the urban prospector

Searching for Golden Opportunities in America's Cities

A City is a Machine for Creating Networks.


IMG_5835-sHow can someone determine whether or not a use is good for an urban setting? What makes one use better than another? Is this simply an issue of preference, or is there a framework of analysis that can be used to make this determination?

Urban areas are incredibly important. They are hubs of commerce, culture and knowledge. Throughout history, vibrant cities haven’t simply been a hub for one or the other, but rather they tend to come together. Ancient Greece contained several bustling harbor cities with traders coming from across the Mediterranean; markets full of goods and throngs of customers. Greece was also the site of the greatest learning and knowledge; discoveries included the Pythagorean Theorem and the first calculation of the diameter of the Earth. Simultaneously there was also a great amount of literature and drama, including the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The concurrent existence of great commerce, knowledge and culture during the Ancient Greece is not a coincidence, but rather a function of cities and good urban design. The agoras of Ancient Greece provided market space for thriving commerce. They provided space for discussion and gathering. Crowds coming for their daily shopping needs were bound to have some level of interaction with the philosophers, scientists and artists. Networks were formed that allowed these ideas to be communicated through to a larger number of people. Likeminded individuals were more able to find others to discuss and develop theories and arts. Merchants had a wider array of basic goods from which to build more specialized businesses and industries.

At the terminus of Market Street is a market that acts similar in many ways to the ancient agoras.

At the terminus of Market Street is a market that acts similar in many ways to the ancient agoras.

In modern industrialized cities, while market places similar to the agoras are not as common, the same social interaction occurs. Coffee shops, restaurants, bars and parks provide places where people can gather, talk, and generate new ideas. Whether it’s Manhattan, San Francisco, or another city, the people working in Café’s don’t simply benefit from the caffeine. They benefit from the ability to talk to new individuals who are able to provide them inspiration and even assistance. The networks created in these locations are essential to their success and vibrancy.

Networks may be one of the most important features of our civilization. Street networks with small blocks and frequent intersections are capable of handling efficiently large amounts of traffic and providing many efficient routes to a destination. Brains with dense neural network show significant increases in intelligence. In both cases, the more dense the network, the better it is at transmission. In the case of the street network, the transmission is of people; in the case of brains, the transmission is of information. Social networks are a way for civilization to transmit and generate information. It is the generation and transmission of information that allows civilizations to progress.

Cities maximize their function by maximizing the number and variety of networks that are sustainable. A typical city may have a decent rock scene whereas a more connected city will have a punk rock scene, a metal scene, a pop rock scene and so on. In well networked communities, people are able to find groups that more closely align with their interests and personalities. Techies can find other techies. Artists can find other artists. Biochemists studying the potential uses of fungi for industrial packaging can find other biochemists studying the potential uses of fungi for industrial packaging. It is out of these specialized networks as well as the intersection of different networks that new ideas, cultural movements and industries arise.

Networks consist of nodes (people) and connections. This means there are two strategies cities can follow for maximizing networks;

  • increase the number of nodes
  • increase the number of connections

Part of the maximization of network capacity is the increase in population density. The larger numbers of people in cities allow individuals to have wider social networks potentially connecting them to more information regarding business, ideas, and culture. Furthermore, the larger number of people allows for higher degrees of specialization of networks. At the same time, if taken too far, a very dense city becomes overwhelming, spaces become oppressive, and sociability decreases.

The other strategy is to increase the number of connections. To do that, people need to interact. While some interaction can take place in people’s apartments and places of work, the real capacity for interaction is in the public realm and third spaces. Creating high quality third spaces and public spaces is essential for cities to maximize their creative potential.

When it comes to creating networks, not all urban forms are created equal.

Outdoor seating provides many options for increased interaction among customers and pedestrians.

Outdoor seating provides many options for increased interaction among customers and pedestrians.

