AI determines that more educated residents and not raw income improves neighborhoods

Four years ago, researchers at MIT’s Media Lab developed a computer vision system that can analyze street-level photos taken in urban neighborhoods in order to gauge how safe the neighborhoods would appear to human observers. Now, in an attempt to identify factors that predict urban change, the MIT team and colleagues at Harvard University have used the system to quantify the physical improvement or deterioration of neighborhoods in five American cities.

In work reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the system compared 1.6 million pairs of photos taken seven years apart. The researchers used the results of those comparisons to test several hypotheses popular in the social sciences about the causes of urban revitalization. They find that density of highly educated residents, proximity to central business districts and other physically attractive neighborhoods, and the initial safety score assigned by the system all correlate strongly with improvements in physical condition.

Perhaps more illuminating, however, are the factors that turn out not to predict change. Raw income levels do not, and neither do housing prices or neighborhoods’ ethnic makeup.