Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Flatness by Drew Austin

“Two extremes of redundancy in English prose are represented by Basic English and James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake. The Basic English vocabulary is limited to 850 words and the redundancy is very high. This is reflected in the expansion that occurs when a passage is translated into Basic English. Joyce on the other hand enlarges the vocabulary and is able to achieve a compression of semantic content.” — Claude Shannon

Bandwidth is a late machine age term that helps illuminate the millennia of technology and culture that preceded its coinage. The definitions of bandwidth vary, but its most basic meaning is a channel’s capacity to carry information. Smoke signals and telegraphs are low-bandwidth media, transmitting one bit at a time in slow succession, while human vision transmits information to the brain at a much faster rate. The past century has yielded tools for measuring bandwidth and quantifying information (see Claude Shannon) as the channels for carrying that information have advanced rapidly.

matrix

Source: Ceasefire

In any era, but never more so than now, the landscape of existing technology is a palimpsest in which the cutting-edge, the obsolete, and the old-but-durable all coexist as layers of varying intensity and visibility. New, unprecedented means of information exchange and communication are invented constantly, while their older equivalents live on long after they’ve stopped being state of the art. Information reaches each of us—and often assaults us—through a multitude of high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth channels, some of which we permit to speak to us, and some of which do so uninvited. Sitting down to watch TV, checking one’s iPhone during dinner with a friend, or finding a quiet place to read a book all represent conscious choices to block certain channels and pay attention to others. Marshall McLuhan recognized that technologies in our environment have a rebalancing effect on our senses, writing that each medium is an “intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it.”

Human attention, then, is a finite resource. A variety of criteria inform everyone’s small, constant choices about which media to focus on and which to tune out, and those choices often have little to do with their bandwidth, but today one thing is certain: Our own brains, not anything manmade, are the bottlenecks that limit how much information we can receive at once. The contemporary world offers as much space for storing information as we’ll ever need, and we can instantly send any amount of it to the other side of the planet. Well before either were the case, however, humans learned to ignore the features of our environments that we deemed irrelevant—the noise surrounding the valuable signals we actually wanted or needed to receive.

Claude Shannon’s quote above, from his Mathematical Theory of Communication, introduces a qualitative layer to the question of human bandwidth and the environments we seek: People move continuously through information-rich and information-poor environments and are affected differently by each. Basic English is “redundant,” meaning it’s a language that requires many words to convey even simple messages—and is therefore a language that few would choose to use for anything but utilitarian purposes. Finnegans Wake, at the opposite extreme, could not be richer in information or content, to the point that it can barely be compressed or summarized. In Shannon’s example, the rich, information-dense content of Joyce’s novel represents a higher quality of communication, and Basic English a lower quality, although the latter fulfills plenty of functional roles.

Low-information, redundant content has a flatness to it. It’s less interesting. The Residents expressed this a different way on their Commercial Album, which comprises 40 one-minute-long pop songs. The liner notes explain:

“Point one: Pop music is mostly a repetition of two types of musical and lyrical phrases, the verse and the chorus. Point two: These elements usually repeat three times in a three-minute song, the type usually found on top-40 radio. Point three: Cut out the fat and a pop song is only one minute long.”

Plenty of pop music, in other words, is redundant and can be compressed without losing anything. This might be too harsh and cynical a judgment, but it’s valuable as a polemic. Modern environments, from top-40 radio to architecture to fiction, are full of redundancy and thus thin on information. The ease of digital information storage and transmission help explain why we can afford to be less economical with information than we were in the past, but getting used to redundancy, like getting used to a diet full of salt and sugar, reinforces our appetite for it and actually influences the types of information we produce. If the manmade world seems like a flatter place in the Information Age (not in the Thomas Friedman sense), this might be part of the reason.

As communication technology improves, the argument periodically surfaces that face-to-face interaction and cities in general will become obsolete. Joel Garreau rebutted this argument a few years ago in his article “Santa Fe-ing of the World,” in which he praises the high bandwidth that physical proximity and direct experience afford. He writes, “Humans always default to the highest available bandwidth that does the job, and face-to-face is the gold standard. Some tasks require maximum connection to all senses. When you’re trying to build trust, or engage in high-stress, high-value negotiation, or determine intent, or fall in love, or even have fun, face-to-face is hard to beat.” Even the most advanced digital media, in other words, are limited compared to full sensory engagement with one’s environment—the digital, closer to Basic English than Finnegans Wake, is still a utilitarian solution to problems like distance more than it’s an ideal theater for the highest levels of human contact. As our reality becomes more automated and algorithmic, our truly complex, nuanced, information-rich activities will continue to justify their existence, while the flat and redundant will increasingly disappear into the digital. By recognizing this condition, we can learn to preserve the depth of the former instead of simplifying our reality for easier absorption into lower-bandwidth channels.

