Friday, Jul. 15, 2011

How Wifi Is Reinventing Our City Parks

A walk through New York City's Bryant Park is a walk through time. Designed during the Great Depression on the site of a former reservoir and executed under the leadership of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the park was inspired by French classicist gardens. Its gravel paths in the shade of London Plane trees suited the rhythm of life in pre-air-conditioned New York. Today the park, which sits behind the great main branch of the public library, has cafes, entertainment, a reading library, lawn games — all amenities tuned to contemporary urban life.

One of the most important amenities, though, is invisible. A cloud of wifi hovers over the park, bringing activities that Moses, a truly ambitious urban planner, could not have imagined. Those trees that shaded city-dwellers out for a stroll decades ago now keep the glare off touch screens. And despite the fears that mobile communication technology would drive us all into lives of wireless isolation, the opposite seems to be happening. Bryant Park, like myriad parks and plazas in other cities, is returning to a role it filled generations ago: a place to share, read, write, gossip, and short, communicate.

Technology has always shaped the city, changing our relationship to time, space, nature and each other, but today's technologies are so small it's hard to see how that happens. Yet ubiquitous data and information communication technologies (ICT) such as smart-phones, tablet computers, and digital books, are changing the way we interact with the built environment and our fellow citizens.

What does it mean for the future of our cities that technology is an integral part not only of design and construction but of the user experience? What does it mean for a city to learn from and respond to the users of its public spaces? These were some of the questions raised at the recent Intelligent Cities Forum at the National Building Museum. The Forum, a component of the year-long Intelligent Cities Initiative, brought together researchers, design and planning professionals, public health experts, and representatives from all levels of government for a day of conversation focusing on the challenges and opportunities that information and communication technologies (ICT) pose for cities.

The success of the rejuvenated Bryant Park raises familiar questions for designers and planners. What exactly are the essential ingredients of a great urban space? Can they be measured? In 1980, influential urbanist William Holly Whyte published The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a meticulous study of how people used open space in the city. Whyte, who had been involved for more than a decade in the comprehensive plan for New York, wondered if all the parks and plazas were actually performing the way the architects and planners assumed they would. So he began to watch people. And film them. It was a radical project at the time, as no one had done any systematic research on how people actually used the spaces designed for them. Why were some brand new plazas empty while people crowded into others?

Whyte used film because it was the only medium capable of capturing time and motion, critical information in understanding any dynamic environment. Now, smart phones allow you to see when the next bus is arriving, where the closest coffee shop is located, and to track afternoon thunderstorms. Time and space together carry a lot of information about a city, and geospatial visualization lets us see characteristics of our cities that used to be invisible. ICT give us new ways to document and study urban spaces to better understand how to improve them. Moreover, those same technologies in the hands of the public are changing how those spaces are used.

Anyone who has visited a park or plaza recently sees text-walkers, phone talkers, e-book readers, and laptop or tablet users. Following in the Whyte's footsteps, Keith Hampton, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication wondered how people with mobile devices were using urban open space now. In 2007 he embarked on a research project in cities across North America to investigate community and social interaction in the wireless city. Are we too wrapped in our own cocoons to enjoy those chance conversations with fellow bench sitters? Or, does the material on screen give us something new to talk about? Would we even be in the park if we had to communicate only with the people sitting near us?

Hampton's research showed that Internet users tended to get out more and that active users like bloggers tended to be active in "real" life as well. Some 25% of people interviewed admitted that they had not visited the public space before wifi became available and most of those said they came more often because of wifi. The average lap-top user made two hour-long visits per week. From its birth in the 19th century, the idea behind the urban park was to provide an escape from the machines and technology that dominate the cityscape outside the ornamental fence. The park is for leisure, not work. But Hampton found that over half the ICT users in Bryant Park were working.

What's different today is nature of community and communication in the park. The conversations park users are having are as likely to be with someone on the other end of the country as on the other end of the bench. And the conversation is as likely to be work-related as idle chat. When a leisure space also becomes a work place, technology is nudging conventional categories of urban space toward something new.

To famed urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs, New York was a better place for the "eyes on the street," her oft-quoted phrase that crowded sidewalks with abundant doors and windows make the city safer. What if the eyes are on the iPad? Or the ears in headphones? While 51% of Bryant Park habitués claim they are mostly working there, Hampton's research indicates that they're still paying attention to their surroundings. And, perhaps most important, these visitors chose to be there, in public, and not at their own desk or at home. Apparently, there is a there there.

This invisible technology is arguably the single biggest influence on how our cities will look, feel and function in the future. The mid-century technologies — air conditioning, the private automobile, television — all conspired to drive us out of the city, out of public space, and into our own private worlds. Now we're bringing our worlds back out into the city with us — our friends, families, photo albums, favorite music, to do lists, work projects, books, gossip and gripes.

We've had big ideas in the past about cities that turned out not as wonderful as we had hoped. Freeways and isolated residential towers seemed to make sense once, as did horizontally separating work from home and recreation. We know what a high performance building should do: sensors, GPS, and real-time communication yields data on energy and water use, air quality, and safety. But what is a high-performance urban place? The same tiny technologies that make buildings smarter can contribute to making cities better. ICT give us new ways to narrow the gap between how we hope people will use a space and how they actually might. In this case, the smartest technology is us.

For more information on the National Building Museum's Intelligent Cities Initiative that explores how data and information technology impact the way our cities look, feel and function visit: