What are Cities Trying to Tell People?

“Does a city speak?”

This provocative question – posed by Saskia Sassen (pictured above) – opened the recent Mobilities in Cities: From Visible to Invisible conference at Columbia University. It’s hard to deny that a city has life, but does it live and communicate?

Sassen has explored these ideas before: the juxtaposition of technology – ephemeral, artificial, and quite often invisible – against what she calls “the urbanizing vector.” More often than we would like, cities fail to respond to an application of technology upon them, or respond in unexpected ways. This, Sassen says, is a city’s “voice,” its way of speaking back.

More specifically, Dr. Sassen presented the question: What happens when the automobile, in many ways an impeccably-designed feat of engineering, encounters a vibrant, downtown urban street, teeming with life, whose every quality serves to frustrate and obstruct its high-tech capabilities? In such a situation, with its mobility-technology effectively neutralized, the automobile is rendered fairly useless for transport.

Yet technology, in its shiny and distracting way, remains alluring as a cure-all for the city’s ills. And the automobile is perhaps as good an example of any of a promising technology that fails to perform as advertised in this environment. Still, we remain as obstinately attracted to it as junkies are to the drug.

Sassen isn’t anti-technology. Quite the contrary, she is a technophile who perhaps is simply skeptical of the salesman’s pitch regarding automobiles. “I have never owned a car in my life; I’m not planning on owning a car” was her disclaimer at the opening of the conference. “Yet I am fascinated by the automobile.” (Her conference, somewhat ironically, was sponsored by Audi’s Urban Futures Initiative.)

Sassen’s speakers, a group intended to be as diverse as are the cities themselves, embarked on a wide-ranging exploration of mobility in urban places, with perspectives ranging from historical to futurist. Sassen and her speakers explored a range of ideas on the topic:

  • Richard Sennett, professor of humanities at New York University, discussed how motion came to dominate cities even more than their function as dwelling places. Streets, which had been the public space for socializing, commerce, and recreation, became exclusive to transport. Over the past century, cities increasingly removed pedestrians out of the way of traffic, to maximize a vehicle’s speed. But nowadays in New York and elsewhere, walkability has regained some ground, and we are returning to village ideals of cities as human-scale environments.
  • Eric Miller, professor and director of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto, discussed how in big cities the car is not the answer to mobility, but walking and biking aren’t viable either. Transit depends upon a very precise and complicated system of supply and demand. The role of a transportation system, Miller maintains, is not providing mobility but rather access, and this is in large part dependent upon the way the city is designed.
  • John Urry, professor of sociology at Lancaster University, recognized that the automobile is no longer an effective way of getting around, but is instead a highly coveted status symbol. Changing our transportation system away from the automobile is not about changing individual behavior but about changing a system. How do you subvert a system’s characteristics?

Sassen, an eloquent and fascinating speaker, is obsessed with cities, particularly the ways in which technology impacts them and vice versa. Her idea is that at times technology can “hack” cities and that cities can “hack” technology right back.

So, back to the question, does the city speak? And, in particular, what does it say to the automobile? Sassen doesn’t answer this question directly. But at the conclusion of the conference – after listening to the compelling speakers and re-emerging onto the clogged streets of Manhattan – the answer seems clear: cities are communicating. Will we humans dare to listen?

The Mobilities in Cities conference is available for viewing on YouTube.

Splash photo by the author. Story photo courtesy Wikimedia.

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