The Urban Observatory: A New Way To Compare Cities, From The Creator Of TED

This giant installation (and a website you can play with at home) lets you compare the world’s urban centers, side by side.

We live in a world of easily accessible maps; just tap your smartphone and you have instant access to directions, public transportation information, locations of landmarks, crime data, and neighborhood facts. But our map knowledge is limited by the fact that no two cities collect data the same way. Maps often aren’t drawn to the same scale, and up until now, there hasn’t been a way to compare data on things like income, cost of living, water distribution, and power grids.


It’s a problem that has bugged Richard Saul Wurman, the creator of the TED conference (as well as an architect and graphic designer), for decades. In 1962, Wurman wrote a book featuring models of 50 world cities on the same scale. But today, he says, “You can’t look at Sao Paolo next to Shanghai on Google Maps. You can’t get comparative patterns.”

Wurman recently teamed up with Jon Kamen of Radical Media and Esri president Jack Dangermond to create an ambitious solution: the Urban Observatory, an immersive exhibit featuring standardized comparative data on over 16 cities. Zoom in on one city map and other cities will simultaneously zoom in at the same scale, making it possible to compare data on traffic density, vegetation, residential land use, and so on.

The Observatory features 16 data sets in five categories: work, movement, people, public, and systems. “It’s shocking that it hasn’t been done 40 years ago, 50 years ago,” says Wurman.

There are no concrete plans for the Observatory, unveiled at this week’s Esri International Users Conference in San Diego, to have a permanent home (it is being disassembled after the conference). But Wurman says that a major city and a big museum have both expressed interest in hosting the exhibit, which will continue to expand as more cities sign on to participate.

The TED creator has big plans for the Observatory in the future. “It should be 100 cities, connected to a source that updates it like an app,” he says. “Cities could learn from the mistakes and failures of others.”

For now, check out the Urban Observatory website, which features most of the exhibit’s city comparison functionality. Here’s a look at the youth population of Abu Dhabi, New York, and Tokyo, emphasizing areas where youth make up over 33% of the total population.


And here’s a housing density comparison between Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, and Milan.

Anyone could enjoy playing with the data–and that’s the point. “This isn’t an esoteric thing for city planners. It’s meant for the population to understand themselves,” says Wurman.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.