Curry Chandler

Curry Chandler is a writer, researcher, and independent scholar working in the field of communication and media studies. His writing on media theory and policy has been published in the popular press as well as academic journals. Curry approaches the study of communication from a distinctly critical perspective, and with a commitment to addressing inequality in power relations. The scope of his research activity includes media ecology, political economy, and the critique of ideology.

Curry is a graduate student in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh, having previously earned degrees from Pepperdine University and the University of Central Florida.

Filtering by Tag: urbanism

Public space, the public sphere, and the urban as public realm

This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm. 

Introduction

Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.

To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.

The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.

This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.

Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett

Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”

Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.

Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”

The Modern City as Public Realm

In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.

In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.

Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.

Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres

Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.

Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.

Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.

Conclusion

There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.

Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.

Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.

These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.

The unreal urbanism of Pokémon Go

Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game's success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people's perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.

The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend's Game Boy in the late 90s, I've never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops.  We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.

Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game's widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people's homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games "lures") to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that "Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man":

I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.

Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go "is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities". Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking "a global wave of urban exploration". Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has "redrawn the map of what people find important about the world". City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed "Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur". 

Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: "No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur". At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to "resist Pokémon Go":

Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.

Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists.

Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on "the tragedy of Pokémon Go":

We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.

Pokémon Go's popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode "The Game," in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player's vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it's similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game's zombie-fying effects; we've grown accustomed to the fact that everyone's eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.

My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go's proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there's something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go's popularity. "Look," my wife would say, "I bet they're playing, too." After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, "Are you playing Pokémon Go?" Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we've just met, discussing play strategies, sharing  Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.

One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon's campuses and a hotbed of  Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it's something; there's an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.

Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game's popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.

 

Columbus wins DOT Smart City Challenge

The Department of Transportation has selected Columbus, Ohio as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. The winning city will receive a $50 million grant to fund the development and implementation of networked and "smart" transportation infrastructure. From the Columbus Dispatch:

Columbus’ application includes several other transportation innovations, including an autonomous vehicle test fleet at Easton Town Center that would pick up passengers at the COTA terminal and deliver them nearer to jobs at the shopping center. 

Columbus also wants to increase electric vehicle access in the city and improve communication between vehicles and infrastructure, which could help reduce crashes. 

A key point in the city’s bid was how the money could be used to improve Columbus’ infant mortality rate. Officials have said that improving transportation options in poor neighborhoods could better connect new and expectant mothers to health care services. 

As a Pittsburgher who has been following the contest for several months, I was very disappointed that Pittsburgh did not win. Not only would it have been a welcome victory for the city and local industry, but it would have been perfect for my dissertation project.

I was genuinely impressed and even moved by Pittsburgh's video component of their proposal, which presented a people-first approach that acknowledged past planning mistakes and continuing concerns about disparities among residents. You can watch the video here.

You can watch the other finalists' videos and read the full proposals at Network World.

A colleague who watched each city's video presentation agreed with me that Columbus' video pitch was the weakest, though he cautioned that the videos are ultimately irrelevant in relation to the process of selecting the winning city.

The DOT has pledged to help the other finalist cities implement their proposed transportation initiatives, and Pittsburgh leaders have also declared their intent to follow through with their Smart PGH plan. 

City space and emotion: Affect as urban infrastructure

For a change of pace this week, I thought I’d write about affect in relation to the urban condition. Specifically I am going to focus on Nigel Thrift’s chapters on spatialities of feeling from his book Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. Thrift begins the first chapter by characterizing cities as “maelstroms of affect,” and asserting the “utter ubiquity of affect as a vital element of cities” (p. 171). Thrift questions why “the affective register” has not formed “a large part of the study of cities,” and states “to read about affect in cities it is necessary to resort to the pages of novels, and the tracklines of poems” (p. 171).

I have to question what Thrift means by “the study of cities,” particularly in relation to the history of urban sociology. There is a lengthy history in this tradition of studying the affective register of cities, from Weber’s anomie and Simmel’s blasé attitude, through the emergence of modern criminology and social scientific studies of urban anxiety and the fear of crime.

There are, of course, prolific approaches available for studying cities. In addition to approaches from fiction and prose, and the aforementioned social scientific methods, there abound philosophical, psychogeographic, and theological engagements with urban life. One approach to the study of cities that has been especially amenable to the affective register is the domain of urban design and planning. Practitioners and commentators from this realm (who often, erroneously and unfortunately, mistake their practice for urbanism entire) have long used affective language to describe and design urban spaces: happy streets, friendly spaces, menacing buildings, etc.

