An Open Letter to Google re: Livable Cities

This was originally published on my Medium page here

This year would be Jane Jacob’s 100th birthday, and what better to celebrate the memory of this incredible woman than walking along the very streets she helped fight to protect in New York City. This champion of everyday social life in public space and her de facto anthropological observations of people in cities have had a lasting impact beyond what most of us even know or can comprehend. Her legacy has grown to such an extent that even the Google “Doodle” today honors her in an appropriately mixed-use landscape of places for people.

How strange it is then that the recent news coming from Google is seemingly the exact opposite of what Jacobs once exalted: a fabricated city built solely for the purpose of testing Sidewalk Labs innovations.

From the Gizmodo article:

Apparently the biggest decision when one wants to build a techno-utopia is where to put it, so Sidewalk Labs is supposedly debating between retrofitting an existing city or building one from scratch. The finished city will apparently need to be big enough to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people, although I’m not sure if that means they’ll live there or work there. Sidewalk Labs is alsohiring a ton of people.

Alissa Walker then goes on to suggest that Google look into an existing city like San Francisco, that needs help and can demonstrate how tech can solve existing problems.

I agree with (the always awesome) Alissa Walker on her conclusion, but San Francisco has enough problems with economic disparity and top-down decision making as it is. There are many other cities out there that would probably welcome a civic partnership to help solve problems in their cities. What about Detroit? Pittsburgh? Atlantic City? Hook up with one of the many incredible mayors in this country making real change on the streets of their cities, doing what they can with what they have.

Or more importantly, why not couple with a city who not only needs it but also welcomes it in a way that isn’t entirely top-down? Jacobs was fighting against the outdated model of urban planning that attempted to create utopias while failing miserably due to a complete lack of consideration towards human behavior. The system that, like Robert Moses, dictated decisions from above while ignoring the protestors and real lives of people at the street level down below. This gentrification, like that of San Francisco, is one of the defining urban issues of our day and would benefit greatly from more research into a collaborative solution.

But this also begs the question: if they’re doing new and strange things in a fantasy city, how applicable will that be in a real city in any case? How realistic are these interventions going to be if they’re not actually being tested on real people in an authentic context? Especially if they are seemingly so top-down as to warrant skipping any kind of collaboration to begin with — I have my doubts.

And if it is something that’s not necessarily high-tech beta testing (like driverless cars), then you may as well just look back in history to get the data you need. Most of this information we already know because of the archaeological record of ancient cities, current scientific research, or again — real living laboratories in cities everywhere. Working with the people, and not over the people, may even reveal some surprising insights that a scale-city’s “citizens” would never authentically replicate. This principle of anthropology — direct observations and ethnography — should not be overlooked as a valuable contribution to any research done on cities today.

My fear is that Google is carrying on the same kinds of last-century thinking it embodies in its campus far outside of the urban core in an outdated model of isolated suburban office “parks” — exactly the opposite of what many other major companies are doing. Jane’s colleague William H. “Holly” Whyte, who researched the activity of people in the public spaces of New York City, found that this kind of migration to the exurbs was one of the core causes of urban decay in the first place. And that instead, by bringing people to the city and populating public spaces (like the streets and parks that Jacobs so loved), we have what we see today: happy, healthy, overwhelmingly popular urban environments. The research is there. We know what works.

Here in New York City they had the right idea and located their offices in dense Manhattan. Why not make New York your lab, and really honor Jacobs’ legacy? What we need is to use the work done by those who came before us, like Jane Jacobs and many other pioneering urbanists, and then fill the gaps with additional research. The problems we face are real ones, and need to be urgently addressed. And the truth is, these may very well be solved by the technological advances that Sidewalk Labs has the ability to create — but these will not be solved by wasting those valuable resources on a model city that will never fully recreate the complexity and beauty that is, as Jane said, the sidewalk ballet.

By continuing the work she did and not the very issues she fought against — by focusing on the people on the street that really make a (real) city tick — we can have a greater impact on cities today, and bring that knowledge to the places that need it most. If you ask me, that’s a much better way to honor Jane’s legacy.

On Placemaking: An Anthropologist’s Perspective

Placemaking. It’s been called everything from a buzzword to a movement. It even comes in varieties like “creative.” And, depending on who you ask, it’s two words and not one. But what is it? And furthermore, what makes it such a hot topic?

Defining placemaking has been one of its biggest issues from day one. Taken at face value the term sounds fairly self-explanatory—a place is being made. But what place? And how? Is it being physically created? And what was it before it became a place?

The current urban planning and design viewpoint will tell you this: Placemaking acts as a stand-in for what could otherwise be called (albeit more clumsily) best practices in public space design. This could involve planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, developers and so on, but is done so in cooperation with the community involved in the space that’s being created or altered—that is, before it becomes a place with its defined set of meanings, activities, and associations.

This top down (planning) and bottom up (community) coordination is what makes placemaking sing. As a process, it was created in response to the status quo of the post-industrial, and primarily auto-dominated planning periods of the mid-to late 20th century. During the height of it in the 1960s, entire neighborhoods were razed to make way for the modern highways and housing complexes for the betterment of urban dwellers everywhere. Without consulting the communities affected, planners wielded seemingly unending control over peoples’ quality of life. Whether intentions were for the best or not, the actions of a few created less-than-ideal urban environments which would last for decades even after we realized our mistakes.

Pull Quote

Some of these spaces were parks and plazas, otherwise public spaces meant to be havens of nature and civic activity in the urban jungle. Today we can imagine Bryant Park in New York City for example, and see how successfully it provides a myriad of activities for New Yorkers of all ages, or just simply gives them a place to sit. A few decades earlier, however, and it was essentially left to ruin. With no one to manage it, it quickly became the overgrown haunting grounds for drug dealers and homeless populations where few would dare to tread—a story all too common for many parks then and now.

