Jane Jacobs, bloggy neighbourhoods and cell phone sidewalks

In a recent post on Planetizen Anthony Townsend refers to two very different takes on the concept of The Moblie City. Both – although the second one doesn’t mention her – can be easily associated with the work of Jane Jacobs, in which the experience of the sidewalk is central to the formation of local communities. As she stated: “word does not move around where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking.” (quote taken from Andrew Bloom’s essay) The conclusion of both pieces is very different: One is rather positive and optimist, the other somehwat grumpy, in the ‘how technology killed the authentic experience’-category.

To start with the former, Townsend refers to a very interesting essay by Andrew Blum who connects the theories of Jane Jacobs with the rise of social networks and blogs. Word now does travel outside of the sidewalk, Blum writes: ‘There are the people paused at the top of the subway stairs, occupying two spaces at once, one physical, one virtual. And in neighborhoods around the country—this one in particular—community online message boards and blogs are thriving, entirely in parallel with news passed stoop to stoop. ‘

Outside.In, a website designed to gather and organize neighborhood news, published a list of “America’s Top 10 Bloggiest Neighborhoods.” What was striking (but perhaps not surprising) is that all were living examples of the kind of places Jacobs championed: Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, Portrero Hill in San Francisco, Shaw in Washington. If the physical form of a neighborhood is conducive to community, so is its virtual form. But the other striking thing about the list was that all the neighborhoods were in a state of change—gentrifying or recently gentrified. It’s certainly demographic: a neat and obvious alignment of hipster and blogger. But it also means that the newly emerging character of these places is being forged, at least in part, online. These are incontrovertibly real-world neighborhoods, but their community is as virtual as it is physical. With each year, we get better at navigating between the two.

Less optimistic is Paul Goldberger. For him, the cell phone kills any authentic experience of place. This experience lies in the fact that every place has a unique character, and that it is this all compassing and inescapable character that engages all the senses that makes it special. Now with the emergence of what we call hybrid space, it is all too easy to not be engaged fully with the specific local character of the place you are in.

the cell phone has changed our sense of place more than faxes and computers and e-mail because of its ability to intrude into every moment in every possible place. When you walk along the street and talk on a cell phone, you are not on the street sharing the communal experience of urban life. You are in some other place–someplace at the other end of your phone conversation.

The great offense of the cell phone in public is not the intrusion of its ring, although that can be infuriating when it interrupts a tranquil moment. It is the fact that even when the phone does not ring at all, and is being used quietly and discreetly, it renders a public place less public. It turns the boulevardier into a sequestered individual, the flaneur into a figure of privacy. And suddenly the meaning of the street as a public place has been hugely diminished.

Thanks Colin for the tip!

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.