Designing the Networked City

For much of the twentieth century experts touted the demise of cities as telecommunications technology rapidly advanced, particularly in the years following World War II. The ubiquity of the telephone, the Internet, and even fax machines (dear reader, if you are below the age of 40, please Google “fax machine”), convinced onlookers that cities were no longer critical to the wealth of nations. Untethered by these technologies, people would work from mountaintop retreats and commute virtually rather than physically, or so we were told. Edge City, Joel Garreau’s book from 1992 documented the rise of places like Rosslyn, Virginia, as sterile new exurban centers built away from the crime and decrepitude associated with old urban neighborhoods. Up until that precise pre-Seinfeld moment of the late twentieth century, cities were seen as little more than a vestige of the industrial revolution, problem-ridden anachronisms that the information revolution would abandon and ultimately sweep clean.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the office park. Cities became cool. Office parks, not so much. Crime plummeted in most American “inner cities” contrary to the bloviating we hear from some politicians. A spate of new television sitcoms, from Friends to Sex and the City, extolled the vitality of cities, albeit for white folks with undemanding jobs and great apartments. A sea change in the perception of the city swelled in those fleeting days of the twentieth century as we celebrated the peace dividend brought on by the end of the Cold War.

With the onset of the twenty first century, however, that swelling wave hit us like an icy tsunami, the salt raw in our eyes as we witnessed over a few short years the tragedies of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and a Great Recession fueled primarily by suburban real estate speculation. In a historical nanosecond, the turn of the millennium brought with it the realization that cities were not just a rediscovered playground for young nubile elites; they were the platform upon which our main epochal challenges from climate change to resource wars to economic upheaval to technological advancement would all play out. As has been true through much of human history, other than the historical outlier of the late twentieth century, the fate of our cities and the fate of global society once again became intertwined.

Consider that in the United States and in much of the world the vast majority of GDP and the biggest source of jobs come from dense urban centers, so much so that over seventy percent of the US population lives in a few dense constellations of cities like the “Charlanta” Corridor, Cascadia, the Texas Triangle, the California coast and the Northeast Corridor. Most urban dwellers, by virtue of using mass transit, walking and biking, and living in apartments that heat and cool each other, have smaller carbon footprints and longer lifespans than their suburban counterparts. And technology today, from Uber to Pokemon Go, is powered by dense conditions that enable the sharing of cars, apartments, office space, and ideas, not to mention fictional Japanese creatures.

It is in this context that we must reconsider the city, not as an industrial relic but as an information engine. The design of our cities does remain anachronistic, harkening back to the days of Mad Men Manhattan in which most workers commuted into a zoned and segregated office district at the heart of our cities. Our transit systems reflect these commuting patterns, built as hub-and-spoke systems that provide scant connections across a latticework of new businesses that are trying to form across a much broader urban territory.

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Modification of Centralized, Decentralized and Distributed network models by Paul Baran, 1964

While central business districts remain critical to the economy of cities and regions, they face a significant new challenge in the form of the Networked City. I use this term in a multivalent way, to indicate technological and geographic shifts that are inextricably linked. Unlike the Edge City concept, in which new office zones would be created in greenfield suburban locations, the Networked City offers the opportunity to reboot our old industrial areas and inner ring neighborhoods within the existing boundaries of our cities. Enabled by technology, all forms of new businesses from TAMI (technology/advertising/media/information) companies to light manufacturing firms are rediscovering former industrial neighborhoods and vacant warehouses. Often these companies can exist cheek by jowl with residential communities, turning upside down old ideas of zoning in which the factory had to be segregated from the house.

Google’s enormous new east coast headquarters at 111 Eighth Avenue, a historic large floorplate building in Chelsea built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a classic example. With unrivaled broadband technology and surrounded by a vibrant mixed use neighborhood, Google opted to spend close to $2 billion on the project rather than build a skyscraper in the heart of Midtown.

