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					     City Knowledge: sustainable municipal information infrastructures for
            London, UK, Boston, Massachusetts and Venice, Italy.
                                                 Fabio Carrera
             MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Urban Studies and Planning
                                            77 Massachusetts Avenue
                                             Cambridge. MA 10523
                                                 Adrian Hewitt
                                    Environment and Planning Department
                                   London Borough of Merton, London, UK

           Prepared for URISA_s 2006 Annual Conference, Vancouver, BC, Canada, Sept. 26-29, 2006

    Despite some encouraging progress, comprehensive urban information systems are still not commonplace
and decision makers continue to struggle to acquire the rich information that they need to conduct in-depth
analyses and to make important decisions. Information about cities is dispersed over independent and
disconnected silos, maintained by a variety of government agencies for specific regulatory or administrative
    This paper introduces the concept of “City Knowledge” as a modus operandi that allows municipalities to
take advantage of the unique opportunities brought about by these recent advances in Information and
Communication Technologies. We propose that municipalities should sow the seeds for the gradual and
systematic emergence of comprehensive municipal information systems that will harvest the backlog of
existing urban data disseminated in a variety of departmental silos, while beginning to farm the untapped
power of the latent informational returns that are inherent in municipal acts that lead to changes in the urban
    The London Borough of Merton is the first municipality to have officially adopted the City Knowledge
principles in its strategic plan. The same principles have been informally adopted also in Boston,
Massachusetts and Venice, Italy. The three cases will be presented together as part of a complete session.
The authors will describe the technical, administrative and organizational steps the municipalities have taken
to implement this new information infrastructure approach and how town officials have consequently begun
their transformation from “hunters-and-gatherers” of urban data toward “farmers” of municipal information.
    The presentation will be of interest to municipal professionals, with specific examples in the fields of
planning, environment, permitting and transportation management.
          Every single day, municipal governments make maintenance, management, planning and policy
decisions that affect the inhabitants of the city or town as well as its coffers1. Invariably, to support these
decisions, a great deal of time is spent gathering information by scouring the archives of the various
departments and by leveraging personal contacts with those who are the “institutional memory” of the
department2. Not infrequently, consultants are hired to assemble the data necessary to support a plan, in
what we term a “plan-demanded” mode of data collection (Carrera and Hoyt, 2005). Despite the positive
ferment created by the advent of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and related technologies, the
development of Planning Support Systems (PSS) has been lackadaisical3, perhaps because of planners’ own
inability to take full advantage of the technology4, due to organizational, institutional, sociocultural issues5, or
perhaps simply because planners are too preoccupied with gathering useful data6 for the plan at hand7 to have
time to dedicate to the development of tools beyond the mere computerization of manual tasks8.
          In fact, according to the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS),
         “As the variety of geospatial information and data resources increases each year, the demand for
        understanding and building sustainable information and knowledge structures remains a critical research
        challenge for the geo-spatial information community.”9
         So the problem today is not the availability or capability of technology for planning, but rather the
availability of “good” fine-grained, up-to-date data10. What’s also missing is an active pursuit of the creation
of systematic storehouses of urban knowledge.
         Meanwhile, administrative data are gathered by city offices incessantly for specific purposes, most
often connected with revenue-generation (taxes, fees, etc.) or regulatory compliance (permits, licenses, etc.)11.
Yet these data are more often treated as “documentation” supporting a specific act or deliberation rather than
as “information” that can be reused over and over in other contexts to support a variety of municipal tasks12.
         In this paper, we appeal to planners to become catalysts for a long-overdue transition from “hunters-
and-gatherers” of plan-demanded urban data to “farmers” of what we term plan-ready municipal information.
We propose that such a transition ought to reflect the tenets of what we term City Knowledge, an approach
aimed at the gradual acquisition of permanent (or at least long-lived) urban datasets by municipal departments
and at the perpetual upkeep of these datasets through reliable mechanisms to intercept administrative
transactions and/or by tapping into other available opportunities for informational returns.


       Our approach stems from the simple realization that municipalities control most of the change that
happens in the public realm. In our experience – admittedly limited to Europe and North America –
municipal government controls most of the transformations that happen to the places where we live, work,

