Image Credit: SENSEable City Lab, Network & Society Project, MIT 2010

The Death and Life of the Real-Time City

Much of the archives work featured on this site has contributed to a PhD I’ve been undertaking through the University of Technology Sydney. It’s been a long and winding journey – starting out in the Faculty of Computing and IT and ending up in Public History – and finally submitted in August 2010.

Titled The Death and Life of the Real-Time City: Re-imagining the City of Digital Urbanism, this is a somewhat ‘non-traditional’ PhD which traverses a number of different fields and takes in ideas relating to urban computing, utopian images of the city, urban activism during the 20th century, sound practices, and the digital distribution of media archives today.

If you’re wondering how all those ideas fit together, you best have a read. A copy of the unpublished dissertation can be downloaded here.

The Abstract begins like this:

Information and communications technologies are becoming increasingly diffused within the material spaces of the city, generating novel ways of representing complex, hitherto ‘invisible’ urban behaviours in real-time. Many digital urbanists are inspired by the capacity of these network technologies to radically transform our perceptions and experiences of urban space. But how ‘new’, really, is this emergent vision of the city?

My primary interest has been to critically interrogate how it is that digital urbanists approach the space of the city – not only in descriptive terms, in terms of the ‘what is’, whether that be current GPS-enabled bicycle trips or mobile phone usage patterns, but by projecting a kind of anticipatory urban imaginary which agitates for ‘what might be’ and in doing so, is implicitly critical of the status quo.

By digital urbanists, I basically mean those practitioners and researchers who are excited by the potential for urban computing – wireless networks, mobile devices and so forth – to alter the way we use and understand urban spaces. Just as the term ‘urbanism’ is sometimes used to denote a passionate interest in, or engagement with, the vicissitudes of urban life, I’ve used the term ‘digital urbanism’ to capture a largely optimistic engagement in the potential for urban computing technologies to reform cities.

MIT SENSEable City Lab 2010. Project: Network & Society

I’ve been fascinated with the rise of digital urbanism because it stands quite apart from the orientation of many cyberspace cheerleaders of the 1990s, who predicted the demise of the city. Where previously the anti-materiality of this post-urban fantasy had looked to the Internet as a kind of utopia of pure space â?? where a virtual world of pure information served to ‘decontaminate’ natural and urban landscapes and annihilate geographical constraints, today’s real-time communications are instead championed as potentially enhancing the behaviours of the city.

The concept of the real-time city is only one of the many ways in which ‘the city’ is being re-visioned using contemporary network technologies. It’s associated primarily with the work of practitioners of urban informatics, a discipline championed by researchers such as Marcus Foth, Anthony Townsend, and Howard Rheingold, along with industry practitioners like Carlo Ratti, head of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Dan Hill, Senior Consultant at Arup and creator of cityofsound.com.

In my thesis, I approach the concept of the real-time city a bit more broadly than it is usually understood within fields like urban informatics, because I’m interested in it not as a functional term but as an aspirational term. The real-time city, I argue, serves to project a particular vision of the city, one whose performance rests on the capacity for distributed computing to ‘enhance’ representations of cities as complex urban systems, often using data visualization techniques to capture otherwise ‘hidden’ data flows between distributed computing devices, including mobile phones.

My central concern with this vision is its reliance on technologies of visualisation, which are used to offer better representations of urban complexity. Despite the emphasis on urban complexity, my contention is that this vision nevertheless progresses particular, and in fact quite restrictive, notions of the urban. I’ve found that many of the claims of digital urbanists tend to pivot around the revelatory capacity of real-time networks to ‘make the invisible visible’. In its approach to the city, this entrenches an intensely visual agenda which is evident across much of urban studies, setting certain parameters around what can be ‘seen’ and what remains ‘unseen’ in the life of the real-time city.

I treat the emphasis on visual abstraction as a concern, not only for its tendency to privilege the visual over other sensory modes of urban experience, but also for its privileging of a formalistic, design-led approach, which tends to engage with systems design at the expense of social process. Such tendencies have not gone unnoticed; the architect Peter Eisenmann recently decried practices associated with digital urbanism as a ‘new, virulent breed of formalism, more virulent because it [is] posed under the banner of a neo-avant guard technological determinism’ (cited in Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present, 2008).

So that’s where Jane Jacobs comes in, with her seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1965). Urban planners during the 1960s were enchanted by the potential to introduce greater order into the city – think of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City – and put forward models of ‘urban renewal’ which could be easily replicated across other cities. Death and Life was essentially a tirade against these practices of post-war American planning, mourning the way American cities were being transformed into forests of high-rise buildings, leaving their citizens ostracized and isolated, and subsequently undermining the vitality of American public culture.