Thrift is not explicitly discussing “smart” urbanization projects, but of course much of the analysis across these two chapters is directly applicable to such initiatives. Shockingly, Ernst Bloch also says much of relevance to smart cities in his 1929 essay “The Anxiety of the Engineer”. Thrift’s summation of Bloch’s “apocalyptic” vision of cities from that essay reads like a ripped-from-the-headlines encapsulation of contemporary urbanization trends: “Transfixed by the idea of a totally safe and calculable environment, the capitalist city is fixed and unbending in the face of unexpected events: ‘it has rooted itself in midair’” (p. 198). It’s a fantastic connection to make, though I despair at my ever-growing reading list.

Lastly, I want to touch upon Thrift’s discussion of the misanthropic city. My first reaction was to respond that cities aren’t misanthropic, people are; but then I recalled my recent trip to Las Vegas. Returning to the affective register of urban design, I must say that Vegas is certainly a misanthropic city. It is a city built for money, not for people. To the extent that it is built for people, it is designed not to affirm or edify humanity’s highest qualities, but is rather constructed to amplify our basest and most animalistic aspects. Compulsion, lechery, and stupefaction are the human attributes “celebrated” in that space. From an urban design perspective, Las Vegas is among the most misanthropic of cities.

Of course, Thrift is not referring to misanthropic urban design (although the invocation of infrastructure is an interesting, and perhaps fecund, reference point for urban affect), but to misanthropic attitudes and behaviors among urban denizens. I do not ascribe to calls for kindness and idealized sense of community in the city, as I find they are often simplistic and embarrassingly maudlin. Indeed, the disconnectedness and universal strangeness that has long been decried as manifestations of the inherent disharmony of urban life, are in fact principal among the reasons that I love life in the metropolis. Nevertheless, I do appreciate that amidst the anxiety and imminent catastrophe of urban life, Thrift finds spaces for kindness and hope.

Fantasy Lands: 5 urban truths I learned at Disneyland

“This book … intends to establish Manhattan as the product of an unformulated theory, Manhattanism, whose program – to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e. to live inside fantasy – was so ambitious that to be realized, it could never be openly stated.”

– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened its gates to the public for the first time. Opening day had its share of mishaps and technical hiccups, as would be expected of such an ambitious undertaking. Ultimately nobody seemed to mind, and the theme park was celebrated as a sensational success. The Disney theme park empire has only grown since then, with the original Anaheim attraction followed by the mammoth Disney World in Orlando, and international parks in Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Just earlier this week the company released new details about the staggeringly ambitious Shanghai Disneyland resort, expected to open next year.

In 2005, I was in attendance July 17th for the 50th anniversary celebrations at Disneyland. At the time I lived in Southern California, and even held an “annual passport” ticket that entitles the holder to multiple admissions for a year (not valid for admittance on the day of the anniversary, however). My then-girlfriend and I purchased our passes together, and made good use of them; we often boasted that the passports had paid for themselves several times over before they expired. For a while we managed a trip to the park every other Saturday. We spent so much time in Fantasyland we began to feel like citizens of the Magic Kingdom.

Of course, Disneyland doesn’t have citizens; it’s not a real town, there are neither residents nor residences (although Walt did keep an apartment in the Main Street fire station during the park’s construction). In Disneyland, everyone is a tourist (or an on-the-job employee, of course). For most people, a visit to a Disney park is a special occasion, maybe an annual event, perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Our regular visits afforded us the luxury of feeling familiar, being able to skip the overcrowded big attractions to discover something off the beaten path instead. Evincing a disdain for tourists that would rival any New Yorker, we weaved through slow moving crowds of gawkers and In a fake city, we really felt like locals.

Today is the 60th anniversary of Disneyland’s opening, and the occasion has prompted me to reflect on my experiences in Disney’s theme parks in light of my developing thoughts on urbanism. I’ve spent the past year immersed in literature on urban history, planning, and theory. Disneyland occupies a strange position in the world of urbanism. On one hand, the park has been acclaimed by planners and laypeople alike for embodying the principles of good urban design; on the other hand, its been decried for promoting the spread of cheap and generic environments, a corporate commercialized culture creeping beyond the theme park walls into the surrounding society. Looking back at my own experience, I had a surprising realization: Disneyland is where I learned to care about urban space. This will seem a sacrilegious sentiment to some, but as unbelievable as it may seem, it’s true for me. Recalling Baudrillard’s oft-cited claim that Disneyland’s artificiality mirrors the falseness of the surrounding civilization, it was within a simulated city that I came to appreciate the built environment. So inspired by this revelation, and in commemoration the park’s birthday, I have compiled the following list of five urban truths I learned at Disneyland.

