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Mapping and measuring urban places: Are we there yet? (Part 2/2)

David Mason's picture
Photo by Anton Balazh via Shutterstock

My previous blog post surveyed some of the recent trends in developing global measures of urbanization. In this post, I want to turn to a brief discussion for scholars and practitioners on some possible applications and areas of focus for ongoing work:
[Download draft paper "Bright Lights, Big Cities: a Review of Research and Findings on Global Urban Expansion"]
While there are a number of different maps for documenting urban expansion, each has different strengths and weaknesses in application. Coarser resolution maps such as MODIS can be used for mapping the basic contours of artificial built-up areas in regional and comparative scales. On the other hand, high-resolution maps are best suited for individual cities, as algorithms can be used to identify and classify observed colors, textures, shading, and patterns into different types of land uses. These levels of detail are difficult to use for reliable comparisons between cities as the types of building materials, structure shapes, light reflectivity, and other factors can vary widely between countries and regions.
Nonetheless, there are a number of applications for policymakers in this regard, from identifying and mapping green spaces and natural hazard risks to identifying and tracking areas of new growth, such as informal settlements. However, such approaches to land use detection require careful calibration of these automated methods, such as cross referencing with other available maps, or by “ground truthing” with a sample of  street-level photos of various types of buildings and land cover as reference inputs for automation. One solution to this is the use of social media and geo-coded data to confirm and monitor changes in urban environments alongside the use of high-resolution satellite imagery.
Nighttime light maps also have gained traction as measures of urban extent and as ways to gauge changes in economic activity in large urban centers. They are probably less useful for documenting smaller settlements, which may be dimmer or have little significant variation in brightness. It is important to correct these types of maps for “overglow” measurement effects—where certain light may “bleed” or obscure the shapes and forms of very large, bright urban areas in relation to adjacent smaller and dimmer settlements (newer VIIRs maps have made some important advances in correcting this).

Mapping and measuring urban places: Are we there yet? (Part 1/2)

David Mason's picture
Source: Deuskar, C., and Stewart B.. 2016. “Measuring global urbanization using a standard definition of urban areas: Analysis of preliminary results” World Bank
This satellite image shows Sao Paolo's estimated “urban areas” based on a WorldPop gridded population layer. Areas in yellow are areas with at least 300 people per km2 and a known settlement size of 5,000 people. Red areas represent a population density threshold of at least 1,500 people per km2 and a known settlement size of 50,000 people.
There remains a surprising amount of disagreement over precisely what “urban” means despite the ubiquity of the term in our work. Are urban areas defined by a certain amount of artificial land cover such as permanent buildings and roads? Or are they more accurately described as spatially concentrated populations? The answer often depends on what country you are in, as their administrative definitions of urban areas can vary widely across and between these two dimensions.
Without a globally consistent measure of urban areas, it can be difficult to track changes in built-up areas (land surface coverage comprised of buildings and roads) and population growth across time and space. This impacts how policymakers may understand and prioritize the challenges cities face and what investments or reforms may be needed. In a new paper, “Bright Lights, Big Cities: a Review of Research and Findings on Global Urban Expansion,” I provide a brief introduction to some of the current approaches for measuring urban expansion and review the comparative findings of some recent studies.
The UN’s World Urbanization Prospects (WUP), perhaps the most comprehensive and widely cited measure of urbanization across the world, draws from a compilation of country-level population totals based on administrative definitions. A key weakness with this set is that since each country defines “urban” differently, it is difficult to accurately compare one country’s urbanization to another, as well as to estimate the urban population of a group of countries or the world itself. Recent work has provided more sophisticated ways to measure urban growth and expansion using both satellite map data and careful application of population data.

Social Tectonics and the Trust of Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Trust signThe strength of a country, and especially the strength of a city, is its ability to react to, and repair, the social fissures that originate wherever three or more humans live together. Social tectonics is the natural fracturing along societal lines like wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, even color of skin, shapes of noses, or sports team preferences. Humans are amazingly adept at finding things in others to be wary of.

Social tectonics is active everywhere. No government or leader can stop it – but much can be done to reinforce our societies, institutions and cities, as well as reducing stresses. Like observant seismologists, social scientists sense where stresses are increasing and approaching breaking points. For example, the Occupy Movement that has popped up in many American cities represents growing stress in people who see too much concentration of wealth. The Arab Spring is a fracture between the general populace and the few who concentrated political power.

Unlocking Global Environmental Intelligence Through The Cloud

Robert Bernard's picture

The climate, energy and resource challenges facing the planet are daunting. The world’s population continues to grow rapidly, and the majority of people now live in cities. While cities are projected to be home to nearly 70% of our population by 2050, this won’t happen unless society drives significant efficiency gains in all aspects of resource use. Leveraging information will lie at the heart of optimizing resource use.

While projections for city growth are common, we need ask ourselves a simple question -- how much longer will cities be able to service increasing demands for energy, transportation, water, and food without a wholesale transition in the way resources are managed? If we are going to accommodate billions of new urbanites, they will need energy for lights, for heating, for cooling; energy for transportation, housing and emergency services; energy for water systems and sanitation.