Category: Cities

Public space, the public sphere, and the urban as public realm

This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm. 


Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.

To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.

The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.

This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.

Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett

Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”

Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.

Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”

The Modern City as Public Realm

In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.

In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.

Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.

Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres

Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.

Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.

Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.


There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.

Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.

Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.

These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.

Community engagement: setting a standard


I used to live one street over from the Penn Plaza apartments, one of the last affordable housing complexes in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. The other low income rental units and high rise housing towers, built as part of sweeping urban renewal projects starting in the 1960s, have all been demolished and replaced with market-rate apartments and retail space. In the summer of 2015, the 200+ residents of Penn Plaza received notices that the property owners had sold the land for redevelopment, and giving tenants 90 days to vacate the premises. Following uproar from tenants and other community members who were shocked at the manner in which this decision was made and communicated, the city intervened to delay both the evictions and the demolition (the second of the two buildings is still standing, and people still living there have until March to relocate).

The developer’s plans for the Penn Plaza space was finally revealed this past summer: new high-end rental units and businesses including a Whole Foods grocery store. Whole Foods has earned ire for its expensive and sometimes outlandish offerings, is identified with an affluent-white consumer ethos, and has become iconic of gentrifying development (see the season-long gentrification arc on South Park in which the arrival of Whole Foods in a formerly divested neighborhood is treated as the catalyst for a demographic shift). The announcement that the Penn Plaza site was to house a new Whole Foods carried a particularly bitter irony because there already is a Whole Foods in the neighborhood, essentially across the street from the proposed location (calling it a stone’s throw away seems accurate). The current Whole Foods store in East Liberty opened in 2002 amidst the arrival of similar corporate retail outlets and other new developments that heralded the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. The market was built as part of a suburban-style shopping center with accompanying parking lot that seems to be invariably congested and unfailingly irritating to shoppers, cars and buses trying to pass by on the street, and especially pedestrians using the adjacent city sidewalks. The new Whole Foods would include a larger parking lot, part of what a company representative described as “new opportunities to surprise and delight our expanding base of shoppers in Pittsburgh” (blech).

Last week the city planning commission unanimously rejected the developers’ proposal for the Penn Plaza site. This decision was unexpected, and received cheers and ovation when it was announced in the commission meeting. Why had the commissioners resoundingly rejected the plan? Their decision seemed to hinge upon a perceived lack of community engagement. As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“It begins with and ends with the community engagement piece. And at the end of the day, I don’t believe there was any evidence that there were result-oriented parts of the application and presentation that proved that the community gave input,” said commission vice chairwoman Lashawn Burton-Faulk.

The representative for the developers disagreed with this assessment:

Jonathan Kamin, attorney for developer LG Realty Advisors, said afterward that he was disappointed with the decision, arguing that the proposal met all of the requirements needed for approval.

He disputed the commission’s contention that the plan lacked community input. He said the developer held more than 35 meetings with the various constituencies and groups, adding it was “public engagement like the city has never had.”

What to make of this discrepancy in interpretation? Why did the planning commissioners consider the level of community engagement deficient when the developer believed they had conducted an unprecedented degree of engagement? At issue is the very definition of community engagement and the standards to which such practices should be held. Community or public engagement has emerged as a procedural standard in urban planning and development, and while such engagement practices may fall short of realizing the ideals of deliberative democracy to which these terms seem to aspire, at the very least it has been accepted as part of the “due diligence” of the development process. In this most recent decision on the Penn Plaza development there is an evident contrast between standards of quantity and standards of quality. The attorney for the developers cited the number of public meetings held as evidence of “public engagement like the city has never had.” The commission members, by contrast, cited a shallowness of responsiveness as indicative of the poor quality of engagement. Can one-way communication be considered sufficient “engagement”? In this case the planning board is arguing that it cannot; the developers may have held 35 meetings informing attendees of their plans, but their process did not reflect any substantive response to community input, and this was a crucial factor in the commission’s rejection. Of course, one major question that bears asking in this case is: why was there no requirement for community engagement before people were displaced and their homes destroyed?

