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.
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.
On September 24th and 25th, I was on hand for the Urban Media Studies conference, hosted at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. The conference was organized by members of the ECREA temporary working group on media and the city. It was a thoroughly international event, with participants from across Europe and the United States, as well as Russia, Japan, and Brazil. It was also interdisciplinary, with various academic fields represented by scholars from communication, sociology, geography, and other faculties. In addition to academics, the participants also included artists, policy makers, and urban planners.
A key concept that I noticed appearing in several presentations is that of assemblages. Presenters spoke of ecologies and assemblages for staging mobilities, sites such as airports as assemblages of digital interfaces, and cities as communicative figurations involving constellations of actors and practices.
Another recurring theme was visibility. Many participants highlighted the often imperceptible functioning of digital technologies. While they may not rely on the visible infrastructure of previous technology, these media regulate bodies in material ways, often establishing and enforcing otherwise unmarked borders. In his keynote address on staging mobilities, Ole Jensen stated that technologies must become visible to the community in order for them to realize them as a field for action.
A recurring question, still unresolved, concerned the distinction between urban and rural. If this is a conference on urban media studies, could there be a rural media studies? With all the discussion of planetary urbanization, is the distinction between urban and rural still meaningful? Participants were divided on this issue. Some suggested that through the networking of the globe via media and ICTs, the “urban” has become the predominating way of life across the planet. Others argued that rural areas are very much an extant reality and way of life, and the distinction between urban and rural people and places is still very clear.
The conference program included an optional excursion to tour some of the housing developments built during Croatia’s socialist period. I was impressed with beauty of central and historic Zagreb, so this excursion provided a fascinating view of parts of the city not normally visited by tourists (nor, as I learned, by locals).
Our tour went not only around the socialist housing blocks, but also to the top of one. Despite the hazy and overcast weather, we had a spectacular view of Zagreb, the surrounding area, and into Slovenia. It was a wonderful addition to the program, and a personal conference highlight.
- Writing for Forbes, Rich Karlgaard reports on the smart-city champions, i.e. the countries and companies poised to benefit from the smart city boom:
I see three categories of winners. The first will be suppliers of digital technology, from high-speed telecom, cloud services and digital security to apps, for example, like Uber’s and Airbnb’s that use physical resources with greater efficiency. But these can get you only so far.
The second category will be traditional industry reborn. The trick will be to find breakthroughs in materials, construction and transportation–updates to the blood-and-sweat stuff that built the great cities of the 20th century. Will the winners be known names, such as GE, Mitsubishi, Tata and Samsung, or new players?
A third category will be the smart cities themselves. Leaders will likely create services that can be used to teach other cities, so their expertise will have value beyond the benefits enjoyed inside the cities. Smart cities will enjoy premium brands in a tough global economy, and they will attract talent. A great example is Singapore.
- Focusing on India’s smart cities initiative, Arindham Guha outlines “three broad categories of investments in infrastructure and technology, all of which are required for delivering ‘smart’ urban services“:
The first category is what we can call basic infrastructure—water or sewerage pipelines would fall under this group. Unlike developed countries, most Indian cities have significant shortages in this area.
[The] second category of technology investments in a typical smart city, which we can broadly call network level infrastructure. These are essentially a set of devices or sensors installed at specific points in the city-wide network which are used to monitor parameters related to service delivery.
Integrating information and communication technology (ICT) solutions constitute the third and final component of the smart city technology architecture. These solutions can be of two types. One set of ICT solutions usually help the city administration manage their internal functions like finance and accounting, human resources etc. The other set of ICT solutions are usually used to analyse data collected through network level sensors to generate potential decision options for the city administration to provide seamless and efficient urban services.
- CNBC contributor Nyshka Chandran asks, “Are India’s smart cities too ambitious?“:
“Smart city” remains loosely-defined in India and around the world, but many say the adoption of technology is a crucial element. Ambitious initiatives to build “smarter” cities include the use of data and digital infrastructure to manage energy and water usage to the creation of intelligent transport networks, according to a Brookings report earlier this year.
However, India will likely focus on fixing the lack of basic amenities and infrastructure such as housing, water supply, sanitation, and electricity in existing urban regions.
- Darren Pauli at the Register warns “your city’s not smart if it’s vulnerable“:
“Real world hacker” Cesar Cerrudo has blasted vendors, saying they’re stopping security researchers from testing smart city systems, and as a result they’re being sold with dangerous unchecked vulnerabilities.
