By Jeff Ferzoco is the Creative and Technology Director for Regional Plan Association.
In a powerful example of seamless integration of people, data and cities, Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics’ Pothole app – which sits on your car’s dashboard and reports bumps in the road through your phone’s built-in accelerometer – leverages a road’s intended activity to identify its flaws. You connect rubber to the road, then your phone tells a server what that rubber felt – giving way to hard hat, shovel and asphalt.
The invisible lines and vectors between people, things and physical structures are vital in every manifestation of urbanity. Connections between people. Between data and reality. Between buildings, materials and environment. It’s all being re-imagined, and the ways we live, interact with and interpret cities is changing fundamentally. Cities may be holding reign as the place of connections, chance encounters, innovation and activity. That reign – as I saw two weeks ago in attending the Urban Systems Symposium – is being appropriately examined as the digital realm slips seamlessly into the human experience, and subsequently informs the physical world, forcing us to re-examine where the boundary of a city – the definition of ‘urban’ – lies.
We look at the smaller places that support the larger as urban spaces in their own, supportive light. These places enhance the system, keep it strong. Urbanity is not just density – it may turn out to be closer to an emotion that we don’t yet understand. Your informed, digital proximity makes it clear there are more people like you, that you belong here. That’s something that hasn’t been fully measured, but it’s the 21st century and we are ready to start.
There’s also a lot more talk of scale, but with an eye to lessons from the past. We are suspect of the grand, deterministic visions laid out in past centuries. But we like scale. It’s efficient and complete in thought. It helps us identify broad, uniting gestures to create economic and equitable engines, like Paul Romer’s forward-thinking Honduran metropolis.
But the challenges of scale – financial, human, political – still remain and need to be addressed. It is happening. New cities are materializing in struggling places, older cities are changing from within – guided by the people that feel something for the nature of the city and care a great deal for the future.
My team will shortly begin Regional Plan Association’s new Tri-State Regional Plan, disassembling the lessons of the last 30 years, then reassembling them as a new manual for the next. I’m inspired by what I saw two weeks ago. It’s loaded with inspiration, built on the brick-and-mortar as well as the bit-and-byte. It’s a recipe that merges the invisible and the visible, with the end goal of creating a whole place, system and human experience in a way we’ve not seen before. It’s inclusive – given we do it right – and informed by people’s needs tapping into William Holly Whyte’s humanist explorations through collected mobile phone patterns and GPS re-routing, which can be an analog to sun moving slowly across a plaza, exposing the need, guiding the citizen, changing behavior.
Our task now is to gather all the possibilities and start understanding better what is really emerging in front of us. And from what I saw, the knowledge and enthusiasm is there – almost as if we’ve been waiting to start.
Right now, there’s a real chance for revolution in planning, and the folks at the Urban Systems Symposium were all very aware of it. They came together to build ideas and trust, and left with a lot remaining to take apart and understand, but a lot better for it.
Jeff Ferzoco is the Creative and Technology Director for Regional Plan Association. His focus is on how information, design and technology can be used to help people in cities and regions better understand the challenges and issues that face them.