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“The ballet of the good city sidewalk”

Across America, a trend in planning, development and land use has been fast changing the way many people live. Call it mixed-use development, walkable communities or New Urbanism, the trend is moving people—and their work, lives and neighbors—closer together.

The Census Bureau has long provided deep and mature sets of data on population trends, including population density, jobs data, and earnings information, that can help realize the impact and implications of this trend.

CEO Kevin Merritt, Socrata (left) and Counselor Justin Antonipillai, Economics & Statistics Administration

CEO Kevin Merritt, Socrata (left) and Counselor Justin Antonipillai, Economics & Statistics Administration

Now, thanks to Socrata, one of the companies that stepped up to the Commerce challenge to make our public data easier to grab, use and visualize, anyone can click, compare and visualize these data and trends.

I can only imagine how helpful this type of information could be to local planning and zoning commissions, community groups, those and others making real estate decision that hope to shape and steer development in the right direction.

Our Commerce data and tools like Socrata’s provide critical insights as the old model of suburban sprawl and shopping malls built around the automobile evolves to other models. More people want pedestrian-friendly communities that combine and integrate rental and purchase housing, retail shopping, restaurants, commercial office spaces, recreational and green space, arts and cultural institutions, as well as public gathering areas and access to public transportation, not to mention areas with strong economic opportunity.

The trend springs from both the problems of the mid-century post-urban model, including traffic and commute times, and the benefits of the traditional urban model. As noted by the late and legendary Jane Jacobs, a fierce and influential critic of 20th century planning, people actually like being near one another:

That the sight of people attracts still other people is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible… The presences of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact… they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of Jacobs’ birth this year, examples of the New Urbanism she helped inspire are popping up in virtually every state of the union.

Case in point: The new vision for the Tyson’s Corner shopping mall complex in Northern Virginia just outside DC is “a walkable, sustainable, urban center,” the county says, “a 24-hour urban center where people live, work and play.”

Shifting population densities have powerful implications on a variety of fronts, from voting to housing to infrastructure. Communities, developers and planning agencies are asking whether New Urbanist projects clustered around public transportation will overwhelm the system. The facts, and the most diligent projections, matter a lot.

That’s why making data on population density, combined with jobs and earnings data, available to new audiences is so important. When you query the Socrata Open Data Network, for instance, you can compare different cities and counties both today and out into the future and visualize changing areas.

Here’s how you can find and use this tool:

Navigate to the opendatanetwork.com and query a state or a city—lets say Arlington, VA—under the tool’s new “Geographic” feature. You’ll now see population density visualized.

For example, I looked at my neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, a high-density, 1940/50s community about four miles from my office in DC. The Open Data Network shows that the population density in my neighborhood is set to grow by 13 percent from 2009 to reach 9,000 people per square mile by 2019. Meanwhile the density in Loudoun County, a commuter exurb is expected to stay about flat at only 657 people per square mile. That means, by the end of this decade, you will have nearly 14 times the people living in Arlington per square mile than in Loudoun!

You then use the information under “Jobs,” you can also see median earnings by a range of categories (gender, educational attainment, etc) as well as the proportion of individuals working in a particular sector, such as computers and math.

Query on the open data network, comparing US Census occupation data between the Austin and San Francisco Metro Areas

Query on the open data network, comparing US Census occupation data between the Austin and San Francisco Metro Areas

Take for example a woman graduating in computer science who wants to live in an area with lots of individuals working in computers, as well as a city with high median female earnings. There is now a perfect tool to take a data-driven approach to this search.

By querying the open data network, she might be surprised to find out that the proportion of individuals working in computers in math is higher in the Austin Metro Area than in San Francisco. However, she also might see that median female earnings are higher in the Bay Area and make a call based on where to look for work based on that. Either way, she’s making an informed decision in seconds on where to focus her job search.

Query on the open data network, comparing US Census earnings data between the Austin and San Francisco Metro Areas

Query on the open data network, comparing US Census earnings data between the Austin and San Francisco Metro Areas

Jane Jacobs was not a schooled expert in urban planning. She was a writer. But she thrilled in the “ballet of the good city sidewalk,” the magic that can happen, and how we advance the commonwealth, when people come together, in person, and make our sense of community real and personal.

Imagine what Ms. Jacobs could or would do with our Census data and tools like Socrata’s free and open one to analyze it…

Justin and Kevin

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