The continued maturation of the internet, from a select set of information-providers to a huge crowd of users who create our own content, has been a defining shift for my generation (well, at least for some of us). We have some real examples of how collective efforts of informally organized actors have successfully developed into highly sophisticated systems. The crown jewel of this era is probably Wikipedia's decisive win over Encyclopedia Britannica. Hundreds of thousands of mostly-benevolent volunteers have incrementally grown a body of knowledge from the bottom up that surpasses in breadth and depth the prevailing institution of experts operating from the top down. This is an amazing feat, and it keeps growing.
Many have made the conceptual connection from this online paradigm shift to the physical world of cities. Steven Johnson's 2002 book Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software has been highly influential in this regard. The concept of the emergence of urban complexity, whether of medieval cities filled with meandering donkey paths or of the slums of Mumbai, has reverberated throughout social media and academia ever since. Australian Dan Hill's recent article on Emergent Urbanism flirts with the idea of the unplanned city:
I'm fairly sympathetic to these ideas, and I certainly recognize that the self-organizing potential of cities goes back to Jane Jacob's organic metaphors (the last chapter of Death and Life) and certainly well before this. Still - and maybe this is just my personality - I want to reach for the brakes just as the concept reaches a level of exuberance. Pure self-organization can be taken too far.
"One might even argue for the removal of all planning guidelines and structures. After all, most of the world’s great cities are not the product of planning, no matter how enlightened. Certainly some have been well-formed by benevolent dictators or patrons, yet their personality has come from the slow accretion of individual citizens adopting and adapting those spaces, like ficus thriving on béton brut monuments."
Equating the bottom-up potential of online networks with the human construction of the physical space of cities has some deficiencies that should be recognized before deciding on a balance between fixed structure and fluid evolution:
- The internet does actually need a foundational structure to function. Online networks are both dependent upon and shaped by multiple layers of structure that are, at least to some degree, fixed and imposed "from above." There is the hardware of computers. There is the fundamental software (operating systems, programming languages) and the web-based platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube). From the perspective of the end users, it appears as if the operative force is each of us collectively shaping the complexity of networks through individualized actions. But this is only because the underlying structure is much less visible than its surface level expressions. In reality, they both work together.
To follow the analogy, cities would be formed by a similar wedding cake of authority, ranging from a federal government defining loose contours, to local governments refining them, and to individual actors painting within the lines. The relative weights given to each layer will perpetually be debated, but this seems to be how decisions that affect the public realm are actually made. This is planning, as far as I understand it.
- Unlike the internet, physical space is made up of fixed relationships. Our only experience of physical space is through an embodiment in a particular place at a particular time, and movement through space requires energy. Therefore, individual places are fundamentally and immutably connected to each other in a way that nodes on a online network are not. An adjoining website cannot block your sun, cut off your access, influence your property values, pollute your air. You do not have to see, smell, hear the adjoining website unless you choose to. Of course, there is no such thing as an adjoining website. The relationships of an online network are completely voluntary and malleable almost instantly. This is not the case with land.
- Land is more limited than online real estate. During the era of manifest destiny in United States history, it appeared as if the western frontier was a limitless expanse of land ready to be formed by European settlement. We eventually ran into some hard limits of productive land and natural resources, hence the birth of the modern environmental movement. Although there are technically limits to the capacity of the internet, it is still in the stage of apparent limitless expansion. The emergence of online networks does not necessarily teach us lessons about how to arrange complexity within constrained space.
- Modern land development happens at a scale and with an irreversible impact that is not necessarily conducive to incremental change. Wikipedia has emerged through the collective action of millions of tiny additions and alterations from thousands of actors, each operating with the benefit of instant feedback from prior changes. The economies of scale and financial structures of modernity compel most development to happen in large chunks: mega-projects, entire subdivisions, shopping malls. Raymond Unwin, back in 1909, noted that this distinction is what makes modern development different than the fabled medieval organic models of growth:
- Although it seems counter-intuitive, emergent systems online depend upon a civic bargain and mechanisms for self enforcement of these rules. Clay Shirky explains how this works for Wikipedia:
"The basic bargain of a wiki means that people who care that the site not be used for pranks have the edge, because it takes far longer to write a fake entry than to fix it."So even the anonymous mobs of the internet have a code of conduct, a shared sense of mission, and a means for enforcing it. Those who construct physical space may have been governed by a similar set of purely social moral suasion at one time, but the scale of modernity once again seems to require a more rigid set of laws to protect the common good. Spiro Kostoff on this point:
"The structure of city-from - the integration of uses, the concatenation of passages and nodal points - could possess the sort of coherence demonstrated by Old Dehli, and this is in the absence of municipal authority to police and an articulate public space, only because the social structure was well formulated, and tradition stood as the guarantor of a consistent modus operandi. Without the force of tradition and a consolidated social agenda, unsupervised city-making will succumb to disorder."
"The very rapidity of the growth of modern towns demands special treatment. The wholesale character of their extension almost precludes the possibility of our attaining that appearance of natural growth which we have admired in the medieval town, where additions were made so gradually that each house was adapted to its place, and assimilated into the whole before the next was added. We already see in the modern suburb too much evidence of what is likely to result from any haphazard system of development. Modern conditions require, undoubtedly, that the new districts of our towns should be built according to a definite plan"