It remains to be seen what will become of the Penn Plaza site (as well as the ostensibly public park space situated on the lot), and although the planning commission’s decision doesn’t reverse the displacement of hundreds of East Liberty residents, I still find it heartening. This decision signals that city managers are taking community engagement seriously, holding such practices to a standard beyond a mere perfunctory formality, and requiring they be more meaningful than an empty gesture. I am currently working on a study of community engagement practices in another major redevelopment project in Pittsburgh, so I found last week’s news of the planning board’s decision especially salient. More than affirming my own interest in studying community engagement practices, it demonstrates that the theory and practice of public engagement can bear material consequences to urban development projects. I hope that this result will inspire planners and developers to raise their own standards for community engagement.

Transit transitions: Thanking the bus driver


Last week two topics seemed to predominate in my news browsing: end-of-the-year “best of” film lists, and the Pittsburgh Port Authority’s bus service changes. I didn’t see many new films this year, so most of the titles on the critics’ top ten lists were unknown to me. One film title that kept appearing on the year-end lists was Paterson.  I gleaned from these mentions that the movie starred Adam Driver as a bus driver-cum-poet in Paterson, New Jersey. In a subsequent review I read that Paterson was directed by Jim Jarmusch, who’s made some of my favorite films.

The other big news of the new year (in Pittsburgh, at least) was the many changes coming to our city buses.  The port authority instituted several new policies and practices beginning on January 1st, including changes to how bus fares are priced and paid for.

In an editorial for the Pitt News, Amber Montgomery surveyed some of these changes and how changes to fare pricing in particular will affect riders:

Perhaps the most important change coming is the new flat fare system and the few stipulations that go along with it. In 2017, riders using a ConnectCard will pay the new fare of $2.50 for a ride and $1 for a transfer, whereas riders using cash will pay $2.75 with no option for a paper transfer — meaning if you’re paying in cash, you must dole out an extra 0.25 cents per trip, and if you need a transfer, it’s an additional flat fare of $2.75.


The changes themselves are vital and will make using buses quicker, easier and more efficient, but the new system will only work best when it is likewise simple and efficient for all users. The priority needs to be on making it so cash can be converted into ConnectCard funds easily through a plethora of retail locations and machines at nearly all bus stops.

While reading up on these changes and their impact I came across Buses are Bridges, a blog dedicated to “mapping the blueprint for transition in Pittsburgh.” They have been writing about the impact that these and other urban developments are having on Pittsburghers. The provocative title of a post from new year’s day caught my attention: “A bus is in itself a city.” The author referenced William Carlos Williams, so I sought out the source of this evocative quote. The original quote is “a man is in himself a city,” and it comes from William’s epic poem Paterson. The poem was Williams’ effort to do for Paterson, NJ what Joyce had done for Dublin in Ulysses.  In addition to discovering a fascinating work of city poetry and urban romanticism to add to my reading list, I also realized that Jarmusch’s Paterson film references and is likely inspired by Williams’ poem.

But back to the transit transition in Pittsburgh. Blog co-author Helen Gerhardt relayed some conversations overheard at a bus stop on the day the changes went into effect:

On the Ellsworth sidewalk across from my bus stop, I could hear three people figuring out the new bus fare payment system that just had gone into effect for New Years Day. Not being practiced at poetic distance, but instead a grassroots organizer and loud-mouthed Pittsburgher for Public Transit, I walked across the street and butted right into the information transfer.

“Yeah, everybody gotta pay as you get on the bus from now on,” the guy with glasses was saying.

“And get off at the back door?”

“Yeah, that’s what I heard. But lots of people still getting off up front. And some of the bus drivers, they encouraging people to do just like before unless the bus is crowded.”

The changes to fare prices and how they’re paid are significant, and it is important to consider how these changes will affect low income Pittsburghers and other vulnerable riders who are reliant on Port Authority service. But I want to focus here on the change to the bus entry and exit system, because it directly impacts our local transit culture.

Like public buses in many other cities, Pittsburgh city buses have two sets of doors, one near the front and another set at about the midpoint of the vehicle. Unlike buses in other cities, the rear doors are rarely used on Pittsburgh buses. With the exception of stops at the busy downtown transit hub (and at times when the bus is crowded to capacity), riders boarding or disembarking from the bus only use the front doors. Accordingly, commuters during busy periods typically have to wait for departing riders to exit the bus before being able to board.

