A city with no more secrets

Digitising urban knowledge means the death of hidden treasures, but the birth of a shared city. So why are we still obsessed with ‘secret’ places? 

By Francesca Perry

I have long held, and will no doubt continue to hold, reservations about the smart, data-led, internet-enabled, hackable city, mostly driven by a mix of demand for greater convenience and desire for maximised money-making, under the banner of ‘innovation’.

Amid all our many apps and digital platforms that aim to make city living seemingly easier and more efficient, showing us the quickest route (Waze), the nearest taxi (Uber), the closest potential dating partner (Tinder), the best local restaurant (Google Maps), and more, there is now an online tool that helps you locate areas of ‘calm’ in your city, for when you just need to find a quiet spot to sit in.

There is a certain joy as a long-time city dweller of knowing your metropolis inside out; of having built up, over years, a wealth of information and experience that gives you insights into a city’s secrets, whether that’s where to stand on a tube platform to get on the right carriage for a swift exit at your destination, when to avoid certain places due to overcrowding, where to find little hidden nooks and gardens to sit and read in, what the lesser-known routes are that get you somewhere quicker, or where to locate beautiful yet uncelebrated buildings.

The pleasure of discovering an off-the-beaten-track oasis of calm in your city — a quiet garden, an empty square, a perfectly placed bench, a rarely used river path — is a great one, mainly because daily life in a large city can wear you down; in an environment where nothing ever seems calm, where noise and crowds and stress is the norm, to find a quiet spot that enables rest and reflection is like discovering a diamond in the rough. Spending time in these places can relieve the pressure of city life, restore a sense of strength that enables you to cope with it.

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My discovery of such places has usually been as a result of a meandering walk, or a wrong turn on the way to somewhere I’ve never been. But now, of course, the process of urban discovery happens mainly through your phone. A few years ago, a now-defunct app called Stereopublic promised to provide a crowdsourced map of places of peace and quiet in cities around the world. Now, the new Tranquil City project seems to do something similar, though it has only tentatively started with London.

‘Tranquil City is a project to find spaces of calm in the city and to promote them,’ the website states. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we can discover new peaceful places while we walk to work? In the near future we aim to link these spaces and design more pleasant and relaxing routes to walk around the city.’ The project uses a collaborative online map called the ‘Tranquil Pavement’ for people to record and locate their cherished quiet spots.

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Don’t get me wrong, the drive behind these specific apps is hugely positive and not about making money: it’s a celebration of experiencing the city and of that I massively approve. What’s more, platforms and resources like these — especially harnessing open source mapping — speak to a democratisation of urban knowledge. Us long-time urbanites (I’ve lived in this beautiful behemoth of London for 30 years and counting) don’t need to be the gatekeepers of the city and its secrets. If there are quieter gardens, quicker routes, hidden treasures, surely everyone should have access to this information.

Of course, the problem is, once this becomes just more data in an app or online map, not only does it become a target as marketable information, but, if it achieves a significant audience, it results in a homogenisation of the city: quieter places become busy, quicker routes become slower, hidden treasures become tourist hotspots, until there is no more hidden knowledge of the city to mine. Hence why the appetite for the ‘unknown’ or ‘secret’ aspects of a city has grown — even a cursory search will reveal the multitude of websites and businesses dedicated to helping people ‘discover’ the alternative, unknown or so-called hidden parts of cities.

The marketing of this is so successful because really there is little about our cities that is unknown these days — it’s all there on Google Maps, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet, blogs, articles, apps, books — but we’re desperate for that not to be the case. Many of the apps, tours or digital tools which claim to unearth a city’s secrets are no longer doing anything of the sort: they are just playing to an audience, marketing place, and attempting to repackage an increasingly homogenised city as they contribute to its homogenisation.

This is not a new game — books and walking tours have been doing this for a very long time  — but of course the internet means the scale of it is unprecedented. We are stuck in a paradox: while we promote a shared city and open information, we simultaneously desire knowledge that only we possess. I am seduced, like most people, by the unknown, hidden, quiet, secret spots in a city, but as an urbanist I also know I want this information to be accessible by all, as cities exist for the many, not the few. But that won’t stop me from musing: have cities lost all their secrets? And once everything is known, where do we go from here?

 

 

 

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A compendium of the tools of exclusion in American cities

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by Christo Hall

“Contested space.” I first heard that term in reference to the communities that surrounded the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There — where political, religious and geographic disputes brought about physical violence and an interruption of shared space — the term was apt, but using the language of conflict and competition to describe issues of public space overshadows what is surely the greater objective: harmony.

A new collection of essays, The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion (Actar Press, 2017), seeks to address strategies and interventions it calls “weapons”, which have been used with the ambition to create both exclusive and inclusive spaces in cities. Weapons that have historically — especially considering the focus of the book on American cities — often brought about racial segregation, such as Robert Moses building low bridges along the Long Island Parkway in New York to prevent poorer black communities — who were travelling by bus — from accessing beaches built for the overwhelmingly white suburbs.

