October 2001

From University of Washington

UrbanSim to pit computer's ingenuity against gridlock, pollution, sprawl

University of Washington researchers have won more than $5 million in federal grants to create software of unprecedented power and flexibility to help Puget Sound and other metropolitan areas tackle such problems as gridlock and pollution.

UrbanSim, as the project is called, will use the three new National Science Foundation grants totaling $5.2 million to create advanced software capable of forecasting a quarter-century into the future the effects of today’s housing, land use and transportation decisions, and of making this information far more accessible than ever before.

Within a few years, the researchers say, UrbanSim will enable planners, policymakers and activists to sit at their computers and see realistic animated streetscapes showing what neighborhoods would look like in 2025 as a result of today’s actions.

"This is about helping to involve communities in their own planning," said Paul Waddell, an associate professor at the UW’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs who has been developing UrbanSim for five years.

Joining Waddell are UW professors and students from a gamut of academic fields, from computer science to wildlife science, information science to civil engineering.

Students who have grown up playing Sim City games won’t blink at the concept of moving freeways and factories with the flick of a mouse, but UrbanSim will attempt to use the latest breakthroughs in the information sciences to help solve actual urban problems. And unlike simulation games, UrbanSim will use massive amounts of data from real metropolitan areas and produce results that can be checked against reality.

"It’s not going to fix things by itself," said UrbanSim researcher and UW computer science Professor Alan Borning, "but it does encourage a longer-term vision. We want citizens, elected officials and others to have more complete information about the long-term effects of different policies, and to be able to evaluate those policies according to their own values and interests."

Puget Sound, a region trying to decide how to protect salmon, build mass transit and replace a quake-damaged freeway, among other things, will become a testing ground for possibly the most extensive urban modeling system ever attempted. Layers of information about the area – derived from property tax rolls, Census forms, economic surveys, bird counts, satellite images, vegetation surveys and much more – will be entered and analyzed to help planners and policymakers anticipate the effects of their decisions.

A key innovation is the program’s ability to integrate the long-term effects of numerous policy choices, rather than just considering each decision in isolation.

The UW is making UrbanSim freely available as so-called open-source software. Earlier versions were tested in Honolulu and Eugene-Springfield. Salt Lake City has been using UrbanSim as part of a visioning process organized by a public-private collaboration. The latest federal grants will enable researchers to make dramatic improvements, including:

 Interaction and Participation: $3.5 million from the NSF’s Information Technology Research program will go toward building brainier software and creating an Internet-based system for public participation, including visualization and interaction tools and graphics that produce animated streetscapes.

 Microsimulation: $600,000 will go toward figuring out how to realistically simulate the complex interplay among different planning choices using microsimulation techniques – for example, to model how households juggle housing and work and commuting choices.

 Biocomplexity. This $1.1 million project will add data about the natural world , such as bird counts and vegetation surveys, to UrbanSim’s trove of demographic and economic information.

"This is very ambitious and has been rarely attempted, said urban ecology researcher Marina Alberti, an associate professor of urban design and planning. "What we’re really trying to study is how humans and the environment evolve together."

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright © 2004

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