October 28, 2013

The persistence of data and slow urban death


One day you may never again sit in traffic at 4pm in the rain, hear that song from 20 years ago on the radio and then wonder whatever happened to your ex from college. There is no need because you will never sit in traffic, the radio is customized to your listening profile, and you still talk to your college ex on Facebook. You still talk to all your exes actually, so you never need wonder "what might have happened?" had you stayed with that person.  The relationship never died.

Urban planners use tools like zoning, economic development hubs, urban design, and historic preservation to create a better living environment.  Yet better for whom? The question of values has frequently been discussed within planning theory, and over the years planning has shifted to include participatory processes, advocacy models, and mixed systems of governance.  There is no universal definition of better, and yet, I would argue while attempts have been made to diversify the planning process, a preconceived ideal still dominates the outcome.  

Today the "big thing" is the creation of smart cities.  Distributed systems of digital sensors and wifi networks blanket over 140 cities in the world to create highly efficient traffic systems, disaster relief, and energy efficiency.  Computing heavy weights like IBM and Microsoft are heavily involved in creating the technologies and working with governments on such systems.  Media channels cycle through progressive articles on these smart systems.  Whoever designs the software designs the future.

I have a love/hate relationship with these technological systems for urban management.   I am a technology creator so obviously I subscribe to many of the benefits.  Yet for smart cities, it seems that all of these efficiencies are narrowly fine tuned to accommodate a universally implied yet generally undefined ideal. Replicated across cities, and undercurrent of imposed values channel all societies toward a particular standard for living and all cities eventually conform.  By putting efficiency before humanity, the buzzing chaos of auto-rickshaws in New Delhi or the thumbing bass of Kenyan matatu's ripping down the city streets could easily become a thing of the past.

The economic advantages are obvious.  We could solve the problem of climate change.  But I foresee that these technologies allow us to mechanize cities to achieve maximum capital valuation of land and space.  While Hernando De Soto advocated the creation of legal documents to turn shanties into real estate, these newer technologies transform real estate into machines. Mechanized and optimized, our buildings generate lower carbon footprints and buses run unobstructed. 

But the data never dies.  It simply accumulates, ever minute of every day, for hundreds of years.  Every fluctuation of weather is documented, and so is every criminal act and social protests.  Market fluctuations are recorded and correlations are identified deep within the data architecture that would be considered by most observers to be entirely spurious.  But the algorithm knows.  It builds it's own programs within programs.  It doesn't need us to understand.  In the essence of being participatory, our urban technology centers dump terabytes of data back into cyberspace every quarter second to be picked up by sophisticated trading algorithms.

Perhaps eventually the persistence of digital memory supersedes the collective.  We forget ourselves and we forget the notion of environmental change.  The city can no longer transform across time because it is too hyper-efficient to necessitate change and civilization is halted as every social process. We forget ourselves and fade away.  All that is left is a digital memory, factored into a NASDAQ exchange, stored in a hard drive,  and then lodged away in darkness.

October 17, 2013

Using Graffiti to Predict Insecurity in Afghanistan


Last spring I documented informal graffiti and political imagery throughout Kabul.  The result was over 1000 records of graffiti, which after carefully combing, resulted in about 800 data points.  Each data point is classified according within 15 different categories.  These categories include key words, language used, translation, political association, ethnic association, surface description (public building, private residence, private business etc.) and so on.  The goal was to identify geographic points of emerging social tension, utilizing graffiti as an indicator of resistance among youth.  Then I got distracted by other engagements.

But I've recently returned my attention to the matter and have started running the analysis.  The map below reveals one of the recent findings of the project, over lapping the linguistic distribution of messages with the ethnic and political content.  The yellow identifies graffiti that is purely written in Farsi, while the Red concentrations identify concentrations of Fari and Pashto.  Farsi is the dominant spoken language in Kabul, and it is interesting to note that Pashto graffiti is never isolated, but always located amid dense clusters of Farsi. (Note: If the embedded map does not load in your feedreader, please go to the original article source here).

The green squares signify locations of contentious rhetoric.  Many of these messages are critical of ethnic groups, are xenophobic, or criticize the government.  Some of these messages support the Taliban.

A rare example of protest graffiti in English. SSLLC 2012.
The points on the map where a green square sits on top of a red section identifies sections where there is a linguistic friction combined with an overtly political message.  Based on these two variables, the intersection of the green square and the red cluster are areas of highest social friction.

Notably, some of these locations have been known points of resistance in the past.  The cluster in the lower left (just above Qala-e-Shada) hosts Kabul University and a public park that is frequently the site of protest rallies.  The two square situated directly below the "U" in "Kabul" was the site of the Ashura suicide bombing in 2011.  It is possible that using only these two variables, that the current finding is mere coincidence.  But as several classifications of data remain , it will be possible to drill down with continued analysis.

