For decades, the best urban planning simulation wasn't a simulation for urban planners at all, but the wildly popular city building game, SimCity, says Peter Calthorpe, an expert in the field and the co-founder of UrbanFootprint.
Calthorpe began his career as an urban planner and designer in the late seventies, and in the mid-eighties he wrote the book on sustainable communities alongside the famous architect and designer, Sim Van der Ryn.
Working on design and development projects across Portland, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and (my home state) Southern Louisiana, Calthorpe approached urban design through the lens of climate resilience and sustainability -- all the while developing the suite of tools that would become UrbanFootprint .
"Through our practice we started looking at a tool that gathered all the data together [and] organized it in a way that allowed for intelligent queries... [It] allowed people to ask questions and plan scenarios," Calthorpe said in an interview.
That tool became the basis for UrbanFootprint, which is a way to visualize certain developments and use the software to model out the results of what would happen if certain design decisions were made, according to Calthorpe.
"Because cities are so complex and so interconnected in all of their dimensions, looking at multiple outcomes simultaneously is the healthiest and the best way to think about possible outcomes," he says.
Ultimately, it's not that much different than SimCity.
Partnering with Calthorpe on the project is Joe DiStefano, who serves as the company's chief executive and was a longtime colleague from Calthorpe's work at his eponymous urban planning firm (which was sold last May to the infrastructure development giant HDR).
UrbanFootprint actually spun out of Calthorpe as a separate company roughly three years ago and is now looking to expand thanks to an $11.5 million investment from venture capital firms, including previous investor Social Capital and new investors Valo Ventures and Radicle Impact.
“Businesses across every major industry are realizing that to succeed in cities, you need to understand them,” said DiStefano, in a statement. “By creating easy access to essential planning data and analyses, UrbanFootprint offers a new solution for anyone focused on cities or urban markets to build more efficiently and sustainably.”
The company's software cleans and curates data sets, including open data from municipal agencies and commercially collected data sets, to create a super-schema of land use across the entire United States, DiStefano says. The software then serves up existing conditions based on queries for any parcel of land anywhere the UrbanFootprint software has data.
Above: UrbanFootprint’s data and toolset shows urban infrastructure and its potential risk profile from climate-related and other hazards
Cities now house roughly half of the global population, and that number is expected to reach 70% of the world's men, women and children over the next several decades. "Just about every major issue we confront... All these things intersect in the way we shape cities and yet there's no tool that allows people to think coherently about it," says Calthorpe. "We're a platform that allows people to understand the city itself."
That understanding is valuable not just for urban planners and architects, but for corporations ranging from manufacturers to healthcare providers.
The American Lung Association is using UrbanFootprint's tools to understand how urban density and air quality can impact respiratory disease and health broadly, said Calthorpe.
That's just one example. The global strategy and design consultancy Gehl is using UrbanFootprint's software to analyze the optimal locations for micromobility companies to place bikes and scooters in neighborhoods and how those decisions effect job accessibility and neighborhood amenities.
Meanwhile, the much-maligned Northern California utility Pacific Gas and Electric is using UrbanFootprint to see how heat waves affect their infrastructure and distribution network, according to a statement from the company.
“PG&E’s Climate Resilience team is working to ensure that PG&E is building a resilient system that will be able to continue to provide safe, affordable, and reliable energy to its customers amidst the growing risks of climate change,” said Heather Rock, Climate Resilience Chief at PG&E. “To that end, we are using forward-looking climate data to better inform how we plan and protect our infrastructure, employees, customers, and communities in which we serve. UrbanFootprint is an important partner to us as we seek data and tools that allow us to assess and mitigate these risks in a thoughtful way.”
Investors like Jay Zaveri, a longtime partner at Social Capital see UrbanFootprint as part of a growing number of technology companies working on developing tools for the urban environment.
“Cities are superstructures for culture, lifestyles, aspirations, and well-being - the real 'social networks' in our lives,” said Zaveri, in a statement. "Since 2018, UrbanFootprint has helped private and civic planners, mobility and energy companies execute nearly 4,000 projects in over 700 cities in the U.S., providing answers for complex scenarios in a matter of hours. This is a phenomenal effort as we move to seven billion urban citizens by 2050, with the urgent need of this decade being resilience and preparedness for urban systems.”