This situation affects the ‘Burgh bus riding experience in several ways. For one thing, it means that virtually every rider files past the driver when they depart the bus. This in turn has an associated effect on public transit behavior in Pittsburgh: it is common for riders to thank the driver as they leave the bus. For comparison, consider Philadelphia, our big city neighbor on the eastern side of the state. Buses in Philly operate on the same entry and exit protocols that Pittsburgh just adopted, where all riders enter at the front and exit at the back. For most Philly transit users, thanking the bus driver would be an unnecessary and even impractical gesture. Visitors from bigger cities often find our provincial customs quaint and frivolous: to the average New Yorker, saying “thank you” and “bye” to the bus driver seems like a profligate waste of time and energy. Yet thanking the bus driver is a quirk of our local culture that I relish, and I fear it is a quirk I am fated to be nostalgic for.

It occurred to me riding home last night (after the driver hollered “Back door” as I was making my way up to the front) that the Pittsburgh transit “thank you” is going the way of the dodo. If riders are to be exiting by the back doors, and no longer passing by the driver on their way out, then the customary expressions of leave-taking are surely on their way out. While I was initially excited about this change, especially as it seemed to update our transit policies in line with how things are done in”real cities,” I  will also miss what is lost in the transition. Is the new system more efficient? Almost certainly, and in many ways the new boarding system makes a lot of sense and seems like a long overdue change. But every gain is accomplished through an accompanying loss. Innumerable elements of local culture, folk knowledge, and vernacular practice have been eradicated by the inexorable march of order, standardization, and efficiency. In the larger scheme of things the loss of the “driver thank you” may be inconsequential, but it is indicative of the countless small things lost and forgotten in the wake of progress and unending urban transformation.

Songdo U-city: a smart city visit


While in Seoul, South Korea this summer I had the opportunity to visit Songdo City, one of the most comprehensive smart city developments in existence. Located about an hour-long train ride from Seoul, Songdo is located in the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) near Incheon Airport. As part of a Korean Free Economic Zone, Songdo is overseen and administered by IFEZ, and this gives Songdo a strange sense that it is not so much a municipality as an international corporate-financial project. Songdo is also a master-planned built-from-scratch development, founded on land that was dredged from the Yellow Sea.


Songdo administrators refer to the development as U-city rather than “smart city,” where the U stands for “ubiquitous computing”. Networked infrastructure and sensor technology is integrated throughout Songdo city. Our tour group visited the Cisco company offices where we saw demonstrations of this networked monitoring and surveillance. This demonstration included a dramatization of a child being reported missing in the city, and showed how the child’s image and name could be displayed on screens throughout Songdo and RFID tracking could be used to pinpoint their location. In daily practice this monitoring appears to mostly concern traffic flow on the city’s streets and other infrastructural maintenance.


Having come from the densely packed and winding streets of Seoul I was struck by the scope and scale of the Songdo development. It is a truly monumental space, in multiple senses of the word. The buildings aspire skyward in an ersatz Manhattan verticality that has also characterized new urban structures in places like Dubai and throughout China. Unlike Manhattan, however, the buildings of Songdo are not claustrophobically constrained between the geographical restrictions of the East and Hudson rivers. Rather these skyscrapers are spaced out around stretches of artificially constructed green spaces that explicitly invoke New York with names like “Central Park,” and also evoke the monumental distancing of the national mall and similar spaces in Washington D.C.


There is an eerie incongruity between the scope and scale of this development and the comparatively paltry population visible on the ground. It seems as if Songdo was built all at once with the capacity to house hundreds of thousands, and now the buildings are sitting vacant waiting for residents to arrive. We talked with some Cisco employees who live in Songdo and they described some of the impediments to attracting new residents (such as lengthy commuting time between Songdo and Seoul), while also claiming that all available real estate was already filled, and the new construction was barely keeping up with demand. I can only assume that a significant portion of the available housing is owned but not occupied, as a form of investment by international parties for example. The affective result of this situation at street-level is uncanny, as broad avenues and expansive plazas appear to hold a fraction of the capacity they were evidently designed for.


