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My back pages: Morning and the man who made me

Originally posted 25th June 2005 on my old v-2 site. Thank you, Lou.

Celebrity sightings — you’ve gotta get over them if you’re a Manhattanite. It’s a simple, actuarial fact of everyday life here that you’re going to bump into fame, such an unremarkable consequence of residence in the self-proclaimed Center of the World that I’m amazed Gawker and its ilk even bother to keep track of them.

Beyond the fact that it’s a hackneyed situation, speaking personally, there are three reasons why I generally don’t bat an eyelash if I should happen to encounter a boldface name in the street. These reasons have to do with the nature of celebrity, the nature of privacy, and the nature of self-respect.

First, I simply couldn’t care less about ninety-five percent of celebrities – the sports stars, pop singers and debutantes who are celebrated for reasons that have nothing to do with me, whose fame exists in a dimension orthogonal to my interests.

I’m just squeakingly enough of a public person my ownself to understand how weird it can be to have someone come up to you out of nowhere and strike up a conversation when all you’ve set out to do is sit down for coffee with your friends, even to offer sincere praise.

Finally, I’ve still got a little bit of that punk-rock antipathy to the very notion of fame. In its best aspect, this is a much-needed leveling, and an assertion that nobody’s voice is necessarily any more (or less) important than my own, but it can also manifest as a snotty defensiveness. And I’ve been known to swing either way.

For all of these reasons, then, I tend to react to the presence of notoriety not at all. This morning was different, for me.

We had biked over to the shadow-dappled streets of the West Village, where the continental-style bistros are so thick on the ground that you can pick one more or less at random and be assured of getting the experience you’re looking for, whether it’s müsli frühstück or café au lait in bowls the size of Cleveland. And that’s exactly what we did.

We had just locked our bikes up and sat down to breakfast, when who should shamble in but a shabby-genteel Lou Reed, walking a poky-looking beagle. And it took everything I had in me not to flinch or violate his space or in any other way give myself away. About all I could think, for a good five minutes, was how glad I was that I hadn’t, after all, worn my White Light/White Heat t-shirt. There’s no doubt about it: I was well flustered.

See, Lou Reed invented me.

I am, at root, nothing but a skinny Jewish kid from the suburbs. And if I’m sitting here with my shaved head, and my sunglasses and tattoos, and twenty solid years of cherished sensual, chemical and experiential escapades under my belt, it’s because this man gave me permission to try all that on for size. If Lewis Allen Reed had not existed, had not written and sung about the things that he did, I’d probably be a flabby, thwarted associate at some Philadelphia litigation firm, bitterly serving time and wondering when life was going to kick into gear. Or — far more likely, really, given how much those songs meant to me at some very difficult inflection points in my life — I’d be dead.

Never mind that, to all accounts, he’s been lost in his own assholity for decades now, unwilling or unable to forge human connections with anyone who dares to express so much as a grunt of admiration for him. Hearing that voice a meter behind my head, muttering about utter banalities in the same monotone that once nullified my life and told me it was OK to make it anew, well, let me tell you it sent a thrill through me. And despite all the reasons I’ve enumerated above, I let it.

And then – because this is, after all, New York, and because I find my wife still more fascinating than the proximity of any number of teenage heroes – I turned my attention back to our own table, our own food and drink, the buzz of our own conversation. We finished up our meal, we retrieved our bikes, and we rode away, into the ongoing rush and joy of a life given to me in large measure by the unhappy-looking man at the table behind us.

Public space, civilization and the self (long)

I go on about this thing we call “public space” quite often — most recently here — but I don’t think I’ve ever furnished you with an argument as to why I think creating, maintaining and actually using it is so important, from either the individual or the collective point of view. So on the eve of publishing a pamphlet that deals with the topic not a little bit, I figured I’d have a go at doing just that. You might want to settle back and pull up your cushions, because like the man says, this is going to go on for awhile.

Public space,

For the past several years, exploring the ways in which we collectively understand and use the common spatial domain has been a primary focus of my design work, as well as my writing. One of the things we set out to do at Urbanscale was use digital cartography to surface and expose all those spaces of the city that are public in name and law, that are yours to use and to enjoy, but which generally remain beneath the threshold of everyday awareness. In New York City specifically, we wanted to use data furnished to the public under the various Local Law provisions to populate a map layer on our Urbanflow kiosks, and eventually personal devices connected to the Urbanflow service, effectively updating Jerold Kayden’s invaluable Privately Owned Public Space (or, for that matter, the Nolli map) for the age of networked informatics.

Discovery turns out to be critical to activating this scattered archipelago of courtyards, plazas and atria as a public amenity. Michael Kimmelman, in his Introduction to Beyond Zuccotti Park (a volume I recommend highly, by the way), emphasizes the idea that no space, however designated in law, can legitimately be described as “public” unless it is routinely occupied and used by members of the entire community, and of course I agree wholeheartedly. But you can’t use something that you don’t know is there. And despite the mandatory signage, to say nothing of longtime activism, advocacy and consciousness-raising on the part of groups like Project for Public Spaces or the Design Trust for Public Space, most New Yorkers seem blissfully unaware that these sites are in fact available to them.

These privately-owned parcels simply aren’t as self-evident as the sidewalks, squares and parks we more often think of as public space. And while some of them are of extremely high quality — Paley Park, for example, which is simply one of my favorite places to sit, read and think in all of New York City — more often they’re neglected, underutilized and unwelcoming, which is something I read as a direct consequence of their low profile. (In fact, their managers tend to rely on this relative obscurity, as well as a fair amount of confusion as to the contours of their rights and obligations, to prevent members of the public from using what is rightfully ours, and therefore contributing to their maintenance burden.)

Why go to the trouble of bringing these spaces to light? And especially why would Urbanscale, as a commercial enterprise, dedicate resources toward doing so? After all, firms like Control Group certainly don’t seem to think that any such thing is in their remit, when developing wayfinding kiosks for the MTA, and the notion that the city is suffused with spaces available for free use is something barely even alluded to in Pentagram’s otherwise-respectable, Legible City-based program of map plinths. Nor do these sites receive any particular attention or distinct graphic treatment in any other widely-used digital map of the city. So why undertake the effort involved in raising them to real-time awareness?

The honest, simple answer is “Because we live here.” That was true when Urbanscale was a “we,” and it remains just as true now that the practice is (but for the occasional collaboration) an “I”: for the most selfish of reasons, I want people to know these spatial amenities are available to and for them, because I benefit when they’re used routinely.

How so? Let’s start with the idea that, like anyone rational, I want the city I live in to be a humane, generous place, one that provides for its citizens and visitors at every level of the Maslovian pyramid. (I happen to believe that I’m better off when everyone around me is receiving the support they need, whether that support be physiological, material, interpersonal or entirely intangible in nature.) And public space in all of its forms is one of the few tools we have that’s capable of speaking to all of these dimensions of need, at least in potential. So it seems to me that there are few more worthwhile things a design practice might do than contributing to awareness, stewardship and use of this resource.

civilization

I’m comfortable going a good deal further than merely arguing that the presence of well-loved and well-used public spaces in a city is a collective good. I conflate that presence more or less directly with civilization itself. My reasons for thinking so are all pretty basic, even obvious, but I find that it sometimes helps to spell these things out explicitly. Consider:

Civilization means providing for everyone’s basic biological needs, among which are shade and some degree of shelter from the elements; clean potable water; and a safe place to use the toilet, and otherwise conduct the rudiments of bodily hygiene. These provisions need to be widely distributed and available throughout the community, situated in a way that allows them to be utilized without undue surveillance (and certainly without shame), and this can only happen under the conditions of relatively uncontrolled access that public space affords.

The most vulnerable among us have the greatest need for such facilities, of course. They ought to be able to avail themselves of same for pragmatic reasons of public health, but also because being able to clean oneself up helps immeasurably with “presentability” when applying for assistance, or a job, or otherwise moving uncomplicatedly through the bourgeois world. (Speaking from personal experience, it’s hard to gather up the courage to walk into a clinic, a classroom or an office when you know perfectly well that you smell, and that the smell is offensive to the people around you.)

