Thursday, December 20, 2007

Philips Design

Immersive technologies are reaching a tipping point where buzz words like convergence, ubiquitous computing, and web 2.0 are transforming social practices. How can designers make sense of these changes? A recent Philips Design probe reveals that,

Far from fading out, as some media reports indicate, Philips Design believes that there is serious attention being paid to virtual immersive spaces, like Second Life, as dialogue with virtual world residents uncovers what companies can achieve above and beyond public relations and branding activities

Urban Computing

Adam Greenfield and Mark Shepard, co-authors of Situated Technologies Pamphlet 1: Urban Computing and Its Discontents, together with Eric Paulos of Intel Research, will consider the opportunities and dilemmas of ubiquitous computing for urban life in this panel discussion launching the series. The Situated Technologies Pamphlet Series, published by the Architectural League of New York and co-edited by Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz and Mark Shepard, explores the implications of ubiquitous computing for architecture and urbanism: How are our experiences of the city and the choices we make in it affected by mobile communications, pervasive media, ambient informatics, and other “situated” technologies? How will the ability to design increasingly responsive environments alter the ways we conceive of space? What do architects need to know about urban computing, and what do technologists need to know about cities? How are these issues themselves situated within larger social, cultural, environmental, and political concerns?
Thanks to Cindy Frewen Wuellner for the reference.

How to See

The book How to See, written in 1977 by George Nelson,has just been reisssued. One of the most important designers of the last century, George Nelson deployed his visual insights to understand urban form at a deeper level. Grady Clay's The Reading of the American City is another classic work from this era. Together, these volumes teach us how to understand the fluidity and change of the city in its own terms.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

2008 Smart21 Communities

Intelligent Community Forum, a nonprofit think tank focused on the broadband economy, recently released its list of Smart21 communities. These communities, ranging from Dublin, Ohio to Hwa Seong Dong Tan, Korea have been chosen for their innovative approaches to deploy broadband technologies to improve their economies and quality of life.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Art and the Politics of Public Housing

In Art and the Politics of Public Housing, Jacqueline Leavitt makes the calls of Jane Addams and John Dewey to make art a compelling part of everyone's experience relevant today. Drawing on the examples of Pico Gardens, Aliso Village and Aliso Extension (aka Pico Aliso), three adjacent developments in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles, she explores the varied ways art can be deployed to provide a community with a way to reflect on the politics of public housing.

Thomas H. Hahn Docu-Images

Zenfolio | Thomas H. Hahn Docu-Images | China Urban Planning materials presents close to 4,000 photographs,
The galleries on display here belong to the category of documentary photography. The main subject area is China and that country's rather rapid transformation from a rural to an urban-centered society. Taken together, these galleries constitute a visual archive that for the most part is meant to capture and to preserve information (or "evidence of certain developments" perhaps).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lego Education

Building Asia Brick By Brick is a playful exercise designed to think about urban form in a rapidly changing context. Different kinds of representations carry different kinds of affordances and overtones. The lego bricks allow a kind of embodied questioning and synthesis of old and new that isn't possible other representations.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

New York as a Songline

Bruce Chatwin's classic book, The Songlines, was among other things, a reflection on a communicative genre that performed the function of map, history, social identity, and personal voice. There are many ways of making sense of the urban form as communicative. Tobias Frere-Jones recently conducted a walking tour of New York focusing on typography. Although only 23 people took part in person, we can get some of the experience on the web from Michael Surtees'post.

Jim Naureckas offers another set of tours that explicitly reference the songline metaphor.

The blog Acejet170 also focuses on typography in a way that often features compelling ways of looking at the urban landscape. These resources mean that for me walks in my neighborhood become a mosaic of professionally and vernacularly produced signs that carry with them messages about the traces of their history that endure today.


The wikicity project is an effort of Assaf Biderman, Francesco Calabrese, Kirstian Kloeckl, Carlo Ratti, and Andrea Vaccari to create a projectso that a city performs as a real time control system. Rome is the current implementation, although a few additional implementations are planned.

Festival of Maps

If there are enough events, does the map eventually become the territory? The ongoing Festival of Maps in Chicago offers the work of more than 30 cultural and scientific institutions allowing us to see the urban world from a very broad range of perspectives, Mercator and otherwise.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Traveling Box

The contrast between the simplicity of the container and the deep transformation of urban form is remarkable. The Traveling Box ,an interdisciplinary conference being held November 8,9, and 10 at UC Santa Barbara, explores a wide range of the social, economic, and cultural impacts of containerization.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Norfolk's Light Rail

The Hampton Roads Pilot Online map of Norfolk's light rail uses Flash web technology to combine animation, maps, and passenger data, effectively illustrating the new light rail system that is now under development in Virginia. I especially like that people and buildings are included in the context of the technology.

