The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behavior of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads of principle emerge among them.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities  (via hello88goodbye)

Reformers have long observed city people loitering on busy corners, hanging around in candy stores and bars and drinking soda pop on stoops, have passed a judgment, the gist of which is: ‘This is deplorable! If these people had decent homes and a more private or bosky outdoor place, they wouldn’t be on the street!’

This judgment represents a profound misunderstanding of cities. […] The point of…the social life of city sidewalks is precisely because that they are public. They bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion.

The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eyeing the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded. Customs vary: in some neighborhoods people compare notes on their dogs; in others they compare notes on their landlords.

Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized. And above all, it implies no private commitments.

Jane Jacobs, “The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)


In short, street life cultivates trust among the public towards one another. It may not be as intimate as the relationships we keep with our friends, family, or neighbors, but having faith in the public is something worth maintaining: one public sidewalk contact at a time.

The sense of a public identity, and their connectedness in place, in collaboration with the built spaces of the city, is the source of that trust that Jacobs writes about. And we lose that when we try to force people into private commitments, or private spaces.

(via hayuriza-deactivated20140202)

It’s when West switches the conversation from infrastructure to people that he brings up the work of Jane Jacobs, the urban activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs was a fierce advocate for the preservation of small-scale neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village and the North End in Boston. The value of such urban areas, she said, is that they facilitate the free flow of information between city dwellers. To illustrate her point, Jacobs described her local stretch of Hudson Street in the Village. She compared the crowded sidewalk to a spontaneous “ballet,” filled with people from different walks of life. School kids on the stoops, gossiping homemakers, “business lunchers” on their way back to the office. While urban planners had long derided such neighborhoods for their inefficiencies — that’s why Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York, wanted to build an eight-lane elevated highway through SoHo and the Village — Jacobs insisted that these casual exchanges were essential. She saw the city not as a mass of buildings but rather as a vessel of empty spaces, in which people interacted with other people. The city wasn’t a skyline — it was a dance.

If West’s basic idea was familiar, however, the evidence he provided for it was anything but. The challenge for Bettencourt and West was finding a way to quantify urban interactions. As usual, they began with reams of statistics. The first data set they analyzed was on the economic productivity of American cities, and it quickly became clear that their working hypothesis — like elephants, cities become more efficient as they get bigger — was profoundly incomplete. According to the data, whenever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t matter how big the city is; the law remains the same. “This remarkable equation is why people move to the big city,” West says. “Because you can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.” While Jacobs could only speculate on the value of our urban interactions, West insists that he has found a way to “scientifically confirm” her conjectures. “One of my favorite compliments is when people come up to me and say, ‘You have done what Jane Jacobs would have done, if only she could do mathematics,’ ” West says. “What the data clearly shows, and what she was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.”

West illustrates the same concept by describing the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary research organization, where he and Bettencourt work. The institute itself is a sprawl of common areas, old couches and tiny offices; the coffee room is always the most crowded place. “S.F.I. is all about the chance encounters,” West says. “There are few planned meetings, just lots of unplanned conversations. It’s like a little city that way.” The previous evening, West and I ran into the novelist Cormac McCarthy at the institute, where McCarthy often works. The physicist and the novelist ended up talking about Antarctic icefish, the editing process and convergent evolution for 45 minutes.
Of course, these interpersonal collisions — the human friction of a crowded space — can also feel unpleasant. We don’t always want to talk with strangers on the subway or jostle with people on the sidewalk. West admits that all successful cities are a little uncomfortable. He describes the purpose of urban planning as finding a way to minimize our distress while maximizing our interactions. The residents of Hudson Street, after all, didn’t seem to mind mingling with one another on the sidewalk. As Jacobs pointed out, the layout of her Manhattan neighborhood — the short blocks, the mixed-use zoning, the density of brownstones — made it easier to cope with the strain of the metropolis. It’s fitting that it’s called the Village.

