The militarization of urban construction sites

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2011

OK, so I’m going to do my poor-man’s-BLDGBLOG schtuck here. Thinking back over the period of my life in which I’ve been a city-dweller (1994 to the present), construction sites have become increasingly fortified and walled off from the city itself. This is not exactly surprising: construction sites are full of stealable stuff with high resale value, and urban buildings are far more tempting to squatters, guerrilla artists and other fringe-culture oddballs (like the late-nineties club-kids who used to climb scaffold-clad buildings for kicks in the early hours of a Sunday morning while the disco-biscuits wore off*).

What is surprising, however, is how solid and permanent they’re starting to look. Scaffold and tarpaulin is for amateurs; check out this emplacement that’s currently blocking Lena Street in Central Manchester.

Construction site fortifications, Lena Street, Manchester UK (click for embiggenation)

It looks more like a fortified guardpost you might find in Baghdad or Fallujah or somewhere like that; an armoured beachhead in hostile territory. Which is, I expect, exactly how its creators/owners think of it… but that mode of thinking, that desire to slice out and secure little sections of the city, kind of concretizes a corporate attitude to the increasingly interstitial flux of a large urban environment. It’s a bulwark against chaos and entropy… and the increasing hardness and permanence of these structures suggests that urban entropy is getting harder and harder to defend against. (I mean, there’s gotta be a clear cost-benefit to building something like this; otherwise why raise your overheads?)

I can’t get the image of this thing out of my head, ever since I first saw it a few weeks back; it has so many things to say about the state of this nation – and the world at large – in these troubled times, but the deeper meanings are still unformed and unclear to me. So I might just sit down with a collection of Situationist essays for an hour or two and see what they manage to stir up… or wait for some clever architectural philosopher to give me starting nudge.

[ * As a sensible and law-abiding citizen, I naturally know only of this dangerous and thoroughly illegal pastime from rumour and legend. SRSLY. ]


Portugal plans ‘smart’ eco-city

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2010

OK, so ‘smart’ is a persistently misused word in the modern context (my smartphone isn’t smart; damn thing can’t hold a decent conversation for more than a minute or two), but nonetheless: the northern end of Portugal will, if all goes to plan, play host to a designed and networked ecological city, wired to the gills with sensors and systems to control the consumption of energy and water. Unsurprisingly (and in keeping with the general trends in ecological product marketing) it has a stupid smug pun of a name:

Like other sustainable cities, PlanIT Valley will treat its own water and tap renewable energy. Buildings will also have plant-covered roofs, which will reduce local temperature through evapotranspiration, as well as absorbing rainwater and pollutants.

Yet that is where the similarities with other eco-cities end, according to its makers Living PlanIT based in Paredes. For a start, PlanIT Valley will be built closer to existing transport links than the likes of Masdar. More significantly, its “brain” will use data collected from a network of sensors akin to a nervous system to control the city’s power generation, water and waste treatment (see “Brains and nervous system”). It’s a kind of “urban metabolism”, says Steven Lewis, chief executive of Living PlanIT.

While this network of sensors sounds expensive, the cost of installing it will be offset by using more efficient building techniques.

Rather more utopian and blue-sky than the Cisco city-in-a-box, then, which – one presumes – focusses more closely on the infrastructural bang for the buck required in the rowing economies of Asia than on touchy-feely eco-gubbins; one suspects some sort of mid-point between the two might be an ideal worth aiming for.

While PlanIT Valley is obviously a well-meaning project, the designed city doesn’t have a wonderful history of successes, at least not here in the UK; anyone who has ever visited Milton Keynes will know what I’m trying to say here. As pointed out in the article above, it’s all very well to build a technological marvel of an urban space, but all bets are off until people move in and actually start building a community there… and as even the most casual student of utopias will be aware, it’s usually the people that cause the problems rather than the buildings that house them.

[ Why, yes, I am feeling rather pessimistic today – how did you guess? ]


Cisco’s City-in-a-Box for the Asian expansion

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2010

Most urban environments have accreted gradually over decades and centuries, but the changing economies of the Far East demand modern city infrastructure for millions of people where none existed before, and fast. Enter Cisco Systems, the network hardware people, and their new ‘product’: an off-the-shelf city suitable for a million fully-wired inhabitants [via @BLDGBLOG].

