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 Jacobs was fighting against the outdated model of urban planning that attempted to create utopias while failing miserably due to a complete lack of consideration towards human behavior.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.

After the Park: The Future of Portland’s Public Space

This post was originally published in part on BikePortland.org

This year’s PARK(ing) Day has come and gone, but to those who had a hand in the event or just took advantage of the day-long parklet on SW Stark, it was a happy memory and an example of what a public space can truly be in Portland. It was a day filled with friendly conversations, strangers uniting over a game of ping-pong, and citizens enjoying a place to work or eat their lunch. For me, I consider it a great accomplishment, and passing the street today seems bleak by comparison.

Continue reading After the Park: The Future of Portland’s Public Space

Public Space and PARK(ing) Day

I’ll sing it until I’m blue in the face, but public space is one of the most crucial components of an urban environment. Not only is it a huge percentage of any city, but more importantly it’s public. And that includes the sidewalks, parks, plazas, and streets – all (or most) technically belonging to the people. While it’s true that you can’t just camp out in the middle of the highway (not that you’d want to), it’s only manufactured policies that now dictate our streets are for automobiles instead of people.

But what if it was different?

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The Normalization of Livable Cities

This article was originally published on International Making Cities Livable

The suburban history of the last century in the United States can actually be said to be relatively short. It wasn’t until after the second World War that automobiles were more widely available and the suburbs became the standard for the “American Dream”. Since then, several developments have appeared which have worked to shape this dominant paradigm on how we live and work; Whereas once a great exodus left city centers abandoned from otherwise urban corporate headquarters, there is now a return of companies and people alike to these more walkable, livable downtowns. Indeed, I would argue that there is a newfound desire towards this sense of diversity and multiculturalism that a city brings.

Continue reading The Normalization of Livable Cities

Everyday Urbanism: Why We are All Urbanists

I call myself an urbanist, but what does that really mean? Being an urbanist is not something that requires a rigidly defined body of knowledge. There is no degree for urbanism, no certificate or qualifying test. Urbanists come from a myriad of disciplines: sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, economists, city planners (and other such “-ists” and “-ers” I’m sure I’ve missed). While these degrees are good for other things of course, they are by no means necessary to be an urbanist. It seems then the people who decide to call themselves urbanists are simply those that are united by a passion for urban environments and have some sort of urban-related knowledge – which therefore could technically be anyone. In a world where more than half of all people now live in cities, and with no degree for it, I wonder – where are all the urbanists?

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Four Lessons from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference here in Portland, Oregon. This year’s theme was, “reshaping suburbia into healthy communities”, a rather hot topic these days and one which has finally become a focus for more places than I had previously expected. Many cities have up until recently famously emphasized the revitalization of their downtowns, a point of contention for those concerned with the exurban regions. Where once the urban core was the dangerous home of (so-called) ghettos and the suburbs were the epitome of the (again, so-called) American Dream, the reverse is quickly becoming reality. It’s a startling trend – housing prices are rising in downtown regions whereas suburbs are in the decline, increasingly occupied by the disadvantaged populations previously living in the now-popular urban apartment blocks.

Continue reading Four Lessons from the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference

The Game of Urban Renewal

[Originally written by Jason King]

On Architizer, a post caught my attention – the The Game of Urban Renewal was developed by Toronto artist Flavio Trevisan created what I assume is an earnest social statement with this simple board game, “…which can go on infinitely with any number of players, simulates the fate of Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood, an intense locus of the city’s urban renewal efforts since 1947.  “In the game, players can assume one of the following roles: City Councilor, Developer, Community Activist, City Planning Employee, Man-On-The-Street, Academic Urban Theorist, Resident of Existing Development to be Demolished, Mayor, Random Federal Politician, Skyscraper Enthusiast, or Garbage Man. They take turns spinning the ‘Decision Engine Wheel’ which gives them license to place various types of development (condominium, office, commercial, park, etc.) on the board. Sometimes, players are given the option to bulldoze development, in which case they can use the ‘Tabula Rasa Rake’ to sweep any amount of placed development from the board. As all of this happens, the city evolves.”

The-Game-of-Urban-Renewal

Sadly, many in the era of Urban Renewal of the 1950s, 60s and 70s  treated the lives of many urban residents much like a game, and the results are still being dealt with to this day.  The dynamics of urban renewal, and its mechanism are still a day to day phenomenon that impacts our lives, and, like much in the urban realm, it isn’t a simple answer of it being blatantly bad or good.   There were complete failures and other successes.  Does playing a game about this bring some of the issues and problems closer to our attention, particularly the bulldozer option to clear the slate, or does it over-simplify and diminish what were realm and lasting impacts to people’s lives, places, and cities.  Let’s spin the wheel and find out.