The warning will be detailed at RSA San Francisco this week, and comes a year after the IOActive chief technology officer found some 200,000 vulnerable traffic control sensors active in cities like Washington DC, London, and Melbourne.
Vendors don’t want their kit tested, Cerrudo said, although there are now 25 major cities across the world taking the lead in deployment, such as New York, Berlin, and Sydney.
- AlterNet’s Allegra Kirkland considers the “troubling social and political consequences” posed by smart cities:
Smart cities are loosely defined as urban centers that rely on digital technology to enhance efficiency and reduce resource consumption. This happens by means of ubiquitous wireless broadband, citywide networks of computerized sensors that measure human activities (from traffic to electricity use), and mass data collection that analyzes these patters. Many American cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, already make use of smart technologies. But far more radical advances are happening overseas. Masda in Abu Dhabi, and Songdo, in South Korea, will be the first fully functioning smart cities, in which everything from security to electricity to parking is monitored by sensors and controlled by a central city “brain”.
The surveillance implications of these sorts of mass data-generating civic projects are unnerving, to say the least. Urban designer and author Adam Greenfield wrote on his blog Speedbird that this centralized governing model “disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” To further complicate matters, the vast majority of smart-city technology is designed by IT-systems giants like IBM and Siemens. In places like Songdo, which was the brainchild of Cisco Systems, corporate entities become responsible for designing and maintaining the basic functions of urban life.
- In an article for the Guardian, Alex Andreou considers the broader implications of anti-homeless spikes and other forms of defensive architecture in urban spaces:
From ubiquitous protrusions on window ledges to bus-shelter seats that pivot forward, from water sprinklers and loud muzak to hard tubular rests, from metal park benches with solid dividers to forests of pointed cement bollards under bridges, urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies.
We see these measures all the time within our urban environments, whether in London or Tokyo, but we fail to process their true intent. I hardly noticed them before I became homeless in 2009. An economic crisis, a death in the family, a sudden breakup and an even more sudden breakdown were all it took to go from a six-figure income to sleeping rough in the space of a year. It was only then that I started scanning my surroundings with the distinct purpose of finding shelter and the city’s barbed cruelty became clear.
Defensive architecture acts as the airplane curtain that separates economy from business and business from first class, protecting those further forward from the envious eyes of those behind. It keeps poverty unseen and sanitises our shopping centres, concealing any guilt for over-consuming. It speaks volumes about our collective attitude to poverty in general and homelessness in particular. It is the aggregated, concrete, spiked expression of a lack of generosity of spirit.
Ironically, it doesn’t even achieve its basic goal of making us feel safer. There is no way of locking others out that doesn’t also lock us in. The narrower the arrow-slit, the larger outside dangers appear. Making our urban environment hostile breeds hardness and isolation. It makes life a little uglier for all of us.
- Hannah Butler at Non Profit Quarterly reacted to Andreou’s article with additional thoughts on “the fierce hostility of the urban landscape“:
Creating urban spaces that reject human interactions affect us all. Not only do they prevent the homeless taking refuge; neither can the young mother find shelter from the rain or the elderly man a space to rest. It creates a physical manifestation of a hostility that we could all stand to be without, rather than encourage. These problems are not limited to New York City or to London, but are in fact a stubborn part of the architecture of modern city life, whether indented or accidental. However, they aren’t intractable.
- In a post on Medium, Justin Schumacher writes about the balance between security and liberty in relation to architecture:
Early on, the British did much as we have done since 9/11, installing barriers and bollards anywhere they might save some lives. But as the years passed, their approach became much more nuanced as they realized that over-securitizing public spaces drives away the public, which increases crime. This appears to happen in part because security features lead people to believe that crime is commonplace and increasing even if it is rare and decreasing, and in part because simply seeing security features causes anxiety and discomfort.
Placemaking & Tactical Urbanism
- Referring to it as a “rhetorical gimmick,” James Russell says “enough of bogus ‘placemaking‘”:
Unfortunately, Placemaking, as promulgated by its chief advocate, the nonprofit Projects for Public Spaces, is largely bogus, even though PPS rather presumptuously claims it “has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.” After you hack through thickets of slogans and vagaries, Placemaking seems to comprise a community-driven process for designing public spaces (streets, sidewalks, plazas, squares, campuses, parks, and so on) that are mixed use, host a variety of activities for diverse audiences, and are well-connected to the larger city or town. All this has been mom & pop, apple-pie stuff in urban planning circles for decades, derived from the valuable 1960s work of the urbanist and author Jane Jacobs and the urban planner William H. “Holly” Whyte. The same ideas energized the 1990s New Urbanism that gave us Neo-historical neighborhoods, a few of them actually good.
