The concept of smart cities seems like a contemporary urbanism trend. But as early as the 1960s, cities were using technology to gather, interpret, and visualize civic data. Heres how a 1974 report by Los Angeless Community Analysis Bureau used computer databases, cluster analysis, and infrared aerial photography to help them to make decisions about policy.
In December 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive order instructing each city department to gather all the data it collects and share it on a publicly accessible website by early the following year. In February 2014, he appointed LAs first Chief Innovation Technology Officer, and a few months later he launched DataLA, the citys online data portal. The launch, aimed at a generation who had grown up with smart phones, the internet, and GIS mapping, was promoted with a hackathon hosted at City Hall.
Whether you call the approach smart cities, intelligent cities or digital cities, DataLA puts Garcetti on a growing list of mayors who believe that better use of information technology and data can help them govern cities more effectively, connect residents to city government and resources, and spur high-tech employment. Smart cities have been criticized for prioritizing whiz-bang tech over residents basic needs and for their potential to widen the economic gap between the technology haves and have-nots. While those are real concerns, the concept of improved urban governance through better use of information is a promising one.
Like many smart, new ideas, however, its not new. Its not even new to Los Angeles, which has been pursuing computer-assisted data and policy analysis for decades. Beginning in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s, the little-known Community Analysis Bureau used computer databases, cluster analysis, and infrared aerial photography to gather data, produce reports on neighborhood demographics and housing quality, and help direct resources to ward off blight and tackle poverty.
I have been reading about the history of planning in Los Angeles for years, but the first time I had seen anything by or about the Community Analysis Bureau was when I ran across its insightful-but-weird 1974 report The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles at a library. A data-rich snapshot of LA from forty years ago, the report didnt categorize Los Angeles into the usual neighborhoods or community plan areas, but into scattered clusters with names like the singles of Los Angeles, the suburbs from the fifties, richest of the poor, gracious living, and more. The nomenclature was seemingly drawn more from market research than traditional city planning reports.
I mentally filed it away as just another 1970s urban experiment, an attempt to sort and categorize places across LAs expanse. As I read more about the methodology, however, I became intrigued by the Community Analysis Bureaus ambition to create an Urban Information System that could be applied to tackle the problems of the day. I wondered whether this urban intelligence had influenced city policy or programs. How had the bureau fared as the politics of planning, poverty alleviation, and land use in the city changed? Was there a trove of lost data moldering somewhere in boxes of punch cards? I looked up documents on the history of the bureau in the city archives and located several former staff members still living in the Los Angeles area. They were gracious enough to share their memories of the bureaus work.
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