I'm particularly curious about the concentrations that are not presently linked to a previous act of protest or violence.  What about these sites creates such a hostile and turbulent environment?  As all the data was collected in March/April of 2013, I am now running the project again.  I am using the same techniques and plan to capture the same size data-set.  I hope to see how the pattern changes, and more importantly, I hope to see where it stays the same.  By identifying the location of sites that do not change, then I can follow up with closer qualitative investigation of those sites.  Also by running the study again, I hope to to get closer to a better question - not where will points of insecurity or protest occur, but when?

October 14, 2013

The Dark Side of Urban Resilience

Segregated Distribution of Resources.   Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012, Turkmenistan.
Resilience is a much loved subject these days. I have written extensively in the past about the over reliance on trends in the field of urban planning, including the notion of resilience. But of course there are times that these concepts can be useful, if at least, as a point of reference when exploring a problem. There is also some excellent work out there on the subject, most notably the research undertaken by Diane Davis. Recently, I was discussing with a client the overlap between escalating gang violence the over-burdened transportation system in Tegucigalpa, Honduras when a very simple, but overly ignored notion, occurred to me. The same systems of resilience that are believed to improve cities are also the same systems that undermine their progress.

Before I explore this further, I feel it is necessary to give some background on my understanding of resilience. Earlier this year, in June 2014, I was invited to attend a two-day event entitled The City Resilient, in New York City. Hosting a diverse collection of experts to explore the role of resilience in cities, it was clear that no universally agreed upon definition exists for this concept. I'll never forget when the question "what is needed for resilience" received a response from one guy of "dog parks." I understand his point (nodes for social interaction etc), but if I were to tell the Mayor of Kabul, Mohamed Yunis, to build a dog park... lets just say I'd rather not.

Resilience theory was first introduced in 1973 by Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling and is founded on the premise that humans and nature co-evolve as a single socio-ecological system and this system is constantly in flux. Resilience does not consist of a linear pathway but is composed of interrelated feedbacks, is self organizing, and adaptive. To assess the how a system can engage and absorb stress is to establish not only a series of measurements for a singular system, but to also measure the interaction of micro-systems. Within resiliency theory there is no true homeostasis; rather resilience entails flexibility and turbulence.

From an urban planning perspective, I suspect resilience is a difficult concept to use because a resilient urban system is not necessarily the most efficient. Resilience is about decentralization, a concept frequently at odds with city budgets, management practices and the politics of city government. Constant flux also goes against the grain of the planning profession. The inability of urban planners to implement the concept of resilience is in many ways the fault of the disciplinary structure, as planning is a positivist discipline that attempts to solve problems by implementing empirically organized procedure, and is most often exercised through the construction of large-scale projects such as sports stadiums, shopping centers and residential housing complexes.

In the end, we are left with old school empiricists trying to embrace a fluid concept. Or we might have more dynamic thinkers limited to antiquated tools. Or maybe the tools - dog parks - appear trivial but it is impossible to measure the impact? In many ways, this problem summarizes much of what I find frustrating about the planning profession - the problems are engaging, the empiricism is satisfying, but the tools and the objectives are constantly outdated or are actually irrelevant. Unfortunately, like any discipline, the perception of the participants is restricted by mastery and engagement with discipline itself - this it the same reason thousands of kids go to art school every year to be uniquely creative but as an aggregate, churn out art that all looks the same.

Anyway, the interaction of fragmented, seemingly disparate urban phenomena within the built environment is critical to the sustainable wellbeing of a resilient settlement. To intervene in a manner that adds more pieces to the problem, more micro-systems, is to congest the city and undermine its resilience. I believe this problem can be dealt with in many ways, if we were to adopt a more Bayesian and sequentialist approach to the problem, such as embraced by my own Integrated Planning Process™. But regardless of the method, we can identify that observable benefits and improved health of one site is often due to the offset conditions of other locations, one location enjoys business growth yet an adjacent market weakens. This is not to imply a zero-sum scenario but merely to identify that overall capacity toward sustainable development is not improved. In contrast, the increased resilience is actually a redistribution of existing resources, but often not.

This is where the role of resilience becomes more complex when utilized as a method to improve cities. This also how resilience can harm a city. When an urban environment is healthy, there is a multitude of linkages, and a multitude of "spaces of flow" (to borrow from Castells), which allow the circulation of resources. Yet when an environment is insecure due to crime, war, or insurgency, the instigators of conflict appropriate the micro-systems that contribute toward urban health for their own means (either directly or indirectly). Roads and irrigation systems that once supported the local economy now become systems for the production and shipping of drugs, facilitate the proliferation of arms, and mobilize insurgent fighters. Adjacent micro-systems respond to these changes and the overall urban fabric of the settlement takes on a new shape. The more linkages and circulatory spaces, the more success a broadly distributed network of illicit activity will be able to succeed. The faster the disease spreads and embeds itself, the more resilient it becomes. Eventually the landscape conforms to the demands of the disease - the farms fund the bad guys, the streets serve as their delivery routes, and the cops work for them.