Sadly, Placemaking could only gain currency because our building and development processes create so little that is inviting and memorable. America’s default is to assemble standardized real-estate products along roads engineered for auto throughput, and call it a day. Placelessness is so ubiquitous and such second nature that it is actually hard to think about what it takes to make a building or streetscape that’s appealing, that feels as if it belongs.
What are the lessons here? Making great places is a more organic and less mechanical process than PPS makes it out to be. Yes, the public must be involved, and yes some places should be active social mixing bowls. But some places—especially extraordinary natural features—should be left alone. In others, we should recognize that what is unique is sometimes strange (like Gasworks’ rusting ruins). Recall that the rail line that hosts the High Line Park escaped demolition only because two intrepid people cared.
- Annah MacKenzie of the Project for Public Spaces recently reiterated the organization’s stance on space vs place:
Let’s start with Public Space. Outlining the role and value of public space has long been a subject of academic, political, and professional debate. At the most basic level public space can be defined as publicly owned land that, in theory, is open and accessible to all members of a given community—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, or socio-economic level.
Places, on the other hand, are environments in which people have invested meaning over time. A place has its own history—a unique cultural and social identity that is defined by the way it is used and the people who use it. It is not necessarily through public space, then, but through the creation of places that the physical, social, environmental, and economic health of urban and rural communities can be nurtured.
- Writing at The City Fix, Alex Rogala describes how “tactical urbanism is shaping cities for people, by people“:
As many people increasingly rely on data-driven apps and platforms like Google Maps to navigate their cities, some skeptics have worried that our streets are losing their traditional element of chance, surprise, and mystery. Kopfkino (roughly, “head theater” in German) is a project to revitalize those aspects of the urban experience. Using a shopping cart as their base, a group of friends in Istanbul built a portable projector that casts users’ faces onto building facades when they peer into a laptop camera. Kopfkino invites the curious passerby to pause from his or her regular routine and discover a new experience in a familiar place.
DIY projects in public spaces like Kopfkino are popping up all over Turkey. However, unlike some other examples of tactical urbanism, Kopfkino likely wasn’t intended to be replicable or scalable. The point, however, is to challenge what it means to encounter other people in public space, and to revisit the idea that every city offers an individual and unique experience.
- Tactical urbanism is the subject of a current MoMA exhibition entitled Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities. In an essay posted at the MoMA website, Neil Brenner asks, “is ‘tactical urbanism’ an alternative to neoliberal urbanism?“:
Especially in light of the stridently anti-planning rhetoric that pervades many tactical urban interventions and their tendency to privilege informal, incremental, and ad hoc mobilizations over larger-scale, longer-term, publicly financed reform programs, it seems reasonable to ask in what ways they do, in actuality, engender any serious friction against the neoliberal order, much less subvert it. In some cases, tactical urbanisms appear more likely to bolster neoliberal urbanisms by temporarily alleviating (or perhaps merely displacing) some of their disruptive social and spatial effects, but without interrupting the basic rule-regimes associated with market-oriented, growth-first urban development, and without challenging the foundational mistrust of governmental institutions that underpins the neoliberal project. The relation between tactical and neoliberal forms of urbanism is thus considerably more complex, contentious, and confusing than is generally acknowledged in the contributions to the debate on Uneven Growth. As illustrated in the list below, it cannot be simply assumed that because of their operational logics or normative-political orientations, tactical interventions will, in fact, counteract neoliberal urbanism. No less than five specific types of relation between these projects can be readily imagined, only two of which (1 and 5 in the list) might involve a challenge to market-fundamentalist urban policy. There are at least three highly plausible scenarios in which tactical urbanism will have either negligible or actively beneficial impacts upon a neoliberalized urban rule-regime.
- David Crouch reports in the Guardian that Denmark wants to rebrand part of Sweden as “Greater Copenhagen”:
A metropolis needs 4 – 5 million people to be “somebody” on the world stage, Tryding admits, and Copenhagen is the only city in the region whose name has international recognition. Many southern Swedes already treat Copenhagen as their cultural capital, he says, with all the attractions of a big city that is much more accessible than Stockholm. “At least we have the ‘greater’ part of Greater Copenhagen,” he consoles himself. “Without us they are only Copenhagen.”
