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The sidewalks are for everybody (depending on just how you define “everybody”)

Coming back to the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco after many years away has been something of an education in the lower limits of urban metabolism for me. Despite a few significant disappearances and subductions, it’s astonishing just how many of the storefronts on the street remain precisely the same as they were when I first encountered them at the tail end of 1990 — in quite a few cases, businesses that barely ever seemed to enjoy any traffic or clientele, or have much future hope of same.

The neighborhood’s issues, as well, are sadly perennial. Since the mid-1960s, these few overdetermined blocks, and the lovely public park onto which they open, have served as a very strange attractor indeed. As the continent’s final stop, as a microclimate sporting permanently moderate conditions, and (after the so-called Summer of Love fixed it in the popular imagination as all-welcoming hub of benevolent creativity) as a destination of particular choice for the putatively free-spirited, the Upper Haight has for decades been a sink for those who have found the constraints of life elsewhere too much to bear. As you might imagine, a significant percentage of those attracted to the Haight for such reasons have historically wound up living on the street.

While there were originally at least the rudiments of an institutional support infrastructure in place to support such a life — including the network of crashpads, Free Stores and Free Bakery established by the anarchist Digger collective — all that was long over and done with by the 1980s. Nor has anything appeared to replace that infrastructure in all the long years since, given the gutting of municipal budgets by Proposition 13 (1978), the general souring and inward-turning that followed in its wake and continues to condition American constructions of public life, and the restatement of the Haight as a corporate simulacrum of itself.

Local property values had soared in the intervening decades, too, meaning that the selfsame flats that had once furnished errant hippies with welcoming, if crab-infested, places to crash were now home to knowledge workers in the creative industries — knowledge workers that needed their sleep, that had a harder time tolerating noise and other chaos, that just wanted to get out their front door without being harassed for change or having to step over a fresh pile of human shit.

By the turn of the century, the problem had hardened still further. If, for a variety of reasons, the Haight had lost whatever porosity it might originally have called upon to absorb this kind of influx, the folks sleeping rough on its streets had changed, too. They’d become angry, resentful crusty punks accompanied by pitbulls, trying to eke their rudimentary existence from the residents and visitors of a neighborhood that didn’t particularly want them there.

And this is the situation as it’s persisted, or been allowed to persist, all the way down to the present. I daresay the issue is so intractable because here San Francisco finds itself torn against the better angels of its own nature, and the desire to extend unlimited self-expression to all that is such a wonderful part of this city’s history and (forgive me) brand; most other North American cities, certainly, would have long ago targeted a revenue-generating neighborhood thus affected for Quality of Life intervention. The trouble for the would-be liberal or progressive is that any neat talk of a Lefebvrian “right to the city” breaks down on the sidewalks of the Haight: here it’s nakedly clear both that some legitimate uses of urban space inherently infringe others…and that the infringement need have nothing to do with a state actor or other convenient boogeyman. (The latent threat of state violence may certainly be invoked by one contesting party or another, and has in fact been invoked here, but it’s not a necessary precondition.)

In the end, unless you’ve got nigh-Solomonic abilities to reconcile conflicting claims, you’re going to be forced to choose which vision of “everybody” you wish to uphold. In San Francisco, that choice has crystallized in a measure to be voted on in the November election, Proposition L, which would amend the San Francisco Police code to prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks. Here are two sites representing very different perspectives on the issue: fighting the For corner, the “grassroots movement” Civil Sidewalks, and standing Against, the advocacy group Sidewalks Are For People, formerly known as Stand Against Sit/Lie. (The scare quotes are there because Civil Sidewalks — however much I may sympathize with certain of its aims and goals, however much I may believe these aims to reflect feelings genuinely shared by the community’s residents — is clearly an initiative of merchants’ associations rather than anything truly organic.)

In the distance between the arguments For and Against can be seen the reason why constructions of “the public” (and therefore of what legitimate interests that public may wish to pursue) are so dangerous. As Kristine F. Miller reminds us, there can never be any such thing, except as a screen for one or another set of interests. There are only publics, and policy is almost always going to mean disappointing some set of them.

For the record: I fully agree with neither the For nor Against positions as stated, though I think aspects of both have deep claims to truth. My sense, as you’ve certainly already inferred from my word choices above, is that the people who have made some longstanding investment in the neighborhood (physical and psychic, that is, far more than merely pecuniary) deserve to walk and chat and, yes, sit, on their sidewalks, free from hassle and threat. Why not fully embrace Prop L, then? I know that police departments historically have a nasty habit of invoking legislation like this to justify their repression of other populations; that panel in the Stand Against Sit/Lie comic was no hyperbole. Beyond that, though, I guess I prefer the flavor of the classic anarchist solution to situations like this — self-organized, robust citizen’s patrols — to invoking the firm hand of the Daddy State.

But maybe that’s a little too much like vigilante justice for this community. Maybe it would require more time, energy and exposure to personal risk than people are willing to invest. And if that’s the case, then maybe the crusties and the pitbulls and the spanging are something people ought to learn to live with. I’m not saying they’re pleasant, or attractive, or make any kind of meaningful contribution whatsoever to the neighborhood. I am saying that, if their presence on your sidewalks is really so offensive to you, there are other and better things to do about it than giving the police historically problematic powers — powers that they’re not even asking for.

The new infranormal

…So that exhaustive list is apropos of a curious sensation I’ve had, in riding, walking and busing the hills of San Francisco these last few weeks: more than once and more than twice, during this immersive reintroduction to the contemporary American cityscape, I’ve gotten the impression that the lion’s share of ordinary daily activity here consists of things I’d more usually think of as support functions. The traces of urban life which meet my eye seem overwhelmingly to be a matter of infra-, with very little remaining structure.

