Blended Urban Reality: What Would Jane Jacobs Think of Facebook?

Anthony Townsend's picture

In my teaching at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program from 2002-2004, I encouraged students looking to design interactive interventions to read the classics of American urban thinking for inspiration and caution - Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City, Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language, and Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities. The idea was to get them to turn around their thinking - not to see technology as something that could dramatically transform public spaces and overturn existing ways of living, but rather as something that could be blended into a very complex urban ecosystem of places, people and objects. Alexander's A City is Not a Tree is a sort of riff on just how complex a system something as mundane as a street corner can be.

Until yesterday, I really didn't know anyone else who was thinking like this, but I had coffee with Andrew Blum, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. As we both commiserated about the lack of dialogue between architects/urban designers and information technologists (the former tend to see themselves as involved in a grander project and abhor silicon, while the former see the world through the aspatial lens of ubiquity), Andrew pointed me to his piece in the recent homage to Jane Jacobs', Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York. At the end he starts to dig into what social networks like Facebook might mean as they are grounded in urban settings:

A tenet of modernist planning was that cities didn't matter any more, that communications technology (much less the threat of nuclear war) rendered them useless and inefficient. Of course, the opposite has proved true. As technology has lowered the barriers between places, the differences between them have become accentuated. At least at a global scale, when ideas and capital flow freely, they tend to dry up in some places and pool in others-as in New York. But the influence of communication technology is beginning to have an impact at the neighborhood scale as well. Jacobs wrote that "word does not move around where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking." Now it does. There are the people paused at the top of the subway stairs, occupying two spaces at once, one physical, one virtual. And in neighborhoods around the country-this one in particular-community online message boards and blogs are thriving, entirely in parallel with news passed stoop to stoop.

The "in parallel" part is crucial. Outside.In, a website designed to gather and organize neighborhood news, published a list of "America's Top 10 Bloggiest Neighborhoods." What was striking (but perhaps not surprising) is that all were living examples of the kind of places Jacobs championed: Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, Portrero Hill in San Francisco, Shaw in Washington. If the physical form of a neighborhood is conducive to community, so is its virtual form. But the other striking thing about the list was that all the neighborhoods were in a state of change-gentrifying or recently gentrified. It's certainly demographic: a neat and obvious alignment of hipster and blogger. But it also means that the newly emerging character of these places is being forged, at least in part, online. These are incontrovertibly real-world neighborhoods, but their community is as virtual as it is physical. With each year, we get better at navigating between the two.

Facebook and MySpace have begun to show how textured online group interactions can be. It's easy to think of social networking in terms of Hudson Street, and easy to think of Hudson Street in terms of social networking. Both are at their best when they can successfully balance the public and the private. In his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson-who, not coincidentally, created Outside.In-shows the similarities between the ad hoc, bottom-up life of the Web and that of urban neighborhoods. Yet so far, the two aren't fully feeding off of each other. Those bloggy neighborhoods excepted, we're not fully connected, neighbor to neighbor. But we're connected enough, I think, that the payoff is becoming visible: in a community where common ties are electronically buttressed, we may be able to reap the global environmental benefit of high-density living without sacrificing the local ties of a medium-density neighborhood. Jacobs's legacy may be crashing up against a conflict of scales, but this could soften the blow.

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I hope that we see more great stuff from Andrew, and others like him, that will continue to push out dialogue and thinking about blended urban reality to the next level. And in the meantime, hopefully critics that don't get it like The New Yorker's Paul Goldberger will retire and move to Florida (if they can afford to live in Seaside of course).

Technorati Tags: architecture, social networks, social software, urban, urban design

Anthony Townsend is a research director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, California.

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