Sweden’s main business newspaper, Dagens Industri, recently came out in support of the rebranding, noting southern Sweden’s economic weakness and declaring that Copenhagen could become “Skåne’s bridge to the world”. But it also struck a note of caution about the potential loss of regional identity.
- Stateside, Alex Schieferdecker at Urbanophile considers whether Minneapolis-St. Paul can rebrand itself as “the capital of the north”:
It’s not clear that the Twin Cities and our hinterland are struggling because of our attachment to the boring Midwest and our reputation as the American manifestation of Hoth. […] Of course, the problem here is that we’re dealing with a counterfactual. If Minneapolis-Saint Paul had a stronger identity, would we see the results in a better economy?
But in another sense, it would be a missed opportunity to think of North as simply a marketing campaign. North could (should) be as much about placemaking as place branding. This may be a chance to set the course of the region in a deliberate way. The recent media coverage illustrates these dual objectives, because both Brinkley and Martucci capture important parts of what North is about. The aim is to reinvent the image of our cities and our region—and reinvent the cities and the region themselves.
- Minneapolis resident Jay Walljasper writes at the Project for Public Spaces about how to keep cold weather cities cool:
That’s a problem in an increasingly globalized economy and mobile society when investment, jobs, and young people have more opportunities than ever to roam the world. It’s tough for towns to thrive if people everywhere else think they’re frozen, lonesome tundras where everyone hibernates 3-5 months a year.
And this problem is becoming more acute as the Millennial Generation begins to take over from the Baby Boomers, who are retiring in droves. The Millennials are the first generation that reports they will choose a good place over a good job.
The Danish architect Jan Gehl, a worldwide authority on how to enliven cities by building great public spaces, notes, “Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.”
- Mike Isaac in the New York Times recently reported on tech startup Nextdoor, a social network designed to foster community among neighbors:
Nextdoor has slowly built a network of more than 53,000 microcommunities across the United States, all based on local neighborhood boundaries. Nextdoor restricts communication to only those people who live close to one another; users are required to verify their identity and home address upon signing up.
Consider Nextdoor a modern, more attractive version of a community email list service or Yahoo Groups, the popular message board. Users can post neighborhood news, offer items for sale, ask for help finding lost pets or organize a block party.
Nextdoor also works with about 650 local government agencies that can send out citywide alerts on things like utility shutdowns in specific areas, crime alerts or emergency-preparedness tips.
- Dale Mackey and the Daily Yonder writes about a Vermont-based social media platform that helps residents communicate with neighbors:
Front Porch Forum, a hyper-local social-media platform, is operating in 200 towns in Vermont, says founder Michael Wood-Lewis of Burlington. About a third of the residents in each of these communities are using the system, he said.
The forum serves as a place for people to share information, plan neighborhood gatherings, promote local businesses and connect with their neighbors. But Wood-Lewis says there’s another benefit.
“There’s a somewhat hidden effect that turns out to be the most powerful: over time, people start to feel different about their community. They start to feel more connected to their neighborhoods and in the loop about what’s going on.”
- The Art & Cartography blog details the Primark Berlin Projection Mapping project:
Dalziel + Pow have moved the play of light onto a physical map where they experiment with different narratives using the terrain of Berlin to abstract and segment their sense of movement. I like the idea that with this being an indoor permanent installation the growth and development of the narratives can evolve and change from the projection mapping unlike many projection mapping spectacles that are single events. It is exciting from a data visualisation point of view to see how they could experiment with this, ‘expect to see dynamic data and live online feeds added in the near future.’ (Dalziel and Pow, 2015).
Dynamic data could be live narratives from geotextual tweets, visual iconography of weather, real time data of subway, air or live visuals with imagery of scenery, architecture that are geotagged within the framed boundaries of the physical map then abstracting into their segments in a realtime collaborative cartophoto-montage.
- At Thinking City, Charles Critchell presents personal experiences with the London tube map:
To think that such a great city as London can be reduced to lines, points and colours is disconcerting, though look a little harder and you soon realise that for many Londoners this is London. Harry Beck, the Tube map’s architect, immortalised an icon below ground to rival those above, whilst the tube would go on to shape the suburbs that define the city as the vast, sprawling entity standing today.