But is the language of weaponisation appropriate in the discussion of public space? My feeling is that to describe the guerrilla attempts at spatial inclusivity like the wide-ranging Occupy movement or the wade-in protests that accessed “private beaches” as examples of public space warfare is counterintuitive. These were peaceful challenges to schools of thought that encourage inequality; they were not looking to inflict harm.

A group of African American and white demonstrators surrounded by police during a wade-in at St. Augustine Beach, Florida, in 1964. Photo: AP/Horace Cort

Nevertheless, as a reader from the UK, I’m aware that many of the tools of spatial exclusion that we see in this country are latent forms of manipulation rarely addressed or understood until recently.

The fact is that many tools of exclusion are covert. Many mixed-tenure developments have one door for private tenants and another for its social housing tenants (something that has become known as the “poor door”). Many public benches are designed with armrests to prevent homeless individuals sleeping on them, while some cities have banned people from providing food to the homeless in public space.

In the suburbs of Cleveland and Chicago, neighbourhoods lobbied to remove basketball hoops from public space to prevent the arrival of “outsiders”, which was code for a white neighbourhood seeking to keep its neighbourhood white. A Baltimore neighbourhood demanded one-way streets along every road that led to the avenue which divided them from a majority black community living on the other side.

Volunteers in Philadelphia distribute food to the homeless outside a public hearing on rules banning outdoor food distribution. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Examples like these are eye opening, and the book is an excellent resource to spot the exclusive policies that are often executed under the guise of another aim, with more than a hint of sleight of hand. But as a resource it also helps identify those tools of inclusion that might not be immediately obvious: design elements such as detectable warning surfaces or building ramps that work to better include people with disabilities in the public realm, for example.

Not all the tools of exclusion and inclusion are hidden: gated developments, or the proposed bill in US congress that will provide lactation rooms in all American airports, are hard to miss.

The hundreds of listed ‘weapons’ in this book, many in relation to housing policy in the United States, contribute to portraying a situation where access is often regulated by affordability — and, increasingly, desirability. For example, regulations against non-criminal behaviour such as skateboarding, parkour and “loitering” — whether implemented by public or private orders, and often by groups such as ‘block clubs’ and Business Improvement Districts — are prejudices against certain groups of people in the name of so-called “common decency”.

To regulate what is desirable in public space is an ambiguous business, and one that suggests that someone or some authority knows best. And in an era of state relinquishment of public space to the private sector, what is desirable is often defined as what people and behaviour leads to the most profit rather than what can lead to social good, and where wealthy members of the public are privileged over others.

While the book’s essays do a great job of assessing the individual “weapons”, they do little to propose a cohesive thesis as to how to tackle opposing ideas about space and civil liberty. It is, largely, a safe study and an epidemiology of public space disorder. What’s needed now is discussions that weigh up what is needed to accommodate attitudes, whether we should be trying to reach consensus in public policy or instead somehow trying to find a solution that works for all, or if indeed there is such a thing as a city which is too permissive. To crack attitudes of fear and closed-mindedness we don’t need weapons — we need conversation.

Christo Hall is a freelance writer, the founding editor of Cureditor, an editor at LOBBY magazine and founder of MagShuffle

City Thinking

The discussion about the ‘urban issue’, the challenges created by city living, now thrust upon us more than ever, is well known: its treatment is comprehensive and illuminating at the same time as asking still unanswerable questions. New institutions, organisations, educational courses and publications have all been set up in response to and in promotion of the discussion. We are thinking in new ways, and of new things, which reach into every aspect of experience and activity in order to understand and improve this urban life.

I have always loved cities, been fascinated by them and grappled to understand how they work as well as how the physical, built environment affects and shapes the social, emotional lives of its inhabitants. So I want to dedicate a forum to the thinking city; that is, thinking about what it means to live in, be part of and improve a city. It is London-centric, but finding ideas and reference around the globe. It is both a way to find out about projects and events, to discover different initiatives related to improving the urban experience, a place for discussion as well as personal reflection. I am most interested in how cities make us feel and in turn what we think about them, as well as how we can be more involved and integrated in urban life; this line of research can be vital in helping address problems of alienation and territory, especially in relation to young people as they grow up in a complex and overwhelming environment. I believe it is crucial to help support a sense of co-ownership and co-creation of space and place; this is something I practice in my community engagement work with make:good.

On this website, I will reflect on and link to projects and topics that take into consideration how we think about and think for cities and our place in them. This is not meant to be an academic forum; it is more a place for real-time issues, events and accessible discussions.

If you have something to promote or discuss, write in to thinking.city@gmail.com. In the meantime, please follow me on Twitter: @thinkingcity

– Francesca Perry