Market, Mercado

Otavalo Market, Equador is one of many images they powerfully convey the connection among commerce, culture and food in the Flickr pool tagged Market, Mercado.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Architectural Representations of the City in Science Fiction Cinema

Eric Mahleb's essay, Architectural Representations of the City in Science Fiction Cinema argues that despite 150 years of planning, little progress has been made in constructing cities that support improved living conditions. And today, we can't even do a very good job of imagining utopian cities.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Written on the City

Written on the City organizes several hundred graffiti images organized by the city they appear in, from Amsterdam to Wolfville.

Mariachi Bands May or May Not Be Allowed on the Tram

Jul, an American expatriate now living in Switzerland, blogs about the complex cultural meanings encoded into a series of Zurich transportation signs.

Brand Avenue: The Indie City

Brand Avenue: The Indie City provides a short analysis of the factors--walkability and local ownership--that make Portland a center for music. When the density, diversity, and talent are combined, urban areas express creativity widely. A recent New York Times article, In Portland, a Golden Age of Dining and Drinking argues that,
This is a golden age of dining and drinking in a city that 15 years ago was about as cutting edge as a tomato in January. Every little neighborhood in this city of funky neighborhoods now seems to be exploding with restaurants, food shops and markets, all benefiting from a critical mass of passion, skill and experience, and all constructed according to the gospel of locally grown ingredients.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mobility is cultural, not just functional

In a research article of importance to designers, user researchers and others interested in urban communication, UC Irvine professor Paul Dourish and Intel researchers Ken Anderson and Dawn Nafus argue most approaches to urban user research are too narrow:
While these applications clearly meet needs, they fail to take the urban environment on its own terms; they are based on the idea that urban life is inherently problematic, something to be overcome, in comparison to the conventional desktop computing scenario. Further, they fail to acknowledge the lived practice of urban life, and in particular its diversity and the different urban experiences of different groups. In focusing on abstracted rather than concrete behaviors, on individual consumption rather than collective sociality, and on the pairing between discretionary mobility and urban consumption, this approach paints a very partial view of urban living that leaves many people out of the picture.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

David Byrne

David Byrne's creativity intersects with urban communication in a wide variety of ways. He is an avid biker and advocate of public participation in transportation policy making.

His Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information installation in the Conde Nast Building is a provocative reworking of the communicative assumptions designed into Powerpoint.

And finally, in a more familiar guise, David Byrne Radio offers a new three hour mix of music each month, often organized around an unexpected theme--his mix is perhaps one of the most wide-ranging representation of urban culture in all of its global manifestations that I have encountered.

Urban Communication and Typography

Joe Clark's presentation Inscribed in the living tile: Type in the Toronto subway is a tribute to the extensive history of the special developed Toronto Subway Typeface. His analysis of how attitudes of permanence, anonymity, and distinctiveness are expressed in the font becomes an analysis of the shifting relationship of the Toronto Subway to its fans, critics, and users.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Architecture of Authority

Richard Ross's recently published Architecture of Authority is an unflinching examination of
architectural spaces that exert power over the individuals within them. From a Montessori preschool to churches, mosques, and diverse civic spaces—a Swedish courtroom, the Iraqi National Assembly hall, the United Nations—the images in Architecture of Authority build to ever harsher manifestations of authority: an interrogation room at Guantánamo, segregation cells at Abu Ghraib, and finally, a capital punishment death chamber.

Learning from Pompeii

Carroll William Westfall's LEARNING FROM POMPEII provides an interesting contrast in thinking about the relationship between the built environment and patterns of social life. Even given the scant evidence which time has done so much to wear away, it is still possible to examine curb markings to envision the traffic flow of carts and people in important public spaces. Today, given the limitless traces and mappings of urban flows, we ought to be able to make sense of urban life to support design decisions for a salubrious, convivial community.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Motel Americana

Motel Americana provides a slice of the kind of life that was made obsolete with the coming of the interstate highway system and chain hotels. Organized by state, this web site offers a nostalgic glimpse of spaces of travel. These places were fixed in location, but their existence relied on a network of travelers. The iconography of these sites expressed a distinctive regional culture at the same time they made a claim on the larger American narratives of freedom, progress, and dynamism. May the peeling paint and burnt lightbulbs be a gentle reminder for us of the fleeting moment of significance we inhabit.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

jake longstreth

The images produced by photographer Jake Longstreth are far too bleak to be categorized as nostalgic, yet these images are important, as they illustrate landscapes that frame a great deal of contemporary social life (I hesitate to use the phrase "support social life"). jake longstreth

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Amsterdam Bicycles

Brian Wilson created a thoughtful comparison of the differences between the bike cultures of Amsterdam and San Francisco. His analysis is enhanced by 82 original photographs contained in his post and numerous comments from others that extend and deepen his thinking. His mini-ethnography is a testament to the kind of power that cheap, convenient digital technologies like photography and blogging have for making sense of social experience.