Most fundamentally of all, people should have free and unimpeded access to toilets and hygienic facilities for reasons of self-respect. Mitchell Duneier, in his 1999 book Sidewalk, describes a distinction the unhoused themselves delineate between those who habitually relieve themselves in public and those who, for reasons of pride, make a habit of doing so indoors whenever they are able to do so; I now think of this every time I see anyone but a drunken fratboy peeing in the street. In so many words: nobody should be forced to rely on the contingent goodwill of a friendly shopclerk or McDonald’s manager to take a shit in safety and privacy. The point is that most street people, just like anyone else, want to comport themselves with a modicum of dignity, and will do so if given the slightest chance.

And I should hardly need to point out that while the need for a clean toilet, a sink or similar facilities may be felt most acutely by those among us without a permanent place to call their own, the same need can beset any one of us, at any time. Even if for no other reason than “I just got crapped on by a pigeon, and I need a place to take my shirt off and scrub it down before my next meeting.” In this very direct and very real sense, the provisions we make for the ostensibly lowest among us are the provisions we make for ourselves.

We need to make at least some provision for the basic needs of all, and public space can do this.

Civilization also means being forced to reckon with the consequences of our collective failure to provide such facilities. Last year, I joined a local group advocating for the pedestrianization of a service road just off Second Avenue near our apartment, and the furnishment of the resulting space with planters and seating. The (eventually successful) opposition to the pedestrianization plan hinged largely on the notion that with Bellevue Hospital and the city’s main homeless shelter/intake center for unaccompanied men in the neighborhood, if the service road were in fact to become a pedestrian plaza that plaza would swiftly come to be overrun by those with nowhere else to be.

Never mind that no one ever offered any empirical support for this scenario. And put to the side, if you can, the understanding that many of those opposing the pedestrian plaza on these grounds were fellow residents of the building complex I live in, and just like me able to avail themselves of the leafy, three-acre garden between our buildings at any time of their choosing. Assume that everything the opponents said was true: that if we successfully created a public amenity in our neighborhood, that amenity would be dominated by the vagrant, the unclean and the unstable.

My response to this is to say, effectively, “So what?” Those human beings, manifestly, exist. There they are. They have needs. As a society, we have made collective choices that result in their being unable to fulfill or even address those needs in the way you or I would as a matter of course. And now we’re going to begrudge them even the ability to sit down and take a load off, when we can do so wherever and whenever we want?

I don’t say any of this cavalierly, and I am under absolutely no illusion that every last person living on the street is an angel, or even particularly safe to be around; New Yorkers, of all people, are acutely aware of the risks of living in close proximity with people whose substance-abuse and mental-health issues have gone untreated, of what’s likely to happen when those issues are allowed to fester to the point that they become life-threatening (or indeed life-ending). But we don’t solve anyone’s problems — neither theirs nor ours nor the region of the Venn diagram where they overlap — by succumbing to self-satisfied NIMBYism, sweeping homeless people out of sight, denying them the basic lineaments of self-care and making tidied-up, fatuous little Potemkin villages of our neighborhoods. So if we don’t want to be confronted by the reality of homeless people sleeping on our public benches, taking up all our public chairs and being visible in the public way, maybe we’d better design public policies that provide them with better options.

We need to face the consequences of our actions, and public space can do this.

Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the merely commercial. Even putting questions of homelessness to the side, I want to live in a city wise enough to offer its citizens and visitors some respite from the overwhelming pressure toward commercial transaction that otherwise characterizes our shared spaces.

At the most basic level, if a city isn’t furnished with a well-developed fabric of public spaces of different sizes and shapes and types, there is no place to simply be if you are not actively consuming. You never understand quite what this implies — just how stark and uncomfortable an urban environment can be, no matter how well-appointed otherwise — until you visit someplace where such a nightmare endstate is enacted intentionally and literally.

For me personally, it’s an experience I had last year on a visit to Istanbul’s Kanyon mall that comes to mind when I think of what might await us, should the various tendencies toward privatization of the common spatial domain we can currently discern in our own environment go unchecked. Designed by the California-based Jerde Partnership (the same practice responsible for Universal CityWalk, the “parallel urban reality” dissected by Mike Davis in his 1992 pamphlet “Urban Control“), Kanyon offers plenty of places for visitors to sit…not a single one of which is not clearly demarcated as belonging to Illy or EAT or Le Pain Quotidien. God help you if you’ve come to look and see, but not necessarily to buy: you’ll attract nasty glares not merely from security guards, but — like something out of the “militarized subconscious” of Inception — from shoppers themselves, as though they suspect that your desire to sit somewhere and quietly eat the sandwich you’ve packed is in itself a token of being up to no good.

This may be true of malls everywhere, for all I know; I’ll confess that it’s been a good few years since I’ve been inside of one. But it was glaringly obvious at Kanyon, a place which seems to take Rem Koolhaas’s infamous description of shopping as “arguably the last remaining form of public activity” a little too firmly to heart. Its demand that we justify our presence by spending is a tendency that’s only likely to accelerate as Square and similarly “effortless” low-cognitive-load mechanisms for the transaction of value proliferate in the world, and fuse with the ability to throw a virtual geofence around a given locale. The inherent cruelty involved is something that affects us all, whether or not we happen to have the price of a coffee to spare by way of paying a half-hour’s rent on a place to sit.

I want to emphasize that I don’t begrudge the ability of small, independent operators to make a buck. James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism helped me articulate the distinction I think needs to be made whenever we discuss commercial activity in public space. It’s the same made in Pattern 87 of A Pattern Language, “Individually Owned Shops”: that between individual, accountable proprietors and those deadening enterprises that operate at national or global scale, and that function mainly to extract value from the local community. (I know it’s the hip thing to hate on the High Line these days, but to my mind it’s a place that gets this mix just about right. The kiosks and food stands feel refreshingly humble and local, and reasonably well-curated. You want an ice-cream sandwich, you get a ice-cream sandwich.) My point isn’t that all commercial activity needs to be purged from public space, but that it must never be allowed to dominate these environments, or drive out ways of using them freely.

We need to develop meaningful ways for people to use the city when they don’t have so much as a penny to their name, and public space can do this.

Civilization means a place to sit down. I myself happen to think that sitting and watching the city go by is one of the great urban pleasures, ever and always its own perfect justification, and that if we’ve seriously gotten to the point that we need to articulate arguments in defense of this act we’re in a good deal more trouble than even I had ever suspected. But as it happens, there are good functional reasons why cities might want to provide pedestrians with abundant free seating easily accessible from the public way.

Georges Amar, formerly head of foresight for the RATP, reminds us that the sidewalks are a high-throughput mode of conveyance. He likens them to walking subways, and suggests that just as subways have stations, so too ought our pedestrian thoroughfares be well-provisioned with places to stop and rest at regular intervals — again, each complete with shade, toilets, drinking fountains and (I would add) free WiFi. Per the point above about small businesses, further, there’s no reason why each of these nodes can’t support an independently-operated food cart or coffee stand as an adjunct to and enhancer of experience. perhaps as a social focus. platform for impromptu conviviality.

To dip, again, into A Pattern Language, what Amar is proposing corresponds almost precisely with Pattern 82, “Bus Stop”:

Build bus stops so that they form tiny centers of public life. Build them as part of the gateways into neighborhoods, work communities, parts of town. Locate them so that they work together with several other activities, at least a newsstand, maps, outdoor shelter, seats, and in various combinations, corner groceries, smoke shops [!], coffee bar, tree places, special road crossings, public bathrooms, squares…

A city whose walking paths are well-provided with nodes such as these is simply a more merciful place than one that is not. I didn’t really take Amar’s deeper point, though, until I thought carefully about the routes I habitually take when traversing Manhattan on foot. There’s no question he’s on to something: I’ll happily choose a clumsy, meandering path, or even cut a block or two out of my way, if it lets me pass through one of my favorite public spaces, whether it be Union Square, Liz Christy Community Garden, Lincoln Center or the plaza in front of the Seagram Building. I find these places restorative, even without stopping to rest in them — they make the difference between a joyless trudge and a pleasingly punctuated journey. The happy fact is that, for a great many potential journeys one might take through New York City, something like Amar’s network of walkstations already exists.