Maybe this is just what happens when place is captured by the “creative” (or spectacular) wing of a service economy, with all the fierce interiority that implies; you’d kind of expect a city of people beetling over Pro Tools, Final Cut, SketchUp and Ableton to manifest itself differently than one consecrated to the drill press and the bench lathe. But it really is startling — to me, anyway —the degree to which the things around me all seem intended to underwrite some other ultimate purpose, and give away so little clue as to what that purpose might actually be.

At mid-day, the traffic around me is largely buses, UPS and FedEx trucks, Comcast’s cable-installation vans, or, out in the neighborhoods, the handcarts of USPS postal carriers as they set off on their routes; the few walk-in businesses that seem to be thriving amid the largely moribund downtown retail storefrontage, AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile, are all dedicated to another kind of infrastructure. The rest is drugstores, dry cleaners, Starbucks: places to support, places that enable, platforms, platforms everywhere, but all of it seemingly ancillary to the proper business of a city or a life.

I don’t, honestly, know what I expected to find when I came back to the States. I can’t yet quite put my finger on what’s missing, on what, if anything, makes this quotidian parade any different from its equivalents in the London or Singapore or Barcelona of the moment, and I’m cautious of wanting to ascribe too much significance to what I’m perceiving. But I am trying to pay particularly close attention to this place at this time, and this is what I’m seeing. The Kwinter/Fabricius quote dovetailed nicely with my sense of a place so intensely animated by ghostly procedures, agreements, schedules and manifests that there’s very little else left to the public eye.

On exhausting a place

This latest bout of wanting and trying to be fully present to the city around me has a definite inspiration: the recent (and beautifully bound and packaged) translation of Georges Perec‘s 1974 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris I stumbled across at Green Apple the other night. The book is nothing more, or less, than Perec’s somewhat telegraphic documentation of every single thing he saw during three days in October 1974, from a succession of observation posts taken up in the café windows of the Place Saint-Sulpice.

This kind of project, as you can probably imagine, appeals to me on a great many levels. First, there’s the seductive blend of the frankly sedentary with the insanely ambitious. There’s the concern for characterization and specificity nurtured in those same corners of my heart where long-banked embers of misplaced enthusiasm for the semantically correct self-description of everything yet find shelter & glow. There is the respect paid to the depth and richness of the everyday, the treasure the profoundly unremarkable unfolds into when one takes the time and trouble to be present with it. And there’s the reckoning, finally, with the impossibility of the tasks one has set out or chosen for oneself — with the inevitability of failure.

As at least one canny reader has pointed out, this exploration of urban “infranormality” might at first blush seem to retain little interest in our age of status-update overload; if you were uncharitably inclined, you might even compare the material here to a transcription of tweets posted by a particularly Aspergerian trainspotter. Viewed in this light, one could certainly read the Attempt as an simple inventory of the shopping bags, types of hats, apple-green 2CVs and Paul Virilios that pass through Perec’s field of vision. But I don’t, in the end, think that’s fair comment, and if you let that perspective sway you you’ll miss what’s really going on here.

I read the book, instead, as an anticipation of Henri Lefebvre‘s project of “rhythmanalysis,” an effort to perceive the order that reveals itself only in time. What the trained mind apprehends in the daily cycling of neighborhood noise and activity, Lefebvre claims, is nothing less than “social organization manifesting itself.” Pushing back against the modernist notion that to see something is to know it — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — he argues that the truth of the city is bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis. Rhythms, in other words. “No camera, no image or sequence of images can show these rhythms,” he insists. “One needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart.”

It’s easy enough to quibble with certain aspects of this conclusion — this passage apparently postdates Koyaanisqatsi, for one thing, a film which is nothing if not a “sequence of images” in which the rhythm of urban place reveals itself with extraordinary vividity — but there’s a deeper sense in which I take the observation to be true. And these are precisely the tools that Perec brought to his task. You still need to connect the dots yourself, but the patterns of “social organization” couldn’t possibly be clearer than the picture that emerges from his enunciation of small things and smaller events. It’s a melancholic little gem, autumnal in more than one register.

Next up is Werner Herzog‘s Of Walking in Ice, given to me by my buddy Frank, a detailed observational account of Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris over three weeks during November and December of 1974. (What was it about western Europe that fall? When Herzog, tramping through the outskirts of Munich, remarks that “It is nearing two o’clock” on the afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1974, it’s impossible for me not to hear the final, almost unbearably sad words of Perec’s Attempt — “It is two o’clock” — set to paper in the same time zone, a mere thirty-four days before.)

And all that pretty much outlines my project here in San Francisco during the two weeks remaining to me before I take off for Points (Far) East: ride, walk. Use the available infrastructure, particularly the bus. (“They said it was a good way to pick up information without drawing a lot of attention. That was OK, I needed the air and the time.”) Notice. Think. If you’re in the Bay Area and you want to hook up for coffee &c., now would be a very good time to do so.