1 Nedović-Budić et al., 2004, p. 333.
2 See, for instance,. Budić, 1994, p. 244; Nedović-Budić, 2000, p. 82 (see also reference to Arbeit, 1993); Yeh, 1999; Ghose and
Huxhold, 2002, p. 5; Ferreira, 1998.
3 Budić, 1994, p. 245; Innes and Simpson, 1993; Nedović-Budić, 2000; Geertman and Stillwell, 2004, p. 307.
4 “The most important impediment to the implementation of GIS in planning may be the planners themselves”, Innes and Simpson,
1993, p. 232.
5 Campagna and Deplano, 2004, p. 35.
6 Nedović-Budić, 2000, p. 82.
7 Masser and Wilson, 1984 (see in particular Table 8 on p. 421).
8 In essence, there is little of Zuboff’s (1991) “informating”, most efforts going toward “automating”.
9 Shuler, 2003. UCGIS Research Priority. Last accessed 8/20/04 at
10 See Budić, 1994, p. 252, Table 4, under Operational Effectiveness indicators.
11 ICMA, Electronic Government, 2002. See also Ferreira, 2002.
12 Although a tad dated (1984), see the interesting conclusions that Masser and Wilson arrive at when looking at the different
attitudes that are connected to the choice between what they call “hard” (quantitative information and data) and “soft” (qualitative
documentation) approaches to information management. Apparently, hard approaches are more often restricted to limited domains,
whereas soft approaches are more comprehensive and systematic.

and play. It does so by issuing construction permits to individual property owners, by approving subdivision
plans for multi-unit residential and commercial developments, by sub-contracting the paving of roads, the
installation of powerlines and the laying out of sewage and water pipes, and in many other ways.
Occasionally, state or federal agencies will be directly responsible for some modifications to the landscape,
such as the creation of interstate highways, the construction of bridges, the creation of reservoirs or the
conservation of land in state or national parks. Even in these sporadic cases, however, local towns still have
to approve or at least comment on these supra-municipal projects, whenever they impinge on their municipal
territory in some way. With the exception of illegal acts, and above and beyond the small modifications that
property owner are free to carry out – as of right and without asking for permission – on their land, we can
safely assume that all major changes to the “world out there” are approved or mandated by municipal
administrative or deliberative acts.
          It seems logical therefore to focus resources into capacity-building at the municipal level so that
urban and environmental data can be acquired “at the source”, where new information – in the form of
“change” to the existing territory – is produced on a daily basis. Otherwise, we will be condemned to
perpetually chasing after change in true hunter-gatherer fashion, a punishment reminiscent of some of
Dante’s infernal tortures. Logic dictates that the natural tendency for towns would be to keep track of change
as it happens under their watch, and so they do. Unfortunately, until now such recordkeeping has been
primarily carried out in order to abide to regulatory requirements, or to document deliberations and
administrative decisions, or to provide the basis for the calculation of fees and taxes. Most of these urban
data have been used for single purposes and kept in parochial “vaults”, single-mindedly dedicated to specific
functions. Most are still in paper form and decaying away in musty archives. Computer technology, thus far,
has only modified the medium, but not the essence of municipal recordkeeping. Instead of shelves full of
record books, town halls are now beginning to accumulate boxes full of floppies and CDs, slowly becoming
unreadable due to physical malfunctions, or to technological obsolescence.
          Cities are complex and multi-faceted, but luckily they are also spatially finite (by definition), being
either bounded by fixed city limits or restricted in their expansion by growth rings or by natural or
administrative boundaries13. The information town administrators, city managers and urban planners need to
use is also finite and mostly uniform across municipal departments all around the world. In short, the task of
accumulating a comprehensive and high-resolution electronic repository of municipal information is
conceivable with today’s technology, and it is not as tall a task as it may have seemed only a few years ago.
Starting today, such an undertaking is achievable in both space and time. Space-wise, we can slowly but surely
span the entire geographical extent of a municipality and know about every slice of reality that each city
department needs to know about. Time-wise, we can minimize waste and redundancy by continually updating
the data as change happens within the municipal realm, instead of letting change happen under our nose and
then catching up with it again in a few years, with costly and redundant inventories and surveys.
          A City Knowledge approach (Carrera, 2004) would exploit the fact that change happens primarily
with the consent of local government, by fostering the gradual emergence of a comprehensive urban and
environmental information infrastructure that can be re-used for multiple purposes in municipal maintenance,
management and planning. We think that today’s technology has passed the cost-benefit threshold that has
prevented such an approach from being implemented until now. The costs of such an endeavor today are
outweighed by the benefits that such a system would provide in terms of efficiency and efficacy for day-to-
day town operations (EXAMPLE).
          Inventorying the physical urban infrastructure already in existence is an imposing task. Before the
advent of personal computers and relational databases, systematic and exhaustive tracking of city assets was
very cumbersome and consequently not very flexible. Paper records were maintained (and often still are) in
file cabinets, using a variety of ad-hoc indexing schemes14 suited to the mission of the office where the
records resided. Re-indexing and cross-referencing were simply not available options if one wanted to re-
utilize an existing archive for practical or analytical reasons that differed from the original intended purpose of
the documentation. Enriching the archive with complementary information that augmented the core