The lesson I draw from this: the measure we take to enhance one mode of using the city winds up being an investment in others. The same amenity that furnishes one set of users with the necessities of daily survival can afford others the makings of a safer and more pleasant commute. In other words, there’s a multiplicative, synergistic quality to the return we enjoy on whatever interventions we make with an eye toward improving the urban fabric. If nothing else, each place where people can freely sit and watch the life of the city furnishes an additional increment of Jacobian “eyes on the street.”

We need to think of the urban fabric itself as a source of amenity and succor, and public space can do this.

Civilization means acknowledging imperatives beyond the frankly functional. You can tell a lot about a society’s conception of itself by looking at the standards it insists on (or, alternately, tolerates) in its public accommodations, beyond the rather low bar of simply being fit for purpose. And there’s something profoundly ennobling about the commitment of collective resources to amenities meant for everyone to use and enjoy — neither to overawe, nor to instill a narrow sectarian pride, but to remind everyone using the space that they are a valued member of a meaningful whole.

We’re moving up Maslow’s hierarchy now. It’s not just a matter of production values, but of what those production values communicate. And what public investments like these communicate is that what binds us truly is more important than what separates us; that even the least “important,” most marginal member of our society is entitled to the same experience of belonging as anyone else; and there can be a dignity, even a grandeur in the everyday.

We need to celebrate what we are collectively and together, and public space can do this.

Civilization means accommodating the needs of profoundly different groups. The other night, we stumbled onto this as we passed by Bryant Park. My initial response was that it was one of the most appalling displays I’d ever seen in New York, that there was something almost fascist about it. That it was not at all light-hearted, spontaneous and captivatingly romantic, as it so obviously ached to be, but exclusionary, pretentious, class-ridden and uptight, just an obscene misuse of a public park. (The event didn’t do itself any favors by stationing private security guards at entrances to the park, there to turn away anyone who wasn’t sufficiently compliant with the all-white theme.)

That was my initial response, and truth be told, it was my second one as well. But then I reconsidered a bit. No, Dîner en Blanc is not an ideal use of this public resource. No, it’s not acceptable for a private event to control access to a space maintained for the benefit of all. Yes, there are troubling aspects to it — not least of which is that the dinner struck me as being an all-white event in more ways than one. But it’s one night a year. I can find Dîner en Blanc not at all to my liking — in point of fact, entirely grotesque — but so long as it doesn’t persistently interfere with anyone else’s ability to use Bryant Park I can’t find particular fault with it. (And, in fact, as a traveling spectacle it’s highly doubtful it would impact the same neighborhood two years running.) At very worst, it’s sufficiently localized that anyone who finds it distasteful can avoid it, which is more than can be said for SantaCon.

Ideally, though, different groups would be able to pursue their multiple uses of a space simultaneously and non-exclusively, interpenetrating like strollers, joggers, runners and cyclists all using a path together. The benefit of doing things this way is that it more directly teaches us to accommodate one another’s needs, in a way that merely alternating in time does not. At a time when our city has never been more heterogeneous, and when the “interautistic” tendencies of foam-phase social interaction make it ever harder for us to read, understand or empathize with one another, the kinds of encounter and exchange we generally experience in public space furnish us with a crucial tutorial in getting along.

This applies to public spaces at the smallest of scales, as well. I believe that something was lost, for example, when Barcelona began to phase out its public benches a few years ago, in favor of appealingly designed but single-place seating; certainly, park benches were the site of some of my own first negotiations with strangers over contested space. Shared spatial arrangements such as this teach us the rudiments of being a citizen and an urban self — and sites in which young people can practice urbanity are even more necessary when contemporary technology otherwise allocates us into what Jane Jacobs, in another context, once described as “decontaminated sortings.”

We need to learn the comfort with oneself that allows us to accommodate the needs of others, and public space can do this.

— Finally, civilization means supporting the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition for the redress of grievances. If there’s anything the past few years have taught us, in object lessons from Tahrir Square, the Plaça de Catalunya and Zuccotti Park to the Place Émile-Gamelin and Taksim Square, it is the enduring symbolic power of physically occupying public space, even in our putatively mediated age. We seem to have arrived at a renewed understanding that no political gesture is quite as resonant as the act of coming together in shared space, to join our voices and the presence of our bodies.

I can’t meaningfully discuss what happened with 15-M in Spain, or the various protests and uprisings of the Arab Spring, because I wasn’t anything but a distant observer of those events. But I can speak, a little, to what happened in New York City, and I can tell you that some of the most exciting, empowering interactions I’ve ever participated in happened in Zuccotti Park and Foley and Union Squares in the fall of 2011. Whether or not it was effective in bringing about the precise change desired, the consensus now seems to be that Occupy Wall Street was responsible for the prominence income inequality retained as an issue throughout the 2012 Presidential campaign; for all the good it seems to have done over the long term, it definitely forced the Obama campaign to shore up its bona fides on the left. Among that subset of my friends, anyway, who believe that constitutional democracy is something other than a shuck and a con, just about everyone is disappointed with the Obama Administration, and to a degree that surprises me I share their sense of disillusionment…but I continue to believe that everything we face would have been much, much worse under a Romney Administration.

While only a fool would try to draw a direct connection between Zuccotti Park and, say, the 50% reduction in health insurance costs New Yorkers now stand to benefit from, the events of 2011 are a potent reminder that democracy is something that still happens in public. And the experience of Occupy benefitted New York in other, less obvious ways, as well: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it was precisely the connections and networks that formed in these spaces that laid the groundwork for the city’s single most effective response to Hurricane Sandy.

Both by happenstance and design, our city furnishes us with a network of spaces in which the rights of free speech and assembly cannot be abrogated. The particular ways in which we pursue and enact those rights are continually in the process of being constructed, renegotiated and challenged, but the act of doing so places us in a tradition that extends from the first beginnings of our nation — and beyond that, from the very roots of democratic practice itself.

We need to negotiate the terms under which we pursue our individual destinies within the overarching framework of common purpose, and public space almost alone can do this.

…and the self (a personal coda)

I think it’s clear by now what I mean when I use the rather loaded word “civilization,” and why I make the perhaps curious linkage between this quality and the various modes of land use we collectively describe as “public space.”

But none of the above really explains why this particular platform for social interaction is so important to me personally, why I’ve chosen to dedicate my practice to it, or why I try to spend as much time as humanly possible in the parks, community gardens and plazas of New York City. Maybe I can approach an answer sideways, by putting it in one final axiom: Civilization means that each citizen has the right to grow and to become who they are, and it also means that the city is designed and structured in a way that helps them do so.

I’ll try to explain this as best I can. Anybody still reading who doesn’t care about the particulars of my own history, or finds this sort of detail distasteful, is more than welcome to skip forward to that bit with the bullet points at the end. (I won’t be offended, I promise.)

Sometimes in life, we’re attracted to some endeavor not because we have any particular talent for it, but precisely because it represents a weakness. And so it is with me and the city.

I am a fairly shy person. I grew up physically ungifted: weak, clumsy, unbeautiful, inelegant. I’m saddled with the kind of voice (and manner of speaking) that just seems to set some people’s teeth on edge, the moment I open my mouth. I don’t do well in crowds. I haven’t, historically, had the courage to acknowledge the essential personhood of the others around me, preferring a succession of armored or dismissive poses to the complexity and challenge of engaging them as fully human individuals. It was just more comfortable that way. Of course my entire life is one episode after another of me throwing myself into circumstances in which I wasn’t comfortable, which you can read if so inclined as a desperate attempt to make myself whole by main force, but the fact remains: I preferred life inside my armor. And the seeming wisdom of this was reinscribed by the things I experienced when I first ventured into the American cities of the 1970s, one of which I describe in the video linked here.