I soon realised that Beck’s map was not only a tool which would enable me to navigate my way around the city, but a gateway to what could turn out to be some interesting experiences, a bit of fun, and who knew what else? Here are a few of those journeys.
- Brittni Brown at The City Fix writes about the power of maps for safer urban mobility:
Constantly evolving technologies like geographic information systems (GIS) are enabling both city planners and law enforcement agencies to better protect citizens. GIS is a powerful data collection and mapping program that allows users to visually represent and analyze detailed information. It has a wide range of applications, and has often been used to map crime in efforts to help law enforcement effectively utilize limited resources.
By combining different datasets into layers of map data, it is possible to overlay various kinds of information and reach surprising conclusions. For instance, by adding incident data from police records, it is possible to determine where and when certain types of crimes are occurring most frequently, and to respond accordingly. Doing so helps to make public transport both more efficient and safe.
- I recently discovered the excellent Maps Mania blog, a rich resource for cartogrophiles and anyone interested in innovative mapping for data or creative expression. To offer just one example: last week they covered the 71 Square Miles map that represents Brooklyn through found trash:
Artist Jennifer Maravillas has been wandering around Brooklyn collecting trash from every neighborhood block. The result of all this litter-picking is a map of the borough made from all of the collected rubbish, called 71 Square Miles.
The finished 10 x 10 foot trash map of Brooklyn is on display at BRIC Arts until September 6th. However, if you can’t make it to BRIC Arts, you can still explore the artwork on this Mapbox map. You can even search the map by address, so if you live in Brooklyn you can zoom in on the trash that was found nearest your home.
- You can view the 71 Square Miles map here.
- In Urban Media Ecology news, several recent studies reported correlations between characteristics of the built environment and human health. A study from the University of Kansas (in my birthplace of Lawrence) found that “neighborhoods that motivate walking can stave off cognitive decline in older adults“:
The researcher judged walkability using geographic information systems — essentially maps that measure and analyze spatial data.
“GIS data can tell us about roads, sidewalks, elevation, terrain, distances between locations and a variety of other pieces of information,” Watts said. “We then use a process called Space Syntax to measure these features, including the number of intersections, distances between places or connections between a person’s home and other possible destinations they might walk to. We’re also interested in how complicated a route is to get from one place to another. For example, is it a straight line from point A to point B, or does it require a lot of turns to get there?”
Watts said easy-to-walk communities resulted in better outcomes both for physical health—such as lower body mass and blood pressure—and cognition (such as better memory) in the 25 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment she tracked. She believes that older adults, health care professionals, caregivers, architects and urban planners could benefit from the findings.
- Another research paper from researchers at multiple institutions “suggests that street design may have a larger impact on public health than previously thought“:
By studying 24 California cities with an array of street design characteristics and their associated health data, the authors find that living in cities with high intersection density—a measure of compactness—significantly reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. A full-grid street pattern also is a factor in lower risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as compared with full treelike patterns.
- At CityLab, Richard Florida posted a roundup of recent research studies on the health benefits afforded by walkable communities:
If walkability has long been an “ideal,” a recent slew of studies provide increasingly compelling evidence of the positive effects of walkable neighborhoods on everything from housing values to crime and health, to creativity and more democratic cities.
Walkability is no longer just an ideal. The evidence from a growing body of research shows that walkable neighborhoods not only raise housing prices but reduce crime, improve health, spur creativity, and encourage more civic engagement in our communities.
- Another CityLab article by Emily Von Hoffman looked at what architecture is doing to your brain:
I spoke with Dr. Julio Bermudez, the lead of a new study that uses fMRI to capture the effects of architecture on the brain. His team operates with the goal of using the scientific method to transform something opaque—the qualitative “phenomenologies of our built environment”—into neuroscientific observations that architects and city planners can deliberately design for. Bermudez and his team’s research question focuses on buildings and sites designed to elicit contemplation: They theorize that the presence of “contemplative architecture” in one’s environment may over time produce the same health benefits as traditional “internally induced” meditation, except with much less effort by the individual.
- As part of a directed study this semester, I’ve been studying the role of communication infrastructure in urban design, and particularly the parallel developments of mass media and the modern metropolis. Urban explorer Bradley Garrett recently wrote a piece for The Guardian about the massive infrastructure of underground London, including not just tube stations but communication infrastructure including Britain’s deepest telephone exchange:
The urban exploration crew I had worked with, the London Consolidation Crew or LCC, had long graduated from ruins and skyscrapers – it was the city in the city they were after, the secrets buried deep underground where the line between construction site and ruin is very thin indeed. The Kingsway Telephone Exchange was the crème de la crème, more coveted even than abandoned Tube stations or possibly even the forgotten Post Office railway we accessed in 2011.