  1. Carriages, Monorails, and other People Movers: the city and transportation

Transportation is a crucial element of city life, and a huge issue in urbanism. Urban planners are so passionate about transport that there are books, web sites, and podcasts devoted exclusively to the subject. Of course, this is just stating the obvious; consider how contentious the clashes between the entrenched transportation industry and “rideshare” newcomers like Uber and Lyft, or the clamor for bike shares and light rail in your own city. Modes of transport are so integral to the urban experience, that certain cities can be defined by the transportation they are most associated with. Yes, there are elevated trains, double-decker buses, yellow cabs, and cloverleaf freeway interchanges in many cities, but the association is strong enough that each of these transport infrastructures can serve as a synecdoche for an entire city (Chicago, London, New York, and Los Angeles, for those comparing notes).

Transportation is a big deal in Disneyland, too. Walt Disney loved model train sets. So much so, he built a railroad in the backyard of his Los Angeles home. Dubbed the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, it featured a steam-powered locomotive large enough that his children and their friends could ride it around the yard. That’s a big toy train set by any rubric, but Walt dreamed of an even bigger set. The Carolwood Pacific Railroad was a key inspiration for the building of Disneyland; the park is encircled by train tracks, and could be considered the largest model train set ever built. Even if a visitor does not include a ride on the Disneyland Rail Road on their itinerary, the prominence of the train’s place in the park cannot be missed: the Main Street train station is the first building guests see upon entering through the main gates.

The Disneyland Rail Road is just the tip of the transportation iceberg. The original Disneyland parking lot was just outside the main gates; visitors could see Sleeping Beauty castle from their parking spot. Today visitors park in a humongous parking garage and ride a tram to the front gates, since the original parking lot is now the site of the California Adventure park (appropriately, the Golden State-themed amusement park has an entire area dedicated to California’s car culture: Cars Land). Disney World ups the ante even further: from the parking lot, you approach the Magic Kingdom via the Monorail. These specialized methods of arriving at the gates convey the sense that you are transitioning from the mundane world, and prepare you for a special experience. Aside from the Disneyland Rail Road and Monorail, classic attractions included the Autopia go-kart course, the Skyway tram, and the literally-named People Mover. All these options allow visitors to experience Disneyland at different speeds, different scales, and from different perspectives.

How you move through a space will affect your experience of that space, as well as how life develops within it. Street layout, transportation infrastructure, and accessibility obviously impact urban life in many important ways. What I am trying to evoke in this urban truth is something fundamentally experiential, even phenomenological. In several cities in which I’ve lived, I’ve had the experience of walking along a street on which I had previously only driven through. Even if it is a street that I have driven on many times, such as my daily route driving to work, my experience of the street on foot is entirely different than how I experience it through the window of a car moving at 50 mph. You can become aware of something that you had passed by dozens of times without ever noticing; it is a way of rediscovering a place for the first time. Essentially, how you move through the city affects your relationship to it, and opens new possibilities for interacting with your environment.

The profundity of this experiential difference may be a key factor in why visitors find Disneyland so delightful. Many Americans do not live in metropolitan areas with robust public transportation and walkable, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. For someone like me, who grew up in a decidedly suburban environment characterized by the car-centric layout and lifestyle so common in the United States, a visit to Disneyland can be the first experience of walking for extended periods in an urban area. James Howard Kunstler, an urbanist and harsh Disney critic, writes about this phenomenon in his book The Geography of Nowhere:

Stripped of all its symbolic trappings and show-biz frosting, what Disney World sells is a scrap of public realm free of automobiles – or nearly so, except for a few props. […] As well as being free of cars, of course, Disney World is also free of the bad relationships imposed upon things and people by cars. Since there are so few places of any size with this characteristic in America, the experience is understandably exhilarating.