By infrastructure, one refers to every aspect of the technology of rational administration that routinizes life, action, and property within larger (ultimately global) organizations. Today, infrastructure can be argued to own a little part of everything. Infrastructure, at the very least, is the systematic expression of capital, of deregulated currency, of interest rates, credit instruments, trade treaties, market forces, and the institutions that enforce them; it is water, fuel, and electrical reservoirs, routes and rates of supply; it is demographic mutations and migrations, satellite networks and lotteries, logistics and supply coefficients, traffic computers, airports and distribution hubs, cadastral techniques, juridical routines, telephone systems, business district self-regulation mechanisms, evacuation and disaster mobilization protocols, prisons, subways and freeways and their articulated connections, libraries and weather-monitoring apparatuses, trash removal and recycling networks, sports stadiums and the managerial and delivery facilities for the data they generate, parking garages, gas pipelines and meters, hotels, public toilets, postal and park utilities and management, school systems and ATM machines; celebrity, advertising, and identity engineering; rail nodes and networks, television programming, interstate systems, entry ports and the public goods and agencies associated with them [Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service, Food and Drug Administration, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms], sewers and alarms, multi-tiered military-entertainment apparatus, decision engineering pools, wetlands and water basins, civil structure maintenance schedules, epidemiological algorithms, cable delivery systems, police enforcement matrixes, licensing bylaws, greenmarkets, medical-pharmaceutical complexes, internet scaffolds, handgun regulations, granaries and water towers, military deployment procedures, street and highway illumination schemas; in a phase, infrastructure concerns regimens of technical calculation of any and all kinds.

- Sanford Kwinter and Daniela Fabricius, from “Urbanism: An Archivist’s Art?”, in that old standby, Koolhaas et al. Mutations.

Fear factor

I really want to recommend to you this Olivier Thereaux post about broken bus systems and how they might be fixed (and not just because I happen to be taking the MUNI a great deal lately).

What Olivier absolutely nails is the expression of a thought I’ve come back to again and again over the years: that buses and bus networks are by their nature so intimidating to potential users that many people will do just about anything to avoid engaging them. I don’t mind admitting that, depending on the city, the language in use, and my relative level of energy, I’m definitely to be numbered among those people. When buses are effectively the only mode of public transit available, that “just about anything” has occasionally meant laying out ridiculous sums on taxis; more often, it’s resulted in my walking equally absurd distances across cities I barely know.

“Intimidating,” in this context, doesn’t need to mean “terrifying.” It simply implies that the system is just complicated enough, just hard enough to form a mental model of, that the fear of winding up miles away from your intended destination — and possibly with no clear return route, not enough or the right kind of money to pay for a ticket, and no way of asking for clarification — is a real thing. There’s a threshold of comfort involved, and for quite a few categories of users (the young, the old, visitors, immigrants, people with literacy or other impairments) that threshold is set too high. People in this position wind up seeking alternatives…and if practical alternatives do not exist, they do without mobility altogether. They are lost to the city, and the city is lost to them.

The point is more broadly applicable, as well. You know I believe that cities are connection machines, networks of potential subject to Metcalfe’s law. What this means in the abstract is that the total value of an urban network rises as the square of the number of nodes connected to it. What this means in human terms is that a situation in which people are too intimidated to ride the bus (or walk down the street, or leave the apartment) is a sorrow compounded. Again: everything they could offer the network that is the city is lost. And everything we take for granted about the possibilities and promise of great urban places is foreclosed to them.

If you understand things this way, there’s a clear moral imperative inscribed in the design of systems like bus networks and interfaces. Every incremental thing the designer can do to demystify, explain, clarify, and ultimately to lower the threshold at which a potential user decides the risk of climbing aboard is worth taking does a double service — if the Metcalfe’s law construction of things rings true to you, a geometrical service. You are simultaneously improving the conditions under which an individual lives his or her life, and contributing materially to the commonweal. Not bad for a day’s work, if you ask me.

This is personal for me, too, and not just because I’ve occasionally found a route map overwhelming, or decided to walk from Bloomsbury to Dalston instead of chancing the N38 and winding up in, who knows, Calais. What I’ve come to understand, in these last few years of intense concentration on issues of urban design, is that my fascination with cities grows not at all out of ease or comfort with them, but the opposite. I’m an introvert, I’ve never been comfortable approaching strangers with questions, I’m twitchily hyperaware when I’m inconveniencing others (e.g. holding up a bus by asking questions of a driver) and my gifts for language are not great. Above all, I don’t like looking vulnerable and confused any more than anyone does, especially when traveling.

I’ve gotten better on all these counts over the course of my life, but they’re still issues. They can pop to the surface at any time, and, of course, are more likely to do so under conditions of stress. Taken together, what they spell for me is a relatively circumscribed ability to get around and enjoy the things the cities I visit have to offer — relatively, that is, compared to other able-bodied people my own age and with similar levels of privilege. Even this limitation, though, makes me acutely aware of just how difficult getting around can be, how very intimidating it can all seem, and what both people and place stand to lose each and every single time this intimidation is allowed to govern outcomes.

This is why I believe Olivier is absolutely right to focus on design interventions that reduce user stress, and, with all due respect, it’s why I think people like this Speedbird commenter, who understand cities solely as generators of upside potential, are missing something in the empathy department. There are an awful lot of people, everywhere around us, in every city, who have difficulty negotiating the mobility (and other) systems that are supposed to serve their needs. As far as I’m concerned, anyway, it is the proper and maybe even the primary task of the urban systems designer to work with compassion and fearless empathy to address this difficulty. Only by doing so can we extend the very real promise of that upside potential to the greatest possible number of people who would otherwise be denied it, in part or in full, and only by doing so can we realize in turn the full flowering of what they have to offer us.