In recent decades, though, many of the fastest-growing cities in America, like Phoenix and Riverside, Calif., have given us a very different urban model. These places have traded away public spaces for affordable single-family homes, attracting working-class families who want their own white picket fences. West and Bettencourt point out, however, that cheap suburban comforts are associated with poor performance on a variety of urban metrics. Phoenix, for instance, has been characterized by below-average levels of income and innovation (as measured by the production of patents) for the last 40 years. “When you look at some of these fast-growing cities, they look like tumors on the landscape,” West says, with typical bombast. “They have these extreme levels of growth, but it’s not sustainable growth.” According to the physicists, the trade-off is inevitable. The same sidewalks that lead to “knowledge trading” also lead to cockroaches.

Consider the data: When Bettencourt and West analyzed the negative variables of urban life, like crime and disease, they discovered that the exact same mathematical equation applied. After a city doubles in size, it also experiences a 15 percent per capita increase in violent crimes, traffic and AIDS cases. (Of course, these trends are only true in general. Some cities can bend the equations with additional cops or strict pollution regulations.) “What this tells you is that you can’t get the economic growth without a parallel growth in the spread of things we don’t want,” Bettencourt says. “When you double the population, everything that’s related to the social network goes up by the same percentage.”

West and Bettencourt refer to this phenomenon as “superlinear scaling,” which is a fancy way of describing the increased output of people living in big cities. When a superlinear equation is graphed, it looks like the start of a roller coaster, climbing into the sky. The steep slope emerges from the positive feedback loop of urban life — a growing city makes everyone in that city more productive, which encourages more people to move to the city, and so on. According to West, these superlinear patterns demonstrate why cities are one of the single most important inventions in human history. They are the idea, he says, that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity. “When we started living in cities, we did something that had never happened before in the history of life,” West says. “We broke away from the equations of biology, all of which are sublinear. Every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. There is no equivalent for this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally faster than a mouse.”

- Jonah Lehrer, A Physicist Turns the City Into an Equation

(via underpaidgenius)

Elinor Ostrom and Polycentricity

I recently learned about Elinor (Lin) Ostrom getting the Nobel in Economics last year, and her work (with her husband, Vincent) on collectives goods management. I plan to read her book, Governing The Commons, as a thread in the fabric of web culture.

From that work:

An important challenge facing policy scientists is to develop theories of human organization based on realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations in dealing with a variety of situations that initially share some or all aspects of a tragedy of the commons. … Theoretical inquiry involves a search for regularities … As a theorist, and at times a modeler, I see these efforts [as being] at the core of a policy science. One can, however, get trapped in one’s own intellectual web. When years have been spent in the development of a theory with considerable power and elegance, analysts obviously will want to apply this tool to as many situations as possible. The power of a theory is exactly proportionate to the diversity of situations it can explain. All theories, however, have limits. Models of a theory are limited still further because many parameters must be fixed in a model, rather than allowed to vary. Confusing a model – such as that of a perfectly competitive market – with the theory of which it is one representation can limit applicability still further. (pp.24-25) (via Crooked Timber)

I am also fascinated by the concept of polycentricity. Again from Crooked Timber

Lin spends a lot of time (albeit less than she used to) in the field, soaking up practical knowledge which informs her work in striking ways. She is hands-on in a way that very few economists, political scientists or sociologists are. It is also interesting to note that the Nobel committee pays specific attention to the political implications of her work.

Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories.

This reflects what she and her husband Vincent refer to as “polycentricity,” a normative approach to governance which stresses the degree to which higher levels of government should not crowd out self-organization at lower levels. Her work implies that both pure marketization and top-down government control can have badly adverse consequences for resource management, because they rob individuals of the capacity to govern themselves, and because they both lead to the depletion of important forms of local collective knowledge. Alex Tabarrok is right to see something Hayekian in Ostrom’s arguments – but it is Hayek against Hayek. Ostrom stresses repeatedly that even the best functioning markets are undergirded by an array of collective institutions which order people’s market interactions, and that in the absence of such rules, self interested behaviour will have highly adverse consequences. Perhaps the closest parallel to Ostrom’s work is Jane Jacobs’. Obviously, Jacobs was not a social scientist and didn’t write like one, but both straddle the divide between libertarian and left politics in very interesting ways that challenge some of the underlying assumptions of both.

