Toward a Common Language of Cities

July 9, 2013
The cities of the world have a communication problem, and Richard Saul Wurman wants to solve it.

“They don’t collect their information the same way. They don’t describe themselves with the same legend,” says Wurman, an architect, graphic designer and founder of the TED conferences. “One city might have five different patterns of industrial types of land use and another might have one. One city might call an airport ‘transportation’ and another might call it ‘commercial.’ They call everything by different names.”

It’s the equivalent, he says, of two people speaking two different languages and trying to have one conversation.

Wurman, 78, has had a long-running interest in cities. Trained as an architect, he’s specifically interested in comparing cities, though he discovered back in the 1960s that there wasn’t an easy way to do that.

So he set out to find one. In 1962 he published a book comparing the plans of 50 different cities by creating clay models of each city at the same scale. In 1967 he expanded this effort with a highly detailed comparative statistical atlas of 20 American cities. These analog efforts — while impressive for their time — don’t mesh with the changing reality of our urbanizing world.

But the digital age has caught up. The growing ubiquity of public data and increasing dexterity of mapping software have now enabled a more robust city comparison tool to emerge. Which is why Wurman has partnered with GIS mapping firm Esri and production company Radical Media to create a digital, data-rich city comparison tool called Urban Observatory.

Read the full story at Next City.