Reinventing Reinventing the Automobile

I’m halfway through Reinventing the Automobile at the moment, which I figure represents the final comprehensive statement of Bill Mitchell’s thinking about urban mobility. As you’d imagine, it’s a passionately-held and painstakingly worked-out vision, basically the summation of all the work anyone with an interest in the space has seen in dribs and drabs over the past few years; it’s clear, for example, that this is what all the work on P.U.M.A. and MIT CityCar was informed by and leading towards.

In outline, Reinventing presents the reader with four essential propositions about the nature of next-generation urban mobility, none of which I necessarily disagree with prima facie:

- That the design principles and assumptions underlying the contemporary automobile — descended as they are, in an almost straight line, from the horseless carriage — are badly obsolete. Specifically, industry conventions regarding a vehicle’s source of motive power, drive and control mechanism, and mode of operation ought to be discarded in their entirety and replaced with ones more appropriate to an age of dense cities, networks, lightweight materials, clean energy and great personal choice.

- That mobility itself is being transformed by information; that extraordinary efficiencies can be realized and tremendous amounts of latent value unlocked if passenger, vehicle and the ground against which both are moving are reconceived as sources and brokers of, and agents upon, real-time data. (Where have I heard that before?)

- That the physical and conceptual infrastructure underlying the generation, storage and distribution of energy is also, and simultaneously, being transformed by information, with implications (again) for the generation of motive power, as well as the provision of environmental, information, communication and entertainment services to vehicles.

- That the above three developments permit (compel?) the wholesale reconceptualization of vehicles as agents in dynamic pricing markets for energy, road-space and parking resources, as well as significantly more conventional vehicle-share schemes.

It’s only that last one that I have any particular quibbles with. Even before accounting for the creepy hints of emergent AI in commodity-trading software I keep bumping up against (and that’s only meant about 75% tongue-in-cheek), I’m not at all convinced that empowering mobile software avatars to bid on road resources in tightly-coupled, nanosecond loops will ever lead to anything but the worst and most literal sort of gridlock.

But that’s not the real problem I have with this body of work. What I really tripped over, as I read, was the titanic dissonance between the MIT vision of urban life and mobility and the one that I was immersed in as I rode the 33 bus across town. It’s a cheap shot, maybe, but I just couldn’t get past the gulf between the actual San Franciscans around me — the enormous, sweet-looking Polynesian kid lost in a half-hour-long spell of autistic head-banging that took him from Oak and Stanyan clear into the Mission; the grizzled but curiously sylphlike person of frankly indeterminate gender, stepping from the bus with a croaked “God bless you, driver” — and the book’s depiction of sleekly silhouetted personae-people reclining into the Pellicle couches of their front-loading CityCars.

Any next-generation personal mobility system that didn’t take the needs and capabilities of people like these — no: these people, as individuals with lives and stories — into account…well, I can’t imagine that any such thing would be worth the very significant effort of bringing it into being. And despite some well-intentioned gestures toward the real urban world in the lattermost part of the book, projected mobility-on-demand sitings for Taipei and so on, there’s very little here that treats present-day reality as anything but something that Shall Be Overcome. It’s almost as if the very, very bright people responsible for Reinventing the Automobile have had to fend off any taint of human frailty, constraint or limitation in order to haul their total vision up into the light. (You want to ask, particularly, if any of them had ever read Aramis.)

Weirdly enough, the whiff of Gesamtkunstwerk I caught off of Reinventing reminded me of nothing so much as a work you’d be hard-pressed to think of as anything but its polar opposite, J.H. Crawford’s Carfree Cities. That, too, is a work where an ungodly amount of effort has been lavished on detailed depictions of the clean-slate future…and that, too, strikes me as refusing to engage the world as it is.

Maybe I wind up so critical of these dueling visions of future cities and mobility in them precisely because they are total solutions, and I’m acutely aware of my own weakness for and tendency toward same. I don’t think I’d mind, at all, living in one of Crawford’s carfree places, nor can I imagine that the MIT cityscape would be anything but an improvement on the status quo (if the devil was hauled out of its details and treated to a righteous ass-whupping). But to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, you go to the future with the cities, vehicles and people you have, not the ones you want. I have to imagine — have to — that the truly progressive and meaningful mobility intervention has a lot more to do with building on what people are already doing, and that’s even stipulating the four points above.

Bolt-on kits. Adaptive reuse. Provisional and experimental rezoning. Frameworks, visualizations and models that incorporate existing systems and assets, slowly revealing them (to users, planners, onlookers) to be nothing other than the weavings of a field, elements of a transmobility condition. And maybe someone whose job it is to account for everyone sidelined by the sleek little pods, left out of the renderings when the New Mobility was pitched to its sponsors.

Bottom line: this book is totally worth buying, reading and engaging if you have even the slightest interest in this topic. Its spinal arguments are very well framed, very clearly articulated, constructed in a way that makes them very difficult to mount cogent objections to…and almost certainly irrelevant to the way personal urban mobility is going to evolve, at least at the level of whole systems. And that’s the trouble, really, because so much of the value in the system described in these pages only works as a holism.

Like my every other negotiation with Bill Mitchell’s thought, including both engagements with his work and encounters in person, I want to be convinced. I want to believe. I want to be seduced by the optimism and the confidence that these are the right answers. But ultimately, as on those other occasions, I’m left with the sense that there are some important questions that have gone unasked, and which could not in any event have been satisfactorily answered in the framework offered. It may or may not say more about me than it does about anything else, but I just can’t see how the folks on the 33 Stanyan fit into the MIT futurama.

Cities and citizenship; fake security and the real thing

I saw a great Stephen Graham talk yesterday at the 24th AESOP Annual Conference at Aalto University in Espoo, called “Cities, Space, Security: The New Military Urbanism.”