We were also given a look into the “mission control center” of Songdo. This is the nerve center, the base of operations for U-city. As you can see in the photo, the control room is dominated by screens displaying hundreds of real-time scenes transmitted by surveillance cameras. In a continuation of the eerie incongruity between the scale of the environment and the number of occupants, we were surprised that such a complex control center was manned by only two people. Dozens of chairs and computer stations were vacant, and our guide explained that the other engineers of that shift were working “in the field,” attending to the city’s infrastructure. It was also striking to see so much concern for monitoring traffic flow when most of screens displayed images of empty streets during our visit.


This incongruity, the disparity between the aims of the built environment and how the space is actually used, was a definitive aspect of my perception of Songdo. There are many cases of such disparities throughout the history of urbanization. Many times there has been a disjuncture between the administrative rationality and the “eye” of top-down planning techniques on the one hand, and the quotidian needs and desires of lived experience on the other. The conflict between abstract representations/conceptualizations of space and the vagaries of embodied use of space finds a new expression in “built from scratch” settlements like Songdo and other examples of smart city initiatives around the world. The Cisco employees we met with described each of their company’s technologies and services as “solutions” without exception. As our group traversed mostly empty streets and sidewalks, many of the innovations on display in Songdo began to seem like solutions in search of a problem. Shouldn’t urban design and policy respond to the needs of citizens rather than impose pre-packaged prescriptive techniques for their own sake? As urban development itself becomes increasingly ubiquitous on the planet, it is worthwhile to interrogate how and why certain developments are considered “smart”, and whether such approaches account for the inherently adaptive intelligence required for the navigation of everyday life.

Trump and the rhetoric of urban order

I rarely weigh in on national politics on this blog, and this post is not intended as an endorsement or a denunciation of any candidate. Although this post responds to recent remarks made by Donald Trump, I’m not interested in joining the pile-on critiquing his overall rhetorical style or campaign message, which seems overly easy and even superfluous at this point. Rather I want to focus on Trump’s comments at the first one-on-one presidential debate last week regarding “law and order” and the “stop and frisk” program. These are topics I’ve thought and written about in regards to the use of “urban disorder” rhetoric in U.S. policy and policing practices. Trump’s positioning himself as the “law and order candidate” and his appeals based on unruly “inner city” conditions recalls previous campaign rhetoric such as Nixon’s 1968 campaign (see the above video). Furthermore, his support of “stop and frisk” policing directly ties his statements to a history of U.S. urban policies based on an order/disorder dichotomy.

Discourses based on a dichotomy of order and disorder have long been applied to urban spaces. In his classic historical survey of urban settlements, The City in History (1961), Lewis Mumford traced the development from early, “organically” developed Greek cities to more structured Hellenistic cities. Mumford describes this process as a transition “from supple ‘disorder’ to regimented elegance” (p. 190). A 2016 opera titled A Marvelous Order centers on the ideological struggle between urbanist Jane Jacobs and mayor Robert Moses in 1960s New York City. This battle of wills between Jacobs and Moses is seen by many to be emblematic of a historical opposition between urban planning schemes designed to order and regiment city spaces and populations, and the disorderly and unplanned activities and interactions that have long been characteristic of city life.

Cities and citizens have been “ordered” not only through planning schemes and infrastructure, but also through public policies and discourses. One aspect of my research focuses on how the term “disorder” has been employed across various discourses and analyses of U.S. cities, and how these discourses have influenced or supported policies of urban development. Through employing the language of disorder, these discourses have functioned pathologically to conceptualize certain citizens, spaces, and practices as either harmful or beneficial.

Writers such as George Simmel, Robert Park, and Louis Wirth wrote about the turn-of-the-century American metropolis as a site of sensory overload and radical diversity. Disorder in these accounts was variously understood as criminal behavior, unregulated or unruly spaces, and perceived failures of integration and communication among different ethnic groups. Park in particular was concerned with broader problems posed by isolated ethnic enclaves and the weakening of social ties among city dwellers, as evinced in his analyses of immigrants and African Americans in U.S. cities. The sociology and criminology of the period was concerned with diagnosing and remedying the causes of disorder, and this diagnostic approach developed into the “social pathology” perspective.

In his infamous report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965) applied the social pathology perspective to theorize race relations in U.S. urban communities. Family structure was prioritized in Moynihan’s analysis, claiming that at “the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family” (p. 6). Moynihan emphasized incidences of unmarried and divorced women, “illegitimate” births, and the number of women-headed households to support his claim that “the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable” (p. 7). Throughout the report, Moynihan refers to a “tangle of pathology” in which black women and children are ensnared, leading to the dissolution of families and thus the increase of violence and disorder in urban centers.