Plazas had their own set of problems. Whether out of laziness or as a trade for higher building heights (and extra profit), plazas—especially those attached to buildings in the city centre—were barren, lacking any form of refuge from the demanding sidewalks adjacent. Or worse—they were indoors and subject to guarded scrutiny and hours of operation: semi-public to say the least. And let’s not get started on the painful determents still employed by ledge-owners even today. Streets—also crucial public spaces—are another story entirely, and one in which we’ve sadly only begun to scratch the surface of.

But the importance of these public spaces lies not only in the desire for a relaxing respite inbetween buildings, but also to our Right to the City as residents of these newly formed human habitats. If your only “piece of land” happens to be a 600 square foot four-story walkup in the lower east side, with only a fire escape out your window, the need for these so-called third places becomes a matter of health. With no backyard, you rely upon the amenities the city has for all of its residents. And as members of society we have a right to voice our opinions via public gathering—and not in a place that is closed after 6pm.

As an urban anthropologist, I also view this from a different angle.

Even today, with the success stories and awareness—thanks mostly in part to the activists and researchers who came before us—there is still a need for reform. Placemaking (or whatever you’d prefer to call it) is essentially just a solution to this ongoing problem. What it aims to achieve is a time before developer interests, top-down planners, and auto-oriented thinking: the time when cities were products of our natural needs.

Think about cities before long-distance commutes; before cars, and before millions of inhabitants was the norm. Cities were clusters of buildings, often walled, with a set of connected public spaces and streets to provide passage. Public markets were housed in these squares and spilled out onto the sides of streets. Your wares were sold where your residence was, and all kinds of people and vehicles could be found crisscrossing in the streets.

A city like this could be like Venice today—a place where only foot traffic and less-deadly forms of transportation are allowed within its medieval boundary. People still gather in squares to socialize, talk politics, or just take an evening stroll. While parks were not formalized at this point (due to proximity to the hinterlands surrounding the city) the concept is still strong—public spaces are needed to take care of the city’s inhabitants.

More than idle nostalgia, we’re gathering more and more scientific evidence that shows the effect of street trees on our health, for instance. Or, just how devastating a lack of exercise is for us normally active animals, and the need for building this activity into walkable cities and suburbs. When faced with creating our own environments by hand, as was the case with these cities of the past, we inherently created ideal urban environments that fit with our senses, social needs, and foot-powered transportation—true places.

Knowing this, we have the ability—unique in the animal kingdom—to create the environment that we want to live in. And as homo urbanus, with over 50% of the world’s population urbanized for the first time in history, it is imperitive that we get behind whatever method unites us in a better way of creating new places and undoing our past mistakes—whatever you want to call it.


This article originally appeared on the Peeps Forum.
Illustration by Bernat Solsona

Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

I recently had the pleasure of traveling back to the East Coast and exploring a few major cities I had not visited since becoming an urban enthusiast. Being a public space aficionado, I of course made it a point to investigate as many public spaces as possible. Starting in Pittsburgh, I made my way by train to New York City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a cross-country train ride back to Portland (with a quick stop in Chicago). I visited some spaces new and old, and was delighted to see such infamous improvements for myself.

Continue reading Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX

This is the third in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

This Park Portrait is admittedly not about a permanent park, but a parklett that I helped create for a single day in downtown Portland. On September 20th, we took part in the PARK(ing) Day event with hundreds of other public space enthusiasts around the world. On an entire block of Southwest Stark Street we converted ten parking spaces into a greyspace plaza for a day.

Continue reading Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX

Livable Portland? A New Plan

There’s something brewing in Portland, and it’s probably not what you’d expect. As we speak, planners and stakeholders are currently working on arguably the most important planning document since 1988: the Central City Plan 2035. Technically open to the public, the planning process has been comparatively quiet. After the charrette process, it has now transitioned into monthly meetings with primarily stakeholder involvement. The process itself is fairly standard: the floor is open to public comment (limited to two minutes), there is a summary of the progress thus far, presentations for the topic at hand, followed by stakeholder debate. At the moment, there’s also voting on several nearly finalized “layers” of the plan, specifically for the West Quadrant (Downtown, Southwest, Old Town, the Pearl, and the uber-cool West End, where we recently held our PARK(ing) Day event).

Continue reading Livable Portland? A New Plan

Poor Placemaking in Five Easy Steps

William H. Whyte said “It is difficult to design a place that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” Indeed, walking the streets one can find a myriad of terrible places simply because of the design itself. And make no mistake, they are designed, they’re just designed poorly. When discussing urban design, thankfully, the tone increasingly is that of good design – 20 Minute Neighborhoods, New Urbanism, True Urbanism, Placemaking, Walkability, 8 to 80, Transit Oriented Design, and on and on, each with their core concepts and design standards pushing for more livable cities. But with the myriad of options to choose from, it almost seems easier to instead highlight the other side of the spectrum – poor placemaking – summarized here for your convenience in five easy steps.

Continue reading Poor Placemaking in Five Easy Steps

Park Portrait: The Urban Center Plaza

This is the first in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

What better place to start than with my first real observational project: The Urban Center Plaza. Located on Portland State University’s urban campus, it is a combination of green and grey space that intersects major destinations for students and members of the neighborhood. It is technically a privately owned public space as it was made by the University. However, the goal of the space was to be a community space where the local residents could relax, eat lunch, and interact with the student population.

Continue reading Park Portrait: The Urban Center Plaza