Kingsway was originally built as a second world war air-raid shelter under Chancery Lane. These deep level shelters were, at one time, connected to the Tube and citizens would have undoubtedly taken refuge here during Luftwaffe bombing runs. In 1949 the tunnels were sold to the General Post Office where they became the termination for the first submarine transatlantic phone cable – the £120m TAT1 project. The system, meant to protect the vital connective tissue of the city in the event of terror-from-the-air (including nuclear attack), stretched for miles. It only had three surface entrances and contained a bar for workers on their off-hours, rumoured to be the deepest in the UK at 60m below the street. Although the government employed a host of people to maintain the tunnels, Kingsway was a spatial secret of state – part a trio of the most secure and sensitive telephone exchanges in Britain, along with the Anchor Exchange in Birmingham and the Guardian Exchange in Manchester.
- These photos of subterranean communication infrastructure contrast with images of above ground cables covering the urban landscape, as featured in this io9 post, “photos from the days when thousands of cables crowded the skies“:
Before most cables ran underground, all electrical, telephone and telegraph wires were suspended from high poles, creating strange and crowded streetscapes. Here are some typical views of late-19th century Boston, New York, Stockholm, and other wire-filled cities.
- Joseph Stromberg at Vox recently wrote about the “forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of ‘jaywalking‘”:
Auto campaigners lobbied police to publicly shame transgressors by whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk — instead of quietly reprimanding or fining them. They staged safety campaigns in which actors dressed in 19th century garb, or as clowns, were hired to cross the street illegally, signifying that the practice was outdated and foolish. In a 1924 New York safety campaign, a clown was marched in front of a slow-moving Model T and rammed repeatedly.
This strategy also explains the name that was given to crossing illegally on foot: jaywalking. During this era, the word “jay” meant something like “rube” or “hick” — a person from the sticks, who didn’t know how to behave in a city. So pro-auto groups promoted use of the word “jay walker” as someone who didn’t know how to walk in a city, threatening public safety.
- William Eric Rinehart at Sweet Talk asks: Did a change in rhetoric give rise to cities?
Between the mega-village and the cities that came later lies the formation of the state. Ultimately, this is the world of stratification buttressed through religion. With it came the creation of differing social groups and distinctions based upon rank or property. Yet, the acceptance of social specialization required a new view of the world, a new rhetoric in the McCloskeyian sense. And once that jump was made, benefits followed. Clustered people allowed for more trade and specialization of work, leading to more wealth, prestige and better equipped armies. While still a brutal world, cities had the potential for stability, but it came at the expense of radical equality.
- Matt Stroud at The Verge recently wrote about the dream and the myth of the paperless city in Chicago:
But you can’t just flip a switch to reverse paper systems in place for hundreds of years, can you? Adobe first released its Portable Document Format nearly 20 years ago, yet many private companies, nonprofit organizations, libraries, law firms, courts — and yes, major city governments such as Chicago’s — have yet to embrace a world reliant on PDFs and devoid of paper records. Mayor Emanuel has agreed to change that. Or at least to try. In 2011, he announced plans to spend $20 million on efficiency improvements including changes to make the city less reliant on paper.
Will Mayor Rahm Emanuel change the way governments deal with paper? Or is the road toward a “completely paperless” government a long way off?
- At URBACT, Stefan Höffken and Chris Haller consider urban planning and the multi-dimensional communication era:
“Because urban planning has always been based on the gathering and exchange of information and – as a democratic process – on communication between different stakeholders, a change in the method of communication has a significant impact on decision-making throughout the process”
The quote at the beginning of this post was taken out of a paper by Stefan Höffken and Chris Haller, who set out to research how new medias were used for urban planning matters. They are refering to geographer Manuel Castells’ and Clay Shirky‘s work to describe the change from uni-dimentional communication towards a many-to-many exchange sphere that, so Shirky, is on the verge of becoming ubiquitous. Höffken and Haller provide interesting insights in how different tools can serve certain goals and complement each-other by surveying urban projects and institutions or civil society mobilizations on urban matters as different as Tulsa municipality and the Mediaspree campaign in Berlin.