The Moynihan report has been cited as an important influence on the domestic programs enacted under President Lyndon Johnson, initiatives collectively known as The Great Society project. These programs focused on poverty and racial injustice, and also involved urban renewal and redevelopment efforts. Johnson outlined his vision of the Great Society in his 1964 commencement address at the University of Michigan. The Great Society, Johnson said, “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” and “is a challenge constantly renewed.” Johnson placed the state of urban America at the forefront of his Great Society vision, saying “our societies will never be great until our cities are great.”

In response to the urban race riots that occurred in several U.S. cities throughout the 1960s, President Johnson commissioned a working committee called the National Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission is also known as the Kerner commission, after Otto Kerner, chair of the commission and then governor of Illinois. Johnson directed the commission members to answer three questions in relation to the riots (Kerner, 1967, p. 1): What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? In their report, the authors referred to the riots that occurred in Detroit during the summer of 1967, stating that the riots “again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear, and bewilderment to the Nation” (p. 1). One of the report’s best-known statements is that the nation “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white,” and that the recent race riots had “quickened the movement and deepened the division” (p. 1).

In the recommendations section of the Kerner report, the authors dedicate a section to the issue of housing. In addition to calling for provisions for affordable housing in cities, the authors recommend against the further building of high-density “slum” housing projects. The building of such housing projects represent further attempts to impose rational order onto what were seen as chaotic and disorderly spaces, as seen in the modernist urban planning schemes of the 20th century. This philosophy of architecture and urban design is exemplified by the work of modernist designer Le Corbusier. The architect of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project built in St. Louis in the 1950s was directly inspired by Le Corbusier’s architectural style and philosophy.

While the modernist housing aspirations embodied in the Pruitt-Igoe project ended with collapsed walls and broken windows, students of urban life in America were soon preoccupied with broken windows of another sort. The broken windows theory of urban disorder was a significant influence on urban sociology and criminology for decades, and the implications of its approach to disorder can be seen today. In an article titled “The Urban Unease” (1968), J.Q. Wilson reacted to the U.S. urban riots of the 1960s with a view of cities rooted in the tensions between order and disorder.

Wilson eventually developed these ideas of neighborhood disorder into the broken windows theory, first outlined in an article written with collaborator George Kelling (1982). The authors encapsulate the broken windows perspective by stating “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken” (p. 2, emphasis in original). As with broken windows that go unrepaired, the authors argue, “’untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls” (p. 3). Wilson and Kelling are not exclusively interested physical manifestations of disorder such as litter, graffiti, and buildings in disrepair, but present a larger argument that visible disorder (whether stemming from the built environment or from individuals inhabiting it), if left unchecked, will spread throughout a neighborhood.

Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows article proved very influential, and is credited with inspiring the implementation of policing practices implemented in cities throughout the United States. These policing programs have been referred to as “broken windows policing,” “zero tolerance policing,” and also, using Wilson and Kelling’s preferred term, “order maintenance policing”. In the 1990s, order maintenance policies based on broken windows theory were implemented by the New York City Police Department under police commissioner William Bratton and mayor Rudolph Giuliani. These policies were adopted as part of the city’s broader “Quality of Life” initiatives. During this period crime rates in the city decreased, and New York gained a reputation as one of the safest large cities in the country. In a 1998 address titled “The Next Phase of Quality of Life: Creating a More Civil Society,” mayor Giuliani praised the benefits of broken windows theory and zero tolerance policing, saying “broken windows theory works”. Describing the theory as the view that “the little things matter,” Giuliani called broken windows theory “an integral part of our law enforcement strategy”.

Bernard Harcourt has been among the most vocal and persistent critics of broken windows theory. His book Illusion of Order (2001) presents a sustained refutation of the theory’s empirical underpinnings, application in policy initiatives, and ideological implications. Harcourt calls the empirical support for the success of broken windows policing into question, and suggests that factors other than policing practices were responsible for New York City’s crime drop. Harcourt’s theoretical critique of broken windows is explicitly Foucauldian, highlighting the problems of subject creation. The broken windows approach, Harcourt suggests, “fails to pay enough attention to the ways that social meaning may construct the subject and to how our understanding of the subject fosters certain disciplinary strategies” (p. 180). More recently, the broken windows approach and zero tolerance policing have been heavily criticized in relation to the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy, and the 2014 death of Eric Garner during an encounter with NYPD officers.

