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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game’s success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people’s perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.
The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend’s Game Boy in the late 90s, I’ve never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops. We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.
Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game’s widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people’s homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games “lures”) to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that “Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man“:
I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.
Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go “is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities“. Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking “a global wave of urban exploration“. Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has “redrawn the map of what people find important about the world“. City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed “Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur“.
Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: “No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur“. At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to “resist Pokémon Go“:
Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.
Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists:
On the one hand, that’s way cool – suddenly, the old pub near your house is inhabited by monsters.
On the other, there’s something faintly distasteful about the recuperation of specific real histories into a billion-dollar corporate mythology. Nearly 150 people lost their lives when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, entirely needless deaths caused by the atrocious working conditions of the garment trade. The tragedy became a rallying point for the trade union movement, the name of the factory, a shorthand reference to employers’ greed.
Now, though, it’s three free Pokeballs.
We might also say, then, that, even as the game leads players to embrace the derive, it also offers a remarkable demonstration of the phenomenon that Debord critiqued.
Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on “the tragedy of Pokémon Go“:
We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.
Pokémon Go’s popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Game,” in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player’s vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it’s similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game’s zombie-fying effects; we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that everyone’s eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.
My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go’s proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there’s something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go’s popularity. “Look,” my wife would say, “I bet they’re playing, too.” After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, “Are you playing Pokémon Go?” Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we’ve just met, discussing play strategies, sharing Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.
One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon’s campuses and a hotbed of Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it’s something; there’s an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.
Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game’s popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.