There are land uses that are more apt to creating networks than others. While that does not mean that these uses that do not spontaneously create networks should not be permitted, it does mean that their location should be highly analyzed. A primary determining factor of whether or not a land use helps create new networks is the amount of individuals visiting the place in a day. Residential and Office uses, though essential for daytime and nighttime population densities, do not generate a large number of individuals visiting compared to other uses. Some offices are better than others; an insurance office is going to generate more individual trips than a back office use. A great use in terms of bringing in a large number of different people is retail. Retail is predicated on the need to have many individuals stopping in for short periods of time. With this large number of people coming and going, there is a greater chance of individuals meeting and creating new networks. Additionally, displays of products and other items may help seed new conversations among window shoppers. Restaurants, cafes and bars have a similar, if not greater impact since they not only bring in large numbers of people, but also sit them down in close proximity. These uses that generate high turnover need to be maximized (based on economic capacity) and located in the most important spaces.

Ample amounts of seating help make Patricia's Green a much more sociable place. (Especially compared to its former life as an elevated highway).

Ample amounts of seating help make Patricia’s Green a much more sociable place. (Especially compared to its former life as an elevated highway).

Public spaces also differ in their ability to create networks. There are a great number of lifeless city plazas and parks whose lack of use should disqualify them from consideration as public space. Sometimes this is the result of the lifelessness of surrounding areas, but often it is the result of the design. Public spaces that are completely exposed to the elements, and lack seating will not be enjoyable places to spend time. Design of public spaces to create sociable space isn’t just an art; there’s a science to it. The work of individuals like William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl has documented the ways that people use and relate to public spaces. Whyte’s project “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” should be mandatory reading/viewing for anyone interested in the design of public spaces. One of the greatest conclusions from this effort is, “People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.” Seems kinda obvious, until you visit a park or plaza lacking in seating space. Designing public spaces to ensure a maximum amount of usage will help cities maximize the connections between individuals.

Even skateboarding is a social means of transportation. This picture was taken moments before this individual gestured his extreme dislike of my photography.

Even skateboarding is a social means of transportation. This picture was taken moments before this individual gestured his extreme dislike of my photography.

Transportation also affects the ability of people to make connections in a city.Walking is perhaps the greatest form of travel based on the ability to build connections. It is easy to stop and chat for a few minutes. Bicycling, while often too fast for conversation does make it easier to greet friends and acquaintances. Public transit creates the possibility for connections. and is much easier to start up conversation with strangers. Perhaps the worst form of transportation on this account is the private automobile. Cars create a social bubble around their drivers, isolating them from their surroundings. Cities that prioritize more social modes of transportation will be more connected and more friendly.

In this era of reurbanization, with large scale developments in cities setting the path for the next half century, cities must be designed to create the maximum benefit. Currently many cities are being designed in ways that detract from the connectedness of the space. Blank ground level walls, seatless parks, ground level parking and other design flaws not only create a negative aesthetic, but actually detract from the capability of cities to increase knowledge, culture and economic growth. Successful cities of the future are the ones spending their time today making sure people have the space to connect with others. A city is a machine for creating networks; its design must match its function.

3 thoughts on “A City is a Machine for Creating Networks.

  1. Cities are not machines. Clocks, trains, etc. are machines, they have mechanisms. Urban systems do not. But mostly, urban systems are not teleological. Even if they could fill some human purposes, like “enhancing our networks”, bla bla bla, they do not have objectives, purposes. On the contrary, they are an emergent property, a tetra-dimensional process, which btw reading your article proves once again, that we do not know that much how they function.

    • The Cities are Machines…. is inspired by LeCorbusier’s “Houses are machines for living.” Though I can’t stand his take on urban design and think he did significant damage to urban areas through his ideas, his framework for analyzing a house is pretty great. Though cities are not actually machines, I think analyzing them and their design through this framework will be beneficial.

  2. Pingback: A City is a Machine for Creating Networks | Reading Development

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