Paul Goldberger: Cities, Place and (sort of) Cyberspace

Thanks to Urban Forum Ottawa and its various partners, Paul Goldberger gave a free lecture on November 5, 2012 entitled “Cities, Place and Cyberspace”.  The National Gallery auditorium was completely packed.

To my mind, it was actually two lectures:

1) A stirring call to reclaim public space, and a recounting of how we ended up with public spaces replaced with private, artificial experiences

2) A rather awkward attempt to look beyond how the car transformed the city and speculate about how use of the Internet and mobile devices might shape the city and the use of the city in the future

A Celebration of Public Space

Goldberger spoke with obvious passion, delivering a spoken-word essay on the function of the city — a messy, dirty machine for mixing people together — and the gradual erosion of the appreciation of public space concomitant with its replacement in the US with sanitised private spaces, notably California’s Disneyland.  (There were in fact numerous Los Angeles / California references in the talk.)  He spoke of the suburban and its private world, the metal can of the car that takes you from your private home to your enclosed work cubicle. He talked about the most extreme expression of this retreat into private space, the gated community, where even the normally public streets are privatised.  (A phenomenon which fortunately mostly doesn’t exist in Canada.)  And he decried both the artificiality of the pseudourban – the outdoor mall, and the nostalgic – New Urbanism.  He talked about the power of the city street, and our role in the city as both performers and observers.

He also stated that he thought that we no longer needed the city for its original functions, for commerce or to bring people together, and he wondered if the best we could now hope for was that people would come to the city because it was entertaining.

It is not common to hear someone state so clearly how the city and its role of providing public space have been profoundly eroded by the rise of the private space such as the mall, and I thought Goldberger did a very good job of explaining how we came to be in this situation.

Is the iPhone the new car and television?

The other thread of Goldberger’s speech I thought was rather weaker.  He described how technology, in particular the car but also radio and the television represented a retreat into the private, from public theatre and music halls to the private experience of entertainment in your own home.

There is a kind of flavour of Bowling Alone to this, of retreat from community, retreat from the common experience of encountering the unexpected and negotiating across all of the various barriers of class and culture that a city requires.

He also talked about the kind of placelessness of the cellphone, how everyone now asks “where are you?” when they start a call.  He wondered whether the mobile phone and the Internet meant every place was now the same, whether we were now just going to inhabit a virtual reality, a further retreat from the city.

UPDATE: Text of the Lecture

UPDATE 2012-11-06: Language is also a landscape, with markers of place and time.  The markers in Goldberger’s lecture were rather puzzling, as they pointed to California circa 2000.  This was odd in 2012 Ottawa.  But is now explained as I find the original text of the lecture, delivered February 1, 2001 at the University of California, Berkeley.

This explains both the dated technology references (fax machine, VCR) and two key missing elements: the decade-long return to cities which began in the early 2000s and the move from large, fixed, house-bound technologies (television, desktop computers) to tiny mobile devices that let you work and play anywhere.

If you want a measure of the return to the city, in Ottawa’s core there were 553 condos sold in 2003 (the year I bought my condo) while in 2012 the number is 2098, according to an Ottawa Citizen chart.  You can get a sense of the Toronto condo market from this July 2012 RBC report (PDF) – “a record 44,100 condo and apartment units were under construction in May of 2012”.

Goldberger’s speech was a wonderfully-crafted match for the home-bound technology of 2000, in the car-centric Californian landscape before it was clear there was a major return to cities by Millennials and downsizing Boomers.  On the technology side in particular though, 2001 (before the iPhone, before Facebook) is a totally different landscape than 2012.  This explains some of the cognitive dissonance you will pick up in my commentary below, written yesterday before I had seen the original date and location of the lecture.

Additional UPDATE: Paul Goldberger informs me via Twitter that “Title is the same as is some of the text but many sections revised and updated.”

ENDUPDATE

My commentary

I think the technological argument has interesting elements, but it’s a bit weak.  (It didn’t help that there was a reference to fax machines and two mentions of VCRs, which made the talk sound dated.  In addition he unfortunately called Silicon Valley “Silicone Valley” a couple times, which didn’t help matters.)

The suburb can be thought of as a culture of extreme individualism and privacy.

You can have suburban culture and suburban design even in urban settings.  He kind of alluded to this point.  With a powerful profoundly suburban culture dominating in North America for decades, it can show up in subtle ways.  For example, riding a bus in a city core may seem a very urban thing, and iPhones and e-readers may seem very urban, but it’s actually very suburban to have everyone wrapped in their aural armour (sometimes with their ears in headphones that give a visual message that they are shielded and apart) – everyone is riding in their private car blasting their tunes, it’s just the private car is a bus and they are (mostly) blasting their tunes directly into their ears.

In Helsinki I did not see this culture of everyone retreating into their own electronic world on the tram – I saw few if any earphones and none of the giant ear-armour-like headphones people often wear around town in Ottawa.

