’s movement in the city during the 2006 World Cup final. Another project, “Wikicity Rome,” conducted in 2007, demonstrated the feasibility of studying large-scale human movement in urban environments. In 2009, the high-profile “Trash Track” project, conducted in New York City and Seattle, employed sensors to trace the journey of waste in these cities and across the country. These efforts unveiled research opportunities that were previously unexplored by urbanists.

Picon draws an analogy to the discovery of X-rays, stating, “Dynamic mapping allows us to see previously inaccessible aspects of cities. While we may not see everything, we now have the ability to observe phenomena that were once hidden.”

For example, a 2019 study by the Senseable City Lab examined the streets in Manhattan covered by a certain number of taxis on an average day. Surprisingly, just ten taxis visit one-third of the borough’s streets within a 24-hour period. Thirty taxis cover half the streets, but due to overlapping routes, it takes around 1,000 taxis to reach 85 percent of Manhattan’s streets on a typical day. Similar patterns emerged in other cities studied by the lab, including San Francisco, Vienna, and Singapore.

This mapping study directly informs policy decisions by identifying urban areas with inadequate transportation access. Furthermore, it revolutionizes the practice of mapping itself. For instance, by equipping taxis with mobile pollution monitors, a small fleet could efficiently monitor a significant portion of the city at a lower cost compared to establishing monitoring stations on every block.

Dynamic mapping, driven by sensors and data, offers valuable insights that can inform effective government policies. However, the use of maps extends beyond mere technocratic solutions, as it can spark political controversies. Businesses emitting pollution may resist changes, landlords may hesitate to invest in energy-efficient buildings, and disadvantaged communities may struggle to assert their influence. Ratti hopes that maps will lead to a better world by fostering data-driven community activism, but he acknowledges the complexities involved in this process.

Picon adds, “Mapping of this nature raises various intricate political questions. Creating noise or pollution maps for a large city inevitably ventures into a complex political realm. Maps always carry a political aspect.”

Consequently, due to the political implications of map production, “Atlas of the Senseable City” emphasizes the importance of critical thinking when engaging with maps. It prompts readers to question the data collection process and the motivations behind displaying data in particular ways. Maps, being influential tools, can be easily manipulated to serve personal interests.

Picon believes in the necessity of explaining the construction process of maps, stating, “We tend to unquestioningly trust maps. Therefore, it is crucial to elucidate their creation methods, and I believe this will become increasingly necessary.”

While dynamic mapping relies on technological advancements to gather data, Ratti emphasizes that, despite the current emphasis on AI and other technologies, human beings possess the adaptability and judgment required to shape forward-thinking policies. However, they must have accurate maps to guide them.

Ratti expresses his viewpoint in the context of the ongoing AI panic, stating, “Humans possess the ability to synthesize findings and chart new paths, which AI cannot achieve, even though machines can rapidly accumulate data. We can take control of our own destiny and that of our cities, but we first need the right maps to lead us.”

The new volume has garnered praise from other urban experts as well. Michael Batty, Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London, describes the book as a comprehensive exploration of mapping techniques and an intellectual approach to understanding the purpose and potential of mapping.

Picon and Ratti hope that their book will enable readers to grasp the vast array of possibilities offered by urban mapping. Picon notes, “Maps captivate our imagination and are intrinsically linked to the experience of the city, but they also possess a political dimension related to vision and governance.”

Ratti concludes, “Antoine and I wrote this book to share fresh insights into the modern city and to celebrate the art of mapping. Over the past three decades, our cartographic capabilities have grown exponentially. It has been a privilege to witness this mapping revolution at MIT, and through this publication, we aim to lay the foundation for the ongoing exploration of this field.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about dynamic urban mapping

What is the “Atlas of the Senseable City” about?

“Atlas of the Senseable City” is a book that explores dynamic urban mapping, showcasing how digital technologies can capture the motion and various elements of urban life, such as pollution, traffic, pedestrian flow, and commuting patterns.

What is the role of MIT’s Senseable City Lab in this field?

MIT’s Senseable City Lab is at the forefront of utilizing pervasive data and mobile sensors to create data-driven maps. They expand the scope of traditional cartography by visualizing changes over time and providing policymakers, residents, and communities with valuable insights to govern cities effectively.

How can dynamic mapping benefit urban policy-making?

Dynamic mapping enables policymakers to identify areas lacking transportation access, monitor pollution levels, and make informed decisions based on real-time data. It provides a comprehensive understanding of urban functionality, assisting in the formulation of effective policies.

Are there any challenges associated with using mapping for urban analysis?

Yes, there are political challenges. Mapping can expose issues such as pollution and social disparities, which may lead to resistance from businesses, landlords, or communities with less influence. Navigating these complexities requires thoughtful consideration and community engagement.

What should readers consider when engaging with maps?

Readers should think critically about maps, questioning the data sources, motivations behind map design, and potential biases. Maps have political implications, and understanding their construction methods is essential to interpret and evaluate their accuracy and reliability.

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6 comments

CityDreamer June 13, 2023 - 8:11 am

I’ve always loved maps, and now they’re becoming even more fascinating! “Atlas of the Senseable City” shows how maps can capture the true essence of urban life. it’s about time we have tools that help us navigate the chaos of modern cities and empower us to make positive changes.

Reply
CriticalThinker June 13, 2023 - 9:32 am

while maps are intriguing, we should always question their construction and the intentions behind them. not all maps are created equal, and they can be used to manipulate information. “Atlas of the Senseable City” raises important points about being critical consumers of maps and understanding their political implications.

Reply
MapLover27 June 13, 2023 - 4:46 pm

dynamic urban mapping is such a game-changer! it’s like x-rays for cities, revealing things we couldn’t see before. these maps have the power to shape policies and make our communities better. exciting stuff!

Reply
DataGeek89 June 13, 2023 - 11:32 pm

senseable city lab and their data-driven maps are revolutionizing how we understand cities. it’s mind-blowing how they can track pollution, traffic, and even garbage movement! this book is a must-read for anyone interested in urban planning and policy-making.

Reply
Bookworm123 June 13, 2023 - 11:36 pm

I’m thrilled to dive into “Atlas of the Senseable City”! it’s a celebration of the art of mapping and how it has evolved in the past few decades. can’t wait to explore the visual imagery and gain fresh insights into the modern city.

Reply
UrbanExplorer123 June 14, 2023 - 4:31 am

wow this “Atlas of the Senseable City” book sounds super cool! it’s all about dynamic urban mapping and how digital tech can show cities in motion. can’t wait to check it out and see the amazing insights it offers!

Reply

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