I came across 3 really awesome articles in the past few days, all somewhat inter-related and crossquotidian POVs of cities and urban life and experience and the future, both the near and paleo kind.
Why do I blog this? The urban design interface is perforated by the past and future, by contemporary idealisms, by ambience and aggregation, by ecology and technology and humanity and data. The 3 articles illustrate new ways of seeing, doing, breathing and living.
Lord Rogers stated that “our cities are increasingly linked and learning” – this seemed to me a recapitulation of Archigram’s strategies, playing out not through giant walking cities but smaller, bottom-up technological interventions. The infrastructures we assemble and carry with us through the city – mobile phones, wireless nodes, computing power, sensor platforms are changing how we interact with it and how it interacts with other places on the planet. After all it was Archigram who said “people are walking architecture.”
We are now a predominantly urban species, with over 50% of humanity living in a city. The overwhelming majority of these are not old post-industrial world cities such as London or New York, but large chaotic sprawls of the industrialising world such as the “maximum cities” of Mumbai or Guangzhou. Here the infrastructures are layered, ad-hoc, adaptive and personal – people there really are walking architecture, as Archigram said.
Hacking post-industrial cities is becoming a necessity also. The “shrinking cities” project is monitoring the trend in the west toward dwindling futures for cities such as Detroit and Liverpool.
Three kids are playing an online game on their mobile phones, in which the physical street pattern around them is overlaid with renderings of the 19th century city. They scuttle down an alleyway behind a furniture showroom as the virtual presence of another player, actually situated in a town forty miles away and reincarnated as a Sherlock Holmes-ian detective, indicated on their map by an icon of a deerstalker and gently puffing pipe, stalks past the overlaid imagined space. The three play a trio of master criminals, intent on unleashing a poisonous miasma upon the unsuspecting and unreal caricatures generated by the game.
Instead, this is all everyday technology – embedded in, propped up against, or moving through the street, carried by people and vehicles, and installed by private companies and public bodies. Each element of data causes waves of responses in other connected databases, sometimes interacting with each other physically through proximity, other times through semantic connections across complex databases, sometimes in real-time, sometimes causing ripples months later. Some data is proprietary, enclosed and privately managed, some is open, collaborative and public.
Yet how much of this activity is obviously perceptible on our streets when viewed through conventional means? The snapshot above, without the explanatory narrative of the systems being touched by these activities, would just like a freeze-frame of a few people and vehicles set against a backdrop of buildings. A photograph or drawing would show only a handful of people, a few vehicles and some buildings. Traditional urban planning might note patterns of flocking or grouping, when tracking the flow of people through a space, yet would they make a causal observation based on the presence of the open wifi that created a ‘flock’?
The sketch above deliberately traverses quite a few modes of activity – from private to public; individual to civic; commercial to recreational; residential to vocational. And in all instances systems are in flux, in development, or require implementing, testing and shaping.
In many of these instances there are decisions to be made about openness, responsibility, privacy, security, interaction, experience. Some of these will be directly under the aegis of government, some through public-private partnerships, some though architects of the built environment, some through architects of this informational environment, some through commercial enterprises, some through NGOs, some through municipal institutions, some through education, some through individuals or community groups, and so on. There are decisions to be made about raw infrastructure – the equivalent of transport networks and power supply.
There’s an old joke that you know you’re in heaven if the cooks are Italian and the engineering is German. If it’s the other way around you’re in hell. In an attempt to conjure up a perfect city, I imagine a place that is a mash-up of the best qualities of a host of cities. The permutations are endless. Maybe I’d take the nightlife of New York in a setting like Sydney’s with bars like those in Barcelona and cuisine from Singapore served in outdoor restaurants like those in Mexico City. Or I could layer the sense of humor in Spain over the civic accommodation and elegance of Kyoto. Of course, it’s not really possible to cherry pick like this—mainly because a city’s qualities cannot thrive out of context. A place’s cuisine and architecture and language are all somehow interwoven. But one can dream.
Here are some things that make a city livable for me:
Chaos and danger
To some, security means rigid order and strict rules. I do believe we do need some laws and rules to guide and reign us in a bit, and I don’t just mean traffic lights and pooper scooper mandates. But there’s a certain attractiveness to New Orleans, Mexico City or Naples—where you get the sense that though some order exists, it’s an order of a fluid and flexible nature. Sometimes too flexible, but a little bit of that sense of excitement and possibility is something I’d wish for in a city. A little touch of chaos and danger makes a city sexy.
This is a Jane Jacobs phrase. A perfect city is where different things are going on, relatively close to each other, at different times of the day. A city isn’t a strip of hotels and restaurants on a glorious beach; it’s a place where there are restaurants and hotels, but also little stores, fashion boutiques, schools, houses, offices, temples and banks. The healthy neighborhood doesn’t empty out at 6 p.m., as most of downtown L.A. does. In my perfect city there would always be something going on nearby.