The negative influence of bad guys does not exist in a vacuum. To be clear, an ongoing socio-economic and cultural transformation of the community under the power of the militant group is reflected within the built environment. Drug cartels in Latin America are dependent upon the same transportation, agricultural, and economic systems as everyone else. Understanding the built environment within a conflict is to recognize the nuances of the multi-tiered stage on which conflict is played out. Those who understand the terrain and can connect the terrain to the community will have an advantage and will be resilient to change. But those who have the power to reorient the shape of the urban fabric and restructure the resilience of the site will control the outcome. So by this argument, if I tackle the traffic problem in Tegucigalpa (nowadays considered the most dangerous city in the world), I have the potential to also impact the complex criminal networks that presently dominate the landscape. But to do so, I must identify precisely how the traffic functions within the criminal system.

If the resilience of crime functions upon the same systems of resilience that help communities, establishing security and stability for socio-economic growth is more than a simple matter of removing the people who initiate violence. Security and positive urban resilience requires interventions into to the built environment to reshape the urban fabric so as to maximize local resources, not just redistribute them. But what we do call an intervention designed to remix the building blocks of resilient systems and transform them into socially productive components? I like to call it nothing but good planning.

October 7, 2013

The Linguistic Substructure of Cities and Settlements


Does language affect the organization of urban settlements?  While culture or economics are typically identified as major variables in urban form, the impact of language on patterns of urban settlement remains unexplored. As social scientists have wrestled with the role of language in society for over 100 years, it seems bizarre that the subject has been ignored by urban theorists.  But before we can explore the possibilities, we must first ask, does language influence thought? 

Early efforts to examine this question were based on ethnographic observation by western anthropologists who frequently lacked a sufficient understanding of the language they studied.  For example, it was thought by Warf that the Yonomami tribe lacked the ability to plan for the future because their language did not contain a future tense.  He argued the tribe remained "primitive" because of this linguistic obstacle.  But such arguments tend to quickly fail when applied to different geographies.  For example, Japanese does not contain a future tense, yet the Japanese have been leaders in developing technologies and modernizing the world.   Given the weakness of Warfian ideas on language, for many years it was believed that evaluating the role of language and thought was and impossible task.

However breakthroughs  have been made to understand the psychological impact of language on thought through temporal and spatial distinctions.  Differences in navigational ability and spatial knowledge of language have been discerned among languages that use absolute reference frames vs. relative reference frames.  For example, aboriginal tribes in Australia do not use words such as "left" or "right" but rather always indicate location according to cardinal directions of North, South, East, and West.  Consequently, speakers of languages that utilize absolute referencing have been found to maintain full spatial cognizance of direction and location, even in unfamiliar landscapes or buildings. 

To realize the specific role of space and language,  I cannot but help look at Aboriginal art (as above) but through new eyes as every element exist within a specific spatial context.  Given that aboriginal art is frequently a representation of Dreamtime, and the living geography is conceptually mapped by Aborigines as manifestations of mythic dreamscape, who also utilize an absolute linguistic framework,  the artistic abstraction becomes concrete map, giving the viewer absolute location to a parallel reality.

The ability to interpret space is fundamental to understanding an array of social and cultural interactions.  It also is important to comprehend abstract concepts, such as differences in musical pitch or even the conceptualization of human emotions or time.  To test temporal progression, researchers provided test subjects with an array of cards and asked them to "lay the cards in order."  English speakers would lay the cards left to right, Hebrew speakers from left to right, and speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre arranged the cards from East to West, and depending on the direction faced by the person doing the task, shifted the cards accordingly (Boroditsky).  Furthermore, English speakers tend to conceptualize time as a horizontal process.  Mandarin speakers have been found to conceptualize time as a vertical progression.  English speakers often refer to time as a duration (a quick walk...) while Greek and Spanish speakers refer to time as a quantity (many hours).  

Within the field of urban planning, there is a common discussion of urban form and also regional differences, such as the organic organization of Islamic cities vs. the traditional Roman grid plan.  To what extent do these distinctions have a foundation in linguistic differences?  In part would could hypothesize that he Roman grid is a necessity to maximize efficiency (perhaps a cultural value?) and avoid directional confusion in a society that utilizes a language with relative spatial framework.  If the language were more absolute, citizens would be able to rapidly navigate any possible road formation and reach their primary destination.   

Chinese Linguistic Landscape (Source)

Research has also found that cities can shape language, primarily through social discourse, but can the urban experience of density and resource distribution effect language? Advertising and signage can function as a linguistic landscape, informing the urban environment, and reciprocally informed by context.  The city is not a blank canvas strewn with text, but rather, functions in relation to the text.

Ultimately, if language is the infrastructure for our ability to envision space and time, then it must be a substructure for urban settlement.  Exactly how remains unknown but I would love to hear from anyone who has explored the subject.  It would also make an excellent graduate thesis.