Friday, August 24, 2007


Agora is the title of artist Magdalena Abakanowicz's permanent exhibition in Grant Park in Chicago and a fitting title for the 100th post to this urban communication blog. The public reaction to this work is mixed, but the work does provoke interaction and reaction. One measure of this reaction is the 424 images of the exhibit that have been uploaded to Flickr.

GOOD Magazine: A Love Song to Public Transit

In yet another form of urban communication, Good Magazine asked a singer to write a song to celebrate the pleasures of the Portland transit system. The song is performed on Youtube.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Walk Score

Urban form can enhance communication and community by creating dense networks of interesting places. How walkable is your neighborhood? Walk Score uses Google maps and a database of community resources to boil the walkability of an address into a single number. The information is also presented in a clean, useful interface.

Cool Globes

The City of Chicago is using art to expand the public dialogue and imagination surrounding the issue of global warming:
The exhibit features over 100 sculpted globes, each five feet in diameter, displayed along Chicago’s lakefront from The Field Museum north and at Navy Pier. Artists from around the world, including Jim Dine, Yair Engel, Tom Van Sant and Juame Plensa, designed the globes, using a variety of materials to transform their plain white sphere to create awareness and provoke discussion about potential solutions to global warming.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Brutalized in Boston

Walt Lockley reinforces his passionate analysis of the Boston City Hall building's brutal consequences for public life with a set of appropriately harsh black and white photographs.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Global Cities at the Tate Modern

The Creative Review blog remarks on density models developed by Richard Burdett and a team of designers and architects at the London School of Economics:
Global Cities addresses the major issues facing today’s cities – size, speed, form, density and diversity. It evolved out of a previous exhibition included in last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice. The density models first made their appearance there, where styrofoam forms ingeniously represented the populations of 12 of the world’s major urban centres. For the Tate show, only four models were made, representing the populations of Greater London, Cairo, Mexico City and Mumbai, allowing a more sophisticated model to be developed.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Praise and Curse of the City

In The Uses of Disorder, Richard Sennett argues in favor of anarchic cities. Overly controlled spaces don't allow people to grow into adulthood and are deadly dull. Some Web 2.0 social spaces are open to the kind of participation and conviviality from which challenge, complexity, and maturity can develop. This photograph is one of the 46,456 images contributed by 2,452 members of the Flickr pool titled "The Praise and Curse of the City."
Perhaps the Internet can gain the qualities of social life present in the best kinds of urban areas. With participation on such a generous scale, sites like Flickr offer more than just access to new images; technologies like tagging also allow us new categories of understanding, categories that would never be part of a top-down, planned design.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Media Wall

Metropolis magazine examines the media wall, part of the IAC Building in New York. Produced by Bruce Mau Design, the media wall is the latest example of the stitching together of the digital and the urban landscape on a grand scale.

The media wall is technologically innovative, and not all of the problems of connected with projecting a 120 foot high definition image have been solved. The project is also innovative in its relationship with the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU to experiment with media forms approriate for the scale of the wall, the audience of thousands of drivers on the West Side Highway, and the short (when traffic flows smoothly) time frames.

The monumentality of this wall is also designed to be appropriate to the scale of IAC, the corporate vision of Barry Diller which includes more than 60 interactive brands from the Homeshopping Network to Ticketmaster and has a worldwide audience of 239 million people.

Monday, July 23, 2007


A video travelogue that accompanies James Fallows article in the Atlantic magazine provides a useful overview of the rapid growth of Shenzhen. The flows of investment, trade and production integrate cities into a global system, a system profoundly reshaping the context for urban communication. American investment centers, port cities, and the industrial heartland are all affected by the scale and flow of the activities in Shenzhen.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Best Supermarkets in the World (?)

Andreas Gursky's photograph titled "99 cents" illustrates the empty, and repetitive-albeit colorful choices that fill typical shopping spaces in urban America.

The blog KITSUNE NOIR offers a list of more compelling retail spaces in their post on the best supermarkets in the world.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


The line between the real and the virtual becomes more intertwined everyday. The Australian blog nownow pairs images of physical workspaces with images of computer desktops. Some of these pairings are straightforward connections between neatly arranged icons and tidy surface areas but other relationships are unexpected.
These pairings might be useful to think about the kinds of relations and patterns, whether physical or mediated, that support creativity and innovation. Malcolm Gladwell drew upon the urban insights of Jane Jacobs to analyze communication relationships in offices in his essay, Design for Working.

This Ain't No Disco It's where we work offers dozens more images of some of the most innovative global web design firms.

Chris Jordan

Many of the phenomena associated with contemporary social life are so abstract and overwhelming as to out pace our ability to understand them. Photographer Chris Jordan recent portfolio addresses the issues of cigarettes, guns, cell phones and other wonders of modern science and technology.