13 As in the case of the gradual absorption of unincorporated land into expanding towns in the western United States.
14 Like “place-over-time” as Bryan Glascock of the Boston Environment Department describes the typical filing system where
permits and other paperwork are first of all filed in folders organized by address (“place”). Within each place-indexed folder, one
would then find the documents organized chronologically (“over time”).

collection of indispensable data was not even contemplated, given how unwieldy these paper stores were,
even when the bare minimum of necessary information was retained.
         Nowadays, the widespread adoption of computerized databases for many municipal operations has
greatly reduced the cost of keeping the records organized, and of making them accessible for multiple
purposes (EXAMPLE). In fact, several towns have even begun to use the web as the vehicle for making the
information more accessible to citizens, though a full two-way interaction is still not commonplace even in
the more advanced e-government systems in operation15.
         While the backlog is being whittled away, one needs to worry about the maintenance of the
knowledge being acquired. Knowledge updates always represent a cost for someone – either in terms of
money or in terms of time. From the perspective of a municipality, the trick is to extract as much
information as possible from the private sector without significant cash disbursements. As long as we restrict
the discussion to the maintenance of information about “things”, it is possible to imagine how maintenance
of the physical object could be coupled – by design – to activities aimed at revising and/or verifying the
underlying dataset.
         In general, a focus on informational returns can yield many surprisingly simple ways to acquire
updates with minimum effort, as the authors have experienced time and again. By far, the most promising
way to keep the knowledgebase up-to-par – insofar as change is produced by human acts and not by natural
dynamics – is to actively work to intercept and process the administrative paperwork that accompanies such
change, since almost all anthropogenic modifications to the world we live in are decided, requested, required,
approved or authorized by some level of government.
         Once true City Knowledge systems are fully operational in a number of contiguous towns, the fine-
grained and up-to-date municipal information that each town has accrued about itself will be available for
“big-picture” analyses in larger, county, regional or state contexts. Whereas it is entirely feasible to aggregate
data from the town upwards to the regional or to state level, it is absolutely impossible to disaggregate data
that was collected at the regional or state scale, downwards to the municipal scale. This scalability of city
knowledge suggests that regional, state and national governments should invest in the proliferation of the city
knowledge principles at the municipal level, in order to reliably harvest good-quality, up-do-date, high-
resolution data from the towns and then re-utilize them to perform whatever analyses are needed at the larger
         Whereas it is fairly accurate to say that most change happens within the confines of a municipality,
when we get right down to it, it is actually individual municipal departments that truly manage change within a
town’s confines, as we discuss in the next section.


          Cities are abstract entities, but if we break down their internal hierarchies into individual departments,
we soon begin to see human faces behind the bureaucratic façade. When it comes right down to it, it is
individual civil servants in the various offices of the town’s departments that manage change to our world on
a daily basis. To start with an obvious example, the staff in the town’s building department (a.k.a.
“construction” or “inspections” or “code” or “permit” department) undoubtedly affects the physical
development of the municipality, by granting construction permits to property owners, for new edifications
or for additions to existing structures. A little more indirectly, the town’s planning department (or the
planning board) can allow subdivisions to be developed on larger tracts of land, each building being still
subject to permitting through the buildings department. Perhaps most directly, the town’s parks department
(a.k.a. “recreation” or “parks and rec” or “grounds” department, to name a few aliases) is responsible for
planting trees along the town streets and in its parks, thus definitely modifying the municipal landscape in a
visible and tangible way.
          Not only does all change get filtered by one department or another, but many municipal workers have
a chance to visually monitor change as it happens in the course of their typical daily duties. Police, public
works department, inspectors, and many other municipal employees are “out there” every day seeing things
happen, most of which have been previously approved by one town department or another. But not every
urban alteration is the result of an orderly approval process, many modifications still occur without leaving a
paper trail. For instance, a tree may die of natural or unnatural causes and may need to be taken down.
15 Hart et al., 2004.

