‘Moneyball’ and Your City

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The concepts behind today’s modern urban designs and tactics can be baffling to those who don’t know the metrics and concepts behind them.  The number one head-scratcher for example is the concept of restricting automobile speed, access and and even parking spaces in order to increase business downtown.

“Wait what?”

Believe it or not, if done right, this is exactly how to build a strong downtown.  Many of the concepts of New Urbanism fly in the face of traditional notions of what makes a strong, vibrant city where people want to live and visit.

I love to equate New Urbanism with the movie Moneyball… you know, the Brad Pitt baseball movie?  Based on a true story of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics, Moneyball portrays the metrics and concepts that changed baseball forever.

In the movie (and in real life), Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (played by Pitt) struggles with the fact that his budget for fielding a team is about one-fifth that of other “big market” teams like The New York Yankees.  Buying high-priced superstar players like other teams could just wasn’t an option, so he and his colleagues set out to find the hidden value in players that were’t as expensive.

Looking almost exclusively at sheer metrics, Beane discovered that the 100-year-old way of scouting player talents with respect to scoring runs and winning ballgames was flawed.  Baseball had long been a game where a player was evaluated on his obvious physical tools… how good his arm was, how fast he could run, how hard he could hit the ball… but Beane found that these physical “tools” that teams were paying huge amounts of money for, weren’t necessarily what won ballgames.  He was able, through advanced mathematics, to find other player attributes, like patience at the plate, that were just a important, if not more so than physical gifts when it came to scoring runs and winning ballgames.

In essence, Beane broke baseball down to sheer math and discovered that what actually produced runs and won ballgames were not what people thought they were.  Furthermore, based on these metrics, he was able to build a team cheaply by acquiring players that no one else wanted… but these players had the “hidden value” that Beane had discovered.

Beane was almost universally criticized, as his tactics flew in the face of conventional baseball wisdom.  Owners, players, managers and scouts scoffed at the notion that a game played by physical humans on a field could be somehow broken down into sheer numbers instead of scouted talent.

The result?  The team everyone picked for last place won their division, went to the playoffs and came within one game of the World Series.  The New York Yankees spent five times what the Oakland Athletics spent on their team and barely beat them, by one game.  Still, it was an incredibly fruitful season for Oakland, and Beane’s experiment was a success.  Today, the secret is out, and every team has a staff of statisticians that break the game down into metrics to find the value beyond just player skill.  Beane’s methodology, once brutally scrutinized, is now the standard.

OK, back to Urban Planning and New Urbanism.  Like baseball, we have so many advanced metrics and tale-telling data with regard to our cities available to us.  Urban Designers can now look at data from cities across the country and use that information to discover what actually creates a healthy, sustainable and attractive urban environment.  Each day, we are discovering more and more what really makes a city thrive, and like Moneyball, these concepts often fly in the face of 100 years of conventional wisdom.

We have discovered the automobile, while convenient, has played a huge role in the demise of our urban centers.  Limiting their travel and speed in favor of a more walkable, bikeable and smart-transit oriented environment generally leads to socioeconomic growth, not decline.  While we have long believed the car is king, the reality, at least when our cities are concerned, could not be further from the truth.

This is just one of the new urban concepts that defies current perception, and thus is often a hard sell to people who have done things the same way for scores of years.  Trying to pitch these ideas to the average Rochestarian in a city that spends more on cars per capita than just about any midsized city in the United States is understandably, rather difficult.  As a result, projects in Rochester that promise a high degree of New Urbanistic implements often get watered down in the final product.  And this isn’t just Rochester, this is true for cities across the country… these are truths based on advanced metrics that defy the old notions of what makes a quality city, and it may take generations to fully embrace the positive effects.

Billy Beane found the hidden truth about what actually wins baseball games.  Urban Planners are discovering what creates a vibrant city in today’s economy.  Neither idea was/is fully realized in it’s infancy, but baseball has now embraced Beane’s philosophy and the game is better for it.  New Urbanism is still a set of new concepts, ones that may take some time to digest.  Slowly, the nation is developing examples of just how well these ideas work when correctly applied, and someday, the nation will realize that this new notion of urban design is here to stay.