Let’s consider two things.
The first: over the next forty years, we will build as much urban fabric as was built in all the previous ten thousand years of human history combined1. The second: every two days—and at a rapidly accelerating rate—we now collect and store more information than the total amount of information captured between the start of recorded history and the last decade. This information is increasingly spatial, and, more than ever, urban in its origins and character.2
But data is not knowledge. This enormous increase in urban fabric, and in information about it, is inseparable from an equally radical increase in uncertainty surrounding our cities’ future, which emerges primarily from the inherent unpredictability surrounding the inevitable effects of man-made climate change. As is already becoming apparent, the coming century will bring cycles of flood and drought, urban damage and civic recovery, that will drive dramatic mass population changes—with arriving refugees and departing exiles—as seen in no century before.
The ability of cities to survive and thrive in the face of this kind of predictable uncertainty has been widely termed resilience3. Yet this word—from the Latin resiliēns, describing a mechanical spring’s return to form—carries little clue about how such a quality can be achieved. So for all its currency, resilience also implies—through its spring-sprung origin—the impossible. That is, it indicates a near-perfect reprise of a previous state of being and (perhaps worse) a singular and linear means of attempting it.
For what we are beginning to know about how cities actually work tells us that they are not very much like springs. Instead, they resemble, well, us—the complex organisms that collect in and constitute them. Like us, cities are adaptive, self-sustaining systems with interconnected metabolisms. When in good health, they can recover from astonishing injuries. But cities can also—under other circumstances—prove remarkably fragile. And, unlike the lacework of human physiology, the webs of urban metabolisms are only partly physical. They are, most of all, economic and social, and so synthesized out of that most immaterial of substances, information. In this light especially, it is impossible to truly imagine physical resilience without social, cultural, and economic resilience as well.
This book is an attempt to address the question of how information, cities, and resilience can be considered together, and how many different kinds of resilience—all interconnected and each one essential—can be imagined and created in concert. In particular, it proposes an information-inspired, physical resilience that is designed, above all, to support its social, cultural, and economic counterparts. The tools for this proposal are the media of architecture and the city—some old, some new, and some crafted specifically in the course of the work. From the Latin “middle element” or lens, media has come to mean, handily, both tools and ways of seeing with them; the work here attempts to be both.
The drawings on these pages speculate about possible futures for 3,659 abandoned and underutilized sites in three large, representative American cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. And one small, special European one: Venice. The focus on these spaces arises from a unique yet confluent characteristic of these sites. The same spaces generally abandoned and avoided by normal urban mechanisms of occupation, exploitation, and use turn out to have several very essential qualities in common: from an ecological perspective, they tend to accumulate in parts of the city—downhill, downstream, down-at-heel—where ecological interventions are most transformative, and best buffer the city against physical threats, from floods to heat waves. From a social and economic perspective, such sites are positioned precisely in those communities traditionally denied access to parks and public space. And their remediation is, as a result, also likely to have a remarkable, and predictable, benefit to public health and social well-being.
Before the availability of digital mapping tools, finding and imagining futures for such sites was an exercise in herculean bookkeeping and singular imagination. Before widespread digital information about cities made analysis of their complex qualities possible, speculation on the complex, adaptive qualities of opportunistic urban networks took another, special kind of foresight. Inspired by such visions, this project is indebted to a second kind of media: that of previous ideas, speculation, and experiment. It is in an attempt to trace the possibilities of mechanisms of thought, as well as the making that results, that the 3,659 drawings in this book share space with three essays, examining episodes from the history of ideas that have inspired it.
As the last decades of evolutionary biology have taught us, adaptation and change does not take place through anything resembling optimization. Rather, they take place along what the biologist Stuart Kaufmann was the first to describe as a “landscape of adjacent possibility.”4 And if this book is an attempt to trace such a landscape in the fabric of abandoned space in the city, it is also an attempt to trace a similar, related set of transformations in the landscape of ideas that surround this work. For ideas, too, are adapted and transformed things. We forget this as often as we forget that every seemingly new piece of architecture is a remaking—of site, of material, of event—as well. And so the particular focus of these essays is how three fundamental precedents of the design work enclosed here were themselves the product of adaptation, circumstance, and, even, to a large extent, urbane serendipity.