I’ve enjoyed Graham’s thinking for quite awhile now, since picking his Splintering Urbanism off the shelf of late, lamented Micawber Books way, way back in the day. His argument here, in part, is that conceptualizations of urban space developed by the American, British and Israeli militaries, particularly, to support operations from Mogadishu to Gaza have begun to condition the metropolitan-in-both-senses fabric. This is a process he refers to as “Foucault’s boomerang,” and which will be familiar to any student of the intelligence community as “blowback.”

Graham calls out a litany of unhappy developments driven by this neo-Haussmannian thought, including a progressive cordoning by way of which the right of free movement in cities is slowly replaced by a checkpoint mentality, the contours of public space are subtly conditioned by simulations of blast physics, and events like the Olympics or the G20 are used to field-test techniques and strategies of urban control that eventually make their way into everyday policing.

To me, what’s really problematic about all of this is that it inscribes in our putatively urban places the fear of, and hostility to, the ordinary life of cities that completely suffuses the MOUT literature. It’s fine to assert that an infantry squad on patrol has to regard everyday urban space as festooned with “the clutter of concealment,” in which any number of threats might be secreted. But for that overwhelming majority of users of the city who do not happen to be conducting house-to-house sweep-and-clear operations…that’s just Tottenham Court Road. Or East 14th Street, or Mannerheimintie. And those are just newsstands, and parked cars, and bus shelters. That our cities should be designed for the former case over the latter strikes me as the kind of obscene argument that only someone who never loved city life in the first place could even think to propose.

This is why I had to nod in recognition when Graham described the security-industrial complex’s desperate attempt to develop video analytics that would permit algorithmic characterizations of urban “normality,” so as to simultaneously be able to recognize anomalies (“threats”). When you have any familiarity at all with the social and physical terrain of suburban northern Virginia, and the other locales in which these systems predominantly tend to be developed, you can see the punchline coming from miles away: anyone for whom Tysons Corner represents an uncomfortable concentration of human heterogeneity wouldn’t be terribly likely to recognize big-city normality if it bit them in the ass. How much less so, then, the algorithms authored by such a person?

Graham’s whole line of inquiry here is most pointedly relevant to me personally when he takes up the question of networked sensing and actuation, and situates it in the MOUT discourse as a tool to help the warfighter or security agent make sense of the chaotic urban environment. Needless to say, this is a vision that I believe must be strongly and continuously contested by those of us who understand the same sensing, reporting and actuation apparatus instead as a mechanism for citizen engagement and empowerment.

At any rate, if Graham’s still-newish book Cities Under Siege offers anything like as crisp and comprehensive an overview of the domain as this talk did, it will be well-worth picking up. (If you’re not too wrung-out and depressed by considering all of this, I also recommend Eyal Weizman’s essential Hollow Land as a companion. It’s a book-length expansion on the themes first explored in the brilliant “Walking Through Walls.”)

While we’re on the topic of citizen engagement: I’m delighted to be able to pass on to you the word that I’ve joined Code for America‘s Board of Advisors.

I think CfA is doing multiple important things at once: helping city governments and managers understand what emergent interactive technologies can do for them and their constituents; strongly countering the cheap cynicism about who government is, and what it is for, that seems to be so characteristic of our American moment; and maybe at the same time tempering the technical community’s natural enthusiasm for technical solutions with some immersion in the always charged and tangled arena of municipal politics.

This last aspect of the mission is particularly important to me. I’ve seen one or two responses to my recent work suggesting that people understand me to be arguing for the very thing I’m always so horrendified by, which is precisely the idea that social and political fissures can be patched with technology. As it happens, I don’t believe this, or anything like it, as readers with a more holistic familiarity with my output understand, but I thought the point could use some underlining. The more technologists gain a sense of the limits of their tools, and what these tools might actually be good for, the more effectively they can bring their special expertise to bear on the challenges that confront us.

What I see here, in the parallax between the picture Stephen Graham drew for us and CfA’s vision of America, is two entirely different conceptions of the complicated relationship between urban space, networked technology and “security.” Is this notion some grim, shoddy farce of heavy-handed control, sold to us by defense contractors who nurture a deep-seated distrust of city life and lives — a half-trillion-dollar sham that will eviscerate the potential of our public spaces, and even on its own terms never, ever work just right? Or is mutual security something that can only be coaxed to emerge from the difficult interplay of communities, needs and capabilities, much less totalizing in its promises but infinitely better able to deliver on them?

You know I believe it’s (long past) time to reinvigorate a sense of public life in the United States, an awareness of collective challenges, mutual obligations and shared outcomes, and for me, here, the medium is also the message. I’m looking forward to helping Code for America in whatever way I can — in no small part because I do believe that there are threats and bad actors in the world, and that collective security is best underwritten by vibrant, functioning, resilient cities. Vibrant cities…and people who love them.

Join us in Helsinki on May 22nd for a Touchscapes workshop (updated)

Just in case folks here in town are feeling neglected, fear not: we’re doing events here as well.

As part of Helsinki’s World Design Capital 2010 Ideas Forum, and collaboration with our good friends at Nordkapp, I’m delighted to announce a workshop called “Touchscapes: Toward the next urban ecology.”

Touchscapes is inspired, in large part, by our frustration with the Symbicon/ClearChannel screens currently deployed around Helsinki, how little is being done with them, and how far short of their potential they’ve fallen. Our sense is that we are now surrounded by screens as we move through the city — personal devices, shared interactive surfaces, and now even building-sized displays — and if thinking about how to design for each of these things individually was hard enough, virtually nobody has given much thought to how they function together, as a coherent informational ecosystem.

