There are many things that contribute to making cities great places in which to live, work and learn. The quality of the physical environment, access to green spaces, safety in the streets, cultural amenities, ease of mobility, responsible management, and social and economic stability are but a few factors cited as determinants of great places.

Perhaps the single most important consideration stems from the fact that great cities don’t just happen. They are the consequence of deliberate and decisive actions at critical times. Increasingly, planners and designers are recognising that evidence-based practice is crucial in creating places benefit residents, but also draw more people who want to live, work, and visit there.

This article explores three recent projects that used big data to support better urban planning and – ultimately – improved community health and wellbeing.

Activating schools and golf courses transforms access to open space

Open space has played a crucial role in cities during the COVID19 pandemic. Park visitation rates increased as most gyms and other recreation facilities were closed. During the height of the COVID19 pandemic lockdown in Melbourne the community were restricted to locations within five kilometres of their homes, and open spaces became critical community assets.

To understand how easily Melbourne residents could access open space Mosaic Insights carried out a research project to identify areas where people have to walk more than 400 m to reach any open space. The study used advanced spatial analytic approaches, and found that access to open space is not equitable across Melbourne.

There are pockets of residential areas throughout Melbourne where more than one third of the population is outside easy walking distance of open spaces. Suburbs with particularly poor access to open space are found throughout Moonee Valley and Moreland City Council areas. There are also several councils in the east and southeast with poor access to open space, including Glen Eira, Boroondara, Monash and Bayside.

We analysed walkable networks and spatial distribution of open space across Melbourne and analysed these data sets in combination with detailed population density data to estimate – at a fine scale – the actual number of people not serviced by open space.

The results of our analysis are presented in the map below. An interactive web map that allows you to scroll and zoom around the map to see what access to open space is like in different areas of the city is available on the Mosaic Insights website

With the trend towards working from home likely to continue after the pandemic has subsided, making access to open space close to home even more important.
Creating new open spaces can be difficult and expensive and can take significant time to deliver. For example, the City of Melbourne are creating a new 2.5 ha park at Dodds Street at a cost of $35 million.

However, a significant opportunity to increase access to open space would be to make school grounds accessible to the public on weeknights and weekends. A few schools are already collaborating with their local councils to do just this. Melbourne’s many golf courses provide an additional opportunity.

We looked at the distribution of schools and golf courses across the city, and what that would mean for access if they were opened to the public. We found that opening up schools across Melbourne would give an additional 185,000 people easy access to open spaces and opening up golf courses would provide access to an additional 29,000 people.

We used the findings from our spatial analysis and published economic research to estimate the economic benefits of opening up schools and golf courses to the public through improved health and community outcomes. We found that opening up schools would be worth between $21 and $26 million per year. Opening golf courses to the public as open space will bring benefits between $3 and $4 million per year.

There are clearly barriers to opening schools and golf courses to a wider group of people (for example, concerns around security, vandalism, and loss of access to existing users). But these are not insurmountable, as has been shown by the community starting to use Northcote Golf Course in Melbourne as parkland and the Shared Schoolyard Project in San Francisco.

Regardless of what happens as the pandemic restrictions ease, open spaces will remain critical to Melbourne’s liveability. Our analysis of open spaces, accessibility to such spaces, and insights into potential solutions provides new insights into the provision of open space across the city. This level of understanding will be important as State and Local Governments implement Plan Melbourne, 20-minute neighbourhoods, open space strategies and public health and wellbeing plans.

Melbourne Water urban cooling dashboard

Australian cities are heating up as the climate changes. The effect of climate change is amplified in cities by the urban heat island (UHI) effect, which is caused by the mass of impermeable surface within cities. Think concrete tarmac and brick.

Buildings and infrastructure in urban areas absorb radiation during the day, releasing it in the evening and extending high temperatures into the night. The effect is exacerbated by waste heat from air conditioners and vehicles. The image below shows the UHI effect in metropolitan Sydney during the summer of 2015/16

More people living in increasingly hot cities creates a significant climate-related community health risk. Heat is by far Australia’s deadliest natural hazard. Since 1900, heat has been responsible for more deaths than all other natural hazards combined, and that is a rate that is increasing, outpacing population growth.

Melbourne Water strategically invests in urban cooling outcomes across land and waterways it manages. Mosaic and Alluvium developed a prioritisation scheme that identifies specific locations to invest, based on the cooling potential, and heat vulnerability of the surrounding population, population density, stormwater benefit and broader urban forest policy in Melbourne’s Local Government Areas.

The data on prioritisation were developed into a Power BI dashboard with Mapbox as a tool for displaying and engaging with spatial data. The dashboard was designed to support planning and speaks to both operational and strategic components of the urban cooling program at Melbourne Water. Background material and guidance on delivery of urban cooling projects are integrated with the dashboard.

The product has improved Melbourne Water’s access to information and evidence needed to support and justify investment in urban outcomes.

Data dashboards can be tailored to a wide range of land and water management settings. They can provide bespoke and data-driven decision support tools that draw value from data that we generate through spatial analytics, modelling, surveys, and remote sensing.

Understanding what urban forests really cost – the Tree Investment Tool

The simple step of increasing vegetation in cities can do much to reduce the urban heat island effect, and one of the most effective methods is expanding the ‘urban forest’. An urban forest is made up of trees planted along streets, in open spaces and in backyards and gardens. Shade and evapotranspiration from trees can reduce the surface temperature by up to 10˚C and the air temperature by up to 1.5°C.

But even though the benefits of urban greening are obvious and tangible, there are some significant barriers to establishing an urban forest: highly contested space in cities, community resistance to new trees, pressure on existing trees from urban densification, and local government budgets.

To support the continued greening of Australian cities, Mosaic Insights and Natural Capital Economics partnered with Horticulture Innovation Australia to develop the Tree Investment Tool, a user friendly, spreadsheet-based tool that provides accurate, whole-of-lifecycle costs for urban trees across Australia. It was developed alongside a yearlong industry consultation and is designed for local government, landscape architects, urban designers, planners and urban developers.

The tool, which is the first of its kind in the world, uses sophisticated economic analysis and real-world cost data to reliably and rigorously estimate costs for urban greening. The user interface is simple and intuitive, and the tool produces graphic and data-based outputs that can be directly incorporated into business cases for urban greening.

Users can plan for a green urban landscape by developing and comparing scenarios with the tool’s data and chart features that help estimate lifecycle cash flow costs for a single street tree, several street trees, or greening an entire municipality.

The Tree Investment Tool can be downloaded along with a user instruction manual via the Horticultural Innovation Australia website