lunes, 25 de febrero de 2013

Decoding how cities work: street level observations

The promise of gathering the whole spectrum of information traces of city life and managing this amount of data dominates the new utopian views. This pursuit for a complete understanding of what happens in cities takes the form of a seductive approach to urban design and urban governance, and tries to take advantage of ubiquitous computing and situated technologies. Thus, the intersection of code and space emerges as a deterministic paradigm.

A new science of cities, as a sum up of quantitative predictions based on big data, self-called smart technologies and internet of things, ensures that everything will become predictable and every spot of the city will be scrutinized under a complex and multi-layered pattern of sensors and displays of any kind. To some extent, turning scientific knowledge into useful knowledge for understanding cities at macro and micro level seems to be a reasonable and plausible ambition. Geoffrey West, for example, gained attention thanks to one of those TED talks that inexplicably received enormous attention for its simplicity, insists in the predictability of certain factors that may be common to any urban reality in terms of population growth, mobility and crime using certain physical and natural sciences laws.
Image by Jeffrey Beaumont posted on
Some months ago I sketched some daily life scenes in which technology is not the only answer to different spontaneous behaviours and action that happen in cities every day. It seems simplistic and naive somehow, but it is important to remark this to have a wide vision of how cities work and how we as urbanites enjoy the cities we live in. In this context, Urban Code (published by GTA Verlag and MIT Press), a compilation of lessons for understanding the city, by Anne Mikoleit and Moritz Pürckhauer, is a great bunch of observations on how everyday life is organised in a neighbourhood (read the complete list here). The Manhattan neighbourhood of SoHo is used by the actors to conduct an observation survey based on daily life scenes.

How and why people use public spaces, gather in intersections, make use of public transport, meet friends, look for the sun or organise in common,...hide a large amount of blind code for the most optimistic ICT-driven smart city visions. In fact, Urban Code is nothing more but an updated exploration in a certain neighbourhood based on some of the “usual suspects” of any bibliography exploring city life: A pattern language, by Christopher Alexander, The death and life of great American cities, by Jane Jacobs, The image of the city, by Kevin Lynch or The social life of small urban spaces, by William H. Whyte. And, even though authors claim that these observations hold true for any cityscape, some of them are particular consequences of the specificity of this neighbourhood.

Anyhow, most of them are clearly an invitation to broaden some predominant views on cities and avoid the Sisyphus condemnation of expecting a predictability level that will never happen. Great tools are emerging to ease understanding what happens in a city and can be used for any purpose, from energy demand patterns to traffic flows, from understanding the pulse and sentiment of citizens to personalizing public services delivery. But there is still a wide range of not digitized information that is of crucial value and is part of a hidden code, the intelligence on the streets.

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2 comentarios :

  1. Great blog! You've hit on exactly what I do - I gather that "micro-level" or "on-the-ground" observational data and quantify it to measure walkability. Essentially, I'm encapsulating the "touch, see and feel" of walkability into an overall walkability index, called State of Place, that contains ten sub-indices that measure density, proximity to non-residential locations, connectivity, form, pedestrian/bike amenities, traffic safety, crime safety, aesthetics, parks/public spaces, and physical activity facilities. So by knowing your State of Place score, a community knows exactly wehre they excel and what they need to do to improve their score. Then, since each of those sub-indices is tied to a different predicted return on investment, cities, developers, and investors can use State of Place to inform their decisions regarding the best interventions, policies, and investments that will maximize the bang for their buck.
    Would love to chat more! stateofplaceorg @ twitter

  2. Thanks for your words, Mariela. I took a look to your approach on State of Place and it looks like a fantastic tool to assess quality of place and making it meaningful in daily life.


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