  1. The Windows on Main Street: caring about the built environment

One effect of becoming a “local” at Disneyland was that I started caring about aspects of the park that I had not even noticed before. For example: how many visitors to Tomorrowland do you think give any thought to the color scheme of the area? I had visited many times without giving the issue any thought, but in the lead up to the 50th anniversary events Tomorrowland’s color scheme became a heated topic of discussion. When Disneyland opened, the colors of Tomorrowland reflected a 1950s space age conception of the future: whites, blues, greys. For some these colors were associated with rockets, space vehicles, and the sky itself. Others also associated the color scheme with a 1950s optimism about the future and promise of space travel. In the 1990s, the land was repainted with bronze and copper tones as part of a “future that never was” re-theming of the land. This change likely went unmarked by the majority of visitors, but to an invested few the color change represented an ideological shift from optimism to pessimism toward the space program. Interestingly, the area was repainted with the original color scheme in time for the 50th anniversary.

This degree of awareness and concern for the built environment that urban planners, particularly vocal members of the New Urbanism movement, have been advocating for some time. The fact is, much of the built environment goes unmarked because it is so unremarkable. Blank walls and oppressive structures that repel rather than draw the eye. Caring about your environment and its condition can be a critical element of community engagement, and is often relevant factor in neighborhood change. I believe the key difference is a matter of investment: financial, personal, and otherwise. Unlike in Disneyland, citizens can benefit from being invested in their environment because they actually have a stake in it. Unfortunately, urban dwellers often take this for granted until it is too late and someone else invests in their community and stakes their own claim.

  1. Community of tomorrow: the planned city

In addition to his enthusiasm for designing environments and laying out transportation networks, there is evidence that Walt Disney dabbled in formal urban planning. In an article for Micechat.com, Sam Gennawey reports that Disney had one book on urban planning in his office: The Heart of Our Cities by Victor Gruen. Gruen advocated the “garden city” urban form that was very influential in the early 20th century. The urban planners and theorists working during this time had lived through a dramatic rise of industrial urbanism, and adopted a worldview characterized by a stark contrast between the pastoral, natural, and harmonious countryside, and the polluted, toxic, and chaotic city. These conditions contributed to a negative view of city life, and an anti-urban rhetoric that would dominate for much of the 20th century. The garden city movement was intended to right the imbalances of urban development and serve as a blueprint for harmonious cities. According to Gennawey, Gruen cited Disneyland as an example of ideal urban design. Indeed, comparing a map of Disneyland with the garden city layout reveals strong correspondences.

Walt Disney apparently shared some of the negative conceptions of city life that held sway during that time. Walt had grown up in a small town in Missouri, and it is believed that the layout and architecture of Disneyland’s Main Street was strongly based on his hometown. Much of Disneyland’s theming and narrative suggests not only nostalgia for past phases of American society, but also an idealizing of rural and small town life. This nostalgia must have resonated with many Americans in the 1950s, because Disneyland was a huge hit with the public. Disneyland had been built on Anaheim orange groves, a mostly rural area. But once the park opened and crowds began flocking to the site, the area surrounding Disneyland quickly developed with businesses seeking to profit from the crowds. The cheap motels and other questionable enterprises that popped up outside the park dismayed Walt; he felt they marred the family friendly environment he had worked so hard to establish at Disneyland.

Walt grew frustrated with his inability to control the urban development outside of his park, so he looked for a site where he could have control. Walt’s urban flight eventually led him to central Florida, where he clandestinely bought up swaths of land. This project was of course Walt Disney World, where Disney owned enough property they could build multiple theme parks and control the entire surrounding area. Now Walt could control what kinds of lodging and restaurants would be available to his guests outside the park, as well as make sure that even money guests spent out of the park would go to Disney.

The space available in Florida and the newly available level of control led Walt to take his urban planning ambition even further. EPCOT was not intended to be another theme park, but rather a real city. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow combined garden city ideals of urban design with a technocratic utopian vision. Walt died before he could see his vision of EPCOT come to fruition; it never did, and the EPCOT Center that exists today is part theme park and, as James Howard Kunstler adeptly puts it, part “half-assed World’s Fair.”

Curiously, the town of Celebration, FL is often cited as EPCOT’s legacy. Celebration is a “master-planned” community developed by the Disney company and connected to the Walt Disney World property. Aside from that, Celebration bears no relation to the utopian city of tomorrow that Walt envisioned. Celebration reminds me of another Florida town: Seaside, another master-planned community, designed by the firm of renowned architect Andres Duany. Seaside is often acclaimed as an exemplar of good design, ostensibly because it follows the tenets and ideals of the New Urbanism movement in urban planning. This may be the case, but I have never understood the praise heaped upon Seaside. In no way does it strike me as a place I would want to live. The town looks clean and well maintained, sure; but it seems fake and lifeless, as well. There is a reason that Seaside successfully stood in for a movie set in The Truman Show.