Political realities must be grounded in local issues or they are ideological or tyrannical. The culture that shapes out interactions is often ignored by economists, who deconstruct culture when reducing people to pure economic or analytic units to makke their models work.

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Umair Haque Is Another New Spatialist

Umair Haque makes an economist’s argument about the devaluation of relationships because of social media, suggesting that what is going on, here, online is not as cool as the social media gurus would have us believe. He compares this to the real estate bubble:

Umair Haque, The Social Media Bubble

On the demand side, relationship inflation creates beauty contest effects, where, just as every judge votes for the contestant they think the others will like the best, people transmit what they think others want. On the supply side, relationship inflation creates popularity contest effects, where people (and artists) strive for immediate, visceral attention-grabs — instead of making awesome stuff.

The social isn’t about beauty contests and popularity contests. They’re a distortion, a caricature of the real thing. It’s about trust, connection, and community. That’s what there’s too little of in today’s mediascape, despite all the hoopla surrounding social tools. The promise of the Internet wasn’t merely to inflate relationships, without adding depth, resonance, and meaning. It was to fundamentally rewire people, communities, civil society, business, and the state — through thicker, stronger, more meaningful relationships. That’s where the future of media lies.

I think, first off, Umair is undervaluing the utility of weak ties, which is what the socializing online largely creates. Mark Granovetter and others have shown that it is through those that we are weakly connected to that we are most likely to get a job or meet a future mate. Likewise, they are extremely important for the transmission of ideas across different social groups.

But the central point that Umair is making is that social media — or social tools in general — are not doing a great job in certain areas:

  • Making strong ties stronger — He suggests that because we are creating and expending time on a growing number of weak ties then we are diminishing our involvement with intimates. I think this is debatable. While the time I spend writing this blog or twittering could in principle be applied to talking to loved ones directly, in reality many of my closest friends read this blog and my twitter stream to remain in contact with me, at no extra cost (here I am adopting Umair’s economics jargon). This in no way weakens my strongest ties, and certainly is the wellspring of thousands of weak ties.
  • The power laws lead to popularity contests — Umair skews the logic of the power laws that underlie influence online. Yes, it is true that a small number of social media participants have exponentially greater influence than the rest, but this does not necessarily mean that what they are talking about is unimportant. It is not just Casablanca v Farmville, as he styles it. Thinkers like Larry Lessig and David Weinberger (and Umair and me, by the way) are sharpening their axes everyday, and having an impact. It isn’t all ‘10 tips for packing’ or Farmville.
  • The social revolution is bigger than this — Maybe Umair is standing too close to the SxSW hoopla, and can’t see the changes that are going on. We are being changed, as individuals, as a society, and particularly mainstream media. But the largest impacts are still ahead of us.

I do agree with the shadow of his argument though, which is the fact that social tools don’t go far enough, and certain critical areas in social theory just haven’t percolated through at all.

I wrote several posts last year based on talks I gave on this theme: see Better Social Plumbing For The Social Web, and The New Spatialism. In the second, I advanced the idea that we need the equivalent of the new urbanism movement for social tools. Based on the (flawed) metaphor that we are creating something like a shared space online, I suggested that we need to be new spatialists. Just as the new urbanism movement rejected the massive and dehumanizing architectural approaches of the ’60s and ’70s, which led to the destruction of vibrant although noisy and messy neighborhoods, and replaced them with concentration camp-like highrise tenements and inhuman urban cores designed to streamline traffic instead of walking your dog.

Maybe that’s what Umair is hinting at: our existing social tools are making some things easy, but the hard things aren’t being done at all, or at least, not enough. Maybe he’s a new spatialist, and he wants more Kivas. Me too. But there are things like Ushahidi emerging, too.