But I wanted more. I wanted to venture beyond the safety and sterility of my containment. I wanted to stop dismissing people out of hand. I wanted to feel comfortable anywhere — and for the people I met, reading that comfort, to feel comfortable around me. I wanted to stop sacrificing friends, lovers and opportunities to the fulminating assholeism that goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of insecurity. And the only thing that seemed to get me even the tiniest bit closer to any of that was being out in the city, on the sidewalks, in the parks, or anywhere else I could test my ability to coexist with others undefended, unarmored and vulnerable. These were relatively safe spaces in which I could practice the art of not constructing everyone else around me as a potential threat to my self-esteem — as something that had to be preëmptively taken down a notch or two — and just letting them be what and who they were.

So all of that stuff in Sennett, about the encounter with implacable urban diversity as an indispensable part of coming to maturity? You better believe I read that very personally. If I am anything but entirely broken as I write this, it’s because the effort it took to manage the experience of urban complexity and difference annealed me. Far too late in life, but thankfully while there was still plenty time for me to enjoy it, my city taught me to be a human being.

Were the others I encountered still, occasionally, obnoxious, self-absorbed, entitled or manifestly interested in making my life more difficult? Of course they were. I’ve already said: this is New York. But by and large, I found truth in the rather anodyne notion that people mostly just want to get along. And so a virtuous cycle kicked in: the degree to which I dropped my character armor was that to which the city began to open itself before me.

I do not deny that there is a strong element of privilege in this, and of course it didn’t hurt that New York has become very much safer over the time period I’m describing. But to this day, part of the great pleasure I take from the public places of my city is in noting how very small the voice of panic and flight has become in me when I spend time in them. It’s still there, and it will almost certainly never go away entirely. It’s generally overmastered, though, by the joy I take in simply being with my people, the people of my New York.

We need desperately to become whole, some of us, and public space can do this.

In practice

Assuming you find any or all of the above convincing, what can you do to act on it?

• Learn about the legal status of public space in your municipality, particularly as regards the full measure of rights you enjoy there. Share that knowledge with others.

• Read everything you can get your hands on. I recommend this book as a useful overview of a few threads of contemporary praxis, but there are thousands of others. (Not all of these will be directly and entirely relevant, but they’re all worth reading.)

• Tease out the commonalities between contemporary forms of public-space activism, whether that activism takes place under the banner of “tactical urbanism,” as part of a longer-standing and more explicitly oppositional tradition, or entirely spontaneously. Work toward building bonds, alliances or coalitions between the individuals and communities involved.

• Engage in that activism yourself, in whatever way feels most natural and appropriate to you. In New York alone, there are literally hundreds of organizations dedicated to these and related issues, from 596 Acres and the Green Guerrillas to the Center for Urban Pedagogy and Transportation Alternatives. Honestly, if you can’t find a group or space convenient to your neighborhood and aligned with your inclinations, you’re probably not looking hard enough. (If community gardens are your particular thing, this is a great resource.)

• Wherever possible, design networked or digital maps, tools, environments and interfaces to surface and highlight available public spaces, and the connections between them and the communities they serve.

• Recover older traditions having to do with the shared use of spatial resources, of which there are far too many to list here. (Some of my favorites: the semi-annual day of neighborhood self-care the Norwegians call the Dugnad, and the shelters called bothies in the Scottish and Irish traditions.) And reflect for a moment on what’s implied by that “far too many to list here”: there happen to be so many distinctive local traditions along these lines because those provisions were recognized as inalienable right throughout most of recorded history, just about everywhere in the West. It’s everything represented by Kanyon and its equivalents that’s anomalous.

• Take in a talk. In New York, the Institute for Public Knowledge regularly hosts high-quality lectures and discussions on everything from public toilets to the design of mobility for democracy. If talking over a meal is more your speed, the Design Trust for Public Space throws regular potluck picnics in public spaces throughout the five boroughs.

• Finally: be a public person. If we make the road by walking, we make the city by citying. You know I believe that civilization depends on it. Be generous, be safe, have fun, and let me know what you discover.

Dread questions

A brief interview for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, to accompany their publication of my article “Fear in the bones and the right to the city.”

***

In your work, you write about you and your girlfriend having the “choice to live downtown,” which intrinsically means accepting certain risks and physical dangers in your life. Do you think there is attraction in danger, since you choose this?

I’m sure for some privileged people, there is attraction to danger for its own sake — some fondness for the endocrine rush someone experiences when they deliberately place themselves in situations that pose imminent threat to life and limb. The key, though, in such circumstances, is that it’s always supposed to be a manageable situation. And “manageable” is not the very first word that springs to mind when I’m asked to describe Avenue B in 1986.

And anyway, that’s not what I moved to the East Village for. I moved there simply because it was a neighborhood that was both convenient to my school and cheap enough for me to afford living with my girlfriend. Another way of framing this is to note that whatever danger there may have been for me in those blocks, it was the fruit of some other, underlying circumstance, and that circumstance also produced other conditions which happened to be desirable — in this case, cheap rent, personal and artistic freedom, and the company of other people who were also engaged in the project of reinventing themselves. And those qualities were rare and special enough that it was worth taking on whatever level of risk I faced. But, again: for me, as for a decent percentage of the people around me, that was a choice I got to make. Other people living on our block were never asked to rank neighborhoods they might move to in order of lifestyle preferences.

With regard to the present “age of technological acceleration,” digital developments can provide necessary information, as you notice, to deal with fear. How do you consider the rapid development of digital, online relations/communities, or, in your terms “networks of weak ties”? In other words: is the growing digitalisation of interpersonal contact the new form of “weak ties,” or does it endanger them?

Well, look: urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Richard Sennett to Gregory Smithsimon have observed that public space is necessarily a space of negotiation — negotiation for limited spatial resources, with people who have different goals, ends, intentions and values than we ourselves happen to hold. As it happens, this is true even in something as simple as sharing the space of a sidewalk, when we use it to get between points A and B: we pay close attention to the ways in which other people indicate they intend to use the space, as they do our own, and all of us make constant, swift, subtle adjustments to our own speed and trajectory to keep things flowing. It’s a process that sociologist Lyn Lofland calls “cooperative motility,” and the carrying capacity of our pedestrian mobility infrastructure turns out to be entirely dependent on it.

But what happens when seventy, eighty percent of the people using the sidewalk aren’t really psychically or emotionally present to it? When they’re texting someone, or chatting with them via a Bluetooth headset, or looking up an address on Google Maps? They fail to attend to other users of the space, they have a much harder time performing the little dance of minute accelerations, retards and course corrections that cooperative motility requires, and everyone suffers as a result. The flow of the entire sidewalk bunches up, knots up, slows down. You can see this happen every single day on the streets of Manhattan, or, I’d wager, any other big city.

And part of what I’m arguing is that an analogous process is taking place in our interpersonal relations. To some degree, because our networked social media give us the option of surrounding ourselves with people who are demographically and psychologically similar to ourselves, we appear to be forgetting how to coexist peaceably with those who are not. The tendency is, if anything, toward stronger ties with a network of people who have more in common with us, which is the opposite of the scenario Granovetter described. And this is a problem, because maintaining functioning democracy in a heterogeneous society absolutely requires that we, again, negotiate with those with whom we share nothing at all but an address.

Furthermore, as Sennett and others have long argued, it’s clear that the necessity of engaging in that negotiation is extraordinarily good for us. It’s how we grow as citizens and citydwellers, it’s how we become who we are. We need risk and contestation not because they’re glamorous, or because we get a frisson of temporary, egotistical satisfaction from surmounting them, but because they’re vital to the project of becoming fully human. And that’s something that I’d prefer to see reflected more often and with more sensitivity in the design of networked information systems.

