By Matthew E. Kahn, University of Southern California
One Brooklyn apartment building has solved its open space problem by having all its 175 resident dogs registered and DNA tested. This has created a database that can be cross-checked when a new unwanted sample of poop is left in the communal areas. Those dog owners who are caught are fined and publicly shamed. The surrounding areas are now cleaner. Note that this externality has been mitigated through credible threats of punishment rather than appeal to the owners to "be nice to all".
Would privacy advocates oppose this "invasion" of privacy? Or does the protection of community open spaces justify this surveillance and enforcement?
Cities are subject to a series of insults; smoking, litter, poop, noise, crime, smells, vague uncertain threats from the homeless, drugs, graffiti. For each of these, how can "Big Data" collection help to achieve accountability to reduce these disamenities? Those cities that can achieve progress on each of these will become "green cities" and will attract more tourists and more commercial, residential and retail real estate business..
The interesting urban economics issue here is that increased population density in a given geographic area scales up each of these effects. For example, if 5 out of every 100 people smokes then an area with 10,000 people per square mile features 500 smokers. But, this scale effect of density is not a law of physics. As the dog poop example shows, there are ways to configure incentives and Big Data to mitigate these tragedy of the commons challenges. For example, would the next Mayor Bloomberg have drones fly NYC patrolling for issues? Or will a strange coalition of the ACLU and drug dealers and owners of dogs who don't like to pick up work together to block such new technologies from holding them accountable?
Green Cities can be produced but we must pay for them. You might say that Singapore has been willing to make these choices and then declare that you don't want to live in Singapore. I have spent 4 weeks of my life in Singapore and I like it there very much. Despite the high daily heat and humidity, it is a very livable city. Go there and experience what is it is like to live in a city that enforces "rules of the game".