Meet the uniquely named Aussie tech company that aims to help councils and town planners make better urban greening decisions by democratising access to data.
Thomas Gooch laughs as he recalls the arguments he’s lost over his 18 years as a landscape architect – to traffic planners and engineers who have easy access to data on pipes or cars. It’s not so easy for nature.
“When you’re arguing for nature, it’s quite difficult to get data for those everyday landscape architecture and urban design decisions around greening cities, from tree planting through to green infrastructure decisions,” he tells The Fifth Estate.
A big issue has been that the design departments within many local councils simply don’t have large data budgets – certainly nowhere near the resources available to state governments.
Meanwhile, extracting that information from government agencies or universities has tended to take a lot of specialist expertise.
That’s become an increasingly big issue over the past decade, as interest in urban greening has grown and the climate crisis has become more urgent. In Gooch’s words, “city planning is where the rubber hits the road”.
“There’s thousands of decisions made every day across the built environment around should a tree go there or not? Should there be grass, gravel, or biodiversity? Can we have water-sensitive urban design or pavement? Those choices impact how we cool our cities, and how we green our cities,” he says.
“We really need data to underpin those decisions, monitor them and track how we’re performing as a collective region to ensure that we combat climate change, reduce the temperature of our cities and ensure we have healthy, sustainable communities moving forward.”
Democratising access to data
To overcome these challenges, in 2019 the former City of Melbourne lead landscape architect launched a new venture, with a very imaginative name: The Office of Planetary Observations.
Its mission is to inform decisions about the built environment by making environmental insights from satellites easily accessible to councils, urban designers, town planners, landscape architects, and urban foresters.
Through its urban greening platform, the startup provides low-cost, geolocated maps of urban greening indices, vegetation cover, vegetation health, land surface temperature, and tree canopy mapping.
In short, it’s making it as easy for town planners and landscape architects to measure green canopy as it is for traffic engineers to measure cars.
“Say you want to understand the vegetation health across the summer period, for December to February. We can take Earth observations every five days of that vegetation,” Gooch says.
“We take all those observations – about 16 over three months – and make a mean map out of that and turn it into a geolocated shapefile.”
Planners, designers counsellors and landscape architects can use these analysis packs into CAD systems, Photoshop and even the final design for reports. The associated analytics provides insights for benchmarking and monitoring.
“We get really rich insights into that mean map. We can align it to spatial boundaries and pull out the percentage values and insights within that boundary.”
Reaching for the skies
The startup, and its futuristic name, was inspired by Gooch’s great passion beyond landscape architecture: space.
Over recent years, Space-X and other organisations have made great strides around making rockets reusable, which in turn has pushed down the cost of rockets – and satellites.
At the same time, the European Space Agency improved our ability to monitor the Earth through its five-satellite Copernicus constellation. The first of these satellites, Sentinel 2A, launched in 2015.
But converting the information captured by these eyes in the sky into data that’s useful for making decisions about the Earth’s landscape takes a lot of computing power, expertise, relationships and partnerships.
In 2021, the startup participated in the Microsoft for Australian Space Startups initiative, which provided it with the cloud compute expertise to build out its platform, along with opportunities to develop its innovations into the marketplace.
The potential market for the venture is huge. There’s around 32,000 registered city planners in Australia, 80,000 in the UK, 800,000 in Europe, and 202,000 in the US.
“It’s an exciting time in general for the industry as we move towards tech based solutions. A lot more city planners will soon have access to the data they need,” Gooch says.