The image that comes to mind is a banquet, a long table piled high with food, at which the guests are equipped only with toothpicks. That’s how it feels lately to read about the ongoing megamerger between urban theory and big data. Dramatic changes are happening all around us: the barriers between the tech industry and government bureaucracies, between the world of networked electronics and of brick and mortar, are crumbling. But for all the hype, there are few writers who have managed to tell more than a fraction of the story. At least, that was my conclusion after reading Nicholas de Monchaux’s Local Code: 3,659 Proposals about Data, Design & The Nature of Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), a collection of dense essays and data-driven urban concepts, and Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York (Melville House, 2016), a slender volume that decodes the infrastructure of the city’s information networks.
De Monchaux’s proposals are tantalizing—I love the idea of harnessing urban leftovers for the greater good—but also frustratingly vague. Each city’s proposal gets a page or two of description followed by many pages of data graphics (designed by Catalogtree) that say more about computer mapping as an aesthetic than they do about cities. They leave me desperate to know more about how these leftovers might become, as the book jacket copy puts it, “a social and ecological resource.”
The 3,659 proposals of the title, distributed at intervals throughout the book, mostly take the form of tiny GIS maps of these urban fragments, little geotechnical canapés. In San Francisco, for instance, he’s located 1,500 “unaccepted streets,” stretches of pavement or dirt that have been designated as rights-of-way but are not maintained by the city. He doesn’t exactly propose a use for each one, but suggests that, outfitted with bioswales, permeable pavers, and gardens, they could economically solve the city’s stormwater management problems. He implies a similar approach for making New York City’s vacant lots into a “network of physical resilience.” Los Angeles, no surprise, has myriad disused sites underneath billboards that could be parklets. And the 212 square miles of the Venice Lagoon, intriguingly, contain more than 60 out-islands, some abandoned and many less than half an acre in size, that de Monchaux proposes as the sites of “cultural and ecological catalysts.” The idea, apparently, is that this land would allow for more contemporary developments than can be built in the city’s historic core.
Local Code also contains three substantial, satisfying, and wonderfully loopy essays that illuminate the prehistory of digital mapping by probing the lives of historical figures: the architect-turned-artist Gordon Matta-Clark, the mother-of-all-urbanists Jane Jacobs, and the lesser-known Howard T. Fisher, an architect who developed an early marriage of computer mapping and data collection called SYMAP. De Monchaux’s essays are as rich as his proposals are thin. They trace obscure pathways through the lives of these figures and lead, slowly and indirectly, to the point where each subject’s work dovetails with digital mapping or computerized quantification of urban conditions.
While Local Code is heady and abstract, Networks of New York, by contrast, is grounded and beautifully concrete. It’s billed as a “Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure,” and that’s precisely what it is. Burrington, a writer, artist, and gifted observer, is the John Ruskin of 21st-century infrastructure. She studies the places where the internet manifests itself on the streets of New York, draws what she sees, and teaches us to see, too. An “f/o” painted on the asphalt, for instance, indicates underground fiber-optic cable. Each company that provides internet service in the city, meanwhile, has its own distinctive manhole cover. She describes and explains traffic signal controller boxes, the mobile license plate readers you sometimes see mounted on the trunk of police cars, and rooftop cell tower farms.