And you certainly see people doing the text / email / Twitter walk, where their feet are on the sidewalk but their eyes and mind are off in the cyberspace rectangle of their smartphone screen.

And Google Project Glass or something similar will enable people to further displace themselves, simultaneously of the world yet not in it.

So sure, you can be elsewhere while in the physical city.

But I don’t think this is anywhere nearly as profound as the disconnect of sitting in your private detached home in the suburbs, watching TV or surfing the Internet on your desktop computer, commuting to and from work in your car.  That is a world totally isolated and alone.

And I don’t think we can possibly end up with a built environment as bad as we got from the car.  A world of walkers and cyclists looking at iPhones nevertheless looks up and wants to go into a coffeeshop, not a strip mall.  The deadly inhuman sameness of strip-mall nowhere doesn’t get worse because you go on the Internet.  It gets better because when the focus moves from the car to the person, the design will inevitably be pushed from car-centric back to human-centric.

Mobile devices at least make it possible to move around the city in a way that being stuck in front of a television never could.  And social creates both new connections that are ultimately about real-world interaction, as well as incentives to do interesting things (so you can get that perfect Facebook photo or Instagram shot).  Twitter lets you reconnect with the social life of your city (in fact without Twitter I wouldn’t have known about this event in the first place).

That being said, I am very worried that without a lot of cultural work to reclaim the idea and the USE of public space, to re-teach people how to live in public, we will end up building dense but suburban downtowns.  Not just the fake towers + a mall pseudo-urban districts that Goldberger decried, but things with the built form of very dense urbanism – tall towers with very small apartments – that are filled with people watching TV or on their computers, instead of empty of people because everyone is out living in the vibrant public street of the city.

And there is a huge risk of kind of “hopeful density”, in which we’re building the density now (towers), in the hopes that density alone will make a walkable vibrant city simply appear at ground level, after spending 60 years or more making ground level wonderful for cars and awful for humans.  People living in 295 square feet (the smallest condo I know of in Ottawa) are going to want to go outside, but wanting to go outside isn’t going to make parks appear, or food carts, or public squares, or destination shopping on main streets.  All of those things are going to take concerted public investment, planning and zoning.

And the only thing I see getting zoned are towers.

The Q&A

I asked a question about whether social and mobile actually might encourage people to go out and enjoy the city and Mr. Goldberger revealed a fairly subtle understanding of how technology can and can’t help, he was particularly interested in kind of Google Goggles or (without saying the words) QR type / augmented-reality type experiences that let you use your device to either intentionally or unintentionally learn more about the place you’re in or looking at.

Conclusion

Overall a very good talk, but I think it would have worked better if it had either just a focus on the erosion of public space and how to reclaim it, or been a completely different talk that showed more of Goldberger’s subtle understanding about the ways in which social and mobile, the new disembodied machines of our information age, might interact with the city for better or worse.

It was great though to have a talk that was in the architecture criticism space but was much more about the experience of cities than the details of buildings.

Twitter

Urban Forum is @ufottawa

Paul Goldberger is @paulgoldberger

I used hashtag #ufott but I was the only one using it (and almost the only one tweeting).  I didn’t live tweet because the presentation held my attention.

See Also

The Atlantic has a good article about how now when we travel, our connected devices keep us from fully experiencing the new place: Being There.

The New York Times has a charming article about how the loss of a fishmonger is impacting a tight-knit Parisian shopping street: On a Street Filled With History, One That Got Away.

UPDATE 2012-11-09: The Economist has a very relevant article – Open-air computers: Cities are turning into vast data factories.  The article is in part about why cities are still attractive.  One factor is that cities have the density needed to deploy high-speed wireless infrastructure (e.g. LTE). END UPDATE

Further Thoughts

There was a bit of a flavour of Goldberger’s talk that the private, the suburban idea has won.  And in Ottawa with its primarily-suburban residential and its basically suburban-design downtown, it’s easy to despair.  But the market shows pretty clearly that people crave real urbanism.  Paris, London, New York, Vancouver – they’re all being priced out of reach of most people simply because of the mismatch between supply and demand.  At $3000 a month to rent an apartment the size of a shoebox, Manhattan is clearly surviving the suburban trend well.  With condo prices having gone from $200/sqft to $450 or even $500+/sqft in Ottawa in just 10 years, even our suburban city clearly has plenty of demand for the urban experience.  The question is whether we can re-design the city core quickly enough to meet the urban expectations of all the new inhabitants of 400-square-foot condos, or if we doom them to a life of pale semi-urbanism even in the heart of the city.

Next

I didn’t catch all the details – something like
I have the details from @mariacookottawa

December 4, 2012 at 7pm
City Hall
Gary Toth (@eltotho) of Project for Public Spaces (@PPS_Placemaking)
Topic: Streets for People