This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on October 5, 2014.

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Topics: Technology, Urban Culture

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Los Angeles Reconsidered by Drew Austin

To those who haven’t spent much time there, Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis without a center. Dorothy Parker called it “72 suburbs in search of a city” and she was just one of many New Yorkers who eloquently documented their failure to understand the quintessential urban product of twentieth century America (see also: Annie Hall). If you had lived your entire life within the orbit of New York, you could aggressively pretend that your own bewilderment was everywhere else’s problem, but others weren’t so lucky. Reyner Banham, for one, attributed LA’s inscrutability to his own limitations and taught himself to drive so that he could read the city in its original language: “It’s a poor historian who finds any human artefact alien to his professional capacities, a poorer one who cannot find new bottles for new wine.”

Ventura Boulevard

During the past few decades, partially thanks to Banham, the popular understanding of LA has started catching up to the city itself. To many who have spent little time in LA or have viewed it mainly through the lens of pop culture, it’s still a suburban metropolis. But New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco are also mostly suburban, aside from relatively small central areas where most of the conventional wisdom is generated. More people depend on cars in Los Angeles than in the aforementioned cities, and this produces a less dense built environment, but do those characteristics alone disqualify LA as an “urban” place? Plenty of well-informed people seem to think so.

Visiting Los Angeles last weekend (and many times before that) has reaffirmed my belief that it is one of the most urban cities in the world by almost any definition of the word. Among the most striking features of LA, contrary to its reputation, is its incredible density. Throughout the city, from Koreatown to the Valley, Los Angeles is packed tightly with human activity. Signs announcing 20 different stores accompany two-story strip malls; apartment complexes overlook the back edges of gas stations; and cars wring every square inch out of parking lots that are frequently too small. Instead of a suburban sprawlscape, Los Angeles is better understood as the highest possible density that is traversed primarily by automobile. Unlike New York’s three-dimensional congestion, LA’s is mostly confined to a single plane, but it fills those two dimensions almost as effectively.

The classical definition of “city” is a hobgoblin that still haunts the urban discourse: a recognizable downtown (which LA has, in fact) with a transit system connecting the periphery to the center (which LA also has). Those forces ceased to drive urban development more than a century ago, yet we still understand cities to be the residue of that obsolete growth model. LA represents a mode of development that emerged in the twentieth century, and while it may be doomed from an environmental and social perspective, its scale is more human than the modernist wasteland of downtown Newark (another “city” in the classical sense). We need to adjust our understanding of what makes a city a city, because at present there is little being built in the world that matches Woody Allen’s or Dorothy Parker’s definitions.

This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on September 7, 2012.

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

The Meatspace City by Drew Austin

[ I was privileged to get to run a few pieces written by Drew Austin that originally appeared in the Where blog. Drew is back, now with his own blog called Kneeling Bus. I highly recommended it as his observations and conclusions are often of a type you can’t find in your typical urban blog. Drew can make you think. Here’s a piece he wrote recently to give you a sample. I’m including this one because of a recent debate in the comments about bricks and mortar versus online retail – Aaron. ]

One of the more interesting recent developments in the urban planning sphere has been Tony Hsieh’s multimillion-dollar investment in revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh, the CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos, wants to redevelop the city’s core with his company’s offices as the anchor, creating a dense and vibrant environment where his creative class employees can live, work, and otherwise thrive. The plan reflects a corporate philosophy that applies Jane Jacobs’ urbanist principles to office environments, an approach explained well by Malcolm Gladwell, but Hsieh’s scheme is unique in that it won’t be confined to the Zappos headquarters: Hsieh wants to remake downtown Las Vegas as a whole. In both cases, a more innovative workplace culture is the ultimate goal, but Hsieh seems interested in creating something with positive externalities.