These stories begin and end, as many do, in New York City. They start with an instrumental, and unfinished, project by the architect and artist Gordon Matta-Clark: Reality Properties: Fake Estates, which inspired much of what you now hold.
Between 1971 and 1974, Matta-Clark spent months sifting through phonebook-sized catalogs and attending property auctions in order to locate and purchase fifteen vacant and moribund sites—microscopic fragments of New York real estate—that form the substance of the work. Today, using GIS, the same search can be accomplished in minutes, and locates many thousands of marginal, city-owned vacant lots throughout the five boroughs. When Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates were first presented together in 1992 (long after the artist’s death in 1978), the mere fact of their documentation was alone remarkable. Today, however, Fake Estates may be essential in considering how we might respond to a revolution that has occurred since that time: the almost uniform presence of digital information in our encounters with, and designs for cities.5 This book’s first historical essay, “Fake Estates and Reality Properties,” traces the origins of this artwork not as the singular, influential artifact it has become (thanks in part to the assembly by Matta-Clark’s widow, Jane Crawford, of the maps and property deeds for the sites into exhibitable artworks) but rather as the unfinished product of the architect-turned-artist’s exploratory trajectory, cut short by his death at the age of thirty-five, in property, renovation, and ecology.
Matta-Clark was an adult in New York, but had also been a child in the city; he grew up just a block away from Washington Square Park, which was saved from becoming a traffic circle just as he left for architecture school at Cornell University. This was in large part through the efforts of an architecture critic–turned-author and activist, Jane Jacobs (née Butzner). The second essay, “Life Attracts Life,” moves directly four blocks west from Washington Square, to Jacobs’ own home at 555 Hudson Street. It considers not so much her well-known post-1960 career as a public intellectual and activist, the author of the seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities (and its four sort-of-sequels considering the complex nature of urban economies). Rather, it chronicles her life before, and how her famous work had its own strikingly evitable origins in the confluence of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scientific thinking (taught to Butzner at Columbia from 1940 to 1941) and a savvy misunderstanding of one of the twentieth century’s greatest transformations in science: the understanding of so-called organized complexity. Indeed, some of the most notable recent work in the science of complex systems, emergent networks, and their unpredictable behavior, has focused on the statistical nature of cities themselves, work examined in this book’s conclusion.
But before that, the third and final essay moves along one of the great infrastructural and intellectual corridors of our age, heading north from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, the essay “The Map and the Territory” examines, at its origins, the particular media—geographic information systems, or GIS—that has allowed us to see and engage the city so profoundly through the lens of information. In Cambridge, between 1965 and 1968, building on prior work at Northwestern University in Chicago, and postwar, defense industry–driven innovations in computing and digital map projection, the architect Howard Fisher developed the roots of what was to become the most widespread geographic information software, now used by the government, the military, corporations, and urban planners alike to chart and create strategic interventions in urban fabric worldwide. But this was not the software as Fisher had conceived it—or, in today’s open-source era, as it may yet become—but a subtly different animal, with its own habits and preconceptions.
These three stories are presented separately, but they contain another essential character who, like a Brothers Grimm villain, appears in different guises throughout. This is the complex, well-intentioned, and ultimately quixotic encounter between the engineering approaches of systems-based planning, forged in the furnace of the Cold War’s first weapons, and brought to bear on the landscape of postwar American cities, sometimes—as in the wholesale clearance of neighborhoods encountered by Jane Jacobs in northern Manhattan in 1955—with sometimes equally devastating effects.
The sudden, seeming efficacy of these techniques in the years from 1943 onward—when they were used first in automatic air-defenses (encountered in chapter 2), and then to conceive and build the United States’ first intercontinental ballistic missiles, and then to craft the manned space rockets that replaced warheads with astronauts at their tips—led to widespread attempts at their application to complex problems from industry to government. And the information-based strategies that were the lifeblood of systems approaches found application in everything from Title 1–funded slum mapping (encountered in chapter 3) to academic research on urban systems (as in the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies, encountered in chapter 2) to, by the late 1960s, a broad acceptance of data-driven approaches as the primary tool of urban design and planning (as encountered in chapter 1).