Until now, that is, because that’s just what we aim to do in the workshop. Join us for a day of activity dedicated to understanding the challenges presented by this swarm of screens, the possibilities they offer for tangible, touch-based interaction, and their implications for the new urban information design. We’ll move back and forth between conceptual thinking and practical doing, developing solid ideas about making the most meaningful use of these emerging resources culturally, commercially, personally and socially.

Attendance is free, but spaces in the workshop are limited, so I recommend you sign up at Nordkapp on the Facebook event page as soon as you possibly can. See you on the 22nd!

How to bring a Systems/Layers walkshop to your town

Crossposted with Do projects.

The response to the Systems/Layers walkshop we held in Wellington a few months back was tremendously gratifying, and given how much people seem to have gotten out of it we’ve been determined to set up similar events, in cities around the planet, ever since. (Previously on Do, and see participant CJ Wells’s writeup here.)

We’re fairly far along with plans to bring Systems/Layers to Barcelona in June (thanks Chris and Enric!), have just started getting into how we might do it in Taipei (thanks Sophie and TH!), and understand from e-mail inquiries that there’s interest in walkshops in Vancouver and Toronto as well. This is, of course, wonderfully exciting to us, and we’re hoping to learn as much from each of these as we did from Wellington.

What we’ve discovered is that the initial planning stages are significantly smoother if potential sponsors and other partners understand a little bit more about what Systems/Layers is, what it’s for and what people get out of it. The following is a brief summary designed to answer just these questions, and you are more than welcome to use it to raise interest in your part of the world. We’d love to hold walkshops in as many cities as are interested in having them.

Systems/Layers is a half-day “walkshop,” held in two parts. The first portion of the activity is dedicated to a slow and considered walk through a reasonably dense and built-up section of the city at hand. What we’re looking for are appearances of the networked digital in the physical, and vice versa: apertures through which the things that happen in the real world drive the “network weather,” and contexts in which that weather affects what people see, confront and are able to do.

Participants are asked to pay particular attention to:

- Places where information is being collected by the network.
- Places where networked information is being displayed.
- Places where networked information is being acted upon, either by people directly, or by physical systems that affect the choices people have available to them.

You’ll want to bring seasonally-appropriate clothing, good comfortable shoes, and a camera. We’ll provide maps of “the box,” the area through which we’ll be walking.

This portion of the day will take around 90 minutes, after which we gather in a convenient “command post” to map, review and discuss the things we’ve encountered. We allot an hour for this, but since we’re inclined to choose a command post offering reasonably-priced food and drink, discussion can go on as long as participants feel like hanging out.

Do projects’ Nurri Kim and Adam Greenfield plan and run the workshop, with the assistance of a qualified local expert/maven/mayor. (In Wellington, Tom Beard did a splendid job of this, for which we remain grateful.)

We feel the walkshop works best if it’s limited to roughly 30 participants in total, split into two teams for the walking segment and reunited for the discussion.

In order for us to bring Systems/Layers to your town, we need the sponsorship of a local arts, architecture or urbanist organization — generally, but not necessarily, a non-profit. They’ll cover the cost of our travel and accommodation, and defray these expenses by charging for participation in the walkshop. In turn, we’ll ensure both that the registration fee remains reasonable, and that one or two scholarship places are available for those who absolutely cannot afford to participate otherwise.

If you’re a representative of such an organization, and you’re interested in us putting on a Systems/Layers walkshop in your area, please get in touch. If you’re not, but you still want us to come, you could try to put together enough participants who are willing to register and pay ahead of time, so we could book flights and hotels. But really, we’ve found that the best way to do things is to approach a local gallery, community group or NGO and ask them to sponsor the event.

At least as we have it set up now, you should know that we’re not financially compensated in any way for our organization of these walkshops, beyond having our travel, accommodation and transfer expenses covered.

Our schedule tends to fill up 4-6 months ahead of time, so we’re already talking about events in the (Northern Hemisphere) spring of 2011. And of course, it’s generally cheapest to book flights and hotels well in advance. If you think Systems/Layers would be a good fit for your city, please do get in touch as soon as you possibly can. As we’ve mentioned, we’d be thrilled to work with you, and look forward to hearing from you with genuine anticipation and excitement. Wellington was amazing, Barcelona is shaping up to be pretty special, and Taipei, if we can pull it off, will be awesome. It’d mean a lot to us to add your city to this list. Thanks!

Blog some bookmarked pages: The City Shaped

So I’ve been working my way through the late Spiro Kostof’s monumental study The City Shaped over the last few weeks, as I’ve found the time, and it’s been one of the most voluptuously enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in years. If Kostof’s prose is occasionally a little turgid, the payoffs are both genuine and reliably regular. The book has already blown my mind once, and continues to stop me in my tracks every few paragraphs, so I can have another swallow or two of coffee and ponder what I’ve read.