Las Vegas City Hall (Source: Brandon Wiegand)

Hsieh’s plan for Las Vegas is idealistic, ambitious, and controversial, but most of all it rests upon a great irony: Zappos has perfected a business model that undermines physical retail and thus helps to erode the vitality of many American downtowns. The clearest example of this is Amazon’s impact on bookstores. If you live in New York or San Francisco you might not understand how much a Borders could matter to a city’s downtown, but many smaller cities with fewer cultural assets depend more on whatever they’ve got. In many cases, “what they’ve got” has been a chain bookstore like Borders (which can remain vacant for years after the tenant goes away—I’ve seen it happen). While Zappos has not affected shoe stores as drastically as Amazon has affected bookstores, the company has certainly captured plenty of revenue that shoppers previously spent in their own city’s commercial districts. The basic economic reality that Zappos represents and Hsieh’s high-profile, symbolic intervention in downtown Las Vegas are seemingly at odds: the latter putting a band-aid on a wound the former is currently making worse.

Bookstores and a few other niches aside, we haven’t really begun to see the full impact of online shopping on urban retail. E-commerce has become much more sophisticated in the last few years, with Amazon Prime offering a level of convenience that rivals a trip to the CVS on the corner, and it would not be surprising to see many other types of stores fall by the wayside as their online competition surpasses them in convenience. The logical conclusion of those developments is the (admittedly extreme) prediction made by Stephen Gordon: In the future everything will be a coffee shop. That is, the only spaces we’ll need for working, shopping, and learning are comfortable places where we can get on the internet together.


The future of everything (Source: blakethompson.net)

If everything will eventually be a coffee shop, then Tony Hsieh’s business and his Las Vegas plan start to seem more consistent. They’re both manifestations of what I’m going to call the Meatspace City: the fully wired urban condition. Even when online shopping becomes entirely frictionless, a lot of shopping will still happen in meatspace because of its tactile nature. Shoe shopping, for example, generally requires trying the shoes on. Book shopping is much less tactile, which is why the internet absorbed it so easily. Shopping is slowly bifurcating into a component easily handled online (price comparison, item selection, payment) and a component best accomplished in a physical store (trying things on, picking them up). Increasingly, stores will be showrooms where we decide what we want and then order it online (see: Bonobos). Urban commerce will be increasingly based upon the purely physical: food, drink, showrooms, and coffee shops. Brooklyn feels like it’s getting there. Everything the internet can’t do better, and only those things. The Meatspace City.

This post originally appeared in Kneeling Bus on September 20, 2012.

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

The Taxi As Public Transportation by Drew Austin

[ I ran out of Drew Austin pieces to repost from Where, but lucky for us he wrote this original that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Speaking of which, Brendan Crain has restarted the Where Blog, which is really awesome news. This one is an absolute must to subscribe to in my opinion. So check it out if you aren’t already familiar with his work. ]

Architecture has borrowed plenty from biology over the centuries, but the reverse is less common. After observing the central dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, the paleontologist Steven Jay Gould coined the term spandrel, describing a side effect of adaptation that turns out to be useful in itself. Like the architectural spandrel–a triangular space where two arches meet–the biological spandrel may seem perfectly designed for a certain function though it’s actually more of a lucky accident.

Today, for anyone interested in understanding cities or improving them, data on urban phenomena represent a different kind of spandrel. Much of the data offering useful clues for city planners and researchers is out there accumulating whether anyone wants it or not. The ability to track the origin and destination of every taxi trip in New York or Boston, for example, was a recent byproduct of the self-swipe credit card technology that those cities have required all cabs to install. Last year, an article in Wired described how New York City harnessed the knowledge available from 50,000 daily calls to 311, using that information to map the distribution of problems like noise complaints throughout the five boroughs. Maximizing our understanding of the city means discovering what’s already out there–the spandrels–as much as it means actively collecting data when necessary.

The taxi perfectly illustrates the opportunities these incidental data sources create as well as the limitations of what they can tell us. Transportation is one of the trickiest and most critical problems in any city, and one of the areas where good data can help the most. By recording their own activity, taxis become sensors that roam the city painting a detailed picture of traffic conditions, travel demand, and even the locations where passengers give the best tips. We can learn a lot about the city from taxis, but we can learn even more about taxis themselves and their role in the urban environment.

It’s easy to forget, but the taxi has always been a critical form of public transportation. In cities without good transit, the taxi is often the only public transportation available. More importantly, mass transit cannot efficiently serve every type of travel that passengers demand, and the taxi is better suited to do so in many cases (think of the bus that never has more than a handful of passengers on board). Low-income city dwellers as well as the affluent rely on taxis where buses and trains don’t suffice. In the United States, where everything is seemingly built for the private car, modes of transportation that improve mobility for the carless are allies, not competitors.