To me, your work reads implicitly as a plea for solidarity, against the highly individualized modern Western society in a way, since the essence of coping best with fear and danger is building relations with each other as co-inhabitants of the city. Would you consider it a plea of that kind?

Yes. Absolutely yes.

Fear in the bones and the right to the city, or: The Monster at the End of the Block

A piece I was commissioned to write earlier this year for the catalogue for Juha van ‘t Zelfde’s exhibition Dread: The Dizziness of Freedom, opening at De Hallen Harlem in the Netherlands on 06 September 2013. I hope you enjoy it. (You can find out more about the show and the catalogue here, or purchase it direct from the publishers.)

When I was 18, I moved in with my first real girlfriend, to a draughty ground-floor apartment on East 7th Street between Avenues B and C. This was the winter of 1986-87, a time at which the edges of Manhattan Island (or, for that matter, its core) hadn’t yet been subjected to the concerted pacification campaigns of the Giuliani years. The act of choosing to live downtown, if you were among those for whom it was a choice, still meant accepting some level of risk and physical danger into your life. This was especially true in the neighborhood where I lived, in Alphabet City, where a common rule of thumb had it that A stood for adventurous, B for brave, C for crazy and D for dead.

And it was true, or felt true. Those were the days in which crack cocaine and the 9mm semiautomatic handgun first came to prominence in the psychic life of New York City, the years of the Guardian Angels, “subway vigilante” Bernie Goetz and of Michael Griffith being hounded to his death in Howard Beach. The tension was just something we lived with — more of a constant thrumming note in the background than anything else, though it occasionally crescendoed to apocalyptic-feeling levels. (Early one morning, my girlfriend and I woke to an unusual sensation of heat in our ordinarily-freezing room; it was the five-storey squat in the block behind us, whose backyard butted up against ours, burning to the ground — in fact, being watched as it did so, by the evidently unperturbed personnel of the Fire Department and the HPD, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)

However it may have swollen, crested and then receded from day to day, the predominant emotion I remember from those years is fear. I was afraid of cops. I was afraid of skinheads. I was afraid of the pack of Puerto Rican kids who used to tool through the neighborhood on BMX bikes, hassling Chinese-restaurant deliverymen and the occasional unwary NYU student. I was afraid of the ubiquitous Missing Foundation graffiti that confronted you on every block, the shadowy band’s sigil of an upside-down martini glass enormous in ashy black Krylon on every second building front, bracketed by the legends PURGE and THE PARTY’S OVER.

Most of all, though, I was afraid of the Avenue C end of my own block. In fact, I’d rarely wander any further east than the bodega directly across the street from our apartment, which, but for a few cans of Goya beans, dusty bricks of Bustelo and cartons of island-grade bug spray, never seemed to have much on the shelves. (My housemates and I were certain it was a front for a crack-dealing operation.) It was as if some vast and only semi-permeable membrane had been stretched across the roadway, a thickening of the dread in the air to the point that it was physically difficult to pass through; in all the time I lived on East 7th, I only once recall walking the few blocks to the river. The cold grey light of that single occasion remains hypernaturally vivid in memory, which is what happens when what ought to be uncomplicated everyday experience is etched in the neurons by a jittery endocrine surge.

Like most of the people I knew, I armored myself against the streets in a drag of Schott biker jacket and chain-wrapped combat boots. It was, for the most part, sufficient. I was able to convince myself that I looked tough enough to constitute a disincentive to anyone inclined to hassle me — in fact, my armoring may well have contributed to others’ discomfort more than it alleviated any of my own. But I also made a concerted effort to perform everything the leather jacket and boots implied, as if along with my clothes I had to strap on a set to the shoulders and a walking gait capable of warding off the various bad but never quite fully-imagined things that might happen to me.

In time, all of this taught me something valuable about the nature of life in cities. When fear is an everyday thing, it becomes a habit that settles into the bones. It conditions the hours at which you leave the house, the routes you take, the way you hold your body, the things you carry. And utterly groundless though the great majority of my worries may have been — however precious and pearl-clutching it was for this bourgeois kid to quail at circumstances the overwhelming majority of my neighbors confronted every damn day of their lives, without even the option of picking up stakes and moving to a less fraught neighborhood — I could no longer pretend that the city was in any sense a safe theater of operations for me. Or, by extension, for anyone else.

And that was the crucial insight. It may have been the first time in my life I fully and directly understood the calculus some enormous percentage of people living in every city on Earth are forced to perform every time they walk out the front door. For not a small number of us, the mere act of walking out onto the street is an act that brings us face to face with our own precarity, and not merely the economic precarity we’ve all gotten used to in these austere days, but the deeper contingency of our very being in the world. Under conditions like this, the need to perform the most basic daily operations — shopping for groceries, say, or doing the laundry — becomes something that must be weighed against the risk of being mocked, harassed, mugged, beaten, or worse.

This calculus, unsurprisingly, weighs disproportionately on the elderly, on immigrants, on the homeless, on those who are by fate or choice visibly different than the majority population of a neighborhood, and above all on women of all backgrounds and descriptions. The right simply to be in public, secure in one’s bodily integrity, is and can never be taken for granted by anyone who belongs to any of these groups. And though a great many things have changed in the world since I managed to connect the dots and figure this all out for myself in the winter of 1986, the reality of fear is sadly not among them.

When people live this way, their access to the city’s nominal opportunities is radically curtailed. All of the urban amenities that might exist — not just in theory, on paper, or in principle but actually exist — are simply not present for them in quite the same way as they would be to someone who didn’t have to account for the perception of threat. The landscape is permeated by invisible gradients, boundaries and lines of force, and you disregard these only at your own peril.

If you yourself are an immigrant, of course, or disabled, or queer, or fat, you understand all of this immediately, implicitly, without needing to have it explained. It’s only a revelation to those who are lucky enough never to have felt the burden of any such fear — and such people tend to get prickly and defensive when the subject is raised, as though their interlocutor means to park sole and exclusive blame for this set of circumstances at their feet. Mention any of these facts in polite company, however diffidently, and you can surely expect to be accused of indulging yourself in the worst and most hyperbolic sort of left-wing rhetoric. Even to utter the word “privilege” is to chance having yourself dismissed as a hectoring scold.

And so I learned to talk not of the moral dimensions of this failure, but of its practical implications.

My understanding of the cost of fear starts with my reading of American sociologist Mark Granovetter’s landmark paper of 1973, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” “Weak Ties” concerns the diffusion of information in social networks; Granovetter’s thesis is essentially that we learn the most from people we know the least — more precisely, that because we generally share a very wide range of beliefs and assumptions with those we’re closest to, we tend to receive truly novel information from people to whom we’re only loosely affiliated.

A big city, of course, ought to be wonderful at generating just the kinds of weak ties Granovetter’s paper described. The encounters that take place while waiting at a bus stop, over the counter of a deli, the happenstance conversation with the next person in line at the supermarket — these are, at least potentially, hinges between entirely different ways of life, and moments at which information might pass through the membrane. But these are precisely the opportunities that drop off when fear is the order of the day, for reasons that are both physical and psychic.

The first is a matter of simple availability: you obviously can’t contribute to, or derive benefit from, a milieu you’re not in in the first place. The second has to do with your receptivity, your openness to the unpredictable. Divining the intentions of those with whom we’re unfamiliar, personally or culturally, is hard work. When you’re always on alert — pre-emptively cringing from the violence you assume and believe is headed your way eventually, from one or another direction — it’s exhausting to submit every chance encounter to an on-the-spot risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. It’s safer, and certainly easier, not to drop your guard. And so we stay in our comfort zone, and default to engaging people with whom we’re already more or less similar.

Which is to say that I was denied learning anything from the people down the end of my block of East 7th, and they from me. I don’t want to get sentimental about this and suggest that we need have been best friends, sending choruses of “Kumbaya” pealing into the air of the Lower East Side and so on. But neither was that what Granovetter was getting at. All that is necessary for information to flow is simply exchange.

