#designing cities 5: communicating in cities

Update: Why we should design smart cities for getting lost

The syllabus states week 5 is about cities in the information age, so I was expecting lots on smart cities. This is touched on, but it turns out it’s rather more about communication in cities, described as a “largely invisible set of issues”, which is just fine by me:

The ability to communicate with others is becoming the central purpose of cities as they become more and more centered on service economies. It determines where people wish to live, their travel patterns, the needs for electronic networks and the need for public places.  We explore here what designers can do to create modern information centered places.

The first two lectures looked at managing energy consumption (the no energy city is not possible, hello CPH) and intelligent cities (top down vs bottom up/crowd), focusing on the electronic networks that are an essential infrastructure of cities. The final lecture explored the desire by many people, in particular the young, to live in places that are near their work, shopping and recreation, somewhat at odds with cities founded on the modernist idea of separating the functions of cities. People want to live and work and be in contact with other people within very short distances. (Is this really new?)

The real corker though was lecture 3, on spatial patterns that promote personal communication. As well as allowing people to live at a distance from each other, new electronic networks have also promoted face-to-face communication. The public and private spaces in cities provide the settings for people to meet, see others and interact.

What makes for good cities in terms of promoting spatial contact? Are some cities better than others? And are some designs for cities better than others in terms of putting people in contact with each other?

The suggested reading includes Jan Gehl’s New city spaces (see also his Amazon page, the Gehl Architects blog and The Human Scale) and the Project for Public Spaces, in particular what makes a successful place. (Interestingly, lots of links in the recommended reading this week, due to the nature of the subject or a shift in mindset?)

From the introduction:

Jan Gehl is influential in promoting the idea of walking in cities. His mantra is life takes place on foot – if you live in a city what’s important is being able to walk from one place to another, to meet people casually to have experiences, which you can only get if you’re not in a capsule, if you’re not in an apartment or in a car. I asked him what is the effect of cyberspace on his theories about the city. And he said in all the studies he’s doing the more use there is of cyberspace the more people want to congregate in actual, physical public places. In CPH maybe one flat in two has only one person living in it, a further pressure which is bringing people out into public space.

I’ve ordered Jan’s latest, How to study public life, from the library in the dansk version, and am looking forward to getting properly to grips with him. Currently a tad confused, as it seems he coined Copenhagenization, but I first encountered him criticising Ørestad, so where he stands on BIG and bikes for all I do not know. (Update, Feb 2013: see my post on Jan Gehl and the human scale.)

Notes from the lecture (need to review it for pics):

  • there’s an innate desire among people in cities for contact and communication
  • electronic media can help people identify the places that they’re likely to encounter others and make connections that are played out in real time, in space, ie smart cities and digital media (eg MOOCs) can help people tap into contact and communication
  • are there physical patterns designers can create in cities that will promote personal contact?
  • what is it that people are really desiring when they’re in contact with each other?

Ray Oldenburg’s The great good space: cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons and other hangouts at the heart of the community. These NB private ‘third places’ are as important to the sense of community as homes, which he calls the first place, or workplaces, which he calls the second place. They are the glue that creates the social fabric of the community.

Some of the characteristics that make third places work, in terms of public spaces as well as private:

  • neutral ground, not detering from one group or another
  • accessible to all and a leveler where all people are equal
  • need easy entry, not requiring major commitment to use them – once you’ve stopped you may find a bench or a wall to rest on and see someone you know and then strike up a conversation – there is no need to make a date to communicate
  • make room for performers as well as spectators – not all conversation is verbal, or at least conversational, but it helps to have something to comment on with the person next to you and you may

    ask how to join the group the next day

  • distractions are also important – they can set the mood for a place and offer something to start the conversation about
  • can be adapted to your conversational and privacy needs, eg movable tables and chairs
  • conversation is the main activity – not the only activity, but being able to strike up a conversation with someone you know or even someone within earshot is critical

Sidewalk cafes do these marvelously. You can see a friend as you walk by, stop for a word or two, or have an animated conversation with friends while you’re having a drink with them. Tables are close enough so you hear conversations on either side. Listening is important to communication. And, there are regulars who you know. And you see it, if you go to a particular place. Some of them have been coming for years, but their games are not organized competitions, but pick up events. They are mainly an excuse to get together and to have a conversation.

Third places are a home away from home for many. Public libraries are an important home for people of all ages and increasingly so since they now usually have high speed internet connections and sometimes are the only access for computers for people. The two most powerful motivators for contact and communication are food and drink (astonishingly illustrated by a pic of a CPH cafe). Communication builds over time through regular transactions – they need not be special occasions. The trip to the market lets you get to know the merchants and others who’re regular shoppers. Markets can be great levelers, attracting people from all slices of life. Besides, they often have great food. When third places are taken over by a group or formalised they lose much of their value as connectors. Their objective should be, ever changing informal clubs with room for new members – dog walkers are an excellent example, as long as the walk is not organised…some stop for a while, others just say a few words and move on, but they come to know their compatriots.

Can such a place be designed or does it need to evolve organically?

The central purpose of a city is creating possibilities for human contact. It’s through the chance meetings, the informal alliances, the presence of new kinds of people that cities acquire their economic energy – see Jane Jacobs’ The economy of cities (see also Sociable Physics on The death and the life of smart cities). Today, no city can afford to neglect its attraction for people, its ability to promote people being in contact with each other, if it wants to grow and thrive.

Alone together! MOOCs as a metaphor…see however this has changed in the digital age. What would Kierkegaard think?

Notwithstanding the CPH cafe photo and Jan Gehl, I have issues relating this to overplanned experience economy dominated contemporary CPH. You’ve a choice of the twee, lacking a real sense of the lived in, or the ‘iconic’, buildings at play with little sense of heritage or memory. Add to this the Danes’ well publicised lack of small talk and exaggerated sense of privacy you’re left finding lots of SLOAP but few 3rd places.

The secrets of the world’s happiest cities, an extract from The happy city: transforming our lives through urban design, does the usual cycling vs commuting shtick (“cyclists report feeling connected to the world around them in a way that is simply not possible in the sealed environment of a car, bus or train”) also looks at social capital – the social networks and interactions that keep us connected with others: “there is nothing worse for mental health than a social desert”, finding “a clear connection between social deficit and the shape of cities”. He notes that cyclists in CPH “aren’t choosing to cycle because of any deep-seated altruism or commitment to the environment; they are motivated by self-interest”, quoting Britton: “Cities should strive to embrace complexity, not only in transportation systems but in human experience”. It’s this contradiction I keep butting up agin in Denmark…

See the section on the public realm in week 7 for more on some of these issues.

And in other news, forums officially dead, barely 10 posts a day. In this case I reckon the following isn’t helping:

  • it’s content heavy – you could run a whole MOOC on one week’s lectures, if not on one lecture
  • the assignments are too challenging –  smaller bites, with weekly tasks, would work better and maybe encourage convos
  • it’s too long – 11 weeks is about three too many

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