Urban Planning

Urban Archive Opens a New Door for Digital Architectural Archives | Features


Image © Urban Archive

Historical archives and repositories are notorious for holding endless amounts of data and information of the built environment while struggling with offering public accessibility and access. The team at Urban Archive, a non-profit technology app, aims to merge passions for history, architecture, technology, and preservation to create a platform that enables others to not only learn about, but also experience the built environment in a whole new way. 

Powered by a diverse team of professionals that includes preservationists, urbanists, coders, and museum specialists, Urban Archive has spent the past three years creating a new face for historical building archives. According to team member Sam Addeo, “This blend of technology, institutional buy-in, and data allows architects and students to trace contemporary debates over development and urban policy (including topics like gentrification, housing, and transit access) back to the records themselves.” Archinect connected the multidisciplinary team at Urban Archive to discuss the app’s humble origins; In our conversation, we dive into their goals for providing the public with a better understanding of the city by providing “new cultural agency to today’s increasingly digital and urban generation.”

How did the idea for the app come about?

Urban Archive began with the initial insight that technology creates exciting new opportunities for cultural institutions to connect with a digital generation, but most organizations struggle with cost and capacity to build, sustain, or contract-out the medium. We launched Urban Archive to help close this gap. 

In 2016, the founding team set out to develop an immersive, digital experience for the Museum of the City of New York, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the New York Public Library that would breathe new life into their archives and engage users in the history of their surroundings. Our first product iteration focused on these ideas, leading us to create a map-centric experience that drastically expanded the reach of historical collections for our partners. 

We started with a mobile-first approach to Urban Archive because we wanted to encourage meaningful interaction and exploration with the city itself. The user experience is designed to align with the ways cell phones are already used to consume content, navigate cities, and surface contextually rich information.

Mobile App Visuals. Image © Urban Archive

Collectively, we have experiences in museums, architecture and planning, preservation organizations, and technology start-ups […] Our shared backgrounds help us define a technology product with a clear user focus, while also remaining sensitive to the practices of established historical institutions. 

155 Rivington Street – Urban Archive team stands outside their office headquarters. Image on left courtesy of New-York Historical Society: William D. Hassler photograph collection. Image on right courtesy of Urban Archive team.

Can you briefly describe the team and the multidisciplinary scope of the organization.

We’re a team of 9 people working out of a Lower East Side tenement. About half of us work on the product (designing and coding) and the other half work with community/partnerships and content/research. We all hail from various cities and diverse backgrounds, each bringing an array of skillets that enable us to incorporate various angles into Urban Archive’s development and design. Collectively, we have experiences in museums, architecture and planning, preservation organizations, and technology start-ups. While we have unique specialties and focuses, generally speaking, we work collaboratively to test and introduce new ideas–and have a lot of fun doing it. This is central to everything we do. Our shared backgrounds help us define a technology product with a clear user focus, while also remaining sensitive to the practices of established historical institutions. 

Image © Urban Archive

Image © Urban Archive

…where research-oriented portals are powerful tools for scholars who know what they are looking for, we aim to be a point of access for savvy urbanists as well as people who don’t know they want to be looking in the first place.

This blending of architecture, preservation, technology, and education is something quite unique. What can architects and students take away from using the app?

Unlike existing repositories, Urban Archive visualizes the historical transformation of New York’s built environment in an entirely new way. Our platform geolocates the digital collections of various institutions, centralizes them in one place, and then superimposes these assets with additional data points, including tax-lot data from NYC’s open data portal (PLUTO database).

This blend of technology, institutional buy-in, and data gives architects and students the opportunity to trace contemporary debates over development and urban policy (including topics like gentrification, housing, and transit access) back to the records themselves.

At the same time, where research-oriented portals are powerful tools for scholars who know what they are looking for, we aim to be a point of access for savvy urbanists as well as people who don’t know they want to be looking in the first place. This point is critical: discovering a new fact on Urban Archive requires no prior knowledge of local history, geography, terminology, or architecture. The app is designed to reward low-impact exploration, specific inquiry, and the spectrum of use cases in between.

Image © Urban Archive

Unlike existing repositories, Urban Archive visualizes the historical transformation of New York’s built environment […] This point is critical: discovering a new fact on Urban Archive requires no prior knowledge of local history, geography, terminology, or architecture. The app is designed to reward low-impact exploration, specific inquiry, and the spectrum of use cases in between.