In this regard, I don’t even think “exchange” means anything particularly declarative. I mean the casual intelligence that two or more people cannot help but impart to one another simply by virtue of being copresent: the way we do, or do not, respond to the utterance of a well-known name. The expressions that cross our countenance upon hearing certain words or ideas, before we master our facial musculature. The way someone holds a bag, a phone, or a newspaper; the pocket in which they keep their wallet; the particular style with which they address the task of locomotion. All of these things are, at least in potential, the makings of urban savoir faire.

There’s a way of quantifying what is lost when we withdraw from the possibility of such exchanges: Metcalfe’s law. This is a notion drawn from the theory of telecommunications, which states that the value of a network rises as the square of the number of connected nodes. The very first telephone, in other words, is entirely worthless: what of value could you possibly do with it? But it leaps in value the moment a second telephone is brought into existence. The number of potential connections, and the aggregate value of the network as a whole, expand geometrically with each additional phone that is added to it. What does this terribly abstract framing of things imply for city life? It means that every one of us who connects to the network of possibilities that is any great city benefits from it — benefits more, in fact, the bigger and further-flung that network is — but that the network’s power, capability and value are tremendously enhanced by the fact of our connection. And to a very great degree, we connect to any such urban network physically, by being bodily present in it and to it.

And that’s why it matters, concretely and in terms the hardest-knuckled quant can respect, whenever someone is prevented from full participation in the city by the gnawing sense that they are a target. I am convinced that every such event is a double loss, doubly felt. Because Metcalfe’s law has an inverse, too. Every person that huddles behind a triple-locked door — or who does make it onto the public way, but only as a timid presence, tuning out everything but the mission at hand — does not simply shut out the city and its possibilities. They represent a corresponding, exponential loss to the city. Not only is the person deprived of the things the city can do for them, in other words, but the city is deprived of the perspectives, skills and capabilities they might have offered the collectivity. You don’t need to acknowledge a moral dimension, or find the language of privilege and exclusion particularly resonant, to understand why this is an outcome we might wish to prevent.

And if weak links do, counterintuitively, turn out to be the thing that binds the whole city together as any kind of psychologically recognizable entity, we’re actually indulging much more damage than we think in allowing these conditions to persist. Or at least that’s what seems to be implied by my reading of Metcalfe and Granovetter: if what you want is to disrupt a city’s overall social cohesion — and limit its ability to conduct novel and potentially vital information from one community to another — there’s nothing more effective you can do than sunder the weak links.

By contrast, though, what if you’re interested in improving the city’s ability to benefit its citizens, and benefit from them in turn? There’s a potential point of intervention at the threshold of public and private, whenever people are faced with the choice of fully committing themselves to the public way or remaining in an environment they perceive as offering them shelter. What might outweigh fear, at such a moment? Awareness of the actual conditions someone might confront, and of the resources they may be able to draw upon in doing so. Confidence in their own capability. Bonds of solidarity — the idea that whatever threats do exist in the world, no one is forced to face them alone. In a word: information.

There’s nothing information can do about that fear per se, especially once it’s set itself up in the body. Not being the kind of thing that can be refuted, it remains beyond the reach of mere facts. But practical informational tools can and do give people the strength to act and to be in public regardless of their fear.

For example, some women I know use Google’s StreetView on a regular basis to scan the neighborhood around destinations that are unfamiliar to them, especially if they’re planning to arrive there after the fall of dark. They use the service ahead of time to determine points of particular vulnerability, and plan routes with more lighting, population, and activity. It gives them a sense that they’re more in control, and that often turns out to be just enough to coax someone out the door.

Or consider a mobile application called Stop and Frisk Watch, developed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and translated into Spanish by a group called Make the Road New York. “Stop and Frisk” is a policy instituted by the New York City Police Department; in theory, it permits a police officer who has reasonable suspicion to believe that a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, to stop and question that person, and search them for any weapons they may be carrying. In practice, the NYPD’s own records show that nearly nine out of every ten of the more than four million New Yorkers subjected to such street interrogations since 2002 — the overwhelming majority of whom were black or Latino — have been completely innocent.

If you are young, male, and black or Latino, in other words, you have a nontrivial chance of being stopped by the police every time you step out of doors, and if you think that doesn’t contribute to people’s sense that their very personhood is being called into question, you’ve never met a New York City police officer. By giving those subjected to the policy a way to record and report their experiences, Stop and Frisk Watch helps them resist, even a little, the sense that power in the world is exclusively arrayed against them and there’s no recourse or succor to be found anywhere.

What’s at stake in both cases is the basic right to be in public. To be sure, constraints on this right are experienced in different ways by different populations, and to varying degrees from one individual to another. But what so many of these abrogations all have in common as a ground note is the experience of bodily dread. And if we’re to take “Weak Ties” and Metcalfe’s law as our guides, this dread, when surrendered to, quite literally undoes the bonds which make any city what it is — weakens its resilience, hampers its ability to convey vital information from one neighborhood, district or community to another, and corrodes its own ability to respond effectively at moments of crisis.

It’s precisely Granovetter’s weak links, in fact, that turn out to furnish cities with an unusual and highly desirable property: that of getting stronger under stress. This is the quality Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “antifragility.” You may find Taleb fatuous; I certainly do. But antifragility is a terrifically important idea. When a city is confronted with some sudden external shock — a Blitz, a Fukushima, a Sandy — it’s the tenuous relations that get activated, the nodding acquaintances that are based on very little more than recognizing a person from one or two prior encounters. It’s these, and not the stronger bonds of affiliation and existing affinity, that wind up furnishing the grounds of cooperation under the most difficult circumstances, and that can in turn make the difference between a community’s survival and its disappearance. And these are the relations that never come into being when we let fear shut us in, off or down.

Any means of which we can avail ourselves, therefore, that dispels our fear, and does so without adding to the burden anybody else is forced to shoulder, is something that can only strengthen our cities, our selves, and their ability to mutually reinforce one another. And this is something that we all ought to agree is desirable, whether or not we ourselves are moved by the moral dimension of dread’s persistence.

Stealthy, slippery, crusty, prickly and jittery redux: On design interventions intended to make space inhospitable

From Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk, 1999. The context is a discussion of various physical interventions that have been made in the fabric of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station:

On a walk through the station with [director of "homeless outreach" Richard] Rubel and the photographer Ovie Carter one summer day in 1997…I found it essentially bare of unhoused people. I told Rubel of my interest in the station as a place that had once sustained the lives of unhoused people, and asked if he could point out changes that had been made so that it would be less inviting as a habitat where subsistence elements could be found in one place. He pointed out a variety of design elements of the station which had been transformed, helping to illustrate aspects of the physical structure that had formerly enabled it to serve as a habitat.

He took us to a closet near the Seventh Avenue entrance. “We routinely had panhandlers gathering here, and you could see this closet area where that heavy bracket is, that was a niche.”

“What do you mean by ‘a niche’?”

“This spot right over here was where a panhandler would stand. So my philosophy is, you don’t create nooks and corners. You draw people out into the open, so that your police officers and your cameras have a clean line of sight [emphasis added], so people can’t hide either to sleep or to panhandle.”

Next he brought us to a retail operation with a square corner. “Someone here can sleep and be protected by this line of sight. A space like this serves nobody’s purpose [emphasis added]. So if their gate closes, and somebody sleeps on the floor over here, they are lying undetected. So what you try to do is have people construct their building lines straight out, so you have a straight line of sight with no areas that people can hide behind.”

Next he brought us to what he called a “dead area.” “I find this staircase provides limited use to the station. Amtrak does not physically own this lobby area. We own the staircase and the ledge here. One of the problems that we have in the station is a multi-agency situation where people know what the fringe areas are, the gray areas, that are less than policed. So they serve as focal points for the homeless population. We used to see people sleeping on this brick ledge every night. I told them I wanted a barrier that would prevent people from sleeping on both sides of this ledge. This is an example fo turning something around to get the desired effect.”