I am not arguing that urban space needs to be chaotic or decrepit in order to be authentic; indeed, I think this is a common fallacy among urban enthusiasts and city dwellers alike. I am suggesting that attempts at “master-planning” and controlling urban space are inherently flawed, and are not conducive to thriving communities. Now, I recognize that neither Celebration nor Seaside are cities, nor are trying to design urban space. Nor am I criticizing the worth of New Urbanism; reading Duany’s book Suburban Nation was a revelatory experience for me, articulating and elucidating why I had found the built environment so unfulfilling throughout my life, and it is my favorite book on urban planning. Rather, I am citing these two well-known examples of master-planned communities to highlight and criticize the impulse toward total control of development. Planning is not urbanism entire, it is not the only means of understanding the city; focusing solely on planning cannot offer a complete perspective of life in the built environment, just as the city cannot be understood by considering only its architecture.

In regards to the planning impulse in cities: I believe the modern era’s counterpart to the garden city is the smart city. Smart city rhetoric seems to me reminiscent of much anti-urban rhetoric, as well as early social scientific studies of cities from the early 20th century. The idea is that the city is a chaotic, entropic environment that needs to be reigned in and made harmonious. Richard Sennett has written beautifully on the value of the uncontrollable and unpredictable elements of urban life, what he calls “the uses of disorder”. Smart city rhetoric suggests that increased information (through smart sensors tracking data ranging from traffic flow to energy consumption throughout the city) will actualize the efficient, rational, and harmonious city. It is Big Data as solution to the urban problem.

Aside from gentrification, Disneyfication is one of the most decried phenomena by residents of major cities today. Disneyfication refers to the proliferation of corporate and commercialized interests in urban space, often at the expense of local businesses or public interests who cannot afford to compete with such companies. The effect of this development is the spread of cheap and generic buildings and environment with no sense of connection to the unique place in which they are situated. You can walk into any chain drug store in Manhattan and never have to orient yourself to the layout, because it will be uniform across all the stores. Similarly, their storefronts will all have identical facades, leading to generic and generalized streetscape. The stores could exist in any city, there is no signifier connecting it to that specific location. This Disneyfication is a direct result of Disney’s successful theme park designs. It is possible to interpret the Disney narrative and see this as unintended consequences of good intentions: back in Anaheim, Walt was concerned that visitors to his park were being taken advantage of by unscrupulous hawkers and peddlers outside the Disneyland gates. Furthermore, he couldn’t vouch for the safety of enterprises undertaken off his property. Disneyfication could be seen as an outgrowth of this impulse to create “safe” spaces.

In The Conscience of the Eye, Sennett wrote: “A city ought to be a school for learning how to lead a centered life.” It’s a beautiful ideal, and one that cannot come to fruition in a planned and controlled environment.

  1. Disneyland Hotel: the city for sale

In his essay “See you in Disneyland,” Michael Sorkin writes about the tourism and hospitality economy that developed around Disney World. Stating that at that time Orlando had more hotel rooms than Chicago or New York, he called Orlando “America’s capital of transience.” Disneyland is not a city; it is a resort, a playground for tourists. Guests pay to stay a while. This notion of city of transience, and city as tourist playground, has come to the forefront of city life today.

As economic practices continue to adapt to the changes of post-industrial capitalism, prominent new forms of labor and services have emerged. One of the most prevalent are the on-demand services sometimes referred to as the “sharing economy”. This emergence is exemplified in the popularity of services like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. The advent of car-for-hire services like Uber and Lyft has been tumultuous for taxi industries in major cities. Taxi drivers have protested in cities worldwide. Some cities have banned the taxi alternatives outright. Meanwhile, Airbnb (which essentially functions as a hotel alternative; ostensibly, private homeowners and tenants rent out their homes as accommodation) has received scrutiny in cities suffering housing crises, especially New York and San Francisco. Critics of the service view as essentially turning real cities into Disneylands: displacing residents in favor of a revolving door of transient tourists willing to pay the price of admission.

The issues raised by these services and their functions in urban economies lead to some fundamental questions the role of cities today. What is the city for? Should we view the city as a commodity? Or the city as service? For whom is the city? Who should the city be accountable to, and who should be accountable to the city?