This is not to say that it isn’t also, on occasion, fairly depressing. There’s a specific historical example — or, I guess, set of examples — that Kostof uses to challenge the notion that there’s a useful distinction to be made between planned cities and more “organic” processes of urban structuration. It’s what happens in city after city in the few centuries following the fall of Rome:

The background for the urban retrenchment and readjustment in post-Roman Europe is well known — depopulation, reduced circumstances, and a social revolution that consigned towns built for a pagan culture…to the monotheistic religions…

With the impairment of municipal controls in the post-Roman city, natural movement soon carved shortcuts through the large rigid blocks of the grid. Tracks skirting or crossing the ruins of those public buildings for which there was no longer any use also crystallized into new streets. (p. 48)

“Impairment of municipal controls”! Yeah: otherwise known as “having anyone who might stand in their fur-swathed way being put to the sword by barbarians.” Here’s the motif again, in these comments on the “superimposition of a medieval agrarian settlement pattern over a Roman grid” at the German town of Grier, a few pages later:

By the 12th century a greatly contracted Trier had redrawn its defensive perimeter, excluding about a third of the area formerly enclosed. The great Roman public institutions…thermae, amphitheater, and forum — were abandoned, their ruins appropriated for private use. (p. 50)

In reading these simple, flat, declarative statements, I can’t help but translate them into more visceral terms — and truly, the world implied by them could not possibly be less pretty. Outside the city gates, The Road; within, a bleak bürgerlich peace, imposed and maintained by a brutally patriarchal familial order. For centuries. The sheer human waste involved reminds me of that ultimate dork-elegiac image of my childhood: the Rick Sternbach illo, in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, of the Roman starship launched by a culture that had never sacked the library at Alexandria.

This was Christian Europe. Elsewhere, of course, there was the superimposition of a different structuring logic, no less inimical to any notion of a public sphere. From pp. 62-63:

Neighborhood cohesion based on kinship, tribal affiliation or ethnicity was strong enough…to re-arrange an inherited pre-Muslim grid of Greco-Roman origin, and fuse and invert its [public-facing modular elements] into exclusive superblocks…

How was this privatized urban order wrought? The main thing to remember is that city-form was allowed to work itself out subject only to the respect of custom, ownership, and the Muslim’s right to visual privacy. You were not told what to do, what kind of city to design; you were only enjoined from doing things that threatened accepted social behavior. The concern for privacy, for example, determined where doors and windows would go on building fronts and how high buildings would rise. Visual corridors were consequently avoided, whether at the fine scale of a cluster of houses, or in the broader sense of urban vistas. More basically, this concern asserted itself in the introversion of the house, the appearance toward the street being unimportant.

Sure, the language verges on loaded here. Even putting that to the side, though, I’d be a lot more comfortable with this thought of designing for privacy if I didn’t primarily understand it to mean a proprietary concern for the visibility of women, and the concomitant “promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice.”

Medieval Islamic urbanism had some fairly impressive provisions, and in its later stages at least gave rise to by far the most cosmopolitan cities the pre-modern world would ever know. But living out one’s life in a world built on bonds of “kinship, tribal affiliation or ethnicity” sounds nightmarish to me — as nightmarish as anything cooked up by medieval Christendom, if not more so, and I’m a man.

What’s clear to me is that, as both Islam and Christianity literally and physically turned away from Roman notions of public space, a broad sweep of the world that had once been knit together shattered into ten thousand mutually incommunicant particles. Provinces into towns and bishoprics; towns into isolar, fortified blocks; streets into passages. And free citizens into, at best, villagers — unless you happened to be female, in which case you became something with the status and value of property.

For, again, a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred years. Call it forty generations.

I already knew this story, and so did you, but Koslof’s immensely thorough and detailed review of the physical evidence brought the human cost home to me in a way few other texts ever have. Whatever you think about Empire — and in its current incarnation, I cannot possibly be numbered among its fans — it’s sobering to be reminded of what generally comes in the wake of its passing.

• Further reading:
- The wonderful “How to Build a City: Roman Operating System,” in the Harvard Project on the City volume Mutations. (On p. 3, this PDF offers a brief taste, but believe me, it’s worth digging up the full text.)

Free mobility, social mobility…transmobility (part III)

This last installment of our series (I, II) on networked mobility is more of a coda than anything else, and it goes directly to the question of systemic cost, and who bears it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to mention that I’ve been having some lovely conversations with Snapper, the company that provides farecard-based payment services to the transit riders of Wellington, and now Auckland as well, and that I have a stake in the success of their endeavor.)

Any time you’re shifting atoms on the scale presented by even a small town’s transit infrastructure, there’s obviously going to be expense involved, and that has to be recovered somehow. Maintaining such a network once you’ve brought it into being? Another recurring expense, on a permanent basis. Rolling stock, of course, doesn’t grow on trees. Training and paying the front- and back-of-house staff — the people who oversee operations, design the signs, drive the trams, clean the stations, even the folks who get to snap on blue latex and haul the belligerent piss-drunks off the buses — another enormous ongoing outlay. Pensions, unplanned overtime, insurance coverage: these things don’t pay for themselves. All stipulated.

So why do I still believe that transit ought to be free to the user?

Because access to good, low- or no-cost public institutions clearly, consistently catalyzes upward social mobility. This was true in my own family — the free CUNY system was my father’s springboard out of the working class — and it continues to be quantifiably true in the context of urban transportation. The returns to society are the things most all of us, across the center of the political spectrum broadly defined, at least claim to want: greater innovation, a healthier and more empowered citizenry, and an enhanced tax base, for starters.

I’m going to make a multi-stage argument, here, first about the optimal economic design of public transit systems, and later about how the emergent networked technologies I’m most familiar with personally might best support the measures and policies I believe to be most sound. Most of what you’re about to read is bog-standard public-policy stuff; only toward the end does it veer toward the kind of Everyware-ish material regular readers of this blog will be comfortable with, and everyone else may find a little odd. Politically, its assumptions ought to be palatable to a reasonably wide swath of people, from social democrats on the center-left to pro-business Republicans on the right; with suitable modifications, anarchosyndicalists shouldn’t find too much that would give them heartburn.