“Another situation we had was around the fringes of the taxi roadway. We had these niches that were open. The Madison Square Garden customers that come down from the games would look down and see a community of people living there, as well as refuse that they leave behind.” He installed a fencing project to keep the homeless from going behind corners, drawing them out into the open [emphasis added]. “And again,” said Rubel, “the problem has gone away.”

This logic, of course, is immanent in the design of a great deal of contemporary public urban space, but you rarely find it expressed quite as explicitly as it is here. Compare, as well, Jacobs (1961) on the importance to vibrant street life (and particularly of children’s opportunities for play) of an irregular building line at the sidewalk edge.

The quantified self

Sometime in the early 1980s — I can’t have been any older than 14 — I tagged along with my father on a trip he made to New York to commission some work from the artist Agnes Denes. You shouldn’t get the idea that my father was any sort of Medici, or generally has taste quite as refined as his choice of Denes suggests; that I know of, this was the only time he ever did anything along these lines, and certainly there weren’t a whole lot of hard-drinking, Lacan-reading conceptualists in our family life.

Agnes immediately struck me as one of those force-of-nature types, and her studio was everything you’d expect and hope, a cabinet of curiosities furnished entirely with the everted contents of her own mind. The things I saw that day, little shardy glimpses of SoHo and the daily lifestyle of a SoHo artist circa 1983, remain indelible in my mind.

There was one piece of hers in particular I’ll never forget, at least in its general outlines. It was an open glass bowl, containing what to all appearances was a mound of incinerated human remains, bone chunks and all. And the placard mounted alongside the bowl read something like this:

These are the earthly remains of Firstname Lastname, who lived 71 years, 10 months, 13 days, 3 hours, 26 minutes and 17 seconds. In his lifetime he experienced 2,521,490,585 heartbeats and breathed 605,491,268 times. He urinated 39,280 times, for a total output volume of 48,872 liters, and experienced 24,718 bowel movements. In the course of his life he married twice, and enjoyed 3,668 sex acts with these two wives and 16 other partners (fourteen women and two men); including 12,463 acts of masturbation, mostly to completion, these resulted in a total of 15,531 orgasms.

I’m pretty sure about most of that stuff being there. (I’m absolutely certain of the word “orgasm,” because I’d never seen it outside of a verrrry furtively thumbed book before, and there it was on the wall in screaming 48-point Helvetica.)

What I’m less sure about is whether or not I’ve embroidered into the memory a final statistic, which was a figure representing the weight of the ashes. Anyway, that’s what I think of every time I hear someone talk about “the quantified self.”

Further to notes on a diagram of Occupy Sandy

Yes, enumerate the carriage parts — still not a carriage.
When you begin making decisions and cutting it up rules and names appear
And once names appear you should know when to stop.

- Tao te Ching, tr. M. LaFargue. (For the record, I prefer the Stephen Mitchell translation, but this seemed more pointedly relevant to the work at hand.)

You lookin’ at me?

I confess to being both heartened and frustrated by John Geraci’s new post on “the user experience of New York City,” which you should go take a look at. The “heartened” part is easy: I’m delighted that John raises the issue of the Passenger Information Monitor — the touchscreen interface mounted on the rear surface of a New York City taxicab’s protective partition — because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. The “frustrated” part has very little to do with John or his admirable optimism, and much more to do with the fact that, well, I have been thinking about this precise issue for a very long time, as have a great many designers more talented than I, and not all our efforts combined have been able to alter the badness of the taxi-passenger experience one whit in all that time.

As far as I’m concerned, the primary problem with the PIM is that it provides real-time GPS mapping and other situational information to passengers — but not the driver. This gives rise to an informational asymmetry that only exacerbates whatever issues of mutual mistrust and class, ethnic and linguistic-cultural tension may be latent (or explicit) in the encounter between the two parties.

Anyone who takes cabs in New York City with any frequency whatsoever will surely have noticed that a very large number of drivers are not merely recent immigrants but recent immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh. This, of course, is not a neutral pattern of fact, in either the American imaginary or the reckoning of the various Federal agencies charged with enforcing immigration law and upholding homeland security. Drivers from the Subcontinent, particularly, do absorb the suspicion and hostility of a post-9/11 public, and therefore may have some justification for a belief in otherwise hard-to-swallow conspiracy theories about the “real” reasons for the in-vehicle deployment of locational technologies. (How do I know they hold such beliefs? I know this ’cause I ask drivers for their opinions on the PIM whenever I get the chance, and the notion that DHS or some similar entity is tracking their personal movements through in-car GPS arises spontaneously about a third of the time.)

Even absent this specific consideration, the placement of the screen carries along with it a not-so-subtle implication that the driver is out to screw the passenger, and if left to their own devices will surely do so. The particular message of the PIM is that the driver needs to be supervised, their microbehavior monitored and their choices (e.g. of routing) verified from moment to moment. Compare this to the dashboard-mounted GPS navigation systems used by cab drivers in, say, Seoul, which are more clearly there to assist the driver in their negotiations with the cityscape — a primary use of such screens which does nothing to prevent their also being used to coordinate agreement between driver and passenger as to appropriate courses of action.

Finally, as John points out, and in what has to be reckoned an extraordinarily clumsy and hamfisted way of undermining any common feeling between the person in the front seat and those behind the partition, the PIM screens run ads. These are predictably loud and irritating, they load automatically and continue running unless manually shut off, and they generate revenue for the taxi operator every time they are viewed. (The passenger is provided with an Off button, but it is designed so as to be relatively obscure and hard to engage.) The cab driver is therefore incentivized to tolerate a system behavior that’s clearly detrimental to the experience of the paying customer.

These are design decisions. There is nothing inherently wrongheaded with choosing to site a passenger interface on the back of a taxi’s partition, nor is there necessarily anything wrong with providing the passenger with information that will reassure them as to the wisdom of the driver’s choices. But in each of the above cases, as a result of bad design, the interests of driver and passenger have been allowed to become uncoupled from one another, with terrible repercussions for their ability to trust and feel comfortable with the other — both locally to this specific ride, and across whatever rides take place in the future, for as long as this particular envelope of technological and design decisions remains intact.

I share John’s hope that this and the other moments that constitute stumbles in the user experience of the city can be rectified by design — I hope obviously so, given my investment of time, effort, reputation and life savings in a company intended to do just this. But I can’t help but note that we New Yorkers appear to live in a place, a time and a culture in which considerations of design are all but invariably shunted to the back of the line when budgetary and other resources are apportioned. In situations like this, I’m so often put in mind of Stafford Beer‘s observation that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” If, in all the years since Vignelli, New York City and its institutions have mostly failed to produce high-quality citizen-facing design, it’s difficult to conclude anything but that on some level, and from some party’s perspective, this is an intentional outcome.

A rough road ahead for the would-be designer of good urban user experience, then — but a clarion call to greatness, as well. Tomorrow’s Vignellis surely have their work cut out for them. But should you succeed in such tasks even partially, you’ll know that your intervention is improving the texture of someone’s life tens of thousands of times a day, every single day. By my lights, anyway, there are not a whole hell of a lot of things on Earth more worth the effort.

Introducing Urbanscale

And this is what everything that came before was leading up to: Urbanscale, design for networked cities and citizens.

Urbanscale is a New York-based boutique practice committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of human-centered interaction design to the specific problems of the metropolitan environment. We aim to make cities easier to understand, more pleasant to use and more responsive to the desires of their inhabitants and other users. And yes, we’re hiring.

You can find us via the above site, or @urbnscl on Twitter.

The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities”

Crossposted on Urbanscale.

I had the pleasure of spending Thursday and Friday of week before last immersed in a conversation on “the future of the crowdsourced city” convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, and ably moderated by Carol C. Coletta of CEOs For Cities and the Foundation’s Associate Director for Urban Development, Benjamin de la Peña.

As I understand it, the Foundation is contemplating funding and supporting projects in the urban informatics space, considered broadly — but only as long as such interventions would further their goals of enhanced inclusion and social equity. This two-day session, featuring contributions from a mix of invited experts, was intended to help them get a better sense of both upside potential and the inevitable complications. (Urban Omnibus’s Cassim Shepard has an excellent round-up of the first day’s presentations here.)