These are questions I am currently considering in depth in my research. My home city of Pittsburgh does not face the housing shortages or Airbnb saturation of larger cities, nor is the taxi lobby here as robust as in Philadelphia, but Uber has established itself in the city. Uber has selected Pittsburgh along with a number of other cities for a hiring surge of new drivers. At the same time, the company has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to run a research lab in the city to develop robotic, autonomous cars that will eventually obsolesce and replace all the drivers they have hired. One more example of the preeminence of transience in the contemporary city.

This discussion of transience leads us to the fifth and final urban truth:

  1. Living in Yesterland: the city and change

Recently the web site Theme Park Tourist published a retrospective on a former Disney World attraction: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. The attraction (I’ll use EAE for short) existed in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland from 1995 to 2003. I got to experience EAE sometime in the late 90s, and I remember it vividly. First of all, it was a golden era for Disney World’s Tomorrowland: the “New Tomorrowland” period, characterized by theming the area as a functioning futuristic city (complete with re-theming the People Mover as the Tomorrowland Transit Authority) and featuring such attractions as The Timekeeper, the revamped Astro Orbiter, and of course, EAE.

I was elementary school-aged, visiting the park with my family. We found ourselves in New Tomorrowland toward the end of a long Disney World day. My dad took me with him to ride EAE while Mom and my sisters went to do something more their speed. As detailed in the Theme Park Tourist series, EAE was particularly intense for a Disney attraction. In an effort to prevent unwary parents from taking tots on the terrifying attraction and leaving traumatized, Disney plastered with queue area with warning signs. I must’ve read every one of those warning signs as the ride line snaked through the holding pen. “Warning: The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter my be too frightening for small children.” “Portions of this attraction take place in a confined space and total darkness.” “Warning: this attraction features flashing lights and pyrotechnics.”

The warning notices were effective: I was terrified the entire time we were in line. I remained terrified during both of the pre-shows. I was terrified entering the main show room: a theater in the round, with three concentric rings of seats facing the center of the room. And when, after taking a seat, a Disney crewmember lowered restraints onto my shoulders and locking me in, I was petrified. But then the attraction proper got underway, and something wonderful happened.

The show was not nearly as unrelentingly vicious as I’d been imagining. Instead, it was a delightful combination of tongue-in-cheek humor, cutting edge special effects, and pop sci-fi storytelling. As the auditorium filled with screams (some genuine, some forced, some piped in through hidden speakers), I started laughing, and I continued laughing for the duration. The fears I had projected onto the unknown proved unfounded; the drama of a howling space beast breaking free of its cage and rampaging around the room devouring unwitting humans was nothing but good, clean fun. When it was over, I walked out grinning, and wanting to immediately get back in line for another go.

That experience of an amusement park attraction nearly twenty years ago has remained a potent and positive memory. As far as Disney vacation memories go, it’s easily one of my best; a fond recollection of being thoroughly impressed by a real E-ticket ride. It’s also a dear memory of time spent with my father. Sure, sharing a theme park ride may not register as much of an experience for the zealously cynical and jaded, but for me there was something unquestionably profound in that experience: while in line I was afraid and wanted to leave, but dad knowingly did not indulge my overblown anxiety (rest assured, I was old enough to handle to EAE). Having gone through the experience, I found that the ultimate cause of my anxiety had been my own imagination, and came out the better for it knowing it had been worth it. Joy was the reward for having faced my fear. This is a terribly important life lesson, irregardless of the medium through which it is communicated. The fact that a theme park is an artificial environment doesn’t preclude the possibility for real, meaningful experience to occur there.

The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was closed in 2003 and overhauled into an attraction called Stitch’s Great Escape. In the new version, the berserk alien beast is replaced by a cute cartoon character who gets loose in the theater and farts in the audience’s faces. In fact, most of New Tomorrowland is gone. I have many other examples from various Disneyland attractions that have either been removed or altered. The disappearance of the Carousel of Progress; the addition of a Johnny Depp animatronic to Pirates of the Caribbean; the replacement of Star Tours with an entirely new version. Each of these irked me in some way. Perhaps you have your own examples. Changes like these can be affecting because they alter the landscape of our memories. If you return to those places, you can’t help but remember what used to be there, or how it was before. Such changes are not always experienced negatively, but they are noticed.

Returning to the question of city life, I am reminded of something Colson Whitehead wrote in The Colossus of New York:

No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. That before the internet café plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.

Obviously, the maxim about “the only thing that is constant” does not apply only to cities, or to Disneyland. It is a universal precept, but one that can be difficult to accept, especially when it affects our pasts and personal histories. The city is change. Cities are not static, but constantly changing; that dynamism is integral to their vitality.

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