By Sophie Haas
5 March 2018
Mapping enthusiast, app developer, and explorer of the urban landscape, Samuel Maurer is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of City and Regional Planning. Originally from Massachusetts, Maurer has lived in New York, Germany, India, and most recently, the Bay Area, all the while furthering his passion for the built environment.
Maurer’s research at the College of Environmental Design is focused on urban design and local travel behavior. In addition to his dissertation work, Maurer is highly involved with UrbanSim, a project aimed at developing simulation platforms to track and predict changes over time in metropolitan areas.
Prior to attending CED, Maurer received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Amherst College and a Master of Public Affairs from Princeton University.
Below is an interview with Maurer on his most recent research and future endeavors.
What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in city and regional planning?
After college I moved to New York City for a job in economic policy research. I enjoyed the work, but I also loved walking around the city, looking at the buildings and public spaces and thinking about how everything fit together. It was the first time I’d lived in the heart of a city like that. I think these ideas kept percolating in the back of my mind, and a few years later as I was thinking about getting a Ph.D., doing research about built environments and how people engage with them and how they change over time seemed really compelling. I’m glad I ended up at the Department of City & Regional Planning, which has been a great fit.
Why did you choose CED as the institution to pursue this degree?
For a lot of different reasons. When you get a Ph.D., you work closely with a primary advisor. My advisor is [Professor of City & Regional Planning] Paul Waddell, whose research focuses on urban modeling and simulation — really interesting questions about land use, housing, transportation, and how to build forecasting tools that are useful for policymakers. So I was excited to be able to work on things like this at CED, and I also liked the idea of studying cities in an environment where I would be surrounded by people with so many different perspectives, from architecture and landscape to ethnographic work. And it’s definitely lived up to that.
Can you elaborate on your interests in mapping and how people engage with cities?
This is one way that I frame my research, because I’ve always been curious about how people think about urban spaces — how we develop mental maps, how we choose where to spend time. Right before I started the Ph.D., I was thinking about smartphone maps a lot, which are interesting because they’ve completely revolutionized the way we navigate, yet at the same time they barely scratch the surface of representing the built environments around us. I was living in San Francisco and trying to learn about some data and analytical tools, so I made a map of hills in the city. It's like an interactive topographic map. You drag this little stick figure marker around and it recolors all the streets depending on whether they’re uphill or downhill from the perspective of where you’re standing, and how steep they are. This seemed like a fun way to represent elevation — using the contextual flexibility of digital maps to show one thing in a really clear and intuitive way. I think this struck a chord, because I’m still getting requests to extend it to other cities.
You’ve worked on some projects outside of the U.S. as well. Can you describe them?
I think studying cities comparatively is really important. Even the narrowest piece of a built environment has so many forces that influence it. Why does downtown San Francisco look the way it does? History, design, economics, land use rules, political agendas, the list goes on and on. So looking at cities with very different contexts and seeing what translates can give us clues about how these forces work.
My dissertation focuses on the Bay Area, but I’ve worked on a handful of projects in other places. Prior to the Ph.D., I spent some time in Chennai, India helping with research and analytics for an urban governance initiative. And a few years ago I led a series of workshops about GIS and spatial data for civil society organizations in Mongolia. Whenever I travel now, I try to spend some time learning about local cities.
Can you describe the core of your research at CED?
Broadly, there are two sets of related projects I’m working on. First, I’m working on Paul Waddell’s UrbanSim initiative, building a forecasting and simulation platform to study how land use and travel behavior change over time in metropolitan areas. The main objective for these tools is to help planning agencies understand what the implications might be of different policy alternatives they’re looking at. I’ve helped adapt models to represent households and their behavior with more detail, to capture dynamics like residential displacement.
The second set of projects is for my dissertation, which uses data science approaches to look at urban design and local travel. One aspect of this is to develop automated inventories of commercial district designs, using decision rules to classify every parcel in the Bay Area into patterns like traditional neighborhood shopping, strip malls, big-box stores, and so on. I’m also looking at new types of data we have from social media and other sources, to learn about the ways that people’s local travel behavior responds to urban design patterns.
So, who will be accessing and utilizing the data you’re creating?
Aside from the city planning applications, I'm also excited about how smartphones and the technologies associated with them are changing the ways people understand and engage with cities. Everything from maps to shared photos to place reviews is changing our relationship to the built environment.
So while I’m primarily interested in studying built environments and urban systems for their own sake — and to improve policymaking and outcomes for communities — I also think there is potential for the kind of analysis I’m working on to make its way into digital maps and other place-based apps and tools. As a user, I’d love it if maps gave me more information about the urban landscape, particularly in unfamiliar places. Where’s downtown? Which areas can you get around without a car? Where do locals spend time on the weekend?
What are your long-term goals after completing the Ph.D. program?
Luckily, one thing I’ve learned while getting a Ph.D. is that I love doing this kind of research. So I’ll be continuing to work on similar projects, whether it’s in academia or in a more applied context. One of the great things about working on cities is that these topics are so relevant to people’s lives and to the everyday decisions we make as communities. So it’s fulfilling as well as fun.