Sarah Barns

Essays and other writing

Recent news and views across urban data strategy, creative programming and digital place-making. 

Remember your place in the digital age

A few months back, Fairfax Media's Domain released its guide to Sydney's most liveable suburbs. The results were splashed across the news, proclaiming Lavender Bay as the most liveable suburb of Sydney. Mine didn't rate much of a mention; indeed most of the top performing places had very few people actually living in them. The guide was scoffed at by radio journalists, derided by columnists, and went onto the stockpile of the not-quite accurate liveability scores launched in recent years.  Ho-hum. 

In launching its guide, Fairfax, with support from Deloitte Access Economics, joined the teeming masses of consultancies, not for profits, researchers, governments and real estate agents all seeking to capture the magic essence of a place through whatever available data they can get their hands on.

This data might include traffic data, employment data, house prices, data on walkability, and access to schools, hospitals and shops. Together the data might help create a 'place score' or a 'place ranking', or help show on a multi-coloured map just where exactly it sucks more than other places to call home. 

When I, like many other Sydney-siders, found myself quickly scanning the list of suburbs and looking at how far down the list my little neck of the wood fared, I found myself feeling quite cross. Sure, the traffic might be bad, but the local butcher is great! And you can ride your bike to the canals that feed the harbour in a just a jiff, and be united with a sparking harbour - what joy!. And don't forget the light rail, the school, the mix of young and old and...My list of grievances with the 'score' went on and on.  

Of course, like them or not, rankings like these attract us, like little bees to wattle. But unfortunately liveability scores are more than clickbait.  Locating the data that defines a place is becoming big business, and the 'insights' generated becoming more influential in shaping decisions made about the future of cities.  

The Economist Intelligence Unit Liveability Ranking of Cities 

The Economist Intelligence Unit Liveability Ranking of Cities 

Data-driven metrics are becoming the ultimate specialist urban knowledge, and it seems quite clear that in the not too distant future, a newly confident 'urban science' will become an integral part of the machine of urban planning. It's not difficult to see, on current trends, how we will soon be measuring the impact of planned infrastructure — light rail, toll roads, energy grids — on a set of place values and place scores, determined by esoteric algorithms let loose on petabytes of urban data.  

But just as the data mining and data harvesting techniques that underpin our values of place are set to become more and more sophisticated, I worry that so too the underlying ideas about how we think about places are becoming more and more impoverished.  Somewhat absurdly, we are moving down a path of creating data-rich indicators or that offer us less and less real meaning.

This feels to me like a danger we should be very worried about - not only because out little nooks might not top the latest list, but because we might soon lose the capacity to nourish and protect what we really value in a place.  Where will that leave us, I wonder? 

Part of the narrowing of value seems to emerge from a functional view of places and their role in our lives. Liveability scores have tended to settle on collecting data on what services a place as 'proxies' for the 'quality of life' experienced there. In this conception, we seem to imagine a place as simply being in service to us, a bit like we're in a supermarket and judging the quality of the corned beef and accessibility of the toilets. This is, in fact, a terribly short sighted view.

It's a view that seems to forget not only the lots of little things that make a place distinctive, but more crucially the very meaning of ‘place’ and its standing in our lives. How the quality of a place shapes our outlook on life. What space we allow for, in our society, for the sense of connectedness we feel for particular environments. The Germans have a word - Heimat - relating to the longing for one's homelands, and the sense of unity and wholeness it provides. The Romans, too, acknowledged our connection to places as a kind of protective spirit - a genius loci.  

I grew up in Fremantle, Western Australia, and I’ve come to think that the beauty and emptiness of the blank open blue sky and the emptiness of the horizon I experienced there shaped me in particular ways. Coming from the most isolated city in the world, I still tend to seek out the action more enthusiastically than some of my Sydney friends, who are used to having so much close by. It wasn't a perfect place, but it still protects me like a shield.  My memory of my time there keeps me solid as a rock; when I think of that place I know who I am. 

Something like the image I see when I think of Fremantle. All that empty sky. 

Something like the image I see when I think of Fremantle. All that empty sky. 

And the abandoned Fremantle Powerstation... all potent possibility. 

And the abandoned Fremantle Powerstation... all potent possibility. 

When I look towards the highly urbanised future this world is spinning into, a world where our cities are denser, more compact, and giving off more and more of the 'data exhaust' of our ever-more hyper-connected lives, I worry that we might risk losing the sense and feel of these less measurable aspects about places. Will we lose the habit of thinking not only in terms of what assets a place bestows upon us, but also what qualities they shape in us? Thinking like this helps us to remember we're connected beings, part of complex ecologies of people and environment, history and chemistry, trees and sky. If we forget these values when we go foraging for our data, what kinds of pictures will we start to draw? 

This is why the prospects of an energised urban science, full of scores and metrics, fills me with fear. Just as we face a growing sense of data abundance, so too what counts as 'knowledge' about a place seems to be becoming more confined. We must do better.  William Bragg, one of Australia's most notable and respected scientists, knew scientists needed much more than data to create breakthroughs. He said: 'The most important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.'

Today, big data uncoupled from imaginative and compassionate insights risks cultivating smart cities full of clone-places, leaving us adrift in our connectedness. Teaching the arts of rhetoric, Cicero taught his students to 'use places as wax, symbols as letters', in order to cultivate memory and assist in the cultivation of new ideas.

Place-making in the digital age? Pokemon Go hits Sydney.

Place-making in the digital age? Pokemon Go hits Sydney.

Our digital age will require of us all kinds of smarts: thinking imaginatively and compassionately towards the places in which we dwell must surely be one of them