Here’s a very different take on this, the talk I gave several times last year, but never wrote up. The notes accompanying each slide are included, and I have only updated them a little.

What? Yet another call to action?

I am going to intentionally push a metaphor a bit too far. However, in the past, whenever I created metaphors and overdid it, it has worked out. I suggested years ago that email would die off; there is more email than ever, but a generation has grown up that distrust it, and use it only as a last resort. I had an insight in 1999 that social tools would emerge as the dominant form of communication media, as we actively sought to shape culture, and today the most important advances in the web are deeply social.

Now, I am suggesting that what we think of as social has first of all, not gone far enough: it’s really not very social at all.

Second, I am afraid that the corporate types have moved in and commoditized the little bit of social that we got right.

And lastly, I end worrying about the governance of this social space we’ve emigrated to, on the web.

I am calling for a return to the basic principles of social tools, and a movement of web denizens — designers, developers, and the lowly, lowly users — to push hard to reclaim the web.

We may have to stop thinking about this using the mercantile model — software ‘products’ that we ‘use’. Social connection on the web is nothing like buying and ‘consuming’ kleenex or ketchup. The fact that we have repurposed the concepts of buying Excel or choosing an O/S on our computers may be leading us astray when we talk about and think about social software on the Web.

Ten years ago, when I started blogging, it wasn’t called blogging yet. I thought I was writing an ‘e-zine’ although it had all the characteristics of a blog: reverse chronological entries, categories, and so on.

We were like pioneers, fooling around out in the wilderness, cutting crude roads, building villages.

Relatively soon, however, this personal publishing by the fringe lunatics became big business and old media arrived. Now the leading ‘blogs’ are either run by old media giants, or bloggers who have become new media giants. Social media has been strip-malled. The funky soulfulness of the early days has been replaced by SEO, ad networks, and ersatz earnestness.

The reality is that so-called social media — even in its earlier, Birkenstock and granola days — wasn’t very social. We didn’t call it that until much later, anyway. We thought of it as personal publishing, and it adopted the basic dynamics of publishing. Most notably, there was a publisher or author and then there were readers. It seemed more egalitarian since anyone could be a publisher, but still there was a broadcast media dynamic despite the fact that anyone could argue or agree with someone else’s posts on their own blog. Then for a few years, we just called it blogging. Rhymes with slogging, because, in the final analysis, most people didn’t blog: too hard, too much work, not rewarding enough.

And the problem may be the publishing metaphor, itself.

But the format is perfect for publishing companies, which is why the largest ‘blogs’ now are generally corporate media machinery. And as the blogosphere has become an increasingly corporate neighborhood, people are moving out.

Sprawl = developer’s decisions in the face of a zoning system based on an earlier reaility, not taking into account the impacts dowstream, and which leads to way way suboptimal results.

Developers own the land, zoning doesn’t require sidewalks: ergo, no sidewalks.

I visted Noida, a suburb of New Delhi in India. I couldn’t understand why the streets did not meet at the same height at intersections. There was very commonly a gap, filled with sand, and the streets were of different heights. Turns out the developers of different blocks were building the streets, and there is no master plan. So there is a chaotic mess, which is sort of workable, but which is a hassle for hundreds of thousands of drivers everyday.

Using an analogy from city planning and architecture, we need a rethinking of the basics: something like the New Urbanism movement, that tried to reclaim shared urban space in a way that matches human needs, and moved away from gigantic and dehumanizing cityscapes of the mid and late twentieth century, where garbage trucks seemed more at home than a teenage girl walking a dog.

Note: this was a response to urban ‘renewal’, which led to the inhumanification of shared spaces: towering housing projects where diverse and active communities stood. And also to suburban sprawl and the rise of edge cities as many fled the ‘inner’ cities, and distanced themselves from their problems.

New urbanism is utopian because it (at is core) operates on the assumption that caring can be built into cityscapes, or dehumanizing behaviors (like ignoring the man bleeding on the sidewalk) can be avoided by getting the streets and parks right.