Trump’s deployment of disorder discourses, and his appeals to the virtues of stop and frisk policing, recalls this history in starkly similar ways. A recent Trump campaign mailer includes a close up of Hillary Clinton’s face juxtaposed against images of urban disorder: a brick building with boarded-up windows, and a pile of detritus including splinters of wood and chunks of concrete. The reverse side bears the message: “Donald Trump will strengthen our communities and protect our families. The first step is rebuilding, revitalizing, and reigniting our cities – like yours.” In light of the epidemic violence in the historically segregated areas of Chicago (which Mr. Trump is correct to emphasize), and the recent and ongoing protests against police violence in cities such as Ferguson and across the country, these appeals should be considered within the context of the history of disorder discourses in U.S. urban policy. Much of the strain between vulnerable urban populations and police officers evident today can be seen as the legacy of policing practices instituted under the support of these discourses. With the urban unrest of the 1960s being evoked in political rhetoric and recalled in televised images of protests, we should consider carefully what is being promoted with calls to “reignite” our cities.


Communication and the City conference: report from Seoul


This past June I was in Seoul, South Korea for the Communication and the City conference. The event was held at Yonsei University and co-sponsored by the Yonsei Communication Research Institute and the Urban Communication Foundation. It was a truly international conference, with participants hailing from around the world. Speakers included academic researchers, architects, urban planners, and Seoul city officials.

Over two days presenters spoke about topics including risk factors facing urban populations, the role of storytelling and community media in neighborhood life, and the rise of the Asian megacity. I was particularly interested to learn more about the history of Seoul, and recent developments in its ongoing urbanization. This was my first visit to the South Korean capital, and I was overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the sprawling metropolis.


The recent history of Seoul’s development includes distinct periods of rapid modernization. One of these periods involved the demolition of traditional Korean homesteads and the displacement of residents from entire districts (this happened under the administration of a leader nicknamed “Mayor Bulldozer” by the locals). A second period is characterized by sustainability concerns, and is marked by the 1997 IMF economic crisis. In the wake of the economic crisis’ ramifications, Seoul continued to modernize and developed some of the most advanced transportation infrastructure in the world. The drive toward modernization and investment in dedicated “economic zones” has resulted in networked urban districts like Songdo City, sometimes called the first full fledged smart city (or “u-city,” with “u” designating ubiquitous computing infrastructure). In future posts I will share my thoughts and photos from my visit to Songdo, and some more thoughts on Seoul.


Columbus wins DOT Smart City Challenge

The Department of Transportation has selected Columbus, Ohio as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. The winning city will receive a $50 million grant to fund the development and implementation of networked and “smart” transportation infrastructure. From the Columbus Dispatch:

Columbus’ application includes several other transportation innovations, including an autonomous vehicle test fleet at Easton Town Center that would pick up passengers at the COTA terminal and deliver them nearer to jobs at the shopping center.

Columbus also wants to increase electric vehicle access in the city and improve communication between vehicles and infrastructure, which could help reduce crashes.

A key point in the city’s bid was how the money could be used to improve Columbus’ infant mortality rate. Officials have said that improving transportation options in poor neighborhoods could better connect new and expectant mothers to health care services.

As a Pittsburgher who has been following the contest for several months, I was very disappointed that Pittsburgh did not win. Not only would it have been a welcome victory for the city and local industry, but it would have been perfect for my dissertation project.

I was genuinely impressed and even moved by Pittsburgh’s video component of their proposal, which presented a people-first approach that acknowledged past planning mistakes and continuing concerns about disparities among residents. You can watch the video below:

You can watch the other finalists’ videos and read the full proposals at Network World.

A colleague who watched each city’s video presentation agreed with me that Columbus’ video pitch was the weakest, though he cautioned that the videos are ultimately irrelevant in relation to the process of selecting the winning city.

The DOT has pledged to help the other finalist cities implement their proposed transportation initiatives, and Pittsburgh leaders have also declared their intent to follow through with their Smart PGH plan.