Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cities real and vitual: or the uses and limits of metaphor

Architecture has always provided a rich source of metaphors for other disciplines, particularly in the marketing and communications industry. We have brand architecture, information architecture, systems architecture. Architecture is such a reassuring term that it’s hard to resist, suggesting the ability to create an elegant and well-engineered system out of a messy array of complex information.

So I was intrigued when I came across an essay by Fred Stutzman on his interesting blog Unit Structures which uses Jane Jacobs foundational Death and Life of Great American Cities as a framework to help understand the power of online communities. Jacobs was the famous advocate for local street life (and notorious thorn in the side of Robert Moses). Her ideas are still (or even more) in fashion today, with most urban planning experts promoting mixed use developments to facilitate “vibrant communities” and avoid the problems of sprawl.

In his essay, Stutzman remarks that online communities are great at facilitating much of the variety, surprise and diversity of interactions that Jacobs loved about local street life in non-virtual city neighborhoods in NYC, and suggests that this may also be a key to online community's vibrancy and vitality. He summarizes Jacob’s argument this way:

Jacobs argued that a vibrant and diverse city should possess four characteristic design elements, the first being that a neighborhood should be multifunction, creating activity throughout the day. Next, a city should have short blocks and its buildings should be multiform, creating interest and promoting exploration by inhabitants. Finally, Jacobs argued for density, in which different populations intersperse, affording variety and shared resources.
Stutzman is also sensitive to the limitations of the city metaphor, recognizing that when we move from the real to the virtual, “the nature of its goods changes.” Real urban spaces are limited and highly valued. Virtual spaces are virtually limitless and still relatively inexpensive. For Jacobs, the preciousness of urban space was central to creating a sense of shared commitment or what we used to call civic responsibility. There are plenty of examples of self-governing behavior online too, though they seem to be inspired by other impulses. (A subject I’d love to hear Stutzman pursue if he hasn't already).

As someone who is currently working on the strategies for real urban spaces, I might call out a couple other distinctions that are worth considering when evaluating virtual spaces with real city metaphors or urban planning theories.

1) Virtual cities are virtually infinite: While Stutzman focuses on the positive qualities of virtual unboundedness (sense of discovery, etc), this very unboundedness has some obvious downsides as well. Virtual communities can feel overwhelming and : endless links that and vaguely defined as they expand beyond our capacity to frame them. One of the things that makes great neighborhoods great are their clear boundaries: a sense that you are moving from one space to another. The vastness of scale of online communities is a subject worth further exploration. Perhaps Rem Koolhaas’ essay on "Bigness" in S,M,L,XL might provide a provocative take on the subject.

2) Real buildings don’t change very easily. Virtual spaces are comparatively easy to change. When you plan for a real space, you attempt to plan for the neighborhood to change because once a building is built, it’s probably going to stay that way for awhile. Virtual spaces are often built on flexible platforms that can evolve as the audience changes, but they can change much more quickly and cheaply than tearing down real structures and putting up new ones.

Metaphors, by definition, don’t precisely define so much as provide a new perspective on the object of study, and by this standard Stutzman’s essay is well worth a read. It gets you thinking about the mysterious power of online communities which continually evolve and elude our understanding even as we try to understand them.

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