The Data and Life of Great Future Cities

Does the future of human-centered urban design lie in big data?

15th September – 26th January 2019
Admission free.


Can data collection actually be good for us? Roca London Gallery's autumn exhibition The Data and Life of Great Future Cities proposes that, used responsibly, personal data could be the key to better urban design.


The exhibition title is inspired by the now iconic 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by pioneering urbanist, activist and writer Jane Jacobs. In it, controversially without extensive evidence gathering, Jacobs managed to identify the four conditions required for successful city planning, or the “four generators of diversity”. Her theories have now been proved uncannily accurate by a team of researchers at The University of Trento, led by Marco De Nadai, whose work will be part of the Roca London Gallery show. De Nadai’s development of a much cheaper and quicker alternative to the lengthy and costly collection of survey data, or studies of pedestrian activity, uses a new generation of city databases – such as OpenStreetMap and Foursquare – combined with mobile-phone records, showing the number and frequency of calls in an area, to identify a city’s most vibrant areas. This new methodology is groundbreaking for city planning as it offers an evidence-based, objective toolkit for assessing aspects such as the quality, vitality and diversity of city life. Rather than relying on a satellite-style view, we're now able to understand how a city works from street level up, providing an empirical way into what Jacobs called "the adventure of probing the real world".

De Nadai’s work is just one of the exhibition’s examples of how data mining can support human-centered urban design, as exhibition curator Eva Woode comments: “By studying these projects, in which data mining essentially becomes a new tool to learn about how people use and perceive cities, we’ve found that researchers such as the MIT Senseable City Lab are progressing the tradition of urban observation pioneered by Jane Jacobs, albeit with modern technology and on a massive scale. Through this exhibition, we’ve wanted to highlight these new tools, and also tried to put contemporary approaches to studying a city at street level into historical context.”

The show’s opening section will review historical approaches to urban design, dating back to ancient times when city planning could as easily be victim to the whim of a dictator as configured to honour a spiritual figure. Tools for studying cities now and how we might adapt them for the future will be illustrated through a number of projects, including two current examples from MIT’s Senseable City Lab, led by Carlo Ratti: Friendly Cities and Treepedia. The former is based on a Singapore-based study, where personal data is less tightly policed than in the UK. By extracting information from mobile phone data, MIT Lab can demonstrate how, as people move about the city, they either ‘bond’ through deliberate connectivity with friends or ‘bridge’ via chance encounters with strangers. This has enabled them to map places in the city that bring people together.

Using Google Street View data, Treepedia allows the comparison of tree canopies in cities around the world. A city's tree canopy affects urban temperatures and mitigates air pollution, while the trees’ absorptive root systems help to avoid floods during severe rains and storm surges. Importantly, there are also proven health benefits to living within view and shelter of greenery.

Exhibition curated by Studio Woode.

Exhibition design by Thomas Matthews.

Roca London Gallery, Station Court, Townmead Road, London, SW6 2PY T: 020 7610 9503  @RocaLONGallery

Where to find us

Fairs and events calendar

The Data and Life of Great Future Cities

Event date

Event schedule

Exhibition Schedule 15/09/18 – 26/01/19