Cities are made of streets

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Ragusa Ibla, Italy 2013 ©Laura Ferrarello

Different kinds of factors – like economy, climate change, career opportunities, education, etc. – transformed contemporary cities in megacities. The freedom we achieved last century through cars transformed dense urban agglomerates into spreads of houses that blurred the border between the “inside” and “outside” of our cities. Concrete have been poured horizontally, thus transforming the environment. Cities like Los Angeles are no longer an anomaly; LA, indeed, became model for those contemporary cities that need to cope with the problem of scale, and how it does impact the quality of everyday life. Public transportation is on the agenda of LA mayor Garcetti, who is tackling the problem of mobility through infrastructure improvement. You can travel to Downtown by taking the Metro from Culver City, which will be soon extented to Santa Monica.

Nonetheless I don’t believe that infrastructure only can help with improving the everyday of our cities. I grew up in the fringe of a small city in southern Italy, Enna. The contrast between historical centre and suburbia was, and still it is, quite clear for the possibility of moving around. Once at the centre car is pointless – although people use it for habit. You can reach the extreme parts of the city by walking for 20 minutes max. Once out of the centre distances are still small, but car is the most used means of transportation. What is the reason? Shops. The centre is a sequence of small and medium size businesses that crowd the streets and make them alive. Daily groceries can be moved on small trolleys; you can go for shopping, taking a coffee or a drink with friends in 5- 10 minutes. The fringe is a no-place. Old style urbanism, and bad administration of public space, affected the quality of urban extensions. Cars crowds the small pedestrians looking for small spots to park the car. No many shops around. When I walk I look like a weirdo. Paradoxically I can compare this small city to LA. Completely different scales. Mobility culture quite similar.

Everyday we witness more and more problems with health, which causes have many factors; mobility is on top of the list. Our bodies have been designed to move; we need to balance the quantity of energy we feed our body with. Nonetheless the design of the streets has a tendency to detach housing with services; it makes cars the most used medium to reach even the basics – like water, milk, bread. I find quite interesting some current urban studies that look at the relationship people have with “mobile” food, i.e. food that happens on the streets. Food truck journeys have been analysed in LA and Washington DC. The geo location of Twitter data revealed that food trucks cover badly served areas. Location became the litmus paper of low service areas.  However the network of food trucks increased the presence of people on pedestrians. This article from The Guardian Cities describes the relation between mobility and diabetes. Bad quality food and time spent on cars are key factors that need to be tackled to think a solution.

Scale is not a problem that concerns the territory as whole; micro scale at the local dimension can trigger solutions. If our streets get more crowds of “stuff” – shops, grocery, cafes, etc –  which distance is perceived manageable, it would possibly make people walk. Possibility it would be a nice experient to try out.

 

 

 

The Res Publica of Data

 

The literature on “smart cities” inflates everyday. The syntax and visualization of data yield custom meaning out of citizens’ life, which is mainly trusted as truth. We consult our pocket oracle, then we follow directions. The detached engagement that governments have in the politics of data leave communities in the mist of information. Do we share? Can we share? What is left to my own “authentic” decisions? Every single interaction with the World Wide Web requires few minutes of strategy, which aims to preserve the ghost of privacy.

Cities are the origin of human civilisation; the idea of coexisting in the same place, with the common intent of organising common space with systems and rules, aimed to make life better when together.

The sense of community is the first element that makes us part of it. We create the form of our spaces by participating to its organisation and management.

The experience of data dwells between a coat of mystery and fear. Nonetheless data can help to understand the contemporary machine of the real. Data are an achievement of our society, the management is the failure. In an ideal world, the democracy 2.0 would like citizens engaged in the everyday politics by sharing, discussing and editing data, as substance of contemporary politics. So far the trend didn’t exactly follow this way.

I believe that something might change though. Helsinki looks to follow this direction via a ticket. Small steps are indeed the beginning to test big ideas. If politics steps in the administration of the contemporary res publica via citizens opinions (based on needs and wishes), which are regulated by an old democratic system, we might speculate around the contemporary form of politics that adapts, directs and suggests people’s trends.

Custom Infrastructure

GoLA is the app that wants to ease the mobility experience of Los Angeles. Car, indeed, is not the only medium available to navigate the city. It is one of the many, including walking (yes walking) and cycling. You might switch and combine different mobile media according to filters, like those you select when looking for hotels.

In 2008 my MA thesis, iTravel (iBus) looked at a feasible and flexible infrastructural system that could provide a customised journey in London. The trigger of my interest on the topic was people’s engagement on sustainable mobility.

I organised public transportation accessibility via personal needs, via the riddle of gaming. Do you need to travel fast, green or cheap? Do you want to have a shopping sale route? These and other questions are guideline of the algorithm that organises the journey for you.

What GoLA does is not far off from my proposal. Nice to know I had a good intuition and that in a small way i can contribute to the plethora of ideas populating the ocean of smart infrastructure. My thesis has been recently featured in the Architectural Design curated by Tom Verebes “Informational Cities” .

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