Other New York examples abound. Tens of thousands of workers today live and work in Brooklyn, visiting Midtown for the occasional cultural event or attorney meeting, but otherwise existing independent from Manhattan’s traditional office center. The city is rife with stories about the emergence of the “Silicon Subway,” more colloquially known as the F train, that connects Brooklyn through the heart of Manhattan’s Flatiron district, then east to Roosevelt Island where Cornell Tech is rising, and ultimately out to Long Island City in Queens where the smart money imagines an extension of New York’s decade of tech expansion. The once moribund Brooklyn Navy Yard now houses 7,000 jobs despite its distance from the subway, made all the more possible by the city’s new bikeshare system. Similarly Industry City, in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, houses over four hundred companies in over six million square feet of striking industrial architecture.

Of course the polycentric city is not a new concept; cities as disparate as London, San Francisco and Mumbai all feature multiple nodes or “high streets”, but the idea that technology enables polycentric production districts is at the heart of the new Networked City. It provides the hope that innovative forms of work can breath life into older neighborhoods in need of investment other than luxury housing and convenience stores, providing jobs and the potential for social mobility in communities too long forgotten. As the New Yorks and San Franciscos so grow, new opportunities are afforded for the Newarks and the Oaklands, but to accomplish this we must design for change. The most successful cities will be those that embrace the network model, grafting the new with the old.

This suggests a series of recommendations that urban communities, business leaders, designers, engineers and policy makers could collectively adopt to encourage a more networked city:

  • Build new transit and technology infrastructure that is more of a distributed lattice than a hub-and-spoke system. Given the capital and operating expense of legacy transit systems, new modes of transit from bikeshare to ferries to light rail to cable cars are critical.
  • Rewrite zoning to maximize the desegregation of uses. Most buildings should allow most uses as long as public health, safety and welfare is maintained in terms of issues like fire code and acoustical separation. Plan for the flexible over the fixed, and long lifespan use over short-term gain.
  • Plan for densities sufficient to support mass transit (at least thirty units/acre), with a mix of uses that will maximize the numbers of people who can walk and bike to reach for most of their daily needs such as schools, parks, and fresh food.
  • Preserve old warehouses and loft buildings to the extent possible. Consider tax incentives to modernize such structures with the state-of-the-art technology.
  • Encourage small retail while discouraging chain stores and other credit tenants. Subsidize failing retail with galleries, local bookstores, and small performance venues because granular culture and character are prized in the Networked City. People will gravitate towards neighborhoods with vibrant ethnic and social diversity that feels authentic and specific to place.
  • Create distinct parks and plazas at every node in the networked city. It is less about a huge central park than it is about a multitude of city open spaces that together form a generous public realm, including waterfronts.
  • Convert fleet vehicles such as taxis, buses and delivery vans to zero-emission shared vehicles that ultimately become self-driving. Minimize the use of private cars and redesign the space they once occupied into space for pedestrians and bikes.
  • Avoid picking geographic winners and losers with the intention of calling out “tech zones”, etc. Allow communities and businesses to chart their own destinies within the greater city through self-determination and happenstance.
  • Embrace the joy of city life, particularly when the city is more distributed across a series of mixed use neighborhoods. None of the above will work if these effort feels like planners asking residents to eat their spinach; to the contrary, the city should be about a discovery and celebration of the public commons.

If communities implement these recommendations, a fair next question is what will happen to the central business district in this new network model? In many cities we built substandard office buildings in the sixties and seventies that today suffer from low ceiling heights, poor mechanical systems and unworkable column layouts. Some of these buildings will be retrofit, others redeveloped. The key in either case is to diversify these districts with a larger variety of residential, hotel, cultural and retail uses, as well as a finer grain of office uses. While these districts will be important to cities for the foreseeable future, and may well continue to be the main location for more traditional banking, legal and accounting industries, over time the evolution to more mixed use and a broader range of activity is inevitable.

Most importantly, whether we are speaking about New York or Newark, Shanghai or Chengdu, or London or Manchester, cities will clearly continue to be our most common form of human habitation. In an era of climate change, cities remain our best hope to house the majority of the planet’s billions in a manner that is equitable, prosperous, joyful, and ecologically sound. The Networked City is only one approach to accomplishing this critically complex goal, but in light of the apparent trends, it is a model that could enable the places and occasions that define the twenty first century city as the heartbeat of global society.