Delegations of Chinese government officials looking to purchase their own cities of the future are descending on New Songdo City, a soon-to-be-completed metropolis about the size of downtown Boston that serves as a showroom model for what is expected to be the first of many assembly-line cities. In addition to state-of-the-art information technology, Songdo will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gases of a typical city of similar size.

[…]

It’s easy to see why Cisco is intoxicated with the possibilities: According to a study by investment bank CIBC World Markets, governments are expected to spend $35 trillion in public works projects during the next 20 years. In Songdo alone, Cisco sold 20,000 units of its advanced video conferencing system called Telepresence – a billion-dollar order – almost before the ink had dried on the contract, said developer Stan Gale, the chief visionary of the project.

“Everything will be connected – buildings, cars, energy – everything,” said Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s Bangalore-based chief globalization officer. “This is the tipping point. When we start building cities with technology in the infrastructure, it’s beyond my imagination what that will enable.”

Environmental efficiency and digital infrastructure can only be good things to include in a from-scratch city, but one can’t help but wonder if these places will suffer from the same coldness and lack of character that Brutalist urban planning scattered across Europe in the post-war years. The designed environment is an old, old concept in architecture, but it’s one that has never really delivered on its utopian promises.

But given the migrant magnetism of urban areas in Asia (and the Global South, as well, where Cisco’s cities may well find another place to call home), we can expect a rapid accretion of undesigned and emergent occupation and use to crop up in the interstices, in the spaces in between. How long will that take? How successfully will the designed city (and its ecosystem of law enforcement and local government) resist (or embrace) such end-user hacking? Lots of fresh data for psychogeographers coming down the pipeline…


Bughunting in the city’s software

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2010

Ah, internet serendipity – a few days after my post about SeeClickFix and systems for crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system*, Adam “Speedbird” Greenfield posts about improving “frameworks for citizen responsiveness” [via Chairman Bruce]:

So how would you close the loop? How would you arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that the issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?

In a talk I heard him give a few months back, technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. He pointed out that, during his time at Google, employees turned the tools developed to track open issues in software under development toward other domains of common experience, like the shuttle buses the company provides to haul them back and forth between San Francisco and Mountain View.

When hassles arose with the bus service, employees treated them just like they would known issues in some application they were working on: they entered their complaints into an existing bug tracker, which provided each case with a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully…and perhaps most importantly, the name of a party responsible for closing out the ticket.

The general insight Jyri derived from his experience got me to thinking. An issue-tracking board for cities? Something visual and Web-friendly, that’s simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing? Heck, that begins to sound like a pretty neat way to address the problems with systems like 311 and FixMyStreet.

Seems pretty logical (and pretty much what SeeClickFix are aiming towards, albeit a lot more fully featured and comprehensive). That said, the system relies on the same sort of user tenacity that any big collective project requires: making it easier to see where pressure needs to be applied still requires that the pressure to be applied, if you see what I mean, and maybe it’s naive to hope that the majority of citizens will care enough to get involved (because the vast majority of, say, Ubuntu users, certainly don’t bother doing much beyond turning up and asking n00b questions that five minutes of searching would solve for them**). Then again, lowering barriers to participation, so on and so forth… maybe if it’s done right, people would use it.

Or perhaps this is the natural outcome of geeks developing ideas for the wider world: they’re gonna be geeky ideas, and geeky ideas don’t always float the boats of everyone else. Is Greenfield’s framework just another case of everything looking like a nail when you’re well-versed in hammer deployment?

[ * “… crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system…” Yeah, I know, I felt awful typing it, but there’s no less pretentious way of saying the same thing without using another two dozen words, so Web2.0 speak was the only way out. I blame the future. ]

[ ** I fully include myself under this admittedly damning and sweeping indictment. ]


Want to see the city of the future?

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2010

Start looking for machines to replace. [via Tim Maly]


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