So-called “smart” cities and communities are sprouting around the world, from the urban laboratory that is the Spanish port city of Santander to a huge residential energy research project that has been running for years in Austin, Texas.
Now a new “quantified community” built from scratch is taking shape, and it’s on the biggest stage yet: The Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate project ever in the United States, which began construction on Manhattan’s underdeveloped West Side last year.
When all stages are completed, the 65,000 people daily who pass through the Hudson Yards’ office towers, residences, shops, restaurants, hotel, public school, and public open space will contribute to a massive stream of data intended to help answer the big questions about how cities of the future should be managed.
“What is really unprecedented is the scale of the development and the fact that it is being built from the ground up,” says Constantine Kontokosta, deputy director at NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. “It really started from the question: If we could know anything about the city, what would we want to know and how could we do a better job at measuring the pace of life?”
NYU is collaborating with the two developers of Hudson Yards–the Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group–to create a “data-rich research environment” that will feed information about everything from air quality to how many steps residents take each day.
Kontokosta calls the project an “unbelievable” research platform for urban scientists, designers, and engineers. The flow of data will help them ask questions that were hard to answer before. Some are specific, such as how to manage the trash, recycling, and composting system or other onsite sustainable features like the cogeneration plant. Others are on a more theoretical urban design scale: “We hear a lot about the value of mixed-use development for activity levels and health,” says Kontokosta. “We’re really trying to measure that. How do people really interact with the mix of uses?”
The project also makes business sense for the property owners. “You not only want to have a smartphone today–you want to live in a smart building and a smart community. We want people to perceive the Hudson Yards as a center of innovation,” says Jay Cross, president of Related Hudson Yards. “When you enter the Yards, you should be able to do things that you can’t do elsewhere in New York.”
The exact details of how the project will work are still being sussed out, such as exactly how visitors, workers, and residents will both provide data and interact with it. Most of the stream of data will come from building systems or smart “Internet of things” devices and appliances. But some will be supplied voluntarily by those who opt-in to the program, supplying access to sensors and apps on their smartphones. (All involved in the project are careful to note that participation by individuals in data collection will be voluntary and anonymous.) A technical team with big data and software engineering expertise more typical of a Silicon Valley company than a real estate management firm will work on the project, says Cross, with assistance from SAP, a big data analytics firm that is one of the site’s major commercial tenants.
Cross is optimistic that many tenants and passersby will want to contribute. And while the Hudson Yards project may be pushing the envelope, he says, but the process of planning and implementing this large-scale experiment will ideally trickle down into Related’s smaller projects.
NYU’s Kontokosta says cities, too, should be expected to become more surveilled and instrumented in order to achieve broader aims. “This is just what residents in cities are demanding. As the urban population grows globally, if we are going to really address the most pressing problems of society–whether that is climate change or public health–it’s really going to be in our cities that we do it.”