So, we need a New Spatialism movement, to rethink web media and reclaim the social space that is supposed to be central to so-called social media. Some web media may just remain what it is, like an industrial district at the edge of town. But at least some parts of web media should be reconceptualized, and reconstructed to get back to human scale. Just as New Urbanism is about organizing streets, sidewalks, and plazas to support the growth of social capital, New Spatialism would help us channel interactions on line to increase sociality, and thereby increase the growth of social capital.

New Spatialism is based on the idea that our primary motivations for being online are extra-market drivers: we are not online for money, principally. We have created the web to happen to ourselves: to shape a new culture and build a better, more resilient world, for ourselves.

And we need better media tools than we have at present, to make that a reality.


Deconstruction may be more important that new planned communities.

Now we are having an economic reset, and malls are being repurposed all over America. Many cities are being ‘rewilded’ where entire neighborhoods are being deconstructed and turned back into wilds, instead of block after block of abandoned residences.

(There’s real opportunities for urban food belts, too.)

I noticed a few years ago that comments seemed to be moving from blogs into faster paced social tools, like Facebook and then streaming apps like Twitter. (Twitter has become so popular that most of the competitors have closed shop). People are moving to where things are more social, where the author/audience divide is less sharp, and where the scale of interaction is human-sized. This is the new loft district: social networks.

Social networks are truly social, where web media isn’t, very.

Social networks are really about individuals and their personal relationships with others. So, if web media is to really become social — which it isn’t at present — we need to take what we have learned from other, more social tools, and take another run at social media.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common;
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

as Twitter has become the bedrock underlying a growing and dynamic neighborhood of the web, how will it be governed?

Side story about instant messaging interoperability — which we still don’t have. A world where Jabber — an open source standard — did not make real headway against AIM (and later Yahoo and MSN). The justice department failed at the AOL / Time Warner merger to force this. And we have all been disadvantaged as a result.

From one point of view, Twitter is an application owned and operated by Ev and his colleagues, and our use of the app is controlled by the terms of the service agreement we all checked ‘OK’ to. From this point of view, they are free to do whatever they want, and we have the freedom to take a hike if we don’t like it. Or gripe, or write a petition. But otherwise we have little recourse if in fact Twitter Inc. decides to screw up replies (the #fixreplies mess has *not* been resolved yet, by the way), or makes other changes to functionality that degrades our experience.

It may seem that we have no grounds for any sort of complaint. After all, it can be argued that we aren’t paying anything, just freeloading on their largess, and they have borne all the costs.

On the other hand, their astronomical valuations — what they are using to pull in hefty amounts of paid-in capital from investors — is directly related to our participation. Without us using Twitter, by the millions, Twitter would just be a bunch of software cogs in a cardboard box. It is our animation that makes Twitter worth a billion dollars, not just the cleverness of the developers and the openess of their APIs.

To a great extent, Twitter is ours, like the air we breathe.

So, how will Twitter be governed? As a tool owned by a company that is owned by the inventors and some wealthy investors? Or as a world in which we live, and in which we have inalienable rights?

The entertainment business tried to say they owned all art, all music, all movies. We know they are artifacts produced by our culture, which we share with the artists, and the controls that the entertainment business thought they had — copyright and DRM — have failed with the digital and web revolution.

So, here we have the same revolution, come home again. Twitter’s world — its conventions, meaning and use — is our artifact: we have built it, 140 characters at a time, just as the Twitter developers have been building the platform underneath our feet. But it is our dancing that makes the house rock, not the planks and pipes. It is us that makes Twitter alive, and not the code.


I hope I can persuade Umair to think of this in new spatialist terms, not just looking at it through economics. It is the extra-market aspects that are the most interesting, and ‘quiet enjoyment’ of a city is not just about what it costs to live there.

If we want social tools to be more humane, to help us to be more human, we should talk about it in the broadest possible terms, and for me that’s anthropology, not economics.

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