When KPF Urban Interface was tasked with imagining a climate haven city for Quartz Magazine, the group utilized its interactive tool Scout and developed a "digital twin" to help understand how the fictional city of Leeside could adapt its built environment to become a climate haven by the year 2040.
Quartz Magazine’s article opens in a time when “no life has been untouched by the realities of a warming globe,” and introduces the events that led the fictional rust-belt city of Leeside to become a haven for climate migrants from the coasts of the United States. Born from collaborative brainstorming sessions between the Quartz editorial team and KPFui, the piece imagines how a city council, policy makers, and community members might use data modeling and detailed city replicas to design for population growth while considering resiliency and wellbeing.
We sat down with the KPFui team to discuss the process.
What were the main considerations when creating the city of Leeside?
The goal was to show a positive but realistic future, so people could imagine these events happening and have a framework for how we would get there. Leeside wouldn’t be a utopia, but it would provide an example of how we could deal with climate migration. A lot of the impacts around climate change can be hard to imagine on a personal level and even harder to think of in a positive light, but we have seen that dire climate events can galvanize people into action and that the resulting movements can create a sense of hope for the future. We wanted to focus on the narrower subject of climate migration while giving the reader (and the theoretical residents of the city) the agency to design their future.
First, we had to design Leeside, which would be a rust belt city, because at least in the near future, rust belt cities will likely be spared some of the worst effects of climate change. (Source) We didn't pick an existing city, as each of the rust belt cities comes with its own unique history and challenges that can further complicate the already challenging prompt. Yet, we wanted to make sure our city felt real enough that people could relate to it.
How did you create Leeside’s “digital twin” and determine which data you would include to visualize the city?
One challenge was to consider the scale of the area we’d allow users to manipulate within the digital twin tool. We wanted to represent the city center, industrial areas, mid-density residential, and low-density residential within a one-mile by one-mile area. You would never find this mix in Buffalo, New York, for example, but the city we ended up with feels reasonable, so residents could understand the implications of their decisions within the tool’s parameters.
To do this and to create the urban fabric, we looked at a few cities and how their street grids and building types worked. We surveyed actual rust belt cities and looked at physical characteristics in terms of building height, lot size, street grid, et cetera to understand common trends, and we also looked at vacancy rates, where they occurred, and what type of vacancy it was (empty lots, usable building, unusable buildings) in the cities. All of these narrative elements influenced the design of the digital twin and the challenges it would address.
Why was Scout the right platform for Leeside’s mayor and residents?
Similar to something like SimCity, Scout was designed to give users the decision-making power that goes into building a city. People talk about how powerful the simulation is when playing SimCity, but it’s not applicable in an actual planning scenario. Part of what we do with Scout and now with the digital twin is take that power and show how it might be used in a real context.
The digital twin of Leeside differs from our usual adaptations of Scout because it’s highly speculative. The narrative behind it is more substantive than the typical Scout build, informed by virtual brainstorms with the Quartz team to determine our inputs and measurable outcomes. We had some pretty wild ideas, but we eventually narrowed down to the six things a city councilor can decide in the final tool. There’s only so much choice we can give people before it becomes overwhelming. You can decide what to do with vacant lots: do you want to build on them, use them as public space, install solar panels for energy generation? How do you find a good balance for the residents? The average resident can gain a deeper understanding of these trade-offs by manipulating the data directly through the tool.
We want Scout to give people control to start thinking through the data and models without leading them to specific conclusions. The natural tendency might be for someone to come in and think, “Why wouldn’t I want to use all of the land for energy generation, or use all of it for public access? These are good things.” The descriptions (if you click the red plus signs) aim to highlight that, like in real life, there is a limited number of resources. You do have to make trade-offs. You end up having to decide what’s most important.
What would people be surprised to learn about the tool?
One thing that became very apparent to us as we were designing this tool during the COVID-19 pandemic was the importance of public space. We’ve always advocated for public space, but designing from our home offices during the quarantine made the implications feel more real. We discussed things like access – for instance, the difference between having one large park like Central Park in New York versus smaller and more dispersed parks that might create more equitable access to public outdoor space. The fact that we were suddenly confronted by extreme events, albeit not climate-related, grounded our thinking about how to approach the tool’s design. In some ways, the base for the city came out of these types of discussions and our personal experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are also a few fun Easter Eggs if you zoom into the streets. For instance, every person is a version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A dragon, Ferris wheel, or hot air balloons may pop up when you’ve reached a certain percentage of the city’s climate migrant population in sufficient housing. There are even a few KPF buildings in the city!