In my own thinking and writing, I tend not to use the phrase “crowdsourced”; it’s one of those jargony terms that seems to create more perplexity than light. In this case, however, participants agreed that we were consciously using it as shorthand for some technosocial regime that hadn’t quite yet clarified, but that probably had one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The use of data visualization by municipal government to refine the delivery of services, more precisely target interventions, and otherwise realize latent efficiencies;
  • The use of data visualization to deepen the collective understanding of the spatial distribution of issues and resources in cities;
  • The use of networked informatics to connect citizens directly with municipal government;
  • The use of networked informatics to support initiatives in deliberative democracy, and other forms of collaborative problem-solving;
  • Most excitingly to me: citizens using networked informatics to coordinate their own activities, and supplant the inadequate measures of underfunded or entirely absent government.

This is already quite a laundry list, and understanding how all these pieces may or may not relate to one another is no easy task — especially when you take into account the riotous diversity of individual and institutional actors implied, each with their own agenda and cherished set of priorities. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in trying to wrap our heads around the implications of networked urbanism, many of us instinctively retreat to the safe, familiar binary of Jane Jacobs-style, bottom-up activism vs. Robert Moses-style command-and-control development, as I certainly have in the past, and as Greg Lindsay does in this otherwise-excellent piece for Fast Company. But if we’re collectively going to develop any meaningful or usefully actionable insight on the issues raised in the course of the two days, I think we’re going to have to take a deeper cut.

For starters, I’m not sure that the Jacobs/Moses schema necessarily makes much sense anymore, either sheds enough light or does enough work to justify its continued deployment. For one thing, Metcalfe’s law suggests that the real benefits of certain technologies are only likely to become apparent at scale, or when a significant percentage of a population is connected to a given network. (The emergent utility of Facebook, when something approaching ten percent of humanity has an account there, is a perfect illustration.) Since, the example of Facebook aside, it tends to be difficult for local, purely bottom-up initiatives to achieve the kind of consistency required of infrastructure, there’s an argument to be made for certain types of centralized planning.

Further, some interventions in the urban fabric that are later widely acknowledged as public goods would clearly never have been approved had they been subjected to the full rigors of democratic process; as the Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend points out, it might now take three hours to get from Manhattan to JFK had Robert Moses not rammed through at least some of his planned expressways, with all that implies for the region’s ability to function and compete.

There are also some inherent issues with any foregrounding of a technologized vox populi.

The most obvious is that recourse to “crowdsourcing” dovetails all-too-neatly with the neoliberal retreat from governance, in a process that Laura Forlano forthrightly calls “offloading” (a more felicitous term for what I’ve previously called “responsibilization”). There may well be a thousand points of light in the naked city, but there are a great many worthwhile ends in municipal management that neither the market nor even the best-coordinated activity of voluntary actors can provide for.

As well, even the best of the current generation of bottom-up citizen intelligence engines — SeeClickFix, for example — are still subject to incoherent rants and the airing of petty or noxious grievances. Here’s an example from this morning:

I am sick and tired of these youth, who I understand may have not had the best upbringing but enough is enough already with these pitiful sentences handed out to them. I am sure they must think that going away for only a few months is just a “holiday”. I lost a cousin to the “Boxing Day Killer” in Regina coming on 4 years and now the machete wielding 14 year old who attacked the cab driver (who I happen to know) when will the judges in this country wake up and hand down a harsher sentence?

This — with all due respect to the poster, and however blessedly purgative it may have felt to share it — is nothing but noise in the system. And yet, as things stand now, it still enjoys the same weight as reports of broken water mains and errant herbicide sprayings.

Of course, everyone who’s ever attended a school- or community-board meeting is familiar with the figure of the gadfly (who may even be correct on the merits of their claim), who, whether through loneliness, frank instability or an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement, hijacks the deliberative process. Such individuals typically see themselves as principled champions of an underappreciated viewpoint, speaking truth to power; everyone else regards them as a nuisance, and an obstacle to getting anything of consequence done in the time allotted.

This is why we have rules of order, and it suggests a parallel requirement for some buffering mechanism in our technological frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Not — never – to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, but simply to ensure that the crank tickets don’t take up the bandwidth (literal, institutional and psychic) required to address legitimate issues.

Finally, as the recent WikiLeaks drama should have made abundantly clear to everyone, transparency cuts not merely both, but all ways. Total transparency is something none of our institutions yet seem capable of encompassing. If you have any doubts as to just how small and ugly people can be, treat yourself to a leisurely trawl through the comments on the Web site of just about any local newspaper or television station. This unseemly flow can of course be moderated — has to be, especially, if public entities want to avoid any color of endorsing the opinions expressed via the accomodations they provide — but moderation requires staffing and care. And this is precisely the kind of expensive human intervention many institutions figure they’ll be able to cut out of the loop by embracing crowdsourced innovation.

The broader question of what we do with the social facts exposed by this new transparency is posed by the work of invited speakers Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. Their justly-celebrated essay in critical cartography, Million Dollar Blocks, is built on nothing “networked” or “digital” per se, merely open access to civic data. And yet it stands as an implicit rebuke to an idea widely prevalent in the more techno-utopian discussions around data visualization: that merely bringing a pattern of fact to light will somehow cause communities of interest capable of effective action to crystallize around it.

This may well happen on occasion, but there’s no guarantee that it will always…or ever. As crusading investigatory journalists learned decades ago, however transcendent the call to justice, it will still need motivated, motivating individuals to act as its agents in the world. If it’s the clear hope of a great many people, myself very much to be numbered among them, that carefully-crafted, well-designed information visualizations may in time furnish our communities with just precisely that kind of motivating call to action, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of daylight between that hope and any evidence of its realization. (For that matter, there’s not enough space on the Internet to detail all the many ways advocacy visualizations can be cooked, just as maps and statistics were before them. Sliders and knobs, pans and zooms: these things ought never to imply that one is in the presence of Truth.)

These are some of the easily-foreseeable problems with purely bottom-up approaches to urban informatics. None of this is to denigrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, of course, who remains a personal hero and a primary touchstone for my work. And none of it is to argue that there oughn’t be a central role for the democratic voice in the development of policy, the management of place and the delivery of services. It’s just to signal that things might not be as straightforward as we might wish — especially those of us who have historically been energized by the presence of a clear (and clearly demonizable) opponent.

If I’ve spent my space here calling attention to the pitfalls of bottom-up approaches, I hope it’s obvious that it’s because I think the promise is so self-evident. (I’d hardly have built a practice around designing these systems otherwise.) Personally, I was delighted to hear Anthony Townsend’s prognostication of/call for a “planet of civic laboratories,” in which getting to scale immediately is less important than a robust search of the possibility space around these new technologies, and how citydwellers around the world will use them in their making of place. It’s a moment I’m both honored and terribly excited to be a part of, in even the smallest way.

Thanks to Carol and the Rockefeller Foundation for inviting me to the table, for framing the conversation so productively, and for hosting such a stimulating group of people. Judging from what I heard, I can’t imagine better guides to meaningful action if and when you do choose to make interventions in this space.

And with that, I think the time has come to thank you for your readership and let you know that I’m shutting Speedbird down. I posted here for just a touch over four years, and while it was a great platform and home to some wonderful conversations, I feel like my contributions are going to be taking different forms from here on in. (You may, as ever, put that word in quotes if you feel so inclined.)

There are way too many of you to thank by name, so forgive me if I do so collectively. You’ve challenged, supported, goaded, helped and taught me hugely, and you’ve been exceedingly patient as regards The City Is Here For You To Use — a book which, I will ask you to believe, is not merely a million times better for the delay, but forthcoming in the not-ridiculous future. If I have a parting wish, it’s that all of your ventures will feel as rewarding as Speedbird has and does for me. Be seeing you.

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