The specific, systematic failure of these efforts at the scale of the city itself is an epic too enormous for this book, and better told elsewhere. And yet, it is an essential tale to remember in the context of today’s reencounter between the city’s complexity and computing’s power. Underlining these resonances, one of the foremost historians of the transition of defense-honed systems techniques to the urban context, Jennifer Light, begins her 2003 history of the phenomena with the following rhetorical question: “How and why are resources allocated time and again to support the adoption of technical and technological tools whose benefits remain unproven?”6 Especially in the context of a new generation of claims to the city’s tractability through data, this is a fundamental caveat. But this book is not so much an effort to chart this larger history as it is an attempt to chart essential counterhistories within it.
And so the book’s conclusion, after presenting the serendipitous and particular origins of three important threads—the remaking of the abandoned and underutilized in the work of Matta-Clark, the nature of the city as a complex, living network-of-networks in the work of Jacobs, and the visual use of information in the public good in the work of Fisher—charts their interweaving in the work you hold. Thus it also tries to show, through the lens of new and old ideas, how the nature of cities can be better understood, and extended, in our current, uncertain age.
Local Code, and all its embedded and implicated propositions, draws from established, and important, precedents in neighborhood greening at the local scale—such as in Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles—and is deeply indebted to them as well as to the landscape of ideas outlined above.7 These efforts have so far been justified on substantially social and political grounds; but a much more substantial argument is proposed here, which is that it is only through understanding and engaging the existing nature of our cities as complex, networked artifacts that we can design for, and imagine, a robust and resilient future for them. Such a future is considered here, socially, economically, ecologically, and, as an inevitable corollary, spatially, materially, and formally—built into and out of the city itself.
A final note concerns this work’s future. At the time of writing, several projects are underway, involving myself an others, to address the enormous policy challenges that lie in front of such this effort to radically reimagine urban infrastructure alongside social and environmental welfare. These efforts involve local instrumentation, community collaborations, and policy studies. And such unglamorous work is, of course, the real effort of building cities and communities—and will continue long after this book is put to bed. In the story of this project, then, the text you hold is (to quote Churchill) not so much the end as it is the end of the beginning.
1) United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects:
The 2014 Revision, Highlights
(New York: United Nations, 2014).
2) Martin Hilbert and Priscila López, “How to Measure the World’s Technological Capacity to Communicate, Store, and Compute Information,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012):
3) See for example, “Resilience,” The Rockefeller Foundation, accessed May 25, 2015, http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/current-work/resilience. Permalink at https://web.archive.org/web/20150407010111/http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/current-work/resilience.
4) See Stuart Kaufmann,
At Home in the Universe:
The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
5) See Jeffrey Kastner, Sina Najafi, and Frances Richard, eds., Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (New York: Cabinet Books, in conjunction with Queens Museum of Art and White Columns, 2005), exhibition catalog.
6) Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), vii. I first deployed this quote in the conclusion to my 2011 book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, which traced the story of systems engineering mostly in and around the human body, and in the bodies of cities as well—a deeply connected tale. See Nicholas de Monchaux, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 311.
7) See Haan-Fawn Chau, Green Infrastructure for Los Angeles: Addressing Urban Runoff and Water Supply through Low Impact Development
(Los Angeles: City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning and UCLA Department of Urban Planning, 2007); E. Gregory McPherson, David J. Nowak, and Rowan A. Rowntree, Chicago’s Urban Forest Ecosystem: Results of the Chicago Urban Forest Climate Project, General TechnicalReport NE-186 (Radnor, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, 1994); and Gary Moll, Urban Ecosystem Analysis for the Washington DC Metropolitan Area (Washington, D.C.: American Forests, 2002), http://www.americanforests.org/downloads/rea/AF_WashingtonDC2.pdf.