Goodspeed: Using Big Data to Build Places That Work Better

This story was updated in October 2021.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, it touched off a wave of economic devastation that left millions of American households at risk of losing a roof over their heads. The country was already in the midst of a slow-burning eviction crisis, and now Robert Goodspeed, assistant professor of urban and regional planning, found that his research into its causes — and potential solutions — was more relevant than ever.

Goodspeed, Professor Emerita Margaret Dewar, and legal aid attorney Elizabeth Benton had recently completed a study, funded by U-M’s Poverty Solutions Initiative and the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center, into court-ordered evictions in Michigan. They analyzed data about hundreds of thousands of eviction cases across the state, and the resulting report — which showed that Michigan has one of the highest eviction rates in America — informed the state’s response to a serious problem that the pandemic threatened to make even worse. Now, the state’s newly created Eviction Diversion Program provides funds to make up rent for tenants facing the loss of their homes because of the pandemic.

The program is not a permanent solution, but it was gratifying for the research team to see their work inform policy — and Goodspeed is hopeful that their work will continue to make a difference in the future.

“There’s a broader idea of eviction diversion programs that also include legal advocacy and other resources,” he explains. “I think that after the pandemic eases, there will be an appetite to look at the issue from a longer public policy perspective, and our data and recommendations will still be relevant.” The team’s follow-up report, which was published in June 2021, found that, in total, the number of eviction cases filed between April and December 2020 represented a 65-percent decrease from the number of cases filed during those months in 2019. The percentage of cases resulting in eviction orders also dropped during the pandemic, and the Eviction Diversion Program dramatically increased the number of tenants receiving legal assistance in eviction cases — trends could change as pandemic-era policies and programs wind down.

“The temporary Eviction Diversion Program provided valuable lessons,” Goodspeed says. “The eviction data show the difference that legal representation makes in allowing people to stay in their homes. Legal services directors said they need a long-term funding commitment in order to hire the housing attorneys needed to provide legal services to all tenants facing eviction and people facing foreclosure, which can then lead to eviction.”

Fixing complex, deep-seated problems like eviction is at the heart of much of Goodspeed’s work. He focuses on how planners can use so-called “big data” to build places that work better for the people they serve, especially communities of color and other marginalized groups whose voices aren’t always heard in conversations about planning.

From the Michigan Eviction Project: Average Annual Eviction Filing Rates by Tract in Detroit, 2014-2018 (Michigan State Court Administrative Office, Judicial Data Warehouse; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013-2017)

“The Black Lives Matter movement has helped build a greater awareness than ever of racial inequity in our cities,” Goodspeed says. “These inequities have been well-known within planning for a long time, but now I think our field is going through a healthy reckoning. Have we really appreciated how our own practices and methods are maybe not as effective as they should be in tackling racism and empowering communities of color?”

These are questions planners need to ask as they think about the role of the field in building more equitable, resilient places. But grappling with the past can only take them so far; planners also must face the uncertainly of a future when fast-developing technology, demographic shifts, and the impact of climate change alter cities beyond recognition. That’s in part why Goodspeed recently published Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures, a book about a newer approach to planning that calls for taking into account a variety of plausible scenarios.

Perhaps a community wants to transform itself from low-density, auto-centric development — the typical pattern in the United States — to become more compact, walkable, and sustainable, Goodspeed suggests. “To do that, you have to create a plausible scenario of what that looks like and say, ‘This is the path that we’re on, and this is what we could be.’” It’s an evolution of the “visionary” approach to planning — one that brings with it a more rigorous mindset, backed by hard data. “You don’t just paint a pretty picture on a map, you actually put numbers behind a proposal,” he explains.

Scenarios also offer communities a valuable tool when it comes to planning for external uncertainties, particularly the effects of climate change, which may range from storms and flooding to the heatwaves and wildfires that recently ravaged the western U.S. “We can’t just create a plan that assumes a kind of steady growth for 30 years,” Goodspeed says. “We need to create plans that look at risks and hazards, at uncertainty. But it does require a kind of sea change in thinking by a lot of decision makers. Who wants to admit that bad things can happen?”

Some political leaders might need to be convinced, but the next generation of planners is already embracing uncertainty — after all, today’s students are going to be the professionals and researchers who help guide our communities into the next century. With that in mind, Goodspeed has been heartened by the enthusiasm with which his book and recent talks have been received and by how his students are looking for ways to build a more equitable, resilient future.

“I’m always mindful that one of planning’s strengths is that it has many different modes of practice,” Goodspeed says. “There are planners who draw up plans for very long-lived infrastructure decisions and planners who work on shorter timescales, such as community development initiatives or generating affordable housing. There are so many ways for us to address equity and build consensus.”

— Amy Crawford