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?

 

 

 

Makers in spaces: new urban manufacturing and its role in placemaking

by Francesca Perry

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Whilst we all accept a shift in the urban economy from manufacturing to knowledge and communications, it would be foolish to say that manufacturing does not take place, matter or play a continuing role in urban centres. But this new post-industrial wave of urban manufacturing is independent, local and DIY; centred on the growth of tech innovation and entrepreneurialism rather than mass production. This is about citizen empowerment to make change through making itself.

So exactly what role can manufacturing play in place-making and community development? It can unite people in the process of making, as a form of socially productive production. It can also bring life to urban centres long starved of manufacturing activity. This is specific urban manufacturing that responds to new ways of working and doing, and in turn has the potential to make new places and community hubs. Whilst there have already been big steps forward, there is still a way to go to marry urban design and places with contemporary communities and activities. An example of this is the disjuncture between the much-lauded Tech City in London and its ugly pedestrian-unfriendly home, the Old Street roundabout. Spaces should reflect and nurture their communities, in relation to work as well as home.

NYC Resistor

After zoning and cars pushed manufacturing activities out of city centres and into what would often come to be termed as industrial wastelands, a certain diversity of urban life was lost. It also resulted, along with the evolution of services, in a number of vacant spaces in cities, emptied of their former industrial use. Warehouses, factories, mills and workshops stood unused. Though many of these faced a fate of luxurious conversion, the recent effects of the economic recession has only added empty retail units to the list.

So, what do you do with vacant urban spaces and a new movement of digital and entrepreneurial industry? The answer is makerspaces – or hackspaces: hubs where people come together to create, collaborate, make and share (see César Reyes Nájera’s great article). Now these activities are beginning to animate urban districts, supporting an enhanced diversity of use.

The digitisation of – well, everything – has led critics to believe that physical space and proximity is less important for successful business and industry. But this is far from the case. We live in cities in order that we might interact and share: computers will not change this. So of course the new ‘industrial revolution’, as Chris Anderson calls it, composed of start-ups and independent makers, requires new kinds of physical community and productive spaces.

Milwuakee Makerspace

Whether you call them co-working spaces, workshops, hubs, hackspaces or makerspaces, they are becoming vital to this new economy. Now, I’m not just talking about tech, as seductive as this would be, because physical manufacturing and crafts still take place – to an increasing degree in fact. In this post-industrial age, we have a heightened interest in the hyperlocal product – whether it be coffee, beer, clothing or furniture.

We need to embrace this movement in to the thriving network and places of urban activity. Many maker groups are indeed taking on new spaces in the city and transforming them; others are growing out of or tacking on to existing public spaces like libraries:

Recently many libraries have begun to develop spaces for design and activities that both teach and empower patrons. The learning in these spaces varies wildly–from home bicycle repair, to using 3D printers, to building model airplanes. Fittingly, they are called makerspaces.’

Library Makerspace

Over in the US, June’s National Day of Civic Hacking aims to bring together citizens and entrepreneurs to collaboratively create, build, and invent new solutions to challenges relevant to neighborhoods and cities. Initiatives like the maker education initiative are nurturing opportunities for young people to get involved in this maker movement, fostering creativity and learning. Of course, the rise of technology has made the process of making and manufacturing more accessible, with 3D printing breaking down the barrier between idea and creation. These are new ways of making for new ways of working. It’s only sensible that urban development supports and reflects this, as the physical reflects the social and must always learn from it.

It’s crucial for makerspaces themselves to interact with the wider urban area and community – there’s little point in making a great place which remains internal and exclusive. Some are heading in the right direction. On the tech front, London Hackspace, a ‘community-run workshop where people come to share tools and knowledge’ holds regular open evenings and public events.

London Hackspace

Sugarhouse Studios in Stratford has used an abandoned warehouse to be a community hub and productive workshop, to give the opportunity to the local community to get more actively and creatively engaged with both existing and future public spaces in the area.

A great model has been Assemble & Join, who run community micro-manufacturing workshops that re-imagine the role a high street can take within a community and in turn the role a community can play in the way an area develops over time. Through free site-specific workshops, the organisation offers shopkeepers, residents, traders and community groups the chance to collectively research, design and build changes to the public realm to better suit their needs. This includes everything from wayfinding schemes and flat-pack market stalls and seating systems. A&J are using manufacturing to help communities play a more active role in shaping where they live and work.

A&J

If A&J is anything to go by, this maker movement has the potential to form a core of urban regeneration, animating empty spaces and opening themselves up as productive interactive hubs, engaged in high street life, public places and community. In the longer term, they can lead to the creation of new jobs and encourage young people to feel empowered and inspired to make their own opportunities – and products.

So far, in general, the city has reflected this new start-up, entrepreneurial DIY movement in the ‘pop-up’ culture, but it’s time we support this new economic and social infrastructure and make places for new kinds of community and business interaction.

The old form of work and making has long been behind closed doors and on city outskirts. Now, more accessible and mixed in with all other urban activities, it stands to become more fully integrated in both the social and design aspects of the city. Reflecting the new entrepreneurial spirit, we should embrace making and makers in urban life and placemaking itself. It may sound as if I’m arguing for a Berlinification of cities – but I know many places which could benefit from such an approach!

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