Jane Jacobs on her bicycle, New York 1960s.

Aghast at the impersonalized urban landscapes transforming modern American cities, Jacobs urged that greater attention be paid to the values of locatedness and connectedness to place. In a strong but gentle polemical style, Jacobs argued that urban spaces worked best when strangers could easily encounter each other, when children played on the street, and when planning decisions could be made at a local level, rather than through centralized planning bureaucracies and the imposition of abstracted ideas about cities.

The challenge Jacobs presented to modern urban planning was therefore not just about the particular technique of urban renewal being promulgated by the American planning profession at that time. It also concerned, more fundamentally, its claim to be reviving urban spaces through new approaches to urban development, which relied heavily on techniques of urban abstraction. To Jacobs, such techniques famously represented ‘the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served’ (1965: 25). Rather than resorting to a plan, a grid, or a highway network, Jacobs reconceived cities as disorganised collections of haphazard incidents and accidental encounters between strangers.

Robert Moses’ plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway

Across contemporary urban planning and architecture today, Jacob’s target of post-war modernist planning tends to be framed for its tragic failures, a product of the over reliance on the urban spatial form as a basis from which to alleviate social ills, seeking to reform or renew built environments while leaving social relationships intact. Jacobs’ polemic is required reading for today’s students, who are taught of the failures wrought by these modernist regimes, and the geographies of single-use enclaves and far-flung highways they spawned. Indeed, the criticisms she waged against the profession might today be considered planning orthodoxy: in particular, the need to avoid widely-replicable, abstract urban schemas, and to instead take into account the local conditions that give rise to productive diversity.

In recalling its title, my thesis is not so much interested in what Death and Life had to say about the ideal conditions of urban form, the length of city blocks, the presence of mixed industry, etcetera, as its symbolic and now historic project of re-imagining ‘the city’. In challenging the conventional wisdom about how to understand cities, part of the radicalism of Death and Life was its steady insistence that the trickiness of cities can be as evident in everyday interactions on downtown sidewalks as it is in the abstracted representations and codifications of specialised disciplines. So the title of my thesis draws from Jacobs to affirm the continuing importance of this central challenge as it applies to the emergent fields of digital urbanism today.

Somewhat working against the grain of conventional approaches (if you can use a term like ‘conventional’ in relation to a relatively nascent field of practice!), my PhD has gone on to retrieve some different practices and perspectives, drawn from the fields of critical spatial theory, cultural geography and sound studies, to re-imagine a ‘real-time’ experience of the urban terrain. Through a practice-led response, I’ve re-imagined the digital terrain as a historical topology that enfolds within it different time-spaces – what I’ve cheekily called the ‘real times of space‘.

This practice has made tactical use of the mobile device as a listening platform, capable of retrieving the substrata of today’s digital terrain through its archival audio traces. Working in Sydney, Australia, I’ve retrieved the ambient resonances of particular moments in the life of the city in the way one might navigate a memori topi, using archival sound traces to facilitate experiential audio-visual interactions with the past-presences of an urban space.

This practice has tried to figure out a way of navigating the digital-urban terrain not as a networked space of contemporary connectivity – the perpetual present of real-time interaction – but also as a way of experiencing what Doreen Massey has called a ‘simultaneity of stories so far’ (for space, 2003, p.109). Massey has been influential for me here – in an exhibition catalogue for Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Museum in 2003 Massey writes of the times of space, , which is not quite totally spatial in its privileging of the present, but open to loose ends, to connections yet to be made. If we shift the concept of ‘real- time’ away from that of the networked connectivity of the present, to the ‘loose ends’ of space’s real-times, what practices might that lead to?

Here I’ve turned to sound, and specifically ambient sound archives of city spaces, as a way of listening in to the resonant traces of past moments. By doing so, I’ve hoped to enrich the spatial imaginary of the real-time city and its digital practices; to not only illuminate the contours of its networked connectivity, but to also listen, and learn, from what we might retrieve when we return to its forgotten spaces.

Ultimately, I’m totally fascinated with the rise of urban computing, and the potential for spatial technologies to re-shape not only the way we use cities, but also the way we imagine them. Nevertheless, I believe it’s time for more critical debate about the extent to which technologies of urban computing can themselves reform the deeper institutional and political practices that underpin the production of contemporary cities. From Web 2.0 to City 2.0 – how might that take shape within institutions of urban governance?

Listening in to the city’s recorded geography might help to answer that question. When we do listen, we hear that the agitations of urban crisis are not so new, we can listen to the mistakes of urban modernism, and can perhaps begin to recall the dangers of believing reform is something to be designed by only a few.