- Emily Badger at the Washington Post reports that Uber is offering cities an olive branch in the form of their customers’ trip data:
The company plans to partner first with Boston, sharing quarterly anonymized trip-level data with the city in a model that Uber says will become its national data-sharing policy. The data will include date, time, distance traveled and origin and destination locations for individual trips, identified only by zip code tabulation area to preserve privacy. Once held by cities, this information will be open to records requests, meaning that the public (and researchers) will have access to it, too.
Such data could help cities keep tabs on Uber and, for example, which neighborhoods the company is serving. Uber says, though, that it’s primarily offering the data so that cities can better understand themselves.
- Rosie Cima at priceonomics recently wrote about a designer’s war on misleading parking signs:
Sylianteng first tried to redesign parking signs when she was living in LA and applying to grad school, in a project she called “To Park or Not to Park.” She reduced the usual jumble of signs and regulations to a single, holistic panel, which looked a lot like a Google Calendar – it was a grid of days of the week, broken into hours. The blocks of time when a parking spot was valid she shaded green, the blocks of time it was invalid she shaded red. She also simplified the rules she illustrated, working off the principle that people would much rather adhere to an overly restrictive regulation than get a parking ticket.
Her prototypes provoked a lot of commentary, discussion, and praise. She used this feedback to improve her designs. She printed out new prototypes, and taped those up. The feedback validated some of her central assumptions, among them: (1) a lot of current parking signs were very confusing, and (2) people didn’t care why they could or couldn’t park somewhere, they just didn’t want to be ticketed.
- At Tropics of Meta, South El Monte Arts Posse posted about mapping community narratives in El Monte and South El Monte:
The writing of social history needs to keep in mind the motivations and individual agency of the people participating in events as they happen. In interview after interview, people were aware of the larger structural forces, and yet made choices and actions in contradiction to expectations. Again and again we spoke with people who beat the odds, who pushed back against racism, and took it upon themselves to change circumstances and in many cases succeeded.
- Arwa Mahdawi at The Guardian reports on neighborhood rebranding in London:
Similar semantic shifts are being attempted, with varying degrees of success, throughout the rest of London. Intrepid developers have discovered “Tyburnia”, an undervalued stretch of real estate between Paddington Station and Hyde Park. Meanwhile, the “Knowledge Quarter” is an attempt to rid King’s Cross of its association with prostitution by emphasising the new preponderance of cerebral institutions there. You could call it “brain-washing”. The Knowledge Quarter, incidentally, is one of 21 “Quarters” in London; there are also a dozen or so new “Villages”. Neighbourhood rebranding is often the linguistic leg of gentrification and, as such, follows a predictable pattern: “Villages” assert their legitimacy by emphasising community, while “Quarters” lend a gravitas to whatever noun they follow. Both have a cleansing effect on the associations that came before them.
- At NextCity, Nathan C. Martin considers why art, not Google, could revolutionize WiFi:
Remember a few years ago when television went digital and everyone had to get adapters or new TV sets? When that happened, what once were television channels became simply channels, a bulk of empty bandwidth that could host any variety of transmission. The Federal Communications Commission named it Super WiFi. The policies to regulate it are yet to be written, and a chorus is imploring the FCC to leave a large part of the spectrum open, or “unlicensed,” instead of auctioning it off. Those advocates tend to refer to the spectrum in spatial terms — a group of Stanford University economists likened the spectrum to a public park, a resource everyone should have access to. Mary Ellen Carroll speaks of it similarly. “It’s like public land,” she says. “It’s like Yosemite.”
- Finally, Emanuel Maiberg at Motherboard looks at homelessness in SimCity, and whether it is a bug or feature:
SimCity’s homeless people are represented as yellow, two-dimensional, ungendered figures with bags in tow. Their presence makes SimCity residents unhappy, and reduces land value. Like many other players, Bittanti discovered the online discussions when he was searching for a way to deal with them.
At first, players wondered if they were having so much problems with the homeless in their cities because of a bug in the game. Like many of 2014’s big-budget games that launched in broken or barely-functional states, SimCity originally would only work if players connected to EA’s servers, which repeatedly crashed under the load of players. It seemed possible that the homeless problem in SimCity was simply a mistake.
“Has anyone figured out a easy way to handle the homeless ruining those beautiful parks you spend so much money on?” asks one player on EA’s site. “Create jobs, either through zoning or upgrading road density near industry, that helped me a lot,” another player suggests.