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April 17, 2016 / Leo Hollis

The difference between observing and measuring the City

One way to divide up the sheep and goats of the Urbanist community is to divide them up between those who learnt the city by observation, watching the city as it actually is, and the measurers: those who develop quantitative standards in order to make seemingly objective conclusion on how the city works. There seems to be a deep tension that goes beyond the simple division between Jacobs-ists and smart city or IoT salespersons. It is not the problem of ethnographic immersion versus the tyranny of counting.


A couple of summers ago, I found myself standing on the corner of Lexington and 53rd Street, Midtown Manhattan. I was taking part in a project for the architect Jan Gehl, watching the people who were walking past, trying to get a sense of how people used this part of the city as a place of work, home, a non-space to be crossed at pace. Jan Gehl is one of the most interesting thinkers – and designers – of our contemporary city. His work can be found across the world: from Strogets a large pedestrianised area at the centre in his hometown of Copenhagen, to the recent opening up of Times Square, delivering this central space back to the public. Gehl passionately believes in reviving the life between buildings, to nurture the corner, bringing people back into the city, and allowing them to bump into each other and thereby to become citizens.

On that hot July day I counted pedestrians and bicyclists. I noted who was sitting down, and whether they were in pairs, or groups. What were they up to – talking, smoking, waiting? It was these observations that a sensor or a monitor could never pick up. GPS and wifi triangulation can only tell you that a phone and its user is in a certain place at a certain time. Face recognition and voice recognition software as well as an app developed by Qualia can be used to measure your smile. Nevertheless the algorithm is not good enough to know if the expression is fake or real, or whether you can experience pleasure without smiling. The human element is lost somewhere between counting and observing.

What I was watching was civil society in action, going about its everyday life. I was marking down how people used the public space, notes that would possibly go on to inform Gehl’s ideas on how to improve the use of this place, how to encourage more people here, or to manage the human flow better.

Contrast this with the news last year when UNHabitat announced that it had devised a series of test scorecards alongside the mega corporation IBM and engineering firm AECOM to develop best practise against climate change. Vulnerability to epidemics, work on flood defences, tax efficiency-  everything would be marked numerically as part of the city’s resilience profile. The announcement included the news that Coimbatore, India, will become the first city to sign up for the initiative. A high score would prove that the city was future proofed, more than likely having spent millions on the latest technology to mitigate against disaster.

In the same month, the ISO, the Swiss based International Organisation of Standards, that sets international specifications for everything from the design of globally functioning plugs to the abstract benchmarking of management quality, announced that they had devised International standards for cities. ISO 37120:2014, will be a means to compare and judge the performance of any city on a number of criteria from economy to water, waste and sanitation. As the marketing brochure announced, the standard, ‘will help city managers, politicians, researchers, business leaders, planners, designers and other professionals to focus on key issues, and put in place policies for more liveable, tolerant, sustainable, resilient, economically attractive and prosperous cities’.

It has become increasingly popular to measure cities and there is an emerging industry in ranking world cities: a proliferation of liveability indexes; most expensive city; best city to do business; most popular amongst ‘Individuals of High Net Worth’; most creative. All these rosters reduce cities to a set of criteria. But how do we measure such a complex concept as a public space? Can we really quantify what makes a city ‘happy’?

Data is picked up by your bank cards, mobile phone, GPS, and face recognition software. Sensors, such as that developed by the Finnish IndoorAtlas, can map the interior of a building from the outside, promising that they will soon do for houses what Google Streetview does for our streets. High above the metropolis – as during the Olympics in London, as well as any major occasion –  drones circle above unblinkingly watching the action 1000fts below; not all of them will be delivering parcels (both Amazon and Google are developing drone delivery services). Last July, the British government rushed through emergency legislation, DRIP, to allow the security services to continue to dragnet all our private data. In the UK you can now face jail if you refuse to hand over your password to the police.

For a start, Big Data collects lots of data but not all, it will therefore always be working with an incomplete set. Therefore it must create an algorithm that makes predictions on the basis of means and calculated averages. Thus when when a corporation pores over your data, they are looking at the agglomeration of averages that make up many but not all the choices, decisions and mishaps that mark your life. But you are not a collection of measurements, collated by the sum of all your outcomes divided by the number of events counted; and your day is never a sequences of average calculated moments. Thus Big Data is never more than a misted mirror, reflecting only a partial shadow of your complex self. How can this possibly be a better, or more efficient, way to run the city?

Secondly, this has a direct impact on the way we approach the city and its public spaces. In particular,  this gathering of data will have an influence on how we design future places. The example that I want to use here is how the quantified city is being measured in terms of the tiny surges of hormones in our brains. In recent years neuroscientists and epidemiologists have started to chart how certain parts of the city, and a variety of urban experiences, affect the production of dopamines  – such as oxytocin – that alter the patterns of the brain in response to stress and pleasure.

For example, there are a number of studies that explore the brain’s response to differently designed forms of privacy, a place to retreat away from the noise and bustle. What these studies seem to suggest is that we need to design private spaces that flow and connect with the public. Also looking at public streets, similar studies have shown how a variety of frontages at street level, and green spaces, produce a powerful chemical response in users’ brains. This work is already informing design strategies for public spaces around the world, such as in Vancouver that often sits high on liveability rankings.

The problem begins when this ‘happy city’ is defined by someone else, circumscribed by systems of universal ‘feeling’. Who decides what happiness is, and whether your happiness is the same as mine. In this chapter, in contrast to the prevailing thinking, I will show that this kind of design strategy produces the opposite; spaces where we must all be the same rather than places where we can all be ourselves.

So what does observation offer that is different, yet still useful to the average urbanist? As I pointed out in the previous blogpost about William ‘Holly’ Whyte: the work conducted outside Sakes 5th Avenue was ground breaking in its time and fits in with similar projects such as Jacobs’ discussion of the ‘ballet’ of Hudson Street as recorded in THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES. At the same time Gehl was also watching people using Strogets and trying to work out why this new pedestrianised area was so successful. His conclusions were simple: people come to places where other people are.

This can appear quite a minor observation, but it a deeply profound truth that quantification at any level could never surmise. It gets to the heart of what a city is, and who the city is for. Reading Peter Laurence’s wonderful new biography of Jacobs he makes a good case for her stance not as a complete rejection of modernism or functionalism but a ‘functionalism of the particular’. The building, the street, the neighbourhood, the city, is not just one thing and to reduce any form to a single manifest function (or number) encourages a fragility that comes with closed systems. If only one question is asked and therefore be answered, then the project is bound to fail.
Observation encourages an appreciation of the complexity of the city beyond the numbers. The fact that we have the technology to do this job for us, does not mean that it can achieve the same outcomes. There is a still a gulf between smart technology and the city.  


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