Image © Urban Archive

During our conversation you mentioned the goal of “exploring how to make archives more social.” I think this is a powerful point many institutions can learn from. How does the app encourage this exchange and collection of architectural history within NY?

We are only starting to scratch the surface of what can be done in regard to community and social interaction. At its base, Urban Archive provides cultural institutions with the ability to engage with each other and their communities. Each organization has a unique social handle on the platform, similar to handles that you’d see on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Check out ours here! We also provide individuals with the ability to interact with one another. On both an institutional level to a personal level, people can explore, study and engage with the local history of their environment.

In 2020, we’re working on expanding user accounts for Urban Archivers to be able to curate and tell stories about the city, bookmark sites, and upload their own photos.

Image © Urban Archive

With the company’s focus on exploring archives of the built environment what do you hope to see Urban Archive achieve in the next year?

We are excited to demonstrate the platform’s versatility as we explore and promote new approaches to urbanism and historical study. In this next year, we plan to:

  • Create user accounts for bookmarks/list creation

  • Optimize Urban Archive search, we still have a lot of work to do on this

  • Introduce new datasets that would complement our growing archive

  • Continue to play up the social aspect of the site

Gif © Urban Archive

The mobile app provides the public with ways to engage and understand New York City, can you talk more about the web app? It seems to function more as a reference guide.

By taking a mobile-first approach, we have been able to iterate and test ideas quickly, bypassing some of the practical limits that typically constrain physical exhibitions and the institutions that mount them. But even with this success, we’ve long known that a mobile-only platform would limit the experience we could create and the audience we could reach. As we talked with more museum professionals and technologists, we realized that the platform would need to evolve from its early focus on “collection mobility” to something a little more “heavy-duty.”

We built the web app to provide easy access to Urban Archive from any device and for whatever the purpose — be it serendipitous discovery or historical research. With our new app, users can easily toggle the map or search tool to uncover something new about the history of New York. They can also read through over 500 curated Stories, sourced from our various partner organizations.

Image © Urban Archive

Recently we interviewed a graduate fellow from the University of Washington. She made a great point about the importance of architectural history and its context when working within fields of architecture. How do you see technology bridging this gap and creating context for?

Cities change quickly – but technology can help us keep in touch with the social, political, and architectural heritage of the places we call home. 

As new development supplants the everyday structures of the recent past, an important visual record of the city’s social, architectural, and cultural histories is obscured — but not lost. Technology, particularly mobile, can help us make the visual history of our cities more accessible, elucidating the interrelated histories of urban planning, policy, and preservation.

Image © Urban Archive

How did Urban Archive manage to organize such a comprehensive platform like this in just three years’ time?

From the start, we’ve heavily invested in our community. Since it is our goal to create a comprehensive and inclusive catalog of accessible resources, understanding the perspectives of our institutional partners at an early stage helped us to develop a valuable platform that they trusted with their mission and digital holdings. This enabled us to grow our base of historical content from multiple institutions — which is now the foundation of the Urban Archive experience.

We also created low barriers to entry for users and institutions. From day one, we’ve stressed that contributing material to a project that gets your collections out in the open doesn’t have to be complicated. As part of this work, we encourage organizations of all sizes to participate and create free workflows for organizations to share their collections with us and the public. Even with 50+ partner organizations, we are always looking to grow our combined collections. Every partner that contributes to our platform helps us create a more comprehensive guide to our city.

Lastly, because we started with a mobile-first approach, we have been able to bypass many of the practical limits that typically constrain physical exhibitions and long-established institutions, enabling us to iterate and test ideas quickly. 

By animating the public’s understanding of the city, we can give new cultural agency to today’s increasingly digital and urban generation. Our understanding of the built environment is intrinsically connected to our present and future city and its social landscape.

Image © Urban Archive

How do you think Urban Archive will change people’s perspectives of the built environment? 

The combined collections of our partners constitute a vital resource for the documentation and preservation of our city’s rich history, but the scope of this project is much larger. Urban Archive empowers those without prior knowledge of institutional resources to engage with the historical record of their city and to discover connections between its past and present. 

By animating the public’s understanding of the city, we can give new cultural agency to today’s increasingly digital and urban generation. Our understanding of the built environment is intrinsically connected to our present and future city and its social landscape.

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