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Transforming Cities Using Data With Mariela Alfonzo — ICYMI

This week, State of Place Founder and CEO Mariela Alfonzo, with a Ph.D. in urban planning, answers the “In Case You Missed It” crew’s questions on urban design, spatial justice and how our environment impacts our lives.

Can a neighborhood, and the way it’s laid out, have meaningful impacts on the lives of its residents? Does it affect mental health? What about opportunity? Can a city change a neighborhood to help lower rates of asthma or diabetes?

According to Mariela Alfonzo, the answer to all those questions is a resounding “yes.”

On this week’s “In Case You Missed It,” the crew chats with Alfonzo, who has a Ph.D. in urban planning and design and is founder and CEO of State of Place, a company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and assess communities, about the impact our communities have on our lives.

Also, this year’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers honorees were announced. Dustin, Joe and Jed break down some of the most notable folks that made our list and why.



The following interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity:

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and what got you interested in urban design and why you started State of Place?

A: Anytime somebody asks me about why I do what I do, I always talk about where I grew up, which is Miami. When I say Miami, it’s not like Miami Vice Miami or South Beach, Miami, it’s like the real Miami. The part that was really auto-dominated. And for me, living especially in the lower-to-middle income area in Miami shaped every single aspect of my life, down to the fact that we lived in a lower-tax area. That meant our public schools were not as well funded, which meant that my mom had to put me into private school. And that school was in the opposite direction of where she worked. So my whole life was spent in a car.

And I just understood that so much of the struggles that my family and I had were tied to the lack of built environment amenities that were available to us. I wouldn’t have put it that way when I was, you know, 9 years old. But also when I was 15 a friend of mine, unfortunately, was killed while she was crossing a six-lane road that was basically a highway pretending to be a city street. And that really impacted me because it was basically designed the same way a road that I crossed every single day was designed.

So it was very clear to me that design mattered — that there was really a lot of power in place. What I didn’t understand is why, if that was the case, we weren’t investing more in it. And so that was what drove me to get my Ph.D. in urban planning. Because I didn’t want to just tell people that design mattered, I wanted to prove it to them.

I’m very nerdy. I like data. So I wanted to have an evidence-based argument. So my work ended up quantifying how urban design impacts our behaviors, our perceptions and feelings. But also how that translates back into value. And while I started more from the social and health and environmental aspect of value, I ultimately brought in the economic piece, so that I could make that rationale. That’s essentially what drove me to start State of Place.

Q: So what, exactly, does State of Place do?

A: State of Place is an urban design and predictive analytics software.

We collect data on about 150 or so micro-scale aspects of urban design. So these are things like sidewalks, trees and benches, if there’s crosswalk markings, curb cuts, outdoor dining. We use AI to collect that data from digital images, which allows us to provide this data citywide. We then crunch that data into a score that measures walkability, bikeability and livability, which we call the State of Place Index. And that measures 10 different aspects of urban design performance. So things like pedestrian and bike amenities, or traffic safety. We also look at personal safety, density, conductivity, etc. So this really helps communities understand what’s working and what’s not in a really fine-grained way.

We also visualize this data, kind of in a heat map, so that you can begin to identify areas of spatial inequities throughout the city. In addition to that, we have a ton of forecasting models that show how that index actually impacts those different aspects of value. So various metrics for quality of life — whether that be real estate value, tax revenues, traffic collisions, or, of course, the amount that people drive. What we do with those forecasting models is we put it into the software, so that we can say to communities, “Well, what are your goals?” They may answer: “I really want to decrease diabetes in this area, or I really want to reduce the amount that people drive.” Well, then the software recommends specific urban design changes likely to actually help you achieve those goals.

My favorite part of the tool is the SimCity scenario piece where you can actually then test how those recommendations would influence the State of Place Index and those different dimensions of urban design. Then our forecast tool says, “Okay, if you get 20 more points on State of Place, you can get a 30 percent reduction in diabetes. Or you can a 15 percent increase in your tax revenues.” So you can really begin to communicate the why behind these investment decisions, but also co-create those decisions with the community alongside the tool. I love that.

Q: Could you provide some examples of actionable items that can arise from these different indicators that you’re looking at? In cities?

A: We really start with the the built environment features of a location, right? So we really try to stay away from any sort of formula. People ask me, “What are the top 10 things you should change?” And it depends.

So we start from the built environment, assets and needs of a place. That will influence what types of recommendations we give, of course. But then the other layer is what I mentioned before, the recommendations will change depending on what your priorities are. What does the community actually want to achieve? Because in most cities, you can’t do everything, right? So you have to have some sort of way to prioritize which aspects of urban design you’re going to be investing in.

So the recommendations that you would get to, you know, maybe bringing down rates of asthma in your area, might be slightly different than if you’re talking to a private real estate developer, and they really want to be able to create better premiums for office rents. So it’s always hard to give an example of the exact set of indicators we would give recommendations for without that context.