Potholes may develop on a town road with the spring thaw. Traffic will change due to new commercial or
residential developments within a town, but also due to changes occurring in other towns. All of these
changes are witnessed by the “frontline” staff of various municipal departments, who are out doing their jobs
around the town day after day. From time to time, private citizens will also report conspicuous changes that
in their view should be the concern of the town. So, even if the frontliners may have missed some
modification to the municipal landscape, reports about the current state of affairs may eventually trickle down
to the department in charge.
         Even when they are not effecting or witnessing change directly, municipal departments are often
indirectly responsible for modifications to the world we live in, through the actions of sub-contractors that
are hired by them to conduct maintenance or management activities on their behalf, such as the installation of
new street lights or the synchronization of traffic signals. So, in one way or another, most municipal
departments could manage change internally, by simply keeping track of it when it happens under their watch.
          Their first-hand experience in all municipal matters, makes individual departments especially suited to
be the locus of most – if not all – municipal information collection and management. Being the direct
maintainers, managers and planners of municipal structures and activities, single departments have the most
to gain from taking charge of their own information management. It is in each department’s self-interest to
be able to efficiently and comprehensively administer all town elements under its jurisdiction.
          Our City Knowledge approach would delegate all municipal data collection to individual departments,
each in charge of a particular slice of the physical reality that makes up the town. So, for instance, we would
assert that the “parks and rec” department should maintain an up-to-date inventory of all its parks, as well as
of all the elements within the parks that are the object of their attention in one way or another. The datasets
associated with a this departments may therefore include the following elements: park buildings, lawns, trees,
paths, shrubs, planting beds, athletic fields, ponds, structures, playgrounds, signage, etc (Shrewsbury).
Similarly, the water department would keep track of: pipes, wells, pump stations, tanks, valves, hydrants, and
so on (W. Boylston). In our view, each department should find it beneficial to exhaustively collect all of the
backlog of information about its assets – by researching the existing records and integrating them with newly
collected field data. To ensure the longevity of this “backlog effort”, we believe it is realistic to expect each
department to also embrace a program aimed at intercepting all future change that is somehow filtered
through its offices, so that the department’s information system will eventually be thoroughly comprehensive
and up-to-date in perpetuity. These two aspects form the core of our City Knowledge concept.
         Once individual departments have espoused these fundamental tenets of City Knowledge, they will
be able to perform all of their frontline duties with the full support of all the information they need in order
to make decisions, develop programs, implement policies and run day-to-day operations. All basic services
provided by a town should be based on the richest possible information infrastructure. For these “first-
order” municipal applications, the link between the datasets and reality is very strong, thus the benefits gained
by such an approach will become quickly apparent, once a full-fledged City Knowledge system is established.
         These same primary datasets will not only have these immediate tangible returns, but they will also
enable “second-order” analyses to take place more routinely. These higher-level reuses of the same datasets
provide value-added benefits above and beyond the already beneficial returns reaped by the frontline offices.
Being uninvolved with the day-to-day administration of municipal services, town planners do not produce
much primary data, but are instead voracious users of second-hand data, thus they ought to play an active role
in promoting the development of departmental data repositories to support frontline actions, with the ulterior
motive of thus producing the informational foundation on which their plans can be developed, after careful
second-order analyses. The next section explains our view about the key role that planners could play in the
movement toward city knowledge.


          Being a town planner is a never-ending job. It is also a thankless job. Trying to control change in
order to make our communities lively and comfortable is tough. Conflicting interests are brought to the fore
in an endless parade of planning board meetings supported by a mountain of paperwork. All this is generally
done with only barebones informational support (beyond what is presented at the meetings) and the planners
wield regulatory and enforcement weapons that are rather blunt and often frustratingly ineffective. Despite
sitting in a privileged panopticon that affords them a panoramic view of everything that’s happening in their

town, planners still suffer from the fact that change happens in such piecemeal fashion, that it is very hard to
keep track of the forest, while being mired by trees that pop up unexpectedly at random intervals. Thus, the
consequences of a large residential subdivision are always considered in a sort of vacuum that only takes into
account the current status-quo ante in the town, without encompassing the combined aggregate effect of all
other proposals still under review, that all together will eventually add up to a much larger impact on the
quality of life of all citizens.

                Zoning goes by the rules and allows occasional variances (deterministic)
                Master Plans and visions are difficult to implement (5 tools?)
                Second-order analyses lack first-order information (sprawls measures, impacts, pressures)
                Planners ought to foster the collection of first-order information


         Their first-hand experience in all municipal matters, makes individual departments especially suited to
be the locus of most – if not all – municipal information collection and management. Being the direct
maintainers, managers and planners of municipal structures and activities, single departments have the most
to gain from taken charge of their own information management. It is in each department’s self-interest to be
able to efficiently and comprehensively administer all town elements under its jurisdiction.

                Everybody wants it
                Technology allows it
                Space indexes it
                It can accumulate over time
                It can be updated regularly and reliably
                Win-win for first-order producers and second-order utilizers
                Why now? Why not there yet?
                The window of opportunity
                The Planners’ role in the transformation

Carrera, F. and L. Hoyt. 2005. "Comprehensive Urban Knowledge Infrastructures: A Case for the Role of
   Planners." Journal of Urban Technology (Under Review).
Carrera, F. 2004. City Knowledge: an Emergent Information Infrastructure for Sustainable Urban Maintenance,
   Management and Planning. PhD Dissertation, MIT, Cambridge, MA.


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