Always unpacking

Apropos of yesterday’s post, here’s more food for thought, from Christopher Alexander’s foundational essay “A City is not a Tree” (1965):

When the elements of a set belong together because they co-operate or work together somehow, we call the set of elements a system.

For example, in Berkeley at the corner of Hearst and Euclid, there is a drugstore, and outside the drugstore a traffic light. In the entrance to the drugstore there is a newsrack where the day’s papers are displayed. When the light is red, people who are waiting to cross the street stand idly by the light; and since they have nothing to do, they look at the papers displayed on the newsrack which they can see from where they stand. Some of them just read the headlines, others actually buy a paper while they wait.

This effect makes the newsrack and the traffic light interactive; the newsrack, the newspapers on it, the money going from people’s pockets to the dime slot, the people who stop at the light and read papers, the traffic light, the electric impulses which make the lights change, and the sidewalk which the people stand on form a system – they all work together.

From the designer’s point of view, the physically unchanging part of this system is of special interest. The newsrack, the traffic light and the sidewalk between them, related as they are, form the fixed part of the system. It is the unchanging receptacle in which the changing parts of the system – people, newspapers, money and electrical impulses – can work together. I define this fixed part as a unit of the city. It derives its coherence as a unit both from the forces which hold its own elements together and from the dynamic coherence of the larger living system which includes it as a fixed invariant part.

What are the equivalent components of a contemporary cityscape? What role might a networked personal device play in this ballet, apart from filling interstitial moments with music, headlines or casual games (and not that those are not perfectly valid things to do while waiting)? Do any of the roles you imagine support a business case as inoffensive and mutually beneficial as Alexander’s “dime in a slot,” or must revenue generation take on different forms in an informationally-abundant age?

Really, again: there’s almost a semester’s worth of material to investigate in just this one tiny vignette.

3 responses to “Always unpacking”

  1. Eric Olson says :

    A key difference between Alexander’s “unit of the city” as he describes it and the mobile device is that one is static and the other is portable. This means that one is apprehended by the viewer participant who moves through or around it, while the portable device extends the mind of the viewer participant into the unit space, and expands the range of feedback the viewer participant can extract from the local environment. The city unit extends itself and envelops the participant while the portable device does the same in reverse – extending the viewer into the environment more deeply, or enables a distancing from it as the individual prefers.

  2. Liz Buckley says :

    I have always thought that some streets have things for free that other streets do not. It is a thought based on the public trust doctrine.

    To me that doctrine means, everyone has a right to access whatever you need to survive. In NJ a couple of hundred years ago it was the ocean. Until children were starving because the families were prevented from crossing over ‘private’ land to reach the sea to fish for food the rule wasn’t clear. The state as steward of these public resources changed the law and now no one is supposed to own land that is below the high tide mark.

    Fishing isn’t as important at this moment in the context of the information age but the need for everyone to be able to access the economic shore line is.

    The ballet you speak of is based upon an economic system that recognizes that somethings on some streets are free. Maybe it used to be the ablilty to read a headline on a newspaper without spending a dime or to safely cross a street. Those things cannot be taken for granted everywhere, that is a nice street with plenty of free things on it.

    To design a network personal devise that will benefit city dwellers I think you have to first define the ocean and then you can see what the beach looks like. You can then design something that makes you the most fantastic fisherman but it won’t work if you simple succeed because no one else has access to the sea.

    To continue with this silly metaphor, it almost seems like you want to design a fishing pole, but, first you have to ask, which way to the beach?

    Well, donnes es la playa, mon?

    In the city it is proximity.

  3. John Tolva says :

    What a fantastic reminder about the long tradition of deep, system-centric thinking about cities. That blurb rather took me aback — and sent me straight to the library for the full volume.

    One nit: the physical parts of a city have never been “unchanging” or “invariant”, even over short periods of time. But relative to the “transactional” parts of the system (paying, obtaining, transmitting) they partake of a slower form of change.

    The opportunity we’re presented with today, it seems to me, is a dramatic increase in the mutability of the physical city. Or, more precisely in the mutability of the relationship between the elements of the physical city and its inhabitants.

    Success for me would be reducing this invariance, while possessing the kind of keen understanding of impromptu systems of interaction that Alexander clearly grasped well before we were talking about networked urbanism.

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