Because taxis are privately operated and can’t be planned like mass transit, the opportunity they represent receives less attention than it should. Now, taxis are still private, but the rich data they generate means they are no longer the blind spot for transportation planners that they once were. We may not know exactly how to improve taxis, but we can start by deciding how they might ideally serve a city and then observing how they currently measure up to that ideal. Beginning with the principle that taxis are a form of public transportation, they should complement mass transit by filling in the gaps where transit service is less accessible, and the aforementioned taxi trip data makes it possible to see whether this happens naturally. As the maps below indicate, more taxi pickups happen where transit access is also quite good. Of course, demand is also higher near Boston’s center, and it’s difficult to say where unmet taxi demand exists (although it’s possible to infer this). As a “spandrel,” taxi data alone won’t tell us everything we need to know to answer a question like this–that is, the data collection wasn’t designed with this particular question in mind–but the more we grapple with the data, the more we learn what it can and can’t tell us, and the more useful it becomes as a means of enhancing taxicabs or countless other aspects of city life.

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Topics: Transportation
Cities: Boston

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Drew Austin: Against Transportation

More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody’s daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips. The few mount their magic carpets to travel between distant points that their ephemeral presence renders both scarce and seductive, while the many are compelled to trip farther and faster and to spend more time preparing for and recovering from their trips.” – Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (1974)

Urban transportation: What are we going to do about it? Fewer cars? More mass transit? More bikes? Fuel taxes?

It’s tempting to try solving transportation problems with more transportation. The sight of rush hour traffic jams in cities, or the experience of riding an overcrowded bus or train, suggest the need for increased transit capacity. As a short term solution, that may indeed be the best remedy. In the long run, however, it’s more like supplementing a junk food diet with a few healthy snacks.

Modern industrial societies are addicted to mobility—something Ivan Illich points out in the passage above. Most of us have always lived within this milieu and it’s hard for us to equate less movement with better movement. Our cities embody the assumption that individuals will gladly bow to the demands of transportation systems. New York, Chicago and London all enjoy “strong centers” complete with roads and trains that can pump hundreds of thousands of people into their central business districts every morning and back out again every evening. An hour a day is generally a normal amount of time to spend commuting in these cities—I can live six miles from my job because the infrastructure exists to move me there quickly.

Interestingly, the strong-centered cities with great transit are paragons of urban form in western society. They certainly look great in comparison to the sprawling, decentralized megalopolises that have followed them. I can’t imagine wanting to live in any other kind of city, but the utopian in me wants cities where people spend less time moving from place to place. Christopher Alexander describes such a city in A Pattern Language, writing that the separation of residences and work create “intolerable rifts in people’s inner lives.” He suggests that cities use zoning laws and tax incentives to spread workplaces throughout cities.

Unfortunately, urban transportation is not planned in a way that favors less transportation. Individual agencies generally have one main task, and no agency can be expected to argue against its own existence. A transit planner would never decide that less transit ridership would benefit the city as a whole, unless transit planning was only one component of a broader job description.

Nevertheless, it might be a helpful first step to scatter workplaces throughout dense cities using the types of policies that Alexander describes, along peripheral transit lines or within walking and biking distance of neighborhood residences. A lot of work disappeared in 2008 and plenty more is sure to vanish in 2009. If and when that work comes back, it doesn’t all need to end up downtown.

This post originally appeared at Where on February 6, 2009. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Drew Austin: Brief Interviews with Hideous Cities

Urbanism, like any field, has its own dogmas, orthodoxies and raging controversies. It’s both art and science, it affects almost everyone on a daily basis (whether they realize it or not), and it overlaps with a vast array of related disciplines.

In short, urbanism has a lot in common with language.

People have been calling attention to this similarity for ages–Christopher Alexander’s pattern language is a prime example–but David Foster Wallace may have unknowingly revealed the most useful facet of the relationship in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” by probing the conflict between linguistic Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. Prescriptivists are those who believe in objective, fixed rules to guide the usage of language; Descriptivists, on the other hand, seek to define a language by how people actually use it. DFW ultimately concludes that the English language depends upon the former group, although any would-be Prescriptivist must establish credibility before publicly defining what’s right and wrong.

It turns out urbanism has its own versions of Prescriptivism and Descriptivism: Professional planners, architects, academics, media and city administrators tend to develop consensus about what makes cities work. Density, mixed-use development, and transit become components of an urbanist orthodoxy; a freeway through a vibrant neighborhood troubles the urban Prescriptivist in the same way an “ain’t” irks the English teacher.