The other thing that we also do is allow our users to adjust the feasibility of making some changes over others. So for example, it’s really hard to change the street network of a place, you know? But things like aesthetics are usually really easy to change, relatively speaking. But you might be in a historic district, and so we’re not going to give aesthetic-type recommendations because that might be really difficult. Or you might be in Houston. There are a lot of parking lots. So you can actually re-create a much more fine-grained approach.

So in those kinds of cases, we might say, make your roads not six-lane roads, but two-lane roads, or maybe three-lane roads. We might recommend getting rid of the surface parking. I’m not the one recommending it, it’s the tool based off of what they’re actually trying to achieve. And certainly, if you’re trying to become more walkable, like many of our customers are, that often is one of the recommendations. You might want to rethink how you do things like parking or what you put in those parking spaces.

Q: Now let’s talk a little bit about the stalled Build Back Better agenda. In a piece you wrote in Slate, you mentioned this term “spatial justice.” This may be a new term for some in our audience, and I would love for you to kind of break this down and explain what it means and how it relates to Build Back Better.

A: I’m so happy you’re asking me that question. In terms of spatial justice, part of what we were referring to in that piece was that there has been historic divestment in the built environment in particular areas of our cities. And many of those divestments, unfortunately, have been tied to historically racist planning policy and investment decisions. And those things have manifested themselves in disparate outcomes from these quality of life factors that we’re talking about from economics to health to environmental justice issues. And certainly, these other social outcomes as well. So that’s basically spatial injustice, the fact that where we live essentially predetermines how well we live. And where we live, from a quality of life, quality of built environment perspective, isn’t equal.

So from the Build Back Better perspective, what we were trying to really advocate for is to take the standpoint of racial justice, which is embedded in many of the current administration’s policies, and broaden that out to create that link back to the built environment, because so many of the racial justice issues are really tied to these divestments in the built environment. The other advantage that kind of broadening this out has is that you can also begin to think about not what type of infrastructure we’re going to be focused on, but rather what benefits those infrastructure investments are. So kind of flip the script. We have all of these different disparate outcomes across our communities. We’re investing so that we can basically raise all (boats), right?

Q: You’ve talked about livability, equity, resiliency, sustainability. We want to also get a little self-serving here. We imagine you’ve looked at a lot of communities across the U.S. in looking at those metrics. Where should our audience visit? Where should they buy their next home or rent their apartment? Everyone’s shifting around now in this new work arrangement. Where are some communities that bubble to the top of the list?

A: You’re gonna hate me for this, but it really depends. I think that one of the things that we would love to do, to be able to better answer your question, is create a national repository for the State of Place data. And I don’t know if you all heard, but the ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds, advanced research funding, is now being tied to health. So it’s a really interesting potential opportunity to create this national repository, not only to let you know where you should live, but also to create all of these forecasting models nationwide. To try to answer your question, the importance of public space, whether that’s green space or hardscape space that’s activated, has been really brought to our attention in the last couple of years. So that’s something that I would make sure that you can have, and that you’re able to walk to those kinds of spaces. And that there’s actually stuff in between that walk that’s activating for you. So other kinds of uses, other kinds of destinations, even if it’s just a couple of streets on a small main street. It makes a huge difference to your mental state to be able to kind of, I call it the “clickety-clack.” Like, if you walk down the street and you hear the noises of the urban street, it just makes me happy. So that’s kind of what I would look for. Can you find the clickety-clack? Maybe that’s the new name for our State of Place Index.


“In Case You Missed It” returns April 8.

“In Case You Missed It” is Government Technology’s weekly news roundup and interview live show featuring e.Republic* Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Joe Morris and GovTech Assistant News Editor Jed Pressgrove as they bring their analysis and insight to the week’s most important stories in state and local government.

Follow along live each Friday at 12 p.m. PST on LinkedIn and YouTube.

*e.Republic is Government Technology’s parent company.
Dustin Haisler is the Chief Innovation Officer of Government Technology's parent company e.Republic. Previously the finance director and later CIO for Manor, Texas, a small city outside Austin, Haisler quickly built a track record and reputation as an early innovator in civic tech. As Chief Innovation Officer, Haisler has a strategic role to help shape the company’s products, services and future direction. Primarily, he leads e.Republic Labs, a market connector created as an ecosystem to educate, accelerate and ultimately scale technology innovation within the public sector. Read his full bio.
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.
Joseph Morris is the Deputy Chief Innovation Officer of Government Technology's parent company e.Republic and a national keynote speaker on issues, trends and drivers impacting state and local government and education. He has authored publications and reports on funding streams, technology investment areas and public-sector priorities, and has led roundtables, projects and initiatives focused on issues within the public sector. Joe has conducted state and local government research with e.Republic since 2007 and knows the ins and outs of government on all levels. He received his Bachelor of Arts in government and international relations from the California State University, Sacramento.