This photograph depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes. These bottles are simply one element in the general effort to redefine public goods as private commodities. Public drinking fountains are free, yet pervasive advertising and the convenience of instant access results in the production and disposal of plastic packaging on an unfathomable scale. At least the city of New York has a marketing plan for city water.

Social History of Helvetica

Typography is one of the ubiquitous, yet little noticed elements of urban communication. Here is a link to the Chicago Reader review of British filmmaker Gary Hustwit's documentary about the typeface with utopian aspirations...

Monday, July 09, 2007

How Children Lost the Right to Roam

A recent article in the Daily Mail maps a dramatic reduction in a child's area of movement over four generations. Freedom, autonomy, development are not innate traits. A child, like other organisms, requires an environment conducive to development and growth, which deeply shape the experience of time, place, and connection to the world. It is easy to slip into a false nostalgia about past golden ages, but maps like this might clarify the tradeoffs between the kind of education gained from time spent in the woods and time spent in Second Life.

Burtynsky Documents China

Jane Jacobs is best known for her celebration of urban life on a small scale, especially the Greenwich Village. But her concerns were always part of a larger framework. She noted that cities pursuing economic growth through exports are vulnerable; a huge commitment to a specialized infrastructure that is profitable at a moment in time cannot easily adapt to changing circumstances. Ed Burtynsky's powerful photographs show the kind of monotonous, specialized social spaces that are required by the kind of export-oriented production in China. These spaces are the subject of Jennifer Baichwale's film Manufactured Landscapes, which is reviewed by Dennis Hartley.

Eventually, Everything Connects

Charles and Ray Eames dramatized one of the fundamental lessons of ecology in their film powers of 10 in showing phenomena nested in contexts at a greater level of scale. The blog information aesthetics provides a link to the Simpsons' take on Powers of 10.

Anti-sit Archives

Transfer: The Anti-sit
blog documents the almost baroque interventions made to urban spaces. Iron structures reinforce a moral code: private property owners construct uncomfortable iron points to prevent bums from loitering. Individuals whose options are so limited that a sidewalk provides the creature comforts of rest and warmth are barred from even these minimal satisfactions.

The ugliness and meanness of these structures should signify to every passerby that these private interventions are a poor substitute for the fundamental policies needed to address conflicts over public space, poverty, substance abuse and the treatment of mental illness. Iron points hide social problems by moving people to other spaces, but they don't solve them.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Gyros Tour

This project documents another richly evocative slice of vernacular life in Chicago. The level of detail present on this site reflects both the complexity of urban life and its representation on the Internet.

The World is Urban

This week, for the first time in human history, more than 50% of the world population is urban.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

No Sidewalk! Life?

This image is a rejection of everything Jane Jacobs stood for when she advocated sidewalk life. A Chicago Tribune article (available although registration is required) covers the debate about sidewalks in suburbs. Here Hubert Frank is adamantly opposed to sidewalks, "Who knows what you'd be encouraging to come through" he wonders. While those following the spirit of Jane Jacobs might frame this question as an affirmation of all of the wonders and possibilities of urban social life, Mr. Frank worries that the carefully purified social space he inhabits will be polluted by a nameless, faceless other. How much paranoia must dominate one's mental life when something as mundane (in the best sense of this word) as a sidewalk is seen as an attraction or pathway for a dangerous other?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Ridgemont Typologies

If Thomas Struth turned his lens to the mundane spaces of contemporary suburban space, he might create something like the typologies of photographer Mark Luthringer, whose repetitive grid formats dramatize the contradiction between freedom and the profusion of choices whose distinctions are without meaning.

Payphone Project

One of the clearest transformations of urban space from public to private is given material expression as public pay phones are removed and private cellphone use expands. The Payphone Project website documents this phenomenon in an impressive range of cultural contexts.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Bloggiest Neighborhoods has just released their study of 3,000 neighborhoods and listed the ten bloggiest neighborhods in the United States. The top 10 bloggiest neighborhoods are more economically, ethnically, and racially diverse than a list of the top ten most educated or top ten most affluent neighborhoods. What is the relationship between the culture of a neighborhood and the level of blogging? Does the energy of these neighborhoods create more opportunities say something interesting or does the change and activity in a neighborhood create larger need for a community forum?

Given the emphasis on individualism, it is important to see a study that focuses on a larger level of organization than the individual and a smaller level of organization than the nation as a whole.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sao Paolo goes advertising-free

(via Boing Boing)
Back in December, 2006, the mayor of the 11-million-person Brazilian city of Sao Paulo banned all outdoor billboard advertising, citing advertisers' unwillingness to comply with the city's rules on what sort of billboards can be placed where. Now the rule is in effect, and Flickr user Tony de Marco has documented the eerie sight of a city stripped bare of commercial visuals.