Meanwhile, every urban dweller is routinely playing the twin roles of critic and planner in many small ways. Cities are created by the sum of individual choices to live in certain neighborhoods, shop at certain stores or occupy public spaces, and everyone forms an opinion about what’s good and bad in their own urban environments. Urban Descriptivism would hold that these millions of collective actions and opinions are right, whether experts agree or not–even if those actions produce strip malls, car culture and isolation.

Urban Descriptivism is probably more interesting, and it’s certainly easier. Robert Venturi and Reyner Banham have glorified the neon signs, freeways and sprawl of LA and Las Vegas, choosing to find beauty in those environments because they’re already there anyway. Venturi may have coined the Descriptivists’ mantra when he wrote, “Main Street is almost all right.” Their approach teaches us to treasure someone else’s trash, enhancing the urban experience without necessarily building anything.

Clearly, each extreme has severe flaws: One leads to hubris and utopian fantasies; the other ignores social pathologies in favor of intellectual entertainment. Hence DFW’s conclusion. We can’t assume those planning our cities are credible just because they’re making the plans. But we need rules and guidance—an entirely hands-off approach will create interesting cities with multitudes of serious problems.

Maybe this is why urbanists keep returning to Jane Jacobs. She reconciles these approaches in The Death and Life of Great American Cities by merging a Descriptivist’s eye for the way cities actually are (not how they should be) with a Prescriptivist’s desire to make cities better—by nurturing what’s already good in those cities rather than trying to recreate them. David Foster Wallace writes that every language needs its authorities; Jane Jacobs tells us that stepping outside and thoughtfully considering one’s surroundings are the first steps toward becoming an authority on the language of urbanism.

This post originally appeared in The Where Blog. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Drew Austin: The Living…The Built…The McDonald’s Parking Lot

[ Brendan Crain’s Where blog was for some time one of the best urbanist blogs, period. As eventually happens to blogs, time pressures forced him to put it aside, but there is still a treasure trove of great posts in the archives I highly recommend browsing.

One of his occasional contributors was Drew Austin, now a grad student in the Boston area. He graciously agreed to let me re-post some of his work here, and even went the extra mile to track down Brendan for me. When I met Drew he was was working as a transit planner in Chicago, which is when he wrote this post. I hope you enjoy it – and don’t forget to check out Where. – Aaron ]

You may not agree with TS Eliot’s statement that every age gets the art it deserves, but it’s hard to argue that we don’t—to some extent—get the cities we deserve. In fact, a city may be human culture’s most perfect expression of collective will, a direct and tangible product of millions of individual decisions multiplied by thousands of days. Certain forces, people and institutions tend to exert disproportionate influence on the way cities evolve, but by and large the masses make the cities, and without all those people cities would not even be cities.

Human culture produces cities, and cities in turn influence those cultures. Eliot thought the same about art, and art’s cultural role is more limited than that of cities. Does this mean that subpar cities are created by subpar cultures, and can one expect crappy cities to foster even crappier human relations in their streets and buildings? Are planners, architects and other creators of the built environment to blame for the desolation of downtown Detroit or for me not knowing my neighbors?

Probably not. Architectural historian Spiro Kostof made this unexpected yet intuitive point in his 1987 commencement address to UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design:

Cities are amalgams of the living and the built, always tidying up, never finished. Their agenda is colossally overburdened, its charge near impossible to rein in. There is no way in which design alone will breathe life into a dying enterprise, any more than a vibrant sense of community can be attributed in earnest to the act of design.

Kostof’s speech—at least that part of it—amounts to a call for more piazzas. That is, more free spaces where human activity can run its course, whatever that turns out to be. The life and energy teeming within cities is bound to find its own way, perhaps guided and elevated by the Burnhams, the Olmsteds and the Koolhaases but never steered by them.

The most vibrant public space near where I live happens to be the neighborhood McDonald’s. Although there’s a beautiful, expansive park only two blocks away, a large group of elderly gentlemen are congregating in that McDonald’s from morning until evening on any given day of the week, usually having nothing more than a coffee. During the summer, they bring their own chairs and hang out in the parking lot. The place is full of people every time I pass by. I opt for the big park when I want to get out of the house, but for some variety of reasons many others find the Golden Arches to be a suitable piazza of sorts. I can tell you this much: They aren’t there for the food.

Many view McDonald’s (and parking lots) as the worst American culture has to offer, and more than a few planners would raze every McDonald’s in sight given the opportunity. Builders and planners can only build and plan, though. They can’t actually add the people or dictate the uses of their creations. Ultimately, I think, we do get the cities we deserve because, to a great extent, we are those cities.

This article original appeared in Where. Reprinted with permission of the author.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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