Hamilton on a Hard Drive

A Dollar Store becomes a smoothie joint. Graffiti tags appear on a rail bridge. Empty nesters sell up and a young family moves in. An old church is converted into loft condos. Hundreds of trees snap in a windstorm. Street parking turns into dedicated bike lanes. Playground swings fall into disrepair. A bus route extends into a new housing development. A gas station appears on a formerly abandoned lot.

Decay and gentrification, demographic and cultural shifts, economic and culinary trends, the swing of the political pendulum – a city changes in thousands of ways for thousands of reasons every day.

The evolution of an urban landscape affects crime rates, property values, and traffic patterns. It also has a direct impact on the mental and physical health of those who live there. There’s strong evidence that objective ratings of neighbourhood disorder are related to mental health, psyschological distress, children’s outdoor play patterns, alcohol abuse, drug use, risky sex and obesity.

Researcher James Dunn is convinced that the relationship between built environments and community health makes a huge difference to people’s quality – and length – of life. He plans to do some of the first studies to examine the effects of change in neighbourhoods on such outcomes, using Hamilton’s rapidly transforming neighbourhoods as his laboratory.

“There’s about a 21-year gap in average age of death from the worst neighbourhood to the best neighbourhood in Hamilton. That’s shocking,” says Dunn, an Professor of Health, Aging & Society at McMaster University.

Dunn has dedicated his career to unlocking the secrets of how ever-evolving urban infrastructure – from affordable housing to street cleaning – affects health. He’s already a globally recognized pioneer in this area. And now, he is about to get a hi-tech boost that allows him to pursue research at a level that was previously unimaginable.

Through his work at McMaster’s Collaboratory for Research in Urban Neighbourhoods, Community Health and Housing (the “CRUNCH Lab”) Dunn has a new ride. It is everything you’d expect of a socially responsible researcher’s car: a hybrid gas sipper, great on mileage, and just barely capacious enough to hold Dunn, his research team and their data collection equipment. The exciting technology isn’t under the hood, though – it’s suction-cupped to the roof.

Looking like a discarded prop from a Doctor Who special, a black tripod extends up from the white car, supporting five outward-facing cameras, arranged such that their overlapping fields of view allow 360-degree capture. A sixth, central digital eye points skyward. In fact, the only thing the camera array doesn’t capture is the car on which it is mounted.

If this apparatus sounds like the cameras Google Inc. uses to create its Street View, it’s because the technology is similar. He uses customized software to stitch the six cameras’ recordings together, creating a completely explorable spherical video image of an entire streetscape. Recordings are tied to GPS readings, allowing Dunn to create digital records of entire neighbourhoods that can be visited again and again.

The recordings can either be projected around an entire room, allowing researchers to effectively stand in the middle of a virtual neighbourhood, or they can be displayed on a flat screen, where a mouse can be used to “look around” within the image (like a first-person video game).

This recording and projection technology represents a major leap forward in Dunn’s research, reducing labour and vastly increasing data. Dunn recalls how his efforts to winnow out the complex relationships between health and the built environment have relied so heavily on brute force.

“A colleague and I once experimented with a social and physical disorder rating scale. We trained a bunch of undergraduates for four days, and then sent them out to 168 block faces in Toronto,” he says. “We picked two upper income neighbourhoods and two lower income neighbourhoods and two suburban neighbourhoods and two more urban neighbourhoods.”

The technology at the time: clipboards and checklists.

“They recorded numbers that basically said, ‘I see garbage.’ Maybe it was ‘a lot of garbage,’ or ‘a little bit of garbage.” Or, ‘I see signs of drug activity, a lot of it, a little bit.’ ‘I see unkempt properties.’ That’s essentially the kind of stuff they recorded.”

Dunn correlated the students’ neighbourhood assessments with census data and other health information, providing insight into how neighbourhood disorder related to health outcomes.

The research yielded meaningful results, but the problems were many. Students could only cover so much ground. The work was labour intensive, costly and slow. Safety was a concern – especially when observations needed to be done late at night in rough areas. Perhaps most limiting, though, was the fact that students only noted certain information. If researchers later wanted to add another element into their analysis – say the amount of tree canopy or the number of speed bumps – they’d have to send students back out in the field to collect new data.

Plus, cities change.

With his single car and six-eyed camera, Dunn can record every street in Hamilton at different times of day, different days of the week, several times a year. (Having control over the timing and location of recordings is one of the reasons why Dunn doesn’t simply use Google Street View to conduct his research.)

Now he can rigorously measure how a changing city affects the health of its residents. And when new avenues of research emerge, he’ll be able to “walk” through any neighbourhood at any point in its recorded history to gather previously unnoted information. “When did those planters go in?” “When was that graffiti painted over?” “Is there a more visible police presence in some neighbourhoods?” “How different does this building look after its façade was renovated?” Any questions that occur to researchers, even long after the fact, will now be answerable.

While Dunn’s interest is health, the theories he’s currently working with originated in criminology.

“The roots of this actually come ‘Broken Windows Theory,’” Dunn says. “This theory suggests that small visual cues – an increase in broken windows or graffiti, for instance – send signals that a neighbourhood is ripe for crime.”

Criminologists created a standardized rating scale for social and physical disorder, which Dunn has adapted for his own research. And he also expects researchers in many other fields to be interested in using these recordings.

“It’s opened up a whole bunch of questions about other ways we can use this camera system to learn more about the aesthetic qualities of built environments,” he says. “What makes a neighbourhood attractive to people who want to start a family? What aesthetic elements encourage people to choose more physically active means of transportation than driving? What might help a business succeed? What kinds of improvements act as ‘tipping points’ for more rapid visual change?”

This is the first such technology-enhanced endeavour to document an entire city using rigorous academic methodology. Dunn anticipates that researchers around the world will be interested both in using his Hamilton recordings for their own research, and also having Dunn make similar recordings in other cities.

Municipal governments and policy makers have already expressed interest in his work.

“Oftentimes, things like beautification are thought of as ‘nice to haves,’ but not ‘need to haves,’” he says. “I think that this is one way in which we can help decision makers set priorities. If our analyses show that the aesthetics of a streetscape increase the likelihood that people will use active transportation (walking or biking), then that’s worth knowing. And maybe they would set their priorities differently knowing the impact of these kinds of things on health and well-being.”

Tagged: Building Community, Health & Wellbeing, Technology, Stories

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