- Let’s start with the unchallenged basics. Access to reliable transportation allows people to physically get to jobs, education and vital services (e.g. childcare) they might not otherwise.

- Jobs obviously have a direct effect on household wealth; post-secondary education tends to open up higher-paying employment opportunities, and generates other beneficial second-order effects; and services like reliable childcare allow people to accept (formal and informal) employment with time obligations they would not otherwise be able to accommodate.

- A regional transportation grid sufficiently supple to connect the majority of available jobs with workers rapidly and efficiently is never going to be cheap.

- The return on such an investment is, however, considerable — when savings due to reduced road and highway depreciation, etc., are considered as well as direct benefits, on the order of 2.5:1. This isn’t even remotely in the same galaxy as the kind of multiples that get VCs hot & bothered, but it’s not at all bad for a public-sector expenditure. (Note, too, that the proportion of systemic costs generally retired due to user fees is comparatively small.)

- Being able to spread the fixed costs of a transit system over a significantly expanded ridership would increase the economic efficiency of that system, and thus represent a different kind of savings. Given two types of riders — dependent, people for whom public transit is their only real option, and discretionary, folks who choose public transit over other modes only if it’s markedly cleaner, safer, more convenient, cheaper, etc. — how to maximize both?

- Increasing dependent ridership is relatively easy. I’m going to propose that a greater expansion in the number of transit riders would be achieved by reducing the cost of ridership from relatively-low to zero than by a comparable reduction from relatively-high to relatively- or even absolutely low. Another way of putting it is to say that a significant number of potential riders are dissuaded by the presence of any fare at all. (Strictly speaking, a reduction of fees to zero would be a Pareto-optimal outcome, though this is true only if we agree to consider genuine concerns like increased crowding and greater systemic wear-and-tear from higher loads as externalities. Which, of course, they are not.)

- Maxing out the number of discretionary riders is a little tougher. What both dependent and discretionary riders have in common, though, is the requirement that network apertures be located in as close proximity as is practically achievable to origins and foreseeable destinations. And here’s where the argument arcs back toward the things we we’ve been talking about over the last week, because the transmobility system described accommodates just this desire, by forging discrete modal components into coherent journeys. Trip segments dependent on more finely-grained modes like walking, shared bikes or shared cars, primary at origins and destinations, are designed to dovetail smoothly with the systems responsible for trunk segments, like buses, BRT, light rail, subways, metros and ferries.

That transit system is of most social and economic value to a region which fuses the greatest number of separate transportation modes and styles into a coherent network; which minimizes friction at interline and intermodal junctures; and which does this all while presenting a cost to the rider no greater than zero.

Fully subsidizing any such system would be expensive…inarguably so, immoderately so. But if my conjecture is right — and oh, how I would love to see data addressing the question, one way or the other — a total subsidy produces disproportionate benefits even as compared to a generous subsidy. Success on this count would be the ultimate refutation of the zero-sum governance philosophy that took hold in the outsourcin’, rightsizin’ States during the 1990s, and has more recently and unaccountably migrated elsewhere. (I say “unaccountably” because you’d think people would have learned from America’s experience with what happens when you leave things in the hands of a “CEO President.” And also because, well, there hasn’t turned out to be much in the way of accountability for all of that, has there?) Municipalities ought to be conceiving of transit fees not as a potential revenue stream, but as a brake on a much bigger and more productive system.

To me, this isn’t a fantasy, but rather a matter of attending to the demands of basic social justice. For all too many, bad transport provisioning means getting fired because they couldn’t get to work on time, despite leaving the house at zero-dark-thirty. Or not getting hired in the first place, because they showed up late to the interview. Or not being able to take a job once offered, because the added expense of an extra bus trip to put the baby in daycare would burn every last cent one might otherwise eke out of a minimum-wage gig. Anyone who’s ever been trapped by circumstances like these intimately understands cascading failure in the for-want-of-a-nail mode. (Not buying it? See if you can’t dig up a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s seminal Nickel and Dimed.)

I’ve recently and persuasively seen privilege defined — and thanks, Mike, for digging up the link — as when one’s “social and economic networks tend to facilitate goals, rather than block them.” As I sit here right now, my mobility options are as infinitely finely grained as present-day practices and technologies can get them: which is to say that my transportation network, too, facilitates the accomplishment of whatever goal I devise for it, whether that means getting to the emergency room, my job, the SUNN O))) gig, the park or the airport. What I’ve here called “transmobility” is an opportunity to use our best available tools and insights to extend that privilege until it becomes nothing of the sort.

Finally: How do I expect my friends at Snapper to make any money, if everything I imagine above comes to pass? Even stipulating that cost to user is zero, there are multiple foreseeable transmobility models where a farecard is necessary to secure access and to string experiences together, before even considering the wide variety of non-fare-based business use cases. And anyway, my job is to help people anticipate and prepare for emerging opportunity spaces, not to artificially preserve the problem to which they are currently the best solution.

OK, I’ve gone all SUPERTRAIN on you for umpty-two-hundred words now; I need a break, and I’m sure you do too. I fully expect, though, that two or maybe even three of you will have plowed all the way to the bottom of this, and are even now preparing to launch the salvos of your corrective discipline, in an attempt to redress faulty assumptions, inflated claims & other such lacunae in my argumentation as you may stumble over. Trust me when I say that all such salvos will be welcome.


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