Distributed Infrastructure of Small Urban Places

Distributed Infrastructure of Small Urban Places

A digital tool helps coordinate unused parcels of urban public land to alleviate the need for expensive infrastructure projects, revive depressed and blighted neighborhoods, and provide a network of interlinked wildlife habitats.

A small and inconspicuous lane connecting Industrial Street and Rankin Street in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood could play a major role in bolstering the city’s infrastructure. It could absorb and filter storm runoff, provide habitat for local and migrating wildlife, help cool heat islands during hot summer days, and give underserved neighborhoods much-needed open green space. This little alley cannot do all that by itself, of course, but it can serve as one piece in a wide network of thousands of so-called “remnant parcels,” street-like spaces owned by the city but not maintained. Multiplied across the city, and coordinated into a network, the collective power of such spaces could be transformative.

Local Code San Francisco reveals over 1500 city-owned remnant parcels.

“San Francisco contains an area of remnant parcels that rivals that of Golden Gate Park,” says UC Berkeley professor of Architecture and Design Nicholas de Monchaux. The intention to make better use of such spaces is nothing new, he says; urban theorist Jane Jacobs, for example, advocated recovering small unused spaces for use as pocket parks throughout cities. What is new, is the deployment of digital tools to coordinate thousands of such fragmented places so they work together as a “system of systems,” he says. As the complexity of their interactions grows, their influence can be amplified until they make significant contributions to storm mitigation, water filtration, heat island diffusion, and species protection. With the help of a $50,000 CITRIS Seed Grant in 2012, de Monchaux, along with Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the UC Berkeley College of  Environmental Design, and Raissa d’Souza, a professor of computer science at UC Davis, is making a digital tool that will enable city and regional planners to better coordinate and exploit thousands of fragments like the one near Industrial Street. Known as Local Code, the tool employs parametric analysis to classify the hydrology, thermodynamics, habitat value, and other metrics of each of these 1,500 parcels and help suggest the best placement of windbreaks, permeable surfaces, retention ponds, and other features to maximize each fragment’s contribution to the whole network.

In addition to the San Francisco project, de Monchaux is currently working in New York City on the coordination of 30,000 sites. This project, a collaboration with Timon Macphearson of The New School, is especially relevant in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  “It looks particularly at issues of resilience, increasingly related to climate change; storm water retention and remediation, heat island moderation, provision of habitat for urban wildlife, and improving public health through creating networks of walkable, green space,”  says de Monchaux.

Local Code will help planners design and implement projects, but it will also help them promote those projects to politicians and funders charged with maintaining or improving city infrastructures, says Wolch.

“We want to be able to model a metropolitan area and say ‘all right, if we did x number of these parcels with y amount of acreage, we could lower ambient temperature by z degrees. Or we might be able to eliminate the need for an expensive new underground storm drainage system,’” says Wolch.

“If you have even small spaces close to people’s houses, where neighbors gather and talk, then, when a Sandy-size event happens, that will be a more resilient community. Neighbors will know who is where and will be able to seek out those who are older or less able to take care of themselves,” says Wolch.

Most of the parcels are in poor neighborhoods with a paucity of open public space. Improving parcels in these areas will make an especially big difference to the city’s underserved populations. These neglected sites also often line up with important hydrologic features of the urban landscape, says de Monchaux. Low-income neighborhoods tend to be at the bottoms of watersheds, where flooding occurs and runoff collects even during normal storms. Peppering these low-lying  areas with flood mitigation, water storage, and filtration features would improve the ecological performance of the entire city, says Monchaux. At the same time, it would introduce green and productive park-like spaces into neighborhoods that badly need them.

Because Local Code must consider so many different parameters, d’Souza, who specializes in developing  networks of networks, is writing the algorithms that make the analysis possible. Many parcels can serve several valuable functions at once (hence the whole network’s description as a “network of networks”) and tracking and coordinating all of those is a significant data management challenge.

The group also plans to deploy digital democracy tools to gather opinions and engage local communities in the redesign of the remnant parcels. For the project to work, local communities must approve and contribute to the designs of parcels in their neighborhoods. Local Code would help project managers set the parameters for the new designs based on local hydrological and environmental pressures and city-wide needs. Then it could present a range of options to local groups for achieving those aims. The community could be offered funding support for any project within that range of options, says de Monchaux. It might be a community garden, with deep soil that could absorb runoff, or it might be daylighting a creek that could help direct storm water to other drainage culverts, or it might be the installation of a filtration and holding system. The particular way a parcel would contribute to the network would depend on the desires and needs of the local community.

Finally, Local Code will also help with public funding simulations by tracking and analyzing ways different parcel modifications might address publicly-funded projects. San Francisco is at the height of an ongoing investment of $4.6 billion in water and sewer upgrades. “Yet little of this funding has gone to neighborhood-level investments in public space, despite the proven ability of such local interventions to reduce storm water flow and reduce loads on traditional sewer infrastructure,” says de Monchaux.

“My larger goal with this work is to redirect some of the flow of money that now goes into 19th-century ideas of infrastructure (big pipes in ground, big dams, big dikes) and see it invested in communities instead, where it can be far more effective,” says de Monchaux.

by Gordy Slack