Mathematics can assist cities in addressing unstructured neighborhoods

August 29, 2018, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
This graphic of a South African neighborhood is overlaid with colors that indicate the number of obstacles between a home and access to resources. Credit: Christa Brelsford/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Dept. of Energy; Luis Bettencourt, University of Chicago

New mathematical models developed by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory with collaborators at Sam Houston State University and the University of Chicago can help guide changes to the layout of poor urban neighborhoods to improve access to resources with minimum disruption and cost.

The researchers established a novel way to mathematically analyze poor and informally developed urban communities, revealing obstacles between unplanned areas and the infrastructure that provides resources for basic human necessities. In their paper published in Science Advances, they used satellite imagery and municipal data to develop mathematical algorithms that reveal slums and planned neighborhood are fundamentally different.

Their models clearly identify distinctions between the informal arrangement of underserviced urban areas and the formal structure of neighborhoods. In two case studies, the researchers used real-world data to show that the physical layout of some unplanned neighborhoods does not allow space for sewer lines, roads or water pipes.

Of the estimated four billion people currently living in urban areas worldwide, approximately one billion reside in slums. With inadequate infrastructure for health, sanitation and access to emergency services, these areas are becoming humanitarian and sustainability issues in the wake of rapid urbanization. Christa Brelsford, an ORNL Liane Russell Fellow and lead author, believes this research can transform the future of slums.

Taylor Martin of Sam Houston State University, left, and Christa Brelsford of ORNL discuss a graphic of an urban area with colors that indicate the number of obstacles between a home and access to resources. Credit: Carlos Jones/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Dept. of Energy
"For me, this research was an opportunity to look at cities from a new and exciting mathematical perspective," Brelsford said. "By putting these tools in the hands of local community organizations and residents, efforts for accessible infrastructure empower residents to make decisions about their and communities."

"Anything we can do to improve lives from a human rights perspective is both good for the world and also supports U.S. national security, because the more people have their basic needs met, the more secure we all are," she added.

Although underserved communities are the first application, the researchers' algorithm provides a mathematical way of describing all cities. The team used a novel topological technique, based on connections between places, to characterize the first-time slums rather than a traditional geometric approach.

Christa Brelsford, Liane B. Russell Fellow of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, discusses that topology--not geometry--dictates the essential spatial form of cities, which can lead to analytical tools to identify slum neighborhoods that could be used to address deficits in infrastructure and services. Credit: Butch Newton and Christa Brelsford/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Dept. of Energy; Nicholas de Monchaux, UC Berkeley; and Luis Bettencourt, University of Chicago
"By understanding the fundamental topology—the relationship between places of residence and work to urban infrastructure networks—we can determine parts of cities remain only incipiently connected," said coauthor Luís Bettencourt, director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago.

"It is a situation that can be mapped, measured and resolved with minimal interference to create new people-centered urban planning solutions and cities that have history and character," he added.

Explore further: Cities provide paths from poverty to sustainability

More information: C. Brelsford el al., "Toward cities without slums: Topology and the spatial evolution of neighborhoods," Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar4644 ,

Related Stories

Cities provide paths from poverty to sustainability

May 1, 2017

New international agreements commit all UN member nations to solving humanity's greatest challenges over the next few decades, from eliminating extreme poverty and unhealthy living conditions to addressing climate change ...

Double jeopardy: The high costs of living in Nairobi's slums

June 20, 2018

Tenants in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, receive drastically inferior household services and pay more rent compared to those in its formal settlements, according to new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management.

How to make slums more resilient to climate change

January 28, 2016

In our rapidly urbanizing world, access to sanitation, transportation, and other essential services remains a challenge for more than a billion people. In the world's poorest and most vulnerable urban communities, finding ...

Permanently clean drinking water for people in slums

June 22, 2018

Solving problems in an interdisciplinary and humanitarian manner: TU Darmstadt and the German Aerospace Centre are developing a sustainable system for supplying water to slum areas that is based on satellite data.

Recommended for you

Tiny 'water bears' can teach us about survival

March 20, 2019

Earth's ultimate survivors can weather extreme heat, cold, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Now the U.S. military hopes these tiny critters called tardigrades can teach us about true toughness.

A decade on, smartphone-like software finally heads to space

March 20, 2019

Once a traditional satellite is launched into space, its physical hardware and computer software stay mostly immutable for the rest of its existence as it orbits the Earth, even as the technology it serves on the ground continues ...

Researchers find hidden proteins in bacteria

March 20, 2019

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a way to identify the beginning of every gene—known as a translation start site or a start codon—in bacterial cell DNA with a single experiment and, through ...

Turn off a light, save a life, says new study

March 20, 2019

We all know that turning off lights and buying energy-efficient appliances affects our financial bottom line. Now, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, we know that saving energy also saves ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.