Urban Vacancies

By on Jan 18, 2018 in News

For centuries, explorers looked to the stars to help them navigate new worlds. In Baltimore, stargazers aren’t using the night sky to track galaxies explore the Milky Way. Instead, the same modeling and algorithms used to map galaxies is being repurposed for a more pedestrian purpose: urban vacancies. Astrophysicists and city planners are working together to find new ways to manage abandoned buildings and future development.

Patterns and Particles

As part of an effort to help the city manage housing stock and anticipate residency trends, Baltimore recently partnered with John Hopkins University astrophysicist Tamás Budavári to find a way to detect patterns and predict which parts of the city will thrive, and which areas will end up empty and abandoned. According to Budavári, though astrophysics may have little in common with urban planning, at the core is a fundamental need to detect and detail patterns not readily apparent.

“I thought: Can we measure this correlation of clustering of vacant houses the same way we made measurements about astronomy,” Budavári explains in a recent interview with Wired.

Data and Diligence

Last year, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman contacted Budavári about developing an algorithmic tool capable of predicting the city’s vacancies. Working through the John Hopkin’s Center for Government Excellence (GovEx), Budavári and Braverman are working together to find a proactive approach to the city’s urban planning. The key? Data.

GovEx is a three-year program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The goal of the organization involves aiding municipalities with the collection and analysis of data, so that “governments [can] effectively use data in order to make informed decisions on services that improve people’s lives.” The program also connects 120 partner municipalities across the country, helping each city manage data and share strategies.

“We can take what we learn, document it, and now, we’ve got this cohort of cities that can replicate this work, who are dealing with the same issues,” explains Beth Blauer, executive director of GovEx.

Baltimore Blight

Since 1950, the number of people residing in Baltimore’s has steadily declined, with its 620,000 residents representing a third of the city’s peak population. As shipyards closed and manufacturing moved overseas, Baltimore’s residents left for greener pastures. With its rich history and slow downward spiral – the city once housed over 1 million people – Baltimore provides a test case for the circumstances and challenges associated with urban decay.

With rows and rows of abandoned buildings, Baltimore’s urban blight is more than just an eyesore, it’s a matter of public safety and an economic liability. With the possibility of over 30,000 unoccupied buildings, the city’s plan to demolish and revitalize struggling neighborhoods requires lots of boots on the ground so each vacant unit can be flagged, cited, auctioned and freed for redevelopment.

An Embarrassment of Riches

Baltimore is not just rich in vacant housing, it also has vast stores of data from disparate sources. From water use to utility records and postal delivery information, the city can often triangulate sources to create a comprehensive overview of population distribution.

“Like a lot of sectors in government, we have this glut of data now,” says John David Evans, the city’s director of analytics and strategic planning in the Wired article. “We’re producing more than we can intelligently understand, and we don’t have the statistical tools to extract from the data what we need.”

The need to analyze and utilize the data is what prompted Braverman to contact Budavári. Budavári’s vision involves collecting all the different data streams and pulling them together to create an algorithm that can identify current vacancies and predict whether nearby buildings will face a similar fate. Ultimately, Budavári and his team hope to produce heat maps to identify new and emerging issues and help the city direct funding and resources more strategically.

“It’s about how they can use the available dollars to make the biggest impact on the quality of life in the